The Jewish Bookshelf

The Jewish Bookshelf

The Jewish Bookshelf

The "Jewish Bookshelf" spans two millennia of the Jewish experience, and includes works across literary genres, continents, languages and ideologies. Until modern times, however, the "Jewish Bookshelf" was more narrowly defined, and included primarily religious texts, mostly in Hebrew. Until the advent of printing in Europe in the 15th century, these texts were hand-written or calligraphed on parchment or other substances.

Jews and books share a long, sometimes complicated, past. Early Moslems called their Jewish neighbors "The Nation of the Book", highlighting the central role of a written text in Judaism, and giving Jews a protected status in society. In Christian Europe, however, medieval Jews often paid heavy prices, such as censorship and book burning, for their commitment to written texts. Nonetheless, for over two thousand years, diverse Jewish literary creativity continues to thrive and flourish across the Jewish world, making the Jews a true "Nation of the Book".

A tour of the Jewish Bookshelf travels across the major time periods and genres of two millennia of intellectual and literary creativity. The journey begins in the biblical period, culminating with the canonization of the Tanach (The 24 Books of the Hebrew Bible) between the 4th-2nd centuries BCE. Those contemporaneous writings that were not included in the Tanach are known as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and were preserved by the Christian Church. The Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered in caves near the Dead Sea in the 1940's and 50's contain ancient texts of Tanach, as well as additional writings not preserved elsewhere.

Subsequent generations of sages discussed and expounded upon the Biblical text, ending in the redaction of the Mishnah in the 3rd century BCE. The rulings of the Mishna were discussed and analyzed by the next generations of rabbis in both the Land of Israel and Babylonia, and written down in the lengthy and stream-of-consciousness discussions of the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds (ca. 450-650 CE).

The journey of the "Jewish Bookshelf" continues across continents and cultures, winding its way into the middle ages, and adding new genres to the literary corpus of the Jewish people. Ancient texts were explicated and elucidated, and novel treatises were penned to respond to new realities and ideological challenges. The rich diversity of genres of medieval Jewish literature includes legal codes, commentaries to Tanach and Talmud, poetry, mystical treatises, liturgy, scientific works, lexicons, as well as personal and communal documents. The advent of printing in Europe in the 15th century offered the opportunity to print books instead of hand-copying manuscripts, and opened-up the world of Jewish books to the masses.

The diversity of the "Jewish Bookshelf" is most pronounced in the modern era (17-19th centuries), with many new literary genres branching out from the more traditional and religious texts of previous generations. These include academic scholarship in the emerging fields of Jewish Studies, periodicals, fiction, poetry, biographies, and various reference works – all in a variety of languages spoken by Jews in various locales. In addition, leading scholars of the new non-Orthodox movements penned theological treatises, liturgy and codes of law.

Today's contemporary "Jewish Bookshelf" is larger and more diverse than ever, in both print and digital formats. The "Jewish Bookshelf" continues to build upon its foundations and deep-rooted literary traditions, making Judaism and Jewish texts relevant to each generation and its milieux.