Jewish Literacy

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  • Edition: Revised
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2010-04-01
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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With 348 short chapters covering every essential aspect of Jewish history and life--from the Torah to modern American Jewish culture--this invaluable reference is a comprehensive yet thoroughly accessible resource on the fundamentals of Judaism.

In this insightful and completely updated tome, esteemed rabbi and bestselling author Joseph Telushkin helps answer the question of what it means to be a Jew, in the largest sense. Widely recognized as one of the most respected and indispensable reference books on Jewish life, culture, tradition, and religion, Jewish Literacy covers every essential aspect of the Jewish people and Judaism.

Whether you want to know more about Judaism in general or have specific questions you'd like answered, Jewish Literacy is sure to contain the information you need.


Jewish Literacy Revised Ed
The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History

Chapter One

Tanakh Torah


Ta- NaKh--rhymes with Bach-is an acronym for the three categories of books that make up the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Neviim (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). Observant Jews do not commonly refer to the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testamentthat is a Christian usage.

The first five books of the Hebrew Bible comprise the Torah, and are regarded as Judaism's central document. Along with the stories about the *Patriarchs and *Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, they contain *613 commandments, the backbone of all later Jewish law. In Hebrew the five books are also called Chumash, from the Hebrew word chamesh (five). According to Jewish tradition, the books were dictated to Moses by God sometime around 1220 B.C.E., shortly after the Exodus from Egypt.

In Hebrew each book of the Torah is named after its first or second word, while the English names summarize the contents of the book. Thus, the first book of the Torah is called Genesis in English, because its opening chapters tell the story of the creation of the world. In this one instance, the Hebrew name is very similar, since the Torah's opening word, Brei'sheet, means "In the beginning." In Hebrew the Torah's second book is called Sh'mot, or Names, because its opening verse reads "Ay-leh shemot b'nai yisrael--And these are the names of the children of Israel." In English the book is called Exodus, because it tells the story of the liberation of the Jewish slaves from Egypt. Leon Uris wisely chose to call his novel Exodus rather than Names.

The Torah's third book, Leviticus (Va-Yikra in Hebrew), delineates many of the laws concerning animal sacrifices and other *Ternple rituals, which were supervised by the Israelite tribe of *Levites. The fourth book, Numbers (Ba-Midbar in Hebrew), is named for the census of Israelites that is carried out early in the book. It also tells the story of *Korakh's rebellion against Moses' leadership. The final book of the Torah is Deuteronomy (Devarim in Hebrew). Virtually the entire book consists of Moses' farewell address to the Israelites as they prepare to cross over to the Promised Land. He knows that he will not be permitted to enter it, but before he dies, he imparts his last thoughts to the nation he has founded.

The second category of biblical books is the Nevi'im, twenty-one books that trace Jewish history and the history of monotheism from the time of Moses' death and the Israelites' entrance into Canaan, around 1200 B.C.E., to the period after the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple and the ensuing exile of Jews from Jerusalem to Babylon (586 B.C.E.).

The early books of the Nevi'im (Joshua; Judges; I and 11 Samuel; I and 11 Kings) are written in a narrative style and remain among the most dramatic and vivid histories that any civilization has produced. These books are sometimes referred to as the "Early Prophets."

The later books, written in poetic form, are what we commonly think of when referring to the prophetic books of the Bible. They primarily consist of condemnations of Israelite betrayals of monotheism's ideals, and of calls for ethical behavior. Here you find nonstop ruminations about evil, suffering, and sin. In English the primary meaning of "prophet" is one who predicts the future; however, the corresponding Hebrew word, navi, means "spokesman for God."

The final books of the Tanakh are known as Ketuvim, and have little in common. Some are historical; the Books of *Ezra and *Nehemiah, for example, tell the story of the Jews' return to Israel following Babylonian exile, while I and 11 Chronicles provide an overview of Jewish history. Ketuvim also contain *Psalms, 150 poems, some transporting in their beauty, about man's relationship to God.

Another book, Job, grapples with the most fundamental challenge to religion: Why does a God Who is good allow so much evil in the world? (see The Trial of Job and Theodicy). In Ketuvim are also found the Five Scrolls, which include perhaps the best-known biblical book aside from the Torah, *Esther.

The Hebrew Bible has been the most influential book in human history; both Judaism and Christianity consider it to be one of their major religious texts. Several of its central ideas-that there is One God over all mankind, and one universal standard of morality; that people are obligated to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger; that people should refrain from work one day a week, and dedicate themselves to making that day holy; and that the Jews have been chosen by God to spread His message to the world-have transformed both how men and women have lived, and how they have understood their existence. Even the last of the ideas just enumerated, Jewish chosenness, has powerfully affected non-Jews. Indeed, the idea was so compelling that Christianity appropriated it, contending that the special covenant between God and a people had passed from the Jews (Old Israel) to the Church (New Israel). Islam, in turn, similarly insisted that *Moharnmed and his followers had become God's new messengers (see Chosen People).

The Bible influences the thought patterns of nonreligious, as well as religious, people. The idea that human beings are responsible for each other, crystallized by *Cain's infamous question: "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:9), has become part of the backbone of Western civilization. Our values in every area of life, even if we have never seen the inside of a synagogue or a church, are suffused with biblical concepts and images.

Jewish Literacy Revised Ed
The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History
. Copyright © by Joseph Telushkin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History by Joseph Telushkin
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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Customer Reviews

Jewish Literacy Review March 29, 2011
The first thing I noticed is how detailed a history of the Jewish this book entails. The title would make you think the book is about other things, but it is a detailed history. The other thing that is worth noting is how much the Jewish people have suffered over the millennium. Much more than wandering in the desert or the Holocaust. A very well written book.
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Jewish Literacy: 5 out of 5 stars based on 1 user reviews.

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