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The parchment scroll containing text of the Five Books of Moses, i.e. the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy was hand-written in Hebrew, rolled onto two sticks; the so-called ace(i) chaim [shafts of life] made of oak wood was furnished at the ends with pairs of wooden plates with a diameter of 17.5 cm, and handles for rolling the scrolls. The handles are profiled, with a head decorated with ivory buttons in the upper part and an ivory sleeve at the bottom.

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The parchment scroll containing text of the Five Books of Moses, i.e. the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy was hand-written in Hebrew, rolled onto two sticks; the so-called ace(i) chaim [shafts of life] made of oak wood was furnished at the ends with pairs of wooden plates with a diameter of 17.5 cm, and handles for rolling the scrolls. The handles are profiled, with a head decorated with ivory buttons in the upper part and an ivory sleeve at the bottom. The upper part of the sticks also has a decorative topping in the form of an ivory sleeve. On one of the plates, the following inscription in Hebrew is engraved by the donor: “Samuel, the son of Jacob, Levite Siesman funded together with his wife Esther Matel in 1913 so that his light would be burning.”
The length of the scroll is 54 metres. It probably comes from Chrzanów.

Elaborated by Anna Sadło-Ostafin (Irena and Mieczysław Mazaraki Museum in Chrzanów), editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums, © all rights reserved

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Jewish holy books. Torah, Tanakh, Talmud

The Jewish religion is based on three pillars: Torah, Avodah (in the days of the Temple, this included ritual sacrifices and prayers, after its destruction – the widely understood collective and individual liturgy) and Tzedakah (mercy, good deeds).
The Torah, given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and symbolized by two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments, first learnt by heart, later written down, is called the Law, sometimes the Order. Among Jews, it is named “Hamesh” (cf. the Greek word “Pentateuch”). The Hebrew names of the Books of Torah are derived from their first words, not their contents. The first book is Bereshit [In the beginning...] or Genesis. The next book is Shemot [Names...] or Exodus, then Vayikra [And He said...] – Leviticus. Next, Bamidbar [In the desert] – Numeri – the Book of Numbers, and, finally, Devarim [Words] or the Book of Deuteronomy. To religious Jews, the words of the Torah are the words of God himself. Apart from the Pentateuch, two other parts of the Hebrew Bible have also been written down – the Nevi’im – the Prophets, and Ketuvim – the Writings. The first syllables of the three components give the acronym TaNaKh – that is what Jews call their Bible. The arrangement of subsequent parts (disturbed by the translation of the Septuagint) is very important. The Torah is the Words of God, spoken directly to Moses. Prophets spoke in the name of God; they were his messengers. However, in the part called the Nevi’im – the Prophets, we find historical books – including two Books of Kings, the Book of Judges or the Book of Joshua. Ketuvim – the Writings, are words inspired by God but written by people. This does not detract from their religious value. Some are read every day (psalms), others on holidays – the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, The Books of Esther, Ruth, Job etc.

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Przemysław Piekarski

The Jewish religion is based on three pillars: Torah, Avodah (in the days of the Temple, this included ritual sacrifices and prayers, after its destruction – the widely understood collective and individual liturgy) and Tzedakah (mercy, good deeds)

Torah scroll, 1913, Irena and Mieczysław Mazaraki Museum in Chrzanów.
Digitalisation: RDW MIC, public domain


The Torah, given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and symbolized by two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments, first learnt by heart, later written down, is called the Law, sometimes the Order. Among Jews, it is named “Hamesh” (cf. the Greek word “Pentateuch”). The Hebrew names of the Books of Torah are derived from their first words, not their contents. The first book is Bereshit [In the beginning...] or Genesis. The next book is Shemot [Names...] or Exodus, then Vayikra [And He said...] – Leviticus. Next, Bamidbar [In the desert] – Numeri – the Book of Numbers, and, finally, Devarim [Words] or the Book of Deuteronomy. To religious Jews, the words of the Torah are the words of God himself. Apart from the Pentateuch, two other parts of the Hebrew Bible have also been written down – the Nevi’im – the Prophets, and Ketuvim – the Writings. The first syllables of the three components give the acronym TaNaKh – that is what Jews call their Bible. The arrangement of subsequent parts (disturbed by the translation of the Septuagint) is very important. The Torah is the Words of God, spoken directly to Moses. Prophets spoke in the name of God; they were his messengers. However, in the part called the Nevi’im – the Prophets, we find historical books – including two Books of Kings, the Book of Judges or the Book of Joshua. Ketuvim – the Writings, are words inspired by God but written by people. This does not detract from their religious value. Some are read every day (psalms), others on holidays – the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, The Books of Esther, Ruth, Job etc.

Tanakh is written in Hebrew, which, from the 6th century BC, was not a spoken language, hence the need for its translation into another Jewish language – Aramaic. Subsequent Jewish literature uses both these languages. In the Hebrew text of the Tanakh, we can find singular Aramaic borrowings and longer excerpts written in this language – in the Books of Daniel and Ezra.

The Midrashes – three sets of comments explaining the more difficult issues related to the broadly-understood Torah were the first works to interpret the Tanakh.

However, a systematic explanation of the most important parts of the Tanakh is given by the Mishnah, which is treated as a set of provisions of the so-called Oral Torah. For outsiders, this term may be misleading. On the one hand, it refers to the Law given to the Jews by God through Moses (its symbol are two stone tablets) which, according to a tradition, was written down on scrolls and placed in the Ark of the Covenant next to these very tablets, and, on the other hand, to the law passed verbally from the time of Moses (c. 15th century BC) until the time of Judah Hanasi (2nd/3rd century AD), who ordered for it to be written down in light of the dispersion of the Jews around the world and the risk of its message being distorted.

The Babylonian Talmud, 1831, Vienna, The Cultural Meeting Centre in Dąbrowa Tarnowska.
Digitalisation: RDW MIC, public domain


The six orders of the Mishnah and their further explanations – that is, the Gemara, together form the Talmud (Wisdom). Two versions of the Talmud – Bavli (Babylonian) and Yerushalmi (Jerusalem) were created respectively in Talmudic academies in Babylon (mainly in Hebrew) and in several centres in Israel (mainly in Aramaic).

The above-mentioned Mishnah orders are: Zeraim (seeds), Moed (festival), Nashim (women), Nezikin (damages), Kodashim (Holy things) and Tohorot (purities). In both versions of the Talmud, additional explanations (Gemara) appear in some parts of the Mishnah. A group of sages whose discussions are presented in the Mishnah are known as Tannaim and, analogously, Amoraim in the Gemara. Both Mishnah and Gemara present both accepted and rejected views (the latter in order to avoid similar flaws in argumentation in the future). The process of writing comments for the Talmud lasted for centuries, and contemporary sages are represented by an open group of Acharonim – (the last) commentators. However, the Talmud standard is the so-called Vilnius edition from the mid-19th century, and newer opinions may be found in works or collections published separately.

The basis of all disputes is, of course, the Torah and the commandments contained within. There are 613 of them in total, and the collection of all the commandments is called Taryag Mitzvot in Hebrew[1]. 14 commandments (mitzvot) should be added to this number; 7 so-called Noachide commandments (for the descendants of Noah – i.e. all humans after the Deluge) and 7 commandments (from the rabbis) referring to the events that took place after the Torah was written down (e.g. to the renewal of the Temple after the successful Maccabean Revolt, the salvation of Jews in Persia, described in the Book of Esther, or the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD).

Conclusions arising from the interpretation of commandments are precisely the contents of the Talmud and specific provisions form the basis of the religious law (Halakha) applicable to every Jew. The change in living conditions outside Israel, in the diaspora, necessitated a new interpretation of the Halakha. A breakthrough work here is the treatise of Joseph Karo – Shulchan Aruch (“A Set Table”, 15th/16th century) – and the work of a sage from Kraków: Rema (rabbi Moses Isserles, 16th century), a context entitled Hamapah (Tablecloth). Joseph Karo interprets religious law in accordance with the living conditions on the Iberian Peninsula (where he was born) and in Israel contemporary to him. Rema’s commentary adds subsequent interpretations important for Ashkenazi Jews (Central and Eastern Europe).

We can find many hints explaining the problems of everyday life in the responsa – letters written by the sages constituting answers to specific queries regarding the application of the Halakha, the religious law, in specific situations. In Hebrew, they are called She’elot u-Teshuvot (questions and answers).

However, there is a rule which states: Life goes before the Torah. This means that interdictions may be broken in order to save people’s lives. After all, hospitals and other services work during holidays. You can, or even must, use the phone to save lives. However, one must not commit three sins, even at the cost of losing one’s life: murder, idolatry and illicit sexual relations.

Jewish literature available in Polish is quite rich. On the one hand, we have translations by rabbi Izaak Cylkow (the Torah and many books of the Tanakh), from the late 19th century, available in reprints. On the other hand, recent decades have brought many new translations, mainly by Rabbi Sacha Pecaric and Ewa Gordon (five books of the Torah[2], The Books of Esther[3] and Ruth[4], one of the volumes of the Talmud[5]). The volumes of the Mishnah edited by Roman Marcinkowski represent another translation[6]. Websites may also be helpful – e.g. The Pardes Association, a Jewish educational website, the 614th commandment, the Association of Polish Jews.

Elaborated by Przemysław Piekarski, PhD, Licencja Creative Commons
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland.

 


[1] Tarjag micwot – 613 przykazań judaizmu, translated by Ewa Gordon, Kraków 2000.

[2] Tora Pardes Lauder, translated by R. Sacha Pecaric z zespołem, Vol. 1–5, Kraków 2001–2006.

[3] Księga Ester, translated and commented by Ewa Gordon, Kraków 2004.

[4] Księga Rut, translated and commented Ewa Gordon, Kraków 2005.

[5] Talmud Babiloński, translated by Miszny i Gemary, objaśn. i red. rabin Sacha Pecaric, Traktat Brachot (fragmenty), Kraków 2010.

[6] Miszna, red. Roman Marcinkowski, Zeraim (nasiona), Warszawa 2013, Moed (święto), Warszawa 2014,  Naszim (kobiety), Warszawa 2016.

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