What is the Tanakh?
Tanakh, תָּנָ״ךְ, is the Jewish word for the Hebrew Bible. It is also called Mikra, מקרא, (“that which is read.”)
The Tanakh is written almost entirely in Biblical Hebrew, with a few passages in Biblical Aramaic.
It is an acronym of the first Hebrew letter of Torah (Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings) – hence TaNaKh.
There are many books within the Bible. Smaller books are usually published together to create a larger volume. As such, it is generally published as a set of 24 books.
Torah (five books of Moses)
- Bereshit (בְּרֵאשִׁית, “In the beginning”) — Genesis
- Shemot (שְׁמֹות, “The names of”) — Exodus
- Vayikra (וַיִּקְרָא, “And He called”) — Leviticus
- Bemidbar (בְּמִדְבַּר, “In the desert of”) — Numbers
- Devarim (דְּבָרִים, “The words” [of Moses]) — Deuteronomy
The Former Prophets (נביאים ראשונים Nevi’im Rishonim)
- Yĕhôshúa‘ (יְהוֹשֻעַ) — Joshua
- Shophtim (שֹׁפְטִים) — Judges
- Shmû’ēl (שְׁמוּאֵל) — Samuel
- M’lakhim (מְלָכִים) — Kings
The Latter Prophets (נביאים אחרונים Nevi’im Aharonim)
- Yĕsha‘ăyāhû (יְשַׁעְיָהוּ) — Isaiah
- Yirmyāhû (יִרְמְיָהוּ) — Jeremiah
- Yĕkhezqiēl (יְחֶזְקֵאל) — Ezekiel
The Twelve Minor Prophets (תרי עשר, Trei Asar, “The Twelve”)
- Hôshēa‘ (הוֹשֵׁעַ) — Hosea
- Yô’ēl (יוֹאֵל) — Joel
- ‘Āmôs (עָמוֹס) — Amos
- ‘Ōvadhyāh (עֹבַדְיָה) — Obadiah
- Yônāh (יוֹנָה) — Jonah
- Mîkhāh (מִיכָה) — Micah
- Nakḥûm (נַחוּם) — Nahum
- Khăvhakûk (חֲבַקּוּק) — Habakkuk
- Tsĕphanyāh (צְפַנְיָה) — Zephaniah
- Khaggai (חַגַּי) — Haggai
- Zkharyāh (זְכַרְיָה) — Zechariah
- Mal’ākhî (מַלְאָכִי) — Malachi
- Tehillim (תְהִלִּים) — Psalms
- Mishlei (מִשְׁלֵי) — Proverbs
- Iyyôbh (אִיּוֹב) — Job
- Shīr Hashīrīm (שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים, “Song of songs”) — Song of Songs (on Passover)
- Rūth (רוּת) — Ruth (on Shavuot)
- Eikhah (אֵיכָה) — Lamentations (on Tisha B’Av)
- Qōheleth (קֹהֶלֶת) — Ecclesiastes (on Sukkot)
- Estēr (אֶסְתֵר) — Esther (on Purim)
- Dānî’ēl (דָּנִיֵּאל) — Daniel
- ‘Ezrā (עֶזְרָא) — Ezra and Nehemiah
- Divrei ha-Yamim (דִּבְרֵי הַיָּמִים) — Chronicles
After the Hebrew Bible we then come to the books of the Jewish apocrypha. These small books were almost accepted as part of the Jewish Bible yet did not become canonized. However, they are still historically Jewish works and they do have a small role in Judaism.
Why study the Tanakh?
The Tanakh is our heritage. It tells the story of our people from Abraham to King David, of our people’s trials and tribulations, successes and failures. The words of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah are to the Jews as the words of Shakespeare are to the English. The Tanakh unites Jewish communities throughout history and across the globe.
Halakhah informs us that each Jewish person should spend some time each day studying Tanakh, Mishnah, and Talmud (BT Kiddushin 30a; Avodah Zarah 19b. S.A. Yoreh De’ah 246:4.)
Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, writes
Just as our ancestors read from the Tanakh each day, there are many reasons why we must do so as well. First… to benefit from Jewish wisdom and guidance as contained in th emitzvot interwoven into this timeless text. As Jews, we want to know God’s plan, which gives meaning to our lives. The Tanakh is a tapestry containing the threads of God’s plan.
Second… to discern the midot, or values, that distinguish us as Jews. Jewish values are unique — but they are not transmitted genetically. The Tanakh is the ultimate source of these values.
Third… to become familiar with the architects of our religion and the times in which they lived. We are who we are because of our history. The promise of Israel; the Exodus and the Temple; the Exile and the Prophets; all play a major role in defining Jews and Judaism. The Tanakh makes it possible to “experience” our history.
Fourth… to be guided by the ethics and moral standards that challenge us to become God-like in our daily behavior. Jewish ethics are not time bound. They are Divinely inspired, but they are not inaccessible. The Tanakh makes it possible to be touched by Divine inspiration.
Fifth… to become enriched by the pattern of Jewish living. While its seed was planted in Biblical times, Jewish living has evolved through the ages. Judaism as we live it and celebrate it today is the fruit of that seed. The Tanakh is the primary source that stimulated Rabbis and Sages throughout the ages to envision Judaism for their own generation. The Tanakh is our Jewish birthright.
Finally… we must read the Tanakh so that we can be lifted from viewing the world as it is, to a perch where we can glimpse a vision of what we can help it to become. Through seeing the universe from the mountains on which Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, stood, and through feeling the passion of Esther, Ruth, David and Solomon, our lives take on a new and important meaning, a sense of purpose.
How do Jews study the Tanakh?
Jews study the Tanakh (Bible) on multiple levels.
The first level is פְּשָׁט peshat, taking the text at face value, in context . This doesn’t quite mean “literal”, because we of course take into account idioms, metaphors, personification, etc. The peshat is the message that the original author intended to get across to the original audience.
The second level is the distinctively Jewish way of reading our Bible: דְּרַשׁ ,derash. This the way that Ḥazal (חז”ל) – the rabbis of the Mishnah, Midrash and Talmuds – interpreted the text. In derash we ask why the text is phrased the way that it is. Rabbinical literary techniques plumb the depths of the text to find new meaning, or may bring out lessons that may not have been intended by the original authors.
Some Jews also study the Bible as a work of mysticism. This is especially so for those who ponder the mystical meanings of prophet Ezekiel.
Many Jews study the Bible as a literary work. For instance, Adam Kircsch writes
Robert Alter’s newly completed English translation of the Hebrew Bible shows what it means to take the idea of the Bible as literature seriously. For Alter, the most important thing for a translator to know about the Bible is that its authors were great literary artists. This doesn’t mean that they lacked a religious purpose, of course; but it does mean that they paid close attention to literary technique, without which their writing might never have become canonical in the first place.
Studying with others
You can of course read the Bible on your own. But Judaism strongly recommends getting yourself a teacher or chevruta (study partner.)
Today many Jews study the Tanakh with others across the word, in an effort coordinated through the internet, also followed by local study groups. 929: Tanakh B’yachad, תנך ביחד is an easy, (almost) daily Bible study program for Jews around the world. We read just one short chapter a day, 5 days a week (on weekends we read the regular Torah portion.)
This program unites Jews in all denominations, as well as those who consider themselves secular. It is named for the 929 chapters in the Tanakh.
What English language books can Jewish readers turn to for a religious -yet non-fundamentalist – Bible commentary? Check out our list of suggested Jewish Bible commentaries.
Check out the many excellent translations of the Tanakh used in the Jewish community.
Infographics make it easier
Reading the Bible doesn’t have to be tough. With beautiful timelines, maps, and infographics it is easier than ever to get in to the text. See our
Infographics for Nevi’im, The Prophets
Infographics for Ketuvim (the writings)
Infographics for Mishnah study
Nakh: The Neglected Nineteen, Kol Hamevaser, Gilad Barach writes
About this website: Merrimack Valley Havurah grew from our original discussions. Some of us live in the Merrimack Valley region of New England. While our online havurah, Coffeehouse Torah Talk, has now grown worldwide, our website retains its original name.