Monthly archives "February 2016"

Short Need to Knows

When I initiated my pluralistic study group, Beit Kulam, I discovered that some participants were unsure what the following terms actually meant. But they were too shy or embarrassed to ask in more formal groups. So here are some brief explanations to keep in a handy place:

What is the Torah?

Torah means “instruction” or “teaching,” and Rabbi means “teacher. The Torah consists of five “books,” often referred to as the five books of Moses (who lived around 1800 BCE). Sometimes it is called the Chumash — which means five in Hebrew. The Greeks called it the Pentateuch —which means five in Greek.

What are the five books about?

They contain stories about the beginning of Jewish history, morality, and nationhood, and about the eternal Covenant (binding agreement) between God and the people of Israel.

1.  Genesis — stories about the Creation of the world and the development of human relationships.

  1. Exodus — The Exodus from Egypt story represents the liberation/freedom principle that is an essential tenet of Judaism. This book shows the development of a nation through 40 years in the desert.

3.  Leviticus — sets out the rules by which a civilized and moral society — Israel — should live. This book is assumed to have been written by the priests.

4.  Numbers — begins with a census so that the Israelites can prepare themselves to enter the Promised Land (Canaan).

5.  Deuteronomy — a summary of the previous four books that ends with Moses’ farewell speech as he turns over the leadership of the Israelites to Joshua. A new generation will enter the Holy Land.

What is the Tenakh?

The word “Tenakh” is an acronym (TNK) for: Torah (instruction), Neviim (prophets), and Ketuvim (writing), the three parts that make up the trilogy called the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is the Bible of the Jews.

What is the Old Testament?

Although Christians read and believe in the Hebrew Bible, they call it the Old Testament because many believe that the New Testament, the basis of Christian faith in Jesus, supersedes it. When Christians say “the Bible,” they usually mean both Old and New.

What is the New Testament?

It contains selected gospels about Jesus purported to have been written by his 12 disciples, but which only appeared about 300 years after his death (he was killed by the Romans in the first century CE).

What is the Talmud?

Written by the rabbis (sages) from the first century CE (it may have started in the last couple of centuries BCE) to the early Middle Ages, the Talmud is an extensive commentary on the Torah. It consists of two parts: the Mishnah (written in Hebrew) and the Gemarrah (written later, mostly in Aramaic).

What is Midrash?

Midrash are rabbinic stories created from the imagination to fill in the gaps in understanding the Torah, which was first recited orally and only written down, collated, and edited in rabbinic times. Some of these stories relate to Jewish law (the halakhah), but others are intended to illustrate moral points or just to have some fun (aggadic stories).

What is your idea of what God is or isn’t? Don’t write anything. Just think about it…. 

Suggested Books:

Brettler, Marc Zvi. How to Read the Bible. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2005.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Who Wrote the Bible? New York: Summit Books (Simon & Schuster), 1987, 1997.

Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. Jewish Literacy. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.