Jews

 

 

13. Besides the books of the Old Testament, do the Jews use other books?

 

 

Yes, the Jews use other books – on which they base many doctrines and practices – which are the following ones.

The Mishnah (Hebrew word which means ‘repetition’), which is the codification of the oral law (that is, the Jewish tradition) made by Yehuda’ Ha-Nassì in the third century after Christ (at the beginning of that century). It is written in dialectal Hebrew.

The Talmud (Hebrew word which means ‘study’) is the most important work among the literary works the ‘oral law’ is composed of. In it each paragraph of the Mishnah is discussed by the rabbis. The rabbinic discussions are called Ghemarah (‘completion’). The Mishnah together with the Ghemarah form the Talmud. In these discussions there is the Halakah (Hebrew word which means ‘the way to follow’ or ‘the path that one walks’) which is the rule worked out by the rabbis; and there is also the Hagadah (Hebrew word which means ‘narration’) which is the material composed of stories, legends and jokes.

There are two Talmuds: the former is called the Palestinian Talmud, while the latter is called the Babylonian Talmud. The latter is more important than the former, and it is also longer. When a Jew mentions the Talmud he refers to the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud is written partly in Hebrew and partly in Aramaic. It is composed of 18 folio volumes in the classical edition. All the Jews are invited to study the Talmud. If a Jew wants to become a Rabbi he must know the Talmud. No one can study and understand the Talmud without the commentary of Rashi, namely Solomon Ben Isaac (1040-1105) a French scholar of Davidic descent, because it is the only commentary that follows all the Talmudic discussions.

The Zohar. To speak about this book, first of all I have to say something about the Kabbalah. Judaism has been very much influenced by the Kabbalah, which means ‘what was received’ and it is usually translated as ‘tradition.’ Kabbalah is a general term used to indicate a religious teaching handed on orally from generation to generation since the beginning. However, after the XI century the term Kabbalah began to be used to indicate that kind of mystical Jewish thought which – it was said – had been handed on from the past and entrusted as a secret doctrine to a few privileged persons and which has been studied by many people since the XIV century. The Kabbalah is composed of complicated esoteric doctrines which still attract those who study and practice occult arts. It gave rise to new rites and customs and it influenced the Halakah. The Kabbalah consists of several books: the most important of them is the Zohar (Hebrew word which means ‘splendour’) which appeared around 1300 A.D. Judaism was very much influenced by it (yet not as much as it was influenced by the Talmud). The Zohar is attributed to the followers of Simeon Bar Yochai (second century after Christ), who transmitted the mystical teachings which their master had learnt from the prophet Elijah during the years he spent in a cave!!! The text was put into circulation in the thirteenth century by a certain Moses de Leon (1240-1305), who claimed that he had an old manuscript that Nachmanides (1194-1270) had sent from the holy land to Spain. However, after the death of Moses de Leon it was discovered that that manuscript did not exist and that Moses De Leon had attributed his writings (which were written by automatic writing) to Simeon Bar Yochai in order to sell them to those who were interested in old mystical texts. Modern Scholars claim that most of the Zohar was written by Moses De Leon.

The Midrash (Hebrew word which means ‘Research’) is the word used to indicate the collections in which the teachings of the early rabbis are collected. The oldest texts of the Midrash concentrate on the laws which are in the following books: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Midrash often makes fanciful statements about biblical personages and events. For instance, it states that Jacob actually did not die!!

The Responsa (in Hebrew She-elot u-teshuvot, which means ‘questions and answers’) are collections of answers to specific questions that were put to the rabbinic authorities. The responsa concern above all the ritual Jewish laws. In the early responsa we find simple decisions, while in the subsequent responsa we find long and learned disquisitions. The Responsa deal with all the customs and questions which have to do with the Jewish life. These responsa began to appear after the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud, when the Jews asked the wise men of Babylon for written explanations of some obscure passages of the Talmud and for decisions about practical matters. Ever since have appeared thousands of responsa.

The Codes. The most important codes are the following ones. The Mishnèh Torah (‘repetition of the Torah’) which was compiled by Moses Maimonides in the twelfth century, which is a big compendium of the Jewish law. This Code spread throughout Israel quickly and it was for several centuries the only authoritative code for the life, the thought and the praxis of many Jewish communities. The supporters of Maimonides claim that the night Maimonides finished his Mishneh Torah, Moses visited him in a dream and said to him: ‘Well done!’. The Shulchan Aruch (Hebrew word which means ‘prepared table’), which was compiled by Joseph Caro (1488-1575), a Jewish Halakah scholar of Spanish origin, and amplified by Moses Isserles (1525-1572), who was an Halakah scholar, too, but of polish origin. Inasmuch as at the beginning this code had only the rules and the traditions of the Jewish communities of Sephardic origin, thus it ignored the rules and traditions of the Jewish communities of Ashkenazic origin – Ashkenazic Jews are the Jews of France, Germany and Eastern Europe, while Sephardic Jews are the Jews of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and Middle East - , Moses Isserles decided to add glosses and complements (called ‘tablecloth’) in order to include also the Ashkenazic position. Thus the Shulchan Aruch was accepted by all Jews. Today, this Code is the most authoritative Code of Jewish laws and practices. Many Halakah scholars in their books on the Jewish practices follow the Code of Caro.

The Siddur (Hebrew word which means ‘order’) is the book of daily and sabbath prayers. However, this book is not the same for all the Jews, because the Siddur of the Ashkenazic Jews differs from the Siddur of the Sephardic Jews (and there are some differences even inside each one of these two groups). The modern movements as well as the reformed and conservative communities have produced their own prayer books. Instead, the book which contains the prayers of the feasts is called Machzor (Hebrew word which means ‘annual cycle’) - it contains also the Piyyuttim (which are poetic compositions), in most cases only the piyyuttim of the feasts. However, this book also varies among the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities and even among the various Jewish movements. The custom of having a book of daily prayers and another book for the feasts rose among the Ashkenazic Jews and under their influence it spread among some Sephardic communities. However, before this custom rose there was only one prayer book called Siddur or Machzor which contained all the regular prayers for the whole year with the additions for the special days (for instance the piyyutim).

 

 

 

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