Jewish Texts

Is anything written by a Jew a Jewish text, and who decides?

Print this page Print this page

Another common way of organizing Jewish texts has been by identifying each with a period of Jewish history. In this scheme, one would move from the Biblical period to the Talmudic period, through the period of the Rishonim (the early medieval commentators on the Talmud) and into the period of the Acharonim (the later commentators on the Talmud). Clearly, this perspective makes the Talmud the centerpiece of all of Jewish literature. To this mindset, other kinds of Jewish literature are peripheral.

Another difficulty with placing Jewish texts against a timeline is the issue of composite authorship. An individual document may have been composed by different authors over a long period of time. How should one date a text like the Talmud that includes the work of rabbis who lived over the course of seven centuries? Even more sensitive is the tendency to attribute texts to earlier authors. The Zohar, which was mentioned above, is traditionally attributed to Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, who lived in the second century CE, although most scholars would actually date the Zohar to more than a 1,100 years after his death.

What counts as a Jewish text? Certainly the Bible and the Mishnah are Jewish texts, as well as books of Talmud, Midrash, and commentary that developed out of the conversations concerning the meaning of the Bible and the Mishnah. Similarly, books that respond to the life of sanctification and reflection described in the Talmud, Midrash, and Jewish law, books like the Siddur (the prayer book) and the Zohar, should also be seen as Jewish books. But what about books that the rabbis didn't include in the Hebrew Bible, like the stories of Maccabees (the heroes of the Hanukkah story), or books by Jewish sectarians who broke off from the Jewish people, like the Dead Sea Sect (or early Christianity!)? What about a medieval book on the mathematics of astronomy written in Hebrew? Can an individual find a Jewish text so theologically difficult, so much at odds with other Jewish texts so that he or she can declare that the text is not part of the canon? Responses to these questions often tell us more about the Jewish identity of the one selecting than about the texts themselves.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.