What is Judaism? My teacher in Talmud and co-signatory of my rabbinical ordination diploma, Rabbi Dr Saul Lieberman z”l, perhaps the foremost talmudist of the 20th century, was interviewed by Time Magazine in the 1970s in his ofﬁce, crowded with books. Asked if he really knew all these books, he replied: “Test me.”
The reporter pulled out two books at random and held up the text. The Rabbi’s immediate response to the ﬁrst was: “12th-century Rabbi Eliezer of Lublin’s commentary on the talmudic tractate of Ketubot, a pearl of wisdom.W His enthusiastic response to the next was: “A 6th-century compilation of talmudic commentary, rare and hard to comprehend, but one of our earliest sources of post-talmudic wisdom.”
Impressed, the reporter said: “I can see you treat these authors and books as classroom mates. It is as if you see Judaism as a conversation between generations.” Saul Lieberman responded: “Young man, that is the best deﬁnition of Judaism I have heard. A conversation between generations is exactly what Judaism does.”
That story has inﬂuenced my own understanding of Judaism. When I open a page of any sacred Jewish text, I feel I am communicating with tens of generations before me. So I would like to share with you a brief rundown of our most sacred books. After all, we are Am Hasefer, the People of the Book.
- Torah means Instruction, not Law. The Five Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy – are our foundation stone, read every Shabbat and Festival.
- Tanach, Hebrew Scripture, the threefold division of our Bible, written in Hebrew. The word Tanach is made up of TA – Torah, the Five Books; NA – Nevi’im, the Prophets, from Joshua to the last prophet, Malachi; CH—Ketuvim, the Writings, including Psalms, Proverbs, Esther, Jonah, Lamentations, Song of Songs. We do not call it the Old Testament. That is a Christian term for Hebrew Scripture. For us, there is no “old” Scripture leading to a “new” one.
- Apocryphal Literature: all those books written in antiquity that did not make the canon of Hebrew Scripture, such as the books of Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, Jubilees and other treasures of the Jewish past such as, for some, the Dead Sea Scrolls.
- Philo of Alexandria, ﬁrst-century BCE philosopher and Josephus, the ﬁrst century CE historian. Both are important historical resources from the turn of the millennium 2,000 years ago.
- Mishnah, meaning “teaching”, refers to the Oral Law, ﬁnally written down in Hebrew by Rabbi Yehudah, known as HaNasi (the Prince), around 200 CE. The Mishnah is the ﬁrst code of Jewish law and contains some of the earliest texts of our rabbis who shaped the Judaism still practised today. For example, the Mishnah says it is the woman’s obligation to light Shabbat candles in the home. There is no reference to this in the Torah.
- Talmud/Gemara: once the Mishnah was put into writing, the Jews who had stayed behind in Babylonia pored over its words. Gemara, Aramaic for “learning”, covers rabbinic discussion on virtually every facet of Jewish law and practice from 200 to about 550CE, when all 22 tractates were edited by the Saboraim. The earlier “lesser” Jerusalem Talmud, still an important text, also combines Mishnah and rabbinic views.
- Rashi, Tosefta/Tosafot: later commentaries (literally, additions) with Rashi (11th century France) the supreme master. He created his own commentators, the Tosafot (Hebrew term) and Tosefta (Babylonian).
- Codes of Jewish Law: the Mishneh Torah (Maimonides’ late 12th-century “Torah Repetition”) and Shulchan Aruch (Joseph Caro’s mid-16th-century “Setout Table”) helping people apply Jewish law in a different environment. Maimonides’ codiﬁed Jewish law was a master work. Rabbi Caro of Safed’s comprehensive code is still referred to.
With ever-changing circumstances, the conversation between generations never stops. May we hand it on to the next generation! Wishing you all a joyous and healthy winter and a wonderful beginning to the third decade of the 21st century.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler