There are several Jewish texts which are considered authoritative and guide Jewish beliefs, practices, and traditions. The texts form a rich and diverse body of writing.
The Tenakh is the sacred scripture and foundational text of Judaism which holds central importance in Jewish religious and cultural life. The Tenakh is a record of G-d’s covenant (agreement) with the Jewish people, containing laws, commandments, historical accounts, prophecies, poetry, and wisdom literature. The word ‘Tenakh’ comes from the three books which make up the scriptures: T, N and K.
The Tenakh as a source of guidance for ethical and moral living, as well as a repository of historical and cultural heritage. It provides a framework for understanding the relationship between G-d and humanity, the Jewish people’s history, and their obligations to G-d and fellow human beings.
The Tenakh is studied and interpreted through various methods, including traditional rabbinic teachings, commentaries, and modern scholarly approaches. Jewish individuals and communities engage with the Tenakh through prayer, study, and observance of its commandments. It serves as a source of inspiration, spiritual guidance, a way of life and a connection to Jewish identity and tradition.
The Books of the Tenakh: Summary
Torah: the creation of the world, the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the Exodus and arrival at the land of Israel, Moses receiving the 10 Commandments at Sinai, as well as 613 rules on how to live daily life, the Sabbath and festivals.
Nevi’im: historical narratives, prophetic writings, and poetic books.
Ketuvim: various books that include poetry, wisdom literature, historical accounts, and other writings.
The Books of the Tenakh: Detail
The Torah, also known as the Pentateuch (meaning ‘5 Books’ in Greek) or the Chumash (‘5’ in Hebrew), is the first five books of the Tenakh. The English names are given, and the Hebrew names are in brackets:
Genesis (B’reishit): Genesis recounts the creation of the world, the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, and the patriarchs and matriarchs (see section above).
Exodus (Shemot): Exodus narrates the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, led by Moses. It includes the Ten Plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.
Leviticus (Vayikra): Leviticus focuses on the laws and rituals of the Israelite priesthood, including instructions for sacrifices, purity, and holiness. It also covers various ethical and moral commandments.
Numbers (Bamidbar): Numbers recounts the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, including the census of the tribes, the rebellion of Korah, and the sending of the twelve spies to scout the Promised Land.
Deuteronomy (Devarim): Deuteronomy consists of Moses’ speeches to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. It includes a restatement of the laws, ethical teachings, and reminders of the covenant between G-d and the Israelites.
The Hebrew names come from the first lines of each book:
B’reishit means ‘in the beginning’ (Genesis 1:1).
Shemot means ‘names’; “These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob” (Exodus 1:1).
Vayikra means ‘and he called’; ‘And the Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting’ (Leviticus 1:1).
Bamidbar means ‘In the wilderness” or “In the desert” in English; “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:1).
Devarim means ‘words’; ‘These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel’ (Deuteronomy 1:1).
These five books collectively form the written Torah, which is considered the most authoritative and foundational text in Judaism. The Torah contains not only historical narratives but also laws, commandments, ethical teachings, and theological concepts that guide Jewish beliefs, practices, and traditions. It serves as the basis for Jewish religious and ethical principles and is studied, interpreted, and revered by Jewish communities worldwide.
The oral Torah refers to the body of Jewish teachings and interpretations that were transmitted orally (by mouth, i.e. by speaking) from generation to generation alongside the written Torah. The oral Torah, as well as discussions, debates, and explanations of Jewish scholars and sages throughout history, was eventually written down in books that became known as the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash. We give a longer explanation of the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash below.
The oral Torah is considered an essential companion to the written Torah, as it provides additional insights, explanations, and practical applications of the laws and teachings found in the written text. It helps to interpret and apply the principles of the written Torah to various situations and contexts. Among Orthodox Jews the oral Torah is believed to have been given to Moses alongside the written Torah on Mount Sinai, and its transmission and development have been a central aspect of Jewish religious and scholarly tradition.
The Nevi’im, which means “Prophets” in Hebrew, is the second section of the Tenakh. It consists of historical narratives, prophetic writings, and poetic books. The Nevi’im contains a total of eight books:
Joshua: the Israelites’ conquest of the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua.
Judges: the period of the so-called ‘Judges’; various leaders who emerged to deliver the Israelites from oppression.
Samuel (1 and 2 Samuel): the life of the prophet Samuel, the reigns of Saul and David as kings of Israel, and the establishment of the Davidic dynasty.
Kings (1 and 2 Kings): the history of the Israelite monarchy, including the reigns of various kings and the eventual destruction of the Kingdom of Israel and exile.
Isaiah: prophecies and messages of hope, judgment, and redemption, addressing both the immediate historical context and future events.
Jeremiah: Jeremiah’s prophecies focus on warning the people of impending destruction due to their disobedience, as well as offering hope for restoration.
Ezekiel: visions and prophecies of the prophet Ezekiel, including messages of judgment, restoration, and the future temple.
The Twelve (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi): These twelve short prophetic books cover a range of themes, including social justice, repentance, and the future redemption of Israel.
The Nevi’im provides historical accounts, moral teachings, and prophetic messages that guide Jewish understanding of G-d’s relationship with the people of Israel and their responsibilities.
The Ketuvim, also known as the ‘Writings’, is the third and final section of the Tenakh. It consists of various books that include poetry, wisdom literature, historical accounts, and other writings. The Ketuvim contains a total of eleven books.
Psalms: a collection of 150 poetic hymns and prayers, attributed to various authors, including King David.
Proverbs: wise sayings and teachings on various aspects of life, morality, and practical wisdom.
Job: The book of Job explores the question of human suffering and the nature of G-d’s justice through the story of Job’s trials and his search for answers.
Song of Songs: a collection of love poems, often interpreted allegorically as expressing the love between G-d and Israel.
Ruth: the story of a Moabite woman who becomes an ancestor of King David, highlighting themes of loyalty, kindness, and redemption.
Lamentations: Lamentations mourns the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, expressing grief and longing for restoration.
Ecclesiastes: Ecclesiastes reflects on the meaning of life, the pursuit of wisdom, and the fleeting nature of worldly pursuits.
Esther: the story of Esther, a Jewish queen who saves her people from a plot to annihilate them.
Daniel: narratives and visions of the prophet Daniel, addressing themes of faithfulness, prophecy, and divine intervention.
Ezra-Nehemiah: the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the restoration of Jerusalem.
Chronicles (1 and 2 Chronicles): a historical account of the Davidic dynasty, the reigns of various kings, and the importance of the Temple.
The Ketuvim offers a diverse range of writings that provide insights into Jewish spirituality, wisdom, historical events, and the experiences of the Jewish people. These books contribute to Jewish understanding of G-d’s presence, human experiences, and the importance of faith and righteousness.
The term ‘midrash’, meaning ‘to seek’ or ‘to inquire’, refers to a genre of Jewish literature that includes interpretations, explanations, and expansions of biblical texts. Midrashic texts often explore the moral, ethical, and theological implications of biblical stories and provide insights into Jewish law, customs, and beliefs.
The midrash is not a single, separate book but a collection of Midrashic texts, split into 2 categories:
Midrash ‘halacha’ (law) – These look at the use of the specific wording and patterns of language used in a part of Torah text to help explain and elaborate on what is being discussed in a particular part of the Torah (especially the parts based on laws).
There is no book of Midrash halacha about the book of Genesis as there are only a couple of mitzvot (commandments) in it to explain – not enough to dedicate a book to.
Midrash ‘agada’ (story/narrative) – These are parables and analogies which help explain and give more insight around what was happening in a particular part of the Torah. They are not generally to be taken literally, but to make a point or explain something, although these are not used to explain texts on laws.
Themes in the Tenakh
The Tenakh contains numerous references to the covenant (agreement) between G-d and the Jewish people. The covenant is seen as a sacred agreement or pact between G-d and the Israelites, establishing a special relationship and mutual obligations.
In the book of Genesis, the covenant is first mentioned with Abraham, where G-d promises to make him the father of a great nation and bless his descendants. This covenant is later reaffirmed with Abraham’s son Isaac and grandson Jacob (also called Israel). The covenant includes promises of land, descendants, and G-d’s protection, and the requirement for males to be circumcised. This is called the Brit Milah, which means ‘covenant of circumcision’ in Hebrew. For example, in Genesis, G-d says to Abraham; “Every male among you shall be circumcised… it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17:11)
The book of Exodus describes the covenant at Mount Sinai, where G-d gives the Israelites the Ten Commandments and other laws. The people agree to follow these commandments and live according to G-d’s instructions. This covenant establishes the basis for the Israelites’ relationship with G-d and their identity as a nation.
Throughout the Tenakh, the covenant is emphasized as a t-o-way relationship. G-d promises blessings, protection, and guidance, while the Jewish people are expected to obey God’s commandments, live ethically, and maintain their unique religious practices. The covenant also includes the expectation of repentance and returning to G-d when the people stray from the path.
The Tenakh teaches Jews that the covenant is an enduring bond between G-d and the Jewish people, emphasizing the importance of faithfulness and a commitment to living a righteous life in accordance with G-d’s teachings.
Judges and Monarchy periods
The biblical narrative recounts the period of the so-called judges. During this period the people of Israel experienced a cycle of invasion and persecution from neighbouring tribes or invading empires, such as the Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites and Midianites. At this time there was no central government or monarchy in Israel. Instead, men described as ‘judges’, who were charismatic leaders raised up by G-d, emerged to save the Israelites from their oppressors. The bible makes clear that successive invasions are as a result of the people of Israel turning away from G-d and indulging in idolatry and other forbidden practices. After these threats the people return to G-d, grateful for G-d’s protection, only to stray again. This cycle is recounted in the book of Judges.
As the book of Samuel begins, the people of Israel express a desire for a king to rule over them, similar to the surrounding nations. In 1 Samuel 8, the people of Israel approach the prophet Samuel and express their desire for a king “to judge us like all the nations.” Samuel is initially displeased with their request, as he sees it as a rejection of G-d as their king. However, G-d tells Samuel that the people have not rejected him, but rather they have rejected G-d as their king. G-d instructs Samuel to listen to the people’s request and anoint a king for them.
The request for a king can be seen as a lack of trust in G-d’s direct rule and a desire to copy the political structures of neighbouring nations. It can be viewed as a deviation from the ideal of G-d as the sole ruler and ultimate authority over Israel. However, G-d allows for the establishment of the monarchy and works through the anointed kings, such as Saul and David. The Bible portrays David as a man after G-d’s own heart and blesses his reign.
The period of the judges gives way to the monarchy, firstly under king Saul then king David. The transition to the monarchy is a significant shift in the political and religious structure of Israel, with the establishment of a hereditary line of kings that continues through subsequent generations.
G-d instructs the prophet Samuel to anoint Saul as the first king of Israel. Saul initially shows promise as a leader, but he eventually disobeys G-d’s commands, leading to his downfall. G-d then instructs Samuel to anoint David, a young shepherd, as the future king of Israel.
David’s rise to power marks the establishment of the Davidic dynasty, which becomes the royal line of kings in Israel. David is portrayed as a successful and beloved king, known for his military victories, his establishment of Jerusalem as the capital, and his desire to build a temple for G-d.
Overall, the monarchy period in the Bible can be seen as a complex interplay between human desires for political stability and G-d’s sovereignty. While the request for a king may be seen as a partial rejection of G-d’s direct rule, it is also a part of G-d’s larger plan for the nation of Israel.
The Talmud is a central text in Judaism that consists of two parts: the Mishnah and the Gemara. It is a compilation of Jewish oral law and commentary on the Tenakh. The Mishnah was compiled in the 2nd century CE and contains a systematic codification of Jewish laws, customs, and traditions. The Mishnah is organized into six orders, which cover various aspects of Jewish life, such as agriculture, festivals, civil and criminal law, and more.
The Gemara is a collection of discussions, debates, and commentaries on the Mishnah. It was compiled over several centuries and is written in Aramaic. The Gemara expands upon the topics discussed in the Mishnah, providing explanations, interpretations, and additional legal rulings. There are two versions of the Gemara: the Babylonian Talmud, completed around the 5th century CE, and the Jerusalem Talmud, completed around the 4th century CE.
The Talmud is considered a foundational text in Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, and theology. It is studied and analysed by scholars and students to understand and interpret Jewish tradition and to apply its teachings to contemporary life.
The siddur is a Jewish prayer book that contains a collection of prayers, blessings, and liturgical texts used in Jewish worship. It is a central and essential tool for Jewish prayer and is used by individuals and communities during daily, Sabbath, and holiday services.
The word “siddur” comes from the Hebrew root “seder,” which means “order” or “arrangement.” The siddur follows a structured order of prayers and blessings, guiding worshippers through the various components of the prayer service. It typically includes prayers of praise and thanksgiving, requests for forgiveness, expressions of gratitude, and petitions for various needs.
The content of the Siddur can vary depending on the specific Jewish tradition or denomination. Different versions of the Siddur exist for Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and other Jewish communities, each with their own variations in prayers and customs. Additionally, the Siddur may include additional sections for special occasions, such as prayers for the High Holidays or specific festivals.
A siddur will contain prayers in Hebrew but will often have the texts translated into the local language too.
The Siddur serves as a guide for Jewish individuals and communities to engage in communal and personal prayer, connecting with God, expressing devotion, and seeking spiritual connection. It is a cherished and significant text in Jewish religious practice.