Sacred Books

Torah: A Brief Guide to Sacred Sources for Wellsprings of Wisdom

 

Torah: Torah is a word with an elastic meaning. It has the simple meaning of a scroll containing the Five Books of Moses (first five books of the Hebrew Bible). Stretched more broadly, “Torah” can signify the entire Hebrew Bible (written Torah), Rabbinic Oral Torah, and ultimately all sacred teachings.

Bible: The Hebrew Bible or Tanach (or Tanakh) which includes the Torah, Prophets (Nevi’im) and Writings (Ketuvim), is a library in one volume, the world’s all-time “best-seller,” containing law, poetry, drama and unfurling the saga of our people’s early relationship to God over nearly 2,000 years. Christians call this the “Old Testament” (the Protestant version reorders some of the books, and the Catholic version also adds some additional books). Find texts and translations here.

 

Wisdom of the Sages: In addition to the Written Torah/Hebrew Bible, Judaism has an Oral Torah Torah She-be-al Peh, sacred spoken teachings that were passed down, expanded and debated over centuries until the present day. The Oral Torah kept the Written Torah alive and dynamic, responding to new situations and understandings. Eventually these oral texts were written down for safekeeping, but they are still best studied, debated, and discussed out loud. The classic texts of this Oral Torah include:

 

First page of the first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud - Daf Bet of Masechet Brachot

First page of the first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud – Daf Bet of Masechet Brachot

Midrash: A large genre of sacred literature based around exposition of the scriptures (Bible), edited in the early centuries of the Common Era and beyond. A few of the most well known titles include: Mekhilta, Sifra, Sifrei, and Midrash Rabbah.

Koren Steinsaltz Talmud with English Translation

Talmud with English translation, edited by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Talmud: A vast compendium of Jewish legal arguments and lore, built on a primary layer known as the Mishnah (completed in Hebrew in the Land of Israel about 200CE) and a secondary layer Gemara (mostly in Aramaic, composed over the next few centuries in two versions: Yerushalmi, from the Land of Israel, and Bavli, from Babylonia). Learn more here. Find translations here.

Siddur is the Jewish Prayerbook, and Machzor is the Holy Day Prayerbook, also oral in its origins, with selections from the Bible and the Sages, formalized in the centuries following the composition of the Talmud, with new editions coming out to the present day. Today it’s gone digital, too: Open Siddur is an open-source project of Jewish prayer and practice.
Kabbalah refers to the received tradition of mystical texts that focus on the inner work of religion. While the roots of mystical experience go back to the Bible, major texts took shape alongside Rabbinic literature. Among the most famous mystical works are Sefer Yetzirah, Sefer Ha-Bahir, and the Zohar. At first works like these were only taught to select initiates.

Sefat Emet, a Hassidic classic

Title page of Sefat Emet, a Hassidic classic

 

Hasidism (Chasidism), a spiritual movement that is about three centuries old, aimed to popularize Jewish mysticism and make it more accessible. This movement has produced many spiritual texts that, with a little unpacking, can be surprisingly modern in their insights.

Neo-Hasidism, or Jewish Renewal, is a contemporary spiritual movement creating a whole new generation of Jewish spiritual texts.

World Wisdom: Although this site draws mainly from the wellsprings of Jewish tradition, it is important to learn from many traditions and cultures that are “vital organs of the planet” (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi).

 

The Earth Herself: Nature is a great teacher and its wordless messages will be conveyed here in images and sounds.

You can learn more about Jewish sacred texts at My Jewish Learning, and explore an interactive, searchable library of Jewish texts (many with translations) at Sefaria. 

JHD Reading from the Torah scroll by Carla Resnick

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