What is the
religion's sacred text?
by Howard Greenstein
The basic sacred text of Judaism is not the “Old Testament.” The proper word is simply the Bible, or the Hebrew Bible. The term “Old Testament” is appropriate only for those who believe that the Bible includes a “New Testament” and choose such a distinction to contrast the two major divisions of their sacred text. Since Judaism does not include a “New Testament,” there is nothing “old” about its only Testament. That is why it is fitting to call it simply the Bible. That is the meaning of the term as it will be applied to this explanation of sacred Jewish texts.
The first section of the Hebrew Bible is the five books from Genesis through Deuteronomy whose authorship is attributed to Moses and called by the Hebrew name Torah. Those five books are also known in Hebrew as the Chumash (“the Five”) and in Greek as the Pentateuch (stemming from Greek and late Latin origins, referring to the first “five scrolls” or books of the Bible).
second section of the Bible is designated as N'vi-im, which
is the Hebrew term for “Prophets.” This section includes all the
literature attributed to those gifted individuals who were considered
recipients of privileged insights into the nature of God and God's
All the remaining books of the Bible constitute the third section, which is understandably known as simply K'tuvim, “The Writings.” This portion of the Bible contains some of the finest literature ever written, such as the Book of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, both books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.
All three sections of the Bible comprise a total of 39 books and are known collectively as TaNaK, which is an acronym derived from a combination of the first letters of each section in their Hebrew terminology (Torah, N'vi-im and K'tuvim). TaNaK is the Hebrew word for Bible.
In its most limited sense, the term Torah stands for the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. This section includes the story of creation and the Garden of Eden, the contributions of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their families, the enslavement of Israel in Egypt, and the Israelites' liberation from bondage under the leadership of Moses, the most favored of all the prophets. Moses brings Israel to the wilderness of Sinai for the revelation of the Ten Commandments and the entire body of teaching the Israelites are expected to follow in their observance of the Covenant.
The Torah contains numerous passages that remain forever central to Judaism, such as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself ” (Lev. 19:18), and the words of the priestly benediction:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make His face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His face upon you,
and give you peace. (Num. 6:24-26)
The eternal Jewish affirmation of faith is also derived from the Torah with the injunction known as the Shema:
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and
you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall speak of them when you sit in your house, and when
you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you
shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut. 6:4-9)
This crucial passage from Deuteronomy is taught to a Jewish child almost from the time he/she begins to speak. It is part of every Jewish worship service. Since worship is a daily religious exercise among observant Jews, it is recited every day. Judaism teaches that it should also be the last words on the lips of every Jew who anticipates imminent death. Millions of martyrs ended their lives proclaiming the message of the Shema.
©2006 Howard Greenstein
R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation
of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations
in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer
at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville
University. He is the author of Judaism:
An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism
and Reform Judaism (1981).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.