Discovering Sacred Texts: Judaism

We explore what it means to be Jewish today through some of Judaism’s most important sacred texts including the Torah, the Talmud, and the Haggadah.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

Some rights reserved.  ©  British Library Board / British Library

Rabbi Young-Somers: I think text is at the core of what it means to be, certainly a religious Jew, and it has defined how Judaism has grown and developed over the centuries. You can be a Jew today and not engage at all with the life of Jewish texts, but it has formed what Judaism looks like today. Being a Jew is often termed as being part of a faith, but it is really much more complicated than that.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain: It’s a wonderful tapestry of different colours and contours, it is a sense of personal identity, it’s a family structure, it’s being part of the wider community, it’s linked into a sense of history, it’s my own personal set of values. It’s everything, it’s all of the above.

Rabbi Young-Somers: You can be a Jew who doesn’t believe in God, because your mother, or in liberal and some reform communities your father is Jewish, and you’re raised as Jewish. You can be a Jew who has converted to be Jewish. Some people have talked about Judaism as a race, and certainly by British legal terms, we’re defined in terms of a race because we are protected by race law. But of course you can’t convert to be a race and you can convert to be Jewish.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain: The prime text of Judaism is the Bible, or more specifically the Torah, which is the first five books of Moses, because those are the important books as far as we’re concerned, because that’s where all the laws come from.

Ilana Tahan: Here we’re looking at a Torah scroll, which is in the Hebrew collection of the British Library. This is one of one of about eight Torah scrolls that we have in the collection. Torah scrolls cannot be touched. In fact the text has to be followed with a pointer which is usually made of wood or silver or bone. In this case we can touch the Torah scroll because this is not fit for synagogue service, it’s incomplete. It’s the holiest object in Judaism.

Rabbi Abraham Levy: Now traditional Judaism believes the Torah was given to the Jewish people, to Moses by God on Mount Sinai.

Rabbi Young-Somers: In the more progressive movements, in Reform and Liberal Judaism we understand the Torah and the Hebrew Bible as being documents of Jewish history that tell our story, some of which are mythic tellings of our story. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important, they are how we reflect on the world around us, they may well be influenced by God depending on our understanding, but they are also influenced by the time that they were written, they may have errors that come through the people that wrote them down, and we grapple with those text through those lenses.

Rabbi Abraham Levy: Our tradition is to read the entire Torah over one year, which ensured that every Jew would know every detail of the five books of Moses. How much every Jew studies the Torah varies a lot, from the person that will give hours every day to study, whether it is the Talmud, whether it is other rabbinic works, whether it is Bible studies. Others may only take an hour a day. Others may only take half an hour a day. But the concept of the study of the Torah is crucial, and it is that study more than anything else that has preserved the unity of the Jewish people and has made people understand the importance of keeping the different commandments in the Torah.

Lev Taylor: What we’re doing is looking at these and seeing what do they mean for us, and finding a repository of generations and generations of ancient wisdom, and we’re able to look into it and see what is relevant and what do we need in our world today.

Ilana Tahan: The Talmud is a corpus of all the rabbinic laws relating to Jewish life. In the British Library we are extremely fortunate because we have many different editions of the Babylonian Talmud as well as the Jerusalem Talmud. What I’m handling here is the most important edition of the Babylonian Talmud, which was printed in Venice in fifteen volumes between 1519 and 1523.
Cassy Sachar: Jewish texts can be enormously difficult and challenging partly practically because of the languages between Hebrew, Amariac and a host of other languages that you’re trying to deal with. Sometimes that’s their joy coming to them through translation means you really have to penetrate deeply.

Lev Taylor: The Talmud is an amazing text, or collection of texts, and studying it feels like entering into an entirely different world, it’s an entirely different style of logic, it’s an entirely different culture, it’s an entirely different language. It feels kind of like participating in this conversation that’s been happening for centuries, or even millennia now, between sages throughout the generations, and between Jews throughout all time. And in looking at it, and exploring how they reasoned, how they imagined things, and the stories they told, and the laws they came up with. It feels like we’re not just looking at history but a possibility of what the future could be like.

Rabbi Young-Somers: The more we understand Jewish texts the more beauty and diversity that Judaism can offer us as individuals and to us as a community.

Ilana Tahan: What we’re looking at here is a manuscript that was created in Catalonia, northeast Spain, around 1320.

Rabbi Young-Somers: The Haggadah is the book that we use at the Passover Seder. It’s almost a service guide for the Passover Seder. But it means the story, it’s the telling of a story, and interestingly we don’t tell the story through the narrative of Exodus which would be the most obvious way to tell the story of what happened at Passover. It’s lots of rabbinic commentaries, it’s lots of interpretations and ways of trying to tell the story in a really creative fashion that encourages people at the Seder to ask questions, encourages children to engage in understanding ‘tonight’s a bit different and what’s going on and why are we doing things differently’. We really frame a lot of the structure of the Haggadah around encouraging people to think differently about the story, to ask lots of questions, and to celebrate the themes of the Passover Exodus, of freedom and release from tyranny.

Ilana Tahan: This book obviously was in great use. The people who owned it used it for Passover, and evidence to that are the stains and the smudges that we find throughout the manuscript. These are usually stains from wine, because during the Passover Seder, the festive meal we are supposed to drink four cups of wine, but there are also smudges and stains from food, and maybe some crumbs from different foods that the family or the owner used on Passover eve. At every stage in modern Haggadot you will have some instructions as to what you’ve got to do, whether you have to wash your hands or whether you have to make a blessing, or when to drink the first, the second, the third and the fourth cup. We are supposed to eat a certain amount of special, specific foods, and again, they each have a symbolic meaning, as regarding the bitter herb, that symbolises the bitter times they had as slaves in Egypt.

Rabbi Young-Somers: At my Seder now I have the regular Seder plate with symbols that encourage people to ask questions and remember the themes of the Passover Seder, and I add an alternative Seder plate, with some of these new rituals that have emerged. I put a piece of chocolate or some coffee beans to represent the idea that we should focus on trying to buy fair trade food because when we buy things that aren’t fair trade we are enslaving others, and this is a festival celebrating freedom. As a people who were exiled, we belong to the narrative that we’ve inherited and that we take our texts and our stories with us, because they’re much more portable than anything else, and if you’re a people who have been wandering, I think that’s what binds people together.

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