Sacred books of Judaism

Though the terms “Bible” and “Old Testament” are commonly used by non-Jews to describe Judaism‘s scriptures, the appropriate term is “Tanach,” which is derived as an acronym from the Hebrew letters of its three components: Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim.

TORAH   Date of writing:   Some Jewish tradition holds that the Torah was written before the beginning of the world, but the overwhelming majority believe the Torah is a product of the meeting between Moses and G-d at Mt. Sinai, estimated to have taken place during the thirteenth century BCE.

The Torah, or Jewish Written Law, consists of the five books attributed to Moses:  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  These were given by G-d to Moses on Mount Sinai and include within them all of the biblical laws of Judaism. The Torah is also known as the Chumash, Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses.

The term “Torah” can mean the entire corpus of Jewish law. This includes the Written and the Oral Law.

 The Oral Law is a legal commentary on the Torah, explaining how its commandments are to be carried out. Common sense suggests that some sort of oral tradition was always needed to accompany the Written Law, because the Torah alone, even with its 613 commandments, is an insufficient guide to Jewish life. For example, the fourth of the Ten Commandments, ordains, “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy” (Exodus 20:8). From the Sabbath’s inclusion in the Ten Commandments, it is clear that the Torah regards it as an important holiday. Yet when one looks for the specific biblical laws regulating how to observe the day, one finds only injunctions against lighting a fire, going away from one’s dwelling, cutting down a tree, plowing and harvesting. Would merely refraining from these few activities fulfill the biblical command to make the Sabbath holy? Indeed, the Sabbath rituals that are most commonly associated with holiness–lighting of candles, reciting the kiddush, and the reading of the weekly Torah portion–are found not in the Torah, but in the Oral Law.

For centuries Jewish rabbis resisted writing down the Oral Law, believing that oral tradition would be a better teacher than books.  In traditional Jewish pharisaic/rabbinic thought, God reveals instructions for living through both the written scriptures and through a parallel process of orally transmitted traditions. Critics of this approach within Judaism include Sadducees and Karaites.The teachings of the Oral Law, which explain the gaps in the Written Law, were eventually written down to comprise the Mishnah.

MISHNA    Date of writing:  about 200 CE.

Why was the Mishna written?  The Jewish community of Palestine suffered horrendous losses resulting from uprisings against Rome during the first century CE.   Well over a million Jews were killed, and the leading institutions of learning for the Jews, along with thousands of rabbinical scholars and students, were devastated.

This decline in the number of knowledgeable Jews seems to have been a decisive factor in Rabbi Judah the Prince’s decision around the year 200 C.E. to record in writing the Oral Law.  With the deaths of so many teachers in the failed revolts, Rabbi Judah apparently feared that the Oral Law would be forgotten unless it were written down.

THE TALMUD   Date of writing:  Rabbinic Judaism produced two Talmuds: the one known as the “Babylonian” is the most famous in the western world, and was completed around the fifth century CE; the other, known as the “Palestinian” or “Jerusalem” Talmud, was edited perhaps in the early fourth century CE.

Why was the Talmud written?  During the centuries following Rabbi Judah’s editing of the Mishna, it was studied exhaustively by generation after generation of rabbis. Eventually, some of these rabbis wrote down their discussions and commentaries on the Mishna’s laws in a series of books known as the Talmud. The rabbis of Palestine edited their discussions of the Mishna about the year 400: Their work became known as the Palestinian Talmud (in Hebrew, Talmud Yerushalmi, which literally means “Jerusalem Talmud”).

More than a century later, some of the leading Babylonian rabbis compiled another editing of the discussions on the Mishna. By then, these deliberations had been going on some three hundred years. The Babylon edition was far more extensive than its Palestinian counterpart, so that the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli) became the most authoritative compilation of the Oral Law. When people speak of studying “the Talmud,” they almost invariably mean the Bavli rather than the Yerushalmi.

Information for this article is taken from The Jewish Virtual Library.

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