Bible & Jewish Sacred Texts Common Terms:

  • Abraham

    The founding Patriarch of the Jewish People, whose story is told in Genesis 12-25. Married to Sarah, sons are Isaac and Ishmael.

  • David

    The Jewish People’s greatest king, who established Jerusalem as the capital and expanded Israel’s territory, and also a deeply morally flawed man whose life is marred by tragedy. David ruled over Israel from 1010-970 BCE.

  • Deuteronomy

    The fifth and final book of the Torah, which primarily contains Moses' final speech to the Jewish People before they cross into the Land of Israel, which recaps the story of their journey and emphasizes many ritual and ethical laws.

  • Elijah

    A Biblical prophet who, according to Tradition, never died and instead was brought to Heaven alive in a fiery chariot and who will return to be the harbinger of the Messianic Age. Elijah is said to visit every Passover Seder (where a cup is left out for him) and Brit Milah (where a chair is placed for him.)

  • Exodus

    The second of the five books of the Torah, which tells the story of the enslavement and oppression of the Israelites in Egypt, the rise of Moses and the Ten Plagues against Pharaoh, the escape of the Jewish People from Egyptian bondage, and the subsequent revelation at Mount Sinai, which confirms the covenant between God and the Jews.

  • Gemara

    The massive rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah, produced in both Babylonia and in the Land of Israel, in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries. Talmud is the combination of the Mishnah and the Gemara.

  • Genesis

    The first book of the Torah, which begins by telling the primordial history of the world (Genesis 1-11), and then transitions to telling the colorful stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish People, including Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and Joseph.

  • Guide for the Perplexed

    Maimonides' masterwork of Jewish philosophy, which attempts to reconcile Greek philosophy and science with Jewish theology and law. Its implications are wide reaching, particularly when it says that when Torah and scientific reason are in conflict one must reexamine their understanding of Scripture.

  • Haftarah

    A selection from the Books of the Prophets, which is paired with the weekly Torah reading (parasha). Haftarahs are selected based on a thematic or linguistic link to the parasha, and may bolster or occasionally challenge its message.

  • Isaac

    The second Jewish patriarch, married to Rebekah, generally overshadowed by his more dynamic father, Abraham, and wily son, Jacob. Isaac is the first and only character in the Bible who is described as having loved his wife.

  • Jacob/Israel

    The third Jewish patriarch, married to Rachel and Leah and the father of thirteen children (twelve boys and a girl) who begins his life as a trickster, but has a transformative, late night encounter with an angel, earning him the new name of “Israel”, meaning “one who wrestles with God.”

  • Joseph

    The son of Jacob and Rachel, who is sold into slavery in Egypt, only to use his power for interpreting dreams to rise to great power and save his family from famine. The Joseph story is one of the richest and most detailed narratives in the Torah, and is found in Genesis 37-50.

  • Ketuvim

    “Writings.” The third and final section of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, which contains within it a miscellany of material-- ranging from the poetry of Psalms and the Song of Songs, to the wisdom of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, to the moral meditations of Job, to the bawdy court farce of Esther, to the history of Chronicles and Ezra. Five of the scrolls from Ketuvim, called Megillot, are read on Jewish holidays: Esther on Purim, Song of Songs on Pesah, Ruth on Shavuot, Lamentations of Tisha b'Av, and Ecclesiastes on Sukkot.

  • Leah

    The first wife of Jacob, and mother of six of their sons and their only daughter.

  • Leviticus

    The third book of the Torah, which focuses primarily on ritual law, but also contains some of the Torah's most important ethical pronouncements, including the obligation to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18).

  • Midrash

    Rabbinic exegesis, legends, and expansion on the Biblical texts. The Jewish Tradition has always seen our sacred texts as works in progress, to which we add new layers of interpretation in every succeeding generation.

  • Mishnah

    The earliest collection of rabbinic teachings, written in Hebrew and edited in Israel around 200 CE. The Mishnah contains discussions of a wide range of issues, from holidays to civil and criminal law, from prayer to lifecycle rituals. Unlike a traditional law code, the Mishnah is written in the form of discussions and debates, with both majority and minority opinions recorded.

  • Mishneh Torah

    The first, comprehensive code of Jewish law, written by Maimonides in the 12th century. Mishneh Torah literally means, “Second Torah,” and Maimonides' goal was to create a work that was so simple and complete that one need only read the original Torah (written by God) and the “Second Torah” (written by him) in order to know everything one needed to know to live an observant Jewish life.

  • Moses

    The principle character, along with God, in the Torah. Moses was a Hebrew, raised in privilege in the Egyptian palace, who receives a call from God to lead his People to freedom. Moses serves as the leader and teacher of the Jewish People through the Exodus and their forty year journey in the wilderness, dying just before they are to cross over into the Promised Land. Moses is such a central personality that the Torah is often referred to as the “Five Books of Moses.”

  • Nevi'im

    “Prophets.” The second section of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, which can be further divided into two sections-- Early and Later Prophets. The early prophetic books are actually more historical in orientation, telling the story of the conquest of the Land of Israel, the establishment of the Jewish monarchy, and the construction of the First Temple. The later prophets include the prophecies of figures like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos who preach social justice and a return to God in poignant poetry.

  • Numbers

    The fourth book of the Torah begins with the decampment of the Israelites from the base of Mount Sinai, and follows them through their forty year trek through the wilderness. Famous stories from the Book of Numbers include the incident of the Twelve Spies, the rebellion of Korach, and the prophecy of Balaam.

  • Oral Torah

    Jewish Tradition maintains that along with the Written Torah that was given at Mount Sinai, there was a companion Oral tradition which was also transmitted by God to the Jewish People. It is this Oral Tradition that eventually comes to be written down in the Mishnah and the Gemara and forms the backbone of the rabbinic Judaism that we practice today.

  • Parsha

    The Torah is divided into fifty-four sections, with one read each week on Shabbat, in order to complete the reading of the entire Torah each year. When the Torah is completed, on the Fall holiday of Simchat Torah, we immediately roll back to the beginning and start the reading again, to indicate that the study of Torah goes on forever.

  • Prophet

    The Prophets of Israel, recorded in the Hebrew Bible, are primarily concerned with summoning the Jewish People to return to true religious faith and particularly to care for the plight of the most vulnerable among them. The orations of prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah are among the most beautiful texts in Jewish Scripture.

  • Psalms

    The Psalms, traditionally believed to have been composed by King David, are a collection of one hundred and fifty poems to God found in the Hebrew Bible. The tone of the Psalms range from songs of praise to outcries of rage, and many of them have become well known classics of religious literature, like Psalm 23 which begins: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want...” About one third of the Hebrew prayerbook is made up of material originally found in the Book of Psalms.

  • Rebekah

    The second Jewish matriarch, wife of Isaac and mother of Jacob and Esau. She is the one who decides that her family’s line with run through her younger son, Jacob, and constructs a plan to trick her blind husband into bestowing his blessing on her favored child.

  • Rachel

    The most beloved wife of Jacob and the last of the Jewish Matriarchs, whose two children are Joseph and Benjamin.

  • Ruth

    The Book of Ruth is chanted on Shavuot, and tells the story of one of the first converts to Judaism. Ruth is a non-Jew, married to an Israelite. After she is widowed, she chooses to stay with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and adopt her faith with the famous words: “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”

  • Sarah

    The first Jewish matriarch— wife of Abraham and mother of Isaac and a powerful force in shaping her family’s future.

  • Shulchan Arukh

    The most authoritative code of Jewish Law ever produced. Written by Rabbi Joseph Karo, with additional notes by Rabbi Moses Isserles, it is one of the few Jewish legal books that contains both the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic interpretations of most laws.

  • Sinai

    The mountain, also referred to in parts of the Torah as “Horeb”, at which the Israelites encamp and formally enter into their covenant with God by receiving the Torah.

  • Talmud

    The collection of rabbinic discussions from approximately 100 BCE- 500 CE, which form the heart of Jewish life and practice. The Rabbis of the Talmud re-created Judaism for a world without a Temple, enabling it to be practiced without the giving of sacrifices in a sacred shrine. The Talmud expands upon some of the Torah’s laws, like the laws of Shabbat or kashrut, and limits the applicability of others, like the laws regarding capital punishment or warfare.

  • Tanakh

    An acronym for the Hebrew Bible (what the non-Jewish world often refers to as the “Old Testament.” The first part of the Tanakh is the Torah, which is comprised of its first five books, the second division is “Nevi’im,” meaning Prophets, and the third section is “Ketuvim,” meaning writings.

  • Torah

    The first Five Books of the Hebrew Bible, which include: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Torah is written down on a parchment scroll, and a section from the Torah is chanted in synagogue each week on an annual cycle.

  • Zohar

    One of the central texts of Jewish mysticism, which is traditionally ascribed to the 2nd century sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai but which first appeared in 13th century Spain and is generally thought to have been composed by the Spanish Jew Moses de Leon. The Zohar is written as a commentary on the Torah and purports to reveal a much deeper, symbolic meaning to the text.