Everyone agrees about Scripture, right? No. There are many differences in canon, not only between Jews and Christians, but among various Christian denominations. Below is the list of books in the Hebrew Bible. [Note that throughout this book, the terms BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) are used.]
1. What are the different parts of the Hebrew Bible?
A: The Hebrew Bible is divided into three major sections:
I. The Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses [Torah or Chumash]:
Genesis – Bereshit
Exodus – Shemot
Leviticus – Vayikra
Numbers – B’midbar
Deuteronomy – Devarim
II. Prophets [Neve’im] – Divided into three categories:
1. Narrative Books:
Kings I and II
2. The Major or Early Prophets:
3. The Twelve Minor or Latter Prophets
III. Writings [Ketuvim]
The Five Scrolls:
Song of Songs
Chronicles I and II
2. Is there an easy way to remember the contents?
A: There is an acronym consisting of the first letter of the Hebrew name of the three major sections: Tanakh. The entire Hebrew Bible is referred to as the Tanakh, while the Five Books of Moses are called either the Chumash (from the Hebrew word for “five”) or, more commonly, the Torah (from the Hebrew for “instruction”). As for the contents of the individual sections, there is no mnemonic that is easier to remember than the books themselves.
3. What is the Talmud?
A: The Talmud is the main body of Jewish laws. It consists of two main sections: the Mishnah and the Gemara, and is considered the oral law, in contrast to the Torah, which is the written law.
4. What is the Mishnah?
A: The Mishnah, or repetition, is the oldest section of the Talmud. Based on oral tradition dating from 70 CE (when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans), it was redacted in 200 CE. It consists of discussions, explanations, and stories based on the Torah.
5. What is the Gemara?
A: The Gemara, also based on oral tradition, expands on the simpler explanations and emendations of the Mishnah. It sets out the body of laws on which Jews base their observances to this day. (Traditionally observant Jews follow the Talmudic laws more strictly, while others interpret the Talmudic laws more liberally.) The easiest way to envision the Talmud is to imagine a group of students taking notes on their professors’ lectures and then publishing the notes verbatim.
6. Who were Hillel and Shammai?
A: Hillel and Shammai were intellectual rivals during the first century CE. The teachings most Jews follow are from the House of Hillel, but we preserve the teachings of the House of Shammai out of honor for his ability and to give respect to minority opinions (question #38).
7. Why is the Book of Maccabees not in the Hebrew Bible?
A: According to the Talmud, the Tanakh was codified in 450 BCE, although some modern scholars believe it to have been finalized around 200 BCE. The events related in the Book of Maccabees took place in 165 BCE, so even by the latest dating the Tanakh, occurred too late for inclusion.
8. So then where is the Book of Maccabees?
A: It is included in the Apocrypha, a collection of writings not included in the Tanakh.
9. What is the Apocrypha?
A: The Apocrypha (Greek for “hidden books”) is considered a bridge between the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. They are Jewish works, but are not part of the Hebrew or Protestant Bibles. They are accepted as canon by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Coptic churches, which refer to the Apocryphal books as Deuterocanonical (Greek for “the second canon”). Although there is evidence the First Book of Maccabees was written in Hebrew, the existent version comes from the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. The Second Book was likely written in Greek.
10. Why is the story of Judith and Holofernes connected to Chanukah?
A: The Book of Judith, which is in the Apocrypha, tells the story of how an Israelite widow saved her city from Holofernes, a despotic Assyrian general. She sneaked into the enemy camp in the middle of the night, and her beauty caught the general’s eye. Holofernes invited Judith to a banquet, where she plied him with salty cheese so he would become thirsty and drink more wine. When he fell into a drunken stupor, she cut off his head.
Even though the story, which was most likely written as a parable rather than a retelling of an historical event, takes place during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, centuries earlier than the era of the Maccabees (question #21), it is connected to Chanukah because it recounts how the actions of one courageous person could change the course of history. In later times, the story was redacted and moved forward in time to take place during the Maccabean Revolt.
11. Why is the story of Hannah connected to Chanukah?
A: In the Second Book of Maccabees, there is a story about an unnamed mother who watched as her seven sons were tortured and killed for refusing to eat pork. She refused to try to convince her sons to eat the non-kosher food, preferring their martyrdom to the breaking of Jewish law. As the youngest was dying, she whispered to him, “When you see our ancestor Abraham, tell him not to be so proud that he built only one altar to sacrifice one son. Your mother built seven altars to sacrifice seven sons all on the same day. Yours was a test; mine was real.”
Rabbinic tradition identifies the woman as Hannah, a sister of the Maccabees. She is named in a very different story in the Mishnah. Hannah, as were all Israelite brides, was ordered to spend her wedding night with the king. She stripped naked at the banquet and when her brothers wanted to kill her for being lewd, she told them to defend the honor of all Jewish brides by rebelling against the Syrians, thereby sparking the Macabbean Revolt.
12. What is the Scroll of the Hasmoneans?
A: The Scroll (megillah) of the Hasmoneans, sometimes called the Scroll of Antiochus, is a retelling of the events in the Books of Maccabees. It was written in Aramaic, probably in the late Talmudic period, and seen as a parallel to the Megillat Esther, Scroll of Esther, read in synagogues on Purim. Although it was read in the Middle Ages in Italian synagogues and is still part of the Yemenite litury, it has no canonical standing, and is not part of other tradition’s observances. It is mentioned by the Sages, particularly Saadia Gaon, who lived in the Second Century CE. The authorship is unknown and the narrative contains historical inaccuracies and some fanciful elements. It includes the story of the miracle of the oil (questions #29-31), a story which is in the Talmud but not in the Books of Maccabees.