Following the destruction of the Temple and the inability of the Jewish people to continue to bring sacrifices, the study of Torah became the center of Jewish faith. Perhaps the silver lining in such devastation is the value for education which is prominent in our culture. Our books offer us clues to our history of rituals, our traditional customs and the laws that guide us.
There are numerous texts that are crucial to the complete understanding of Judaism and its guidelines for life. Here are some of them:
Most of us are familiar with the Torah. It consists of the first five books of Moses and is part of the Tanakh (pronounced tuh-nach). Also in the Tanakh, you will find Nevi’im (Prophets) which consists of 21 books and includes descriptive accounts and prophecies and Ketuvim (Writings) which is comprised of 13 books of prophecy and stories.
The Talmud is the written record of the Oral Law which the Orthodox believe was also revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai. The Talmud provides a deeper interpretation of the Torah. It consists of the Mishna which includes laws and customs for all areas of Jewish life and the Gemora, a rabbinical analysis and commentary of the Mishna. Basically, it is a written record of the conversations our ancient Rabbis had.
The Zohar is the most crucial book in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). It provides a mystical commentary of the Torah. The Zohar first appeared in Spain in the 13th century. Kabbalah is widely known – and studied – outside of Judaism. For awhile, it seemed like the buzz word in Hollywood with many celebrities publicly studying Kabbalah. But, within Jewish walls, mysticism is taken very seriously and is actually quite different from the Kabbalah you may have been exposed to through the media. If Kabbalah is something you are interested in, there are many valid Jewish sources to begin learning.
Pirkei Avos (Ethics of Our Fathers)
Pirkei Avos is a section of the Mishnah which includes Jewish law as interpreted by our sages. The Mishna, if you recall from above, is part of Jewish oral law that was later recorded in writing (Talmud). It is an entire book written about Jewish ethics, values and morals. It is not uncommon to study Pirkei Avos during the time between Pesach and Shavuos. Just as the Jewish people spent a lot of their time in the desert refining their behavior and beliefs and preparing for what lie ahead, the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuos provides us the opportunity to do the same. Studying the ethical beliefs within Judaism provides inspiration for self-growth and personal development.
The Book of Psalms is a collection of stories and poems that move us from despair to hope and joy. Psalms are often recited during times of great need or times of praise to G-d. Many of the Psalms were composed by King David and their recitation is thought to bring protection against danger. We often read Tehillim on behalf of others who may be going through a difficult time.
Other than the Torah, the Siddur is one of the most utilized Jewish texts. The Siddur contains the prayers we recite on a daily basis. The ArtScroll Siddur is one of my personal favorites. Even if you do not daven (pray) in traditional custom, the ArtScroll Siddur offers explanations, transliterations and information about the customs and laws. You can read the English, the Hebrew or the Hebrish (the transliteration of the Hebrew into English).
The texts above stand as important pillars in Jewish thought and education. Within their bodies like the values, ethics, morals and guidelines for the life we were intended to live.