We Are Actually People of the BookS!

by Amy Lansky (CJC Ritual Chair)


Many people refer to Jews as the “People of the Book”, referring to the Torah.  And yes, there is no denying, we are a bookish lot!  But there are actually many other books that form the core of what Judaism is all about. You’ve probably heard various terms bandied about — Tanakh, Mishnah, Gemara, Talmud, Responsa — what are they all about? Here’s a short review of these important religious tracts.

Torah:  The five books of Moses, also called the Pentateuch.  This is the scroll we read on the bimah at services, and it includes Genesis (B’raishit), Exodus (Sh’mot), Leviticus (Vayikra), Numbers (Bamidmar), and Deuteronomy (Devarim).

Tanakh: The so-called “Old Testament”.  The word Tanakh is really an abbreviation (Tet, Nun, Kaph) for Torah (see above), Nevi-im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). Prophets begins with the story of the Jewish leaders after Moses (Joshua, Samuel, and various kings) and then goes on to the prophets, many of whose names are pretty familiar to us — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Jonah, Micah, etc.  (The Haftorah that is read after the Torah in most synagogues — often by the Bar or Bat Mitzvah — is a chapter chosen from the Prophets that relates to the week’s Torah portion.) Writings includes an assortment of things like the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ruth, Esther, and more.

Mishnah:  The six books of the Mishnah are the beginnings of the development of Jewish law in the post temple era.  They deal with issues like prayers, blessings, tithes, shabbat and the festivals, family law, civil and criminal law, dietary law, and laws pertaining to food and bodily purity — essentially, health.

Talmud: The Talmud is the culmination of Rabbinic Judaism, composed of thousands of pages.  It begins with the Mishnah itself, and then the Gemara, which is a further elaboration and interpretation of the Mishnah by the various rabbis over the ages. If you look at a page of the Talmud, it is usually laid out with the text of the MIshnah in the center of the page with all the writings of the Gemara circling around it.

Responsa: While the Talmud became fixed after a time, Jewish law and interpretation never stands still.  That’s where Responsa come in.  They are decisions made by rabbis since the time of the Talmud, and stand as further legal precedent in Jewish law.