Jews aren’t known as “The People of the Book” for nothing: From ancient times to the present, they have cherished the written word. The Jewish tradition has given the world works filled with profound wisdom, deep insights into human nature, broad comedy, high drama, and ethics centered on the concept of the One God who created human beings to be His partners in perfecting the universe. What follows is a brief look at seven ancient and modern books that have come to define the Jewish experience.
- The Tanakh – No survey of the most important and influential books in Jewish culture would be complete without the Hebrew Bible. Today’s Bible appears in numerous editions published by a wide variety of presses, usually annotated by leading scholars and rabbis representing the full range of denominational affiliations: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and others. The traditional Bible incorporates the Five Books of Moses and sets out, among other religious doctrines, the Ten Commandments. These Five Books, also known as the Torah, give the TaNaKh the first letter of its acronym. The books of the Prophets (“Nevi’im” in Hebrew) and the books of Writings (“Ketuvim”) finish it.
The books in the Tanakh include the creation story of Genesis, the wisdom of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, the histories contained in Chronicles and Kings, the sublime poetry of the Psalms, which are attributed to King David, and many more. For traditional Jews, the Bible is the word of God, interpreted later through the rabbis of the Talmud.
- The Talmud – The Talmud is known as the “Oral Law” and interprets the “Written Law” of the Torah as a necessary accompaniment. Traditionally, Jews have believed that the Torah was given directly by God to Moses, and that the Talmud was present at that same time, only awaiting the rabbis of the first few centuries of the Common Era to write it down.
Through the thoroughgoing translations, with copious scholarly notes, by ArtScroll publishers and by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, today’s readers can become familiar with the entire treasure house of Talmudic wisdom. Steinsaltz, one of the contemporary world’s most renowned and respected authorities, has also written a number of individual commentaries on the Talmud.
The text of the Talmud deals with every conceivable situation that could arise in Jewish life at the time it was written, including laws on ritual purity, ethical buying and selling, marriage and family life, kosher food, and the giving of charity. The Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian Talmud, so designated because of the locations of their chief authors at the time, are variations on one another, although the Babylonian Talmud is the version typically studied and referenced today.
- The Lonely Man of Faith, by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, widely known simply as “the Rav,” was a leading 20th century Orthodox scholar whose life’s work included building bridges between the Orthodox community and others. In The Lonely Man of Faith, he gave the world a short but surpassingly eloquent treatment of the place of the thoughtful person of faith in today’s chaotic, materialistically oriented world. The work united its author’s thinking on Jewish sources with his interpretations of philosophers of the modern age.
- Jewish Literacy, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin – In his 1991 book, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin took up the challenge of providing a comprehensive yet concise education in Judaism to intelligent laypeople of all faiths. The book, a pleasure to read, study, or browse, contains information on religious terminology, famous Jews throughout history, anti-Semitism, Biblical concepts, and a host of other topics among its more than 350 thematically arranged entries.
- Night, by Elie Wiesel – Elie Wiesel, now nearing 90 years of age, has authored numerous books of fiction and non-fiction about the Holocaust. Night, his searing memoir of losing his family at Auschwitz while only in his teens, is among the most important books of our time to outline the horrors wrought by hatred, bigotry, and mankind’s basic inhumanity. The short book has become a classic, widely read and quoted in high school classes and beyond.
- The Sabbath, by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – Conservative Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a leading figure in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the author of profound meditations on Jewish religion, history, and philosophy. In fewer than 200 pages, The Sabbath presents a deeply thoughtful look at the meaning of holiness in daily life. Heschel paints a moving portrait of the holiest day of the week as a “cathedral” situated not in space, but in time.
- As a Driven Leaf, by Milton Steinberg – Before his untimely death at age 46 in 1950, Rabbi Milton Steinberg published this now-classic historical novel of the early Talmudic sages, as well as the widely referenced non-fiction work Basic Judaism. As a Driven Leaf brings together some of the greatest personalities of the second century of the Common Era—Rabbis Akiva, Meir, and Elisha ben Abuyah, the central figure in the narrative. Elisha becomes an apostate and leaves his people to study the cultures of the Greeks and Romans, hoping to reconcile the faith of Judaism with the rationalism of the classical world. This problem continues to haunt men and women today, and has earned the novel a continued place among the most important books for Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike.