Mohammed’s description of Jews and Christians as “People of the Book” is particularly apt. The Hebrew Bible (referred to by Christians as the “Old Testament”) is indeed the central basis of Judaism. It is not so much a single religious work as a library of books of Jewish history, law, poetry, ethics and philosophy, written and collated over a period of centuries.
The Hebrew word for the Bible is the TaNaKH, an acronym standing for Torah (the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (historical and prophetic books) and Ketuvim (other sacred writings such as Psalms and Proverbs).
The first five books of the Bible, described as the Torah, comprise both an early history of mankind and of the Jewish people, and a code of Divine commandments, which are holy, binding and authoritative for the traditional believing Jew. Its author is regarded as God, though the actual writing down of the material was by Moses.
With the written Torah came the “Oral Law”, a large body of explanatory material which orthodox Jews regard as having been transmitted by God to Moses and originally passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Thus each generation found insights in the Torah, but believed them to have been latent in the traditional material. Though this tradition continued to be called the oral Torah, in fact it began to take written form in the early centuries of the Common Era, probably first in written notes and then in extensive written works.
The oral Torah grew over the ages and became so extensive that in the 2nd century CE it was edited into a single text. In the original form, with the name Midrash (“seeking out”), it had followed the sequence of the Biblical text, but later it was re-organised under subject headings and known as the Mishnah (“repetition”, probably because it was learned by rote memorisation).
The Midrash covered both legal and ritual teachings (halachah) and historical and philosophical material (aggadah). The halachic aspect was easier to handle in Mishnah form, and the Mishnah covers practical subjects as diverse as prayer and worship, agricultural work, Sabbath and festivals, marriage and divorce, civil and criminal law, Temple rituals, food laws and rules of ritual purity. The Mishnah was edited in the 2nd century CE by Rabbi Judah HaNasi (“the Prince”).
During the next few centuries rabbinical analysis of the Mishnah, known as Gemara, continued with the participation of many of the people as a whole, especially during two months of the year when agricultural work was not demanding and most people had time to devote to study. The extensive combined version of Mishnah and Gemara became known as the Talmud (“learning”). There are two versions of the Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud, which is larger and more authoritative, and the Jerusalem Talmud. References to “the Talmud” are to the Babylonian Talmud.
Aggadah continued to develop separately in the Midrash form, providing an extensive commentary on the Biblical text. Much Midrash material began as sermons in which the weekly scriptural lessons were expounded before an ancient congregation.
The language of the Midrash is Hebrew; Talmudic material is in a combination of Hebrew and Aramaic, an associated Semitic language. (Aramaic was the language of the Assyrian conquerors, adopted by the Babylonians, which became the dominant language of the Middle East, and it is used in a number of Jewish prayers and documents.)
Jewish religious writings may be categorised as summarised below, though there is really no demarcation between “religious” and “secular” works in traditional Judaism, which deems everything to be part of one whole. Ideological secularism is a modern development; and some Jewish thinkers like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook have argued that the so-called secularist or atheist is deep-down a believer seeking spirituality.
Post-Talmudic categories of Jewish writings include:
- Biblical and Talmudic commentaries, e.g. by Rashi (the acronym for Rabbi Solomon Yitzchaki) writing in the Rhineland in the 11th century CE.
- Philosophical works e.g. Moreh Nevuchim (“The Guide to the Perplexed”) and other works written by the Spanish-born Rabbi Moses Maimonides, a personal physician to Saladin, the Kurdish ruler of Egypt, in the 12th century.
- Ritual and legal codes, e.g. the Shulchan Aruch (“The Laid Table”) by Rabbi Joseph Karo, writing in Safed in Israel under Turkish rule in the 16th century.
- Mystical works, e.g. the Zohar (“The Book of Splendour”), written in Spain in the 15th century but ascribed to a 3rd century mystic.
- Poetry, e.g. by Judah Halevi, poet and philosopher, in 11th century Spain
- Responsa – Rabbinical responses to queries on Jewish belief, practice and law, regarded as authoritative, depending on the reputation of the particular rabbi. These have continued from Talmudic times to the present day, when responsa often address bio-ethical problems.
Most of the material is written in Hebrew but there were many works in other languages (or Jewish versions of other languages, such as Ladino or Judeo-Spanish, and Yiddish, Judeo-German). Rashi is famous for including medieval French words in his Hebrew commentaries to the Bible and Talmud. There are translations of most classical Jewish writings in English and other languages, and modern authors on Jewish subjects write in a variety of vernaculars.
A basic introduction to the Jewish literature begins in part-time religious schools and Jewish day schools. There is also a Jewish tradition of continuing adult study, including discussion groups studying the Talmud and other Jewish literature organised by most synagogues. Many universities offer courses in Jewish subjects, and there are yeshivot (Talmudical colleges) in major cities. A great help has been the development of modern means of technological communication, especially the Internet, which enables anyone with access to a computer to open up what might once have been a closed world.