Jewish Literacy

by Ron Fox

Since there will be references to Jewish writings throughout this website, we thought it might be worthwhile to familiarize ourselves with what the Bible, the Mishna and the Talmud contain as well as recalling some history of the Jewish people from about 2000 years ago. What appears below are primarily notes taken from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book, Jewish Literacy.



Tanakh is the acronym for the three categories of the forty-one books that make up the Hebrew Bible – Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).


TORAH The first five books are the Torah which according to tradition were dictated by God to Moses about 1220 BCE


NEVI’IM – Twenty-five books that trace Jewish history from Moses to the period after the Babylonians destroyed theFirst Temple and the exile to Babylon (586BCE). They include Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, the Early Prophets, who wrote in narrative form and are historical. The later prophets wrote in poetic form, condemned Israel’s betrayal of ideals, talked about evil, suffering and sin, and called for ethical behavior, 


KETUVIM – Eleven Books have little in common – stories about return after the Babylonian exile (Ezra, Nehemiah), the 150 poems called Psalms, Job and the Five Scrolls which includes Esther and Ruth


THE MACCABEES Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria (175-163BCE) was a tyrant whose actions led to the successful revolt of the Maccabees. Also known as Hasmoneans, they became oppressors when they got power. Mattathias descendant King Alexander Yannai executed 800 of his Pharisee opponents. Because of their moral and religious decline, no mention is made of them in the Talmud. During a civil war in 63 BCE between Mattathias descendants, the Romans were invited in. “The tragedy was now complete.  The original Maccabees had freed the Jews from foreign rule; their corrupt descendants now returned the Jews to subjugation under an alien (and Pagan) power.”


HILLEL (active about 30BCE-10CE) Hillel’s greatest legacy was his forceful intellect “which directed Judaism toward the goal of tikkum olam, the ethical bettering of the world.”(not to rely just on tradition)  His two famous quotes:  first when asked to define Judaism “What is hateful unto you do not do unto your neighbor. The rest is commentary – now go and study.” Second, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, and if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”







“The Jew’s Great Revolt against Rome in 66 CE led to one of the greatest catastrophes in Jewish life and, in retrospect, might well have been a terrible mistake.” The zealots, active since about 6CE, were anti-Rome and believed that all means were justified to attain political and religious liberty. The revolt began in the north and no help came from Jerusalem.  When the north fell to the Romans, the zealots came to Jerusalem, started a suicidal civil war, killing every Jewish leader not as radical as them. Some great figures of ancient Israel, like Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, opposed the revolt. By 70CE, the walls of Jerusalem were breached and the Temple was destroyed leaving only one wall standing (the Western Wall – the Kotel).  It is estimated that one million Jews died in the Great Revolt.



After the fall of the temple, the surviving Zealots fled to the fortress of Masada. The Romans laid siege as the Zealots had been in revolt for nearly 70 years and had started the Great Revolt. Eventually the Zealot men killed their wives and children and then each other. This episode is not mentioned in the Talmud. Why? Perhaps there was Rabbinic anger at the extremist Zealots who had died there.



Simon Bar-Kokhba organized a rebellion again the Romans in 132CE. The reasons for the revolt are unclear. There seems no evidence that the Romans were trying to eradicate Judaism. Rabbi Akiva (135CE), perhaps the Talmud’s greatest scholar, was a strong supporter of Bar-Kokhba, saying that he was the Messiah. When it was over and the Romans were victorious, nearly the entire land of Judea lay waste. Fifty percent of the Judea’s population was dead. Rabbi Akiva was executed by burning. Jews were outnumbered by non-Jews. Those who survived were sold into slavery, some women forced into prostitution. “In the opinion of many Jewish historians, the failure of this rebellion along with the Great Revolt was the greatest catastrophe to befall the Jewish people prior to the Holocaust.  It led to the total loss of Jewish political authority in Israel until 1948. “This loss in itself exacerbated the magnitude of later Jewish catastrophes, since it precluded Israel from being used as a refuge for the large numbers of Jews fleeing persecutions elsewhere.” In 1980, Israeli General Yehoshafat Harkabi shocked Israeli public opinion by arguing that Simeon Bar-Kokhba initiated a revolt that was unnecessary and unwinnable.”



About 200 CE, the deaths of so many teachers in the failed revolts seem to have been a decisive factor in Rabbi Judah the Prince’s decision to record in writing the Oral Law. The Oral Law supplemented and interpreted the Torah; i.e., the Torah says “An eye for an eye”. The Oral Law says that it must be understood as requiring monetary compensation – the value of an eye. Today the oral law is written, codified in the Mishna and the Talmud.


MISHNA In the Mishna, there are six orders divided into sixty-three tractates arranged topically; i.e., the one on Sabbath contains laws from Exodus and Leviticus, etc., and summaries of the Oral Law’s extensive Sabbath legislation. One of the sixty-three contains no laws at all – it is called the Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers) – the record of the most famous sayings and proverbs of the rabbis such as Hillel’s “If I am not for myself…”


TALMUD – For centuries, the Mishna was studied by rabbis, some of whom wrote down their discussions and commentaries in a series of books know as the Talmud (one compiled in Palestine about 400 CE) and another about a hundred years later in Babylon (far more extensive and the one that became the most authoritative compilation of the Oral Law.  The structure is that there is a law from the Mishna cited followed by rabbinic deliberations on its meaning. The Mishna and the rabbinic discussions (known as the Gemara) comprise the Talmud. In addition to extensive legal discussions (halakha) there is guidance on ethical matters, medical advice, historical information and folklore (aggadata).


©CJA 2006

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