Xiphias Gladius (xiphias) wrote,
Xiphias Gladius

Fourth facebook post; it's easier to write here, isn't it? I'll write it here and copy it there

In the comments of a previous post, Ginny Philips raised another really good basic question: so, where DO Jews get our laws from anyway? What IS the scripture we use?

Now, technically, I suppose people could do a Wikipedia search and get most of this information, but I am hoping I might be able to organize it into a little more understandable form.

I also encourage other Members of the Tribe to correct me in comments, because ... and maybe I should have mentioned this some time before y'all started reading ... I'm not particularly GOOD at the technical bits of halacha. I am Jewish, I care deeply about Judaism, but my actual practice of Judaism is far more in the, "Yeah, I really probably SHOULD do that someday" level than in the, y'know, going to services, keeping kosher, studying Torah, keeping Shabbat...

In my defense, please note that most of the actually observant Jews commenting have been saying things like, "Yeah, pretty much," and "That's more or less close enough for a basic overview". So, because I have been an arrogant pedant my entire life (I was going to say "my entire adult life", until I remembered that one of my first words was "AC-tually..."), I'm going to go ahead and continue to pontificate. (Verb choice kind of awkward given the subject matter....)

... even though I'm actually going to be using Wikipedia as a cheat sheet and checklist ... *sigh*

*ahem* Anyway...

We Jews have two basic sources of our laws, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. According to our tradition, the Written Torah was dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai -- including the bits that hadn't happened yet -- and the Oral Torah was spoken, and Moses memorized it.

They are two co-equal sources of law, both given by G-d on Mount Sinai, to Moses, and through Moses, given to all of the Jewish people.

The Written Torah consists of three basic parts, called the Torah, the Ne'vim, and the Ketubim. We refer to them collectively as the acronym T-N-Kh, or "Tanakh."

The Torah is the Five Books of Moses: B'reishit, Sh'mot, Vayikra, Bemidbar, Deuteronomy, or, in English, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Like I said, our tradition says that these were given all in one chunk to Moses on Mount Sinai, which means that he wrote down all the bits about him dying before entering Israel, and so forth. I'm not going to go into whether this is literally or historically true, or about the textual analysis you can do to determine stylistically whether different parts were written at different times, or any of that -- for RELIGIOUS purposes, this is how we look at it.

The most holy object most of us Jews ever handle is the Torah scroll, the physical scroll upon which these five books are written. Physically, a Torah scroll is a bunch of sheets of parchment upon which the Torah is written in Hebrew, and then they are sewn together, and rollers are put at both ends. I'm doing a bad job of explaining this. Google it and look at pictures; that will probably give a better idea.

If you unroll a Torah scroll, the whole thing is close to fifty yards long.

We divide the Torah into weekly readings called parshot. Over the course of a year, reading one parsha a week, we read the entire thing end to end, then, on the holiday of Simchat Torah, finish it up, scroll the whole thing back to the beginning, and start over.

The second section is the Ne'viim, or Prophets. That has three sections -- the first prophets, the later prophets, and the minor prophets. The books of the First Prophets are Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings; the Later Prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets are counted as one book with twelve prophets who I don't feel like listing, so you can look it up yourself. Sorry, dudes -- I know, you ARE important enough to actually be in the Bible, and, honestly, mad props to you, but it's ten o'clock at night and I'm getting tired. Okay, I will mention Jonah as the fan favorite minor prophet; some of you have probably heard me blather about why Jonah is hilarious, but not right now.

We don't read these in order, but alongside our weekly Torah readings, we also have Haftara, which are selections from the Ne'viim which are thematically related to the weekly parsha. I don't actually know what percent of the Ne'viim we cover over the course of a year, come to think of it.

The third section is the Ketubim, or Writings. Again, this is divided into three groups.
The first group is the poetical works -- Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. Yes, Job is a poem.
We read a lot of the psalms throughout the year as part of our prayer services, and there are also times when we just sit down and read them cover to cover, for comfort reading.

The second group are the five Megilot. Each Megilah is read at a specific holiday during the year. The Song of Songs is read at Passover, Ruth at Shavuot, Lamentations on Tisha B'av, Ecclesiastes at Sukkot (I wrote a piece once about that; I posted it last month... I should dig for it), and, of course, Esther at Purim.

And the third group is.. well, "Miscellaneous" -- Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah, and Chronicles.

So... that's the WRITTEN half of Jewish scripture. Your average Jew is going to be pretty familiar with the Five Books, because we read it end to end every year, know chunks of Nev'iim, but not necessarily in order, because they're read as the Haftara, know the Megilot, because those are parts of specific holidays, know various psalms, but may be more or less familiar with different ones, and know bits of the other books.

Then we get to the ORAL half.

These days, the Oral Torah is no longer oral. Just before the destruction of the First Temple, as it became clear that things were getting bad, the rabbis decided to actually write the stuff down, to make it easier to preserve if the people whose job it was to memorize the stuff were killed. It was a controversial move, but, given that we still HAVE the Oral Torah, it was pretty clearly the right call.

The written-down version of the oral Torah is called the Mishna. But the Mishna is only the center core. It's dense, and not terribly understandable on its own. It supposed to be the starting point for discussion, rather than being the whole thing itself.

So, they include some of the discussion. Around the Mishna, you have the Gemara, which are transcripts and summaries of discussions the Sages had about the Mishna, including questions they raised, and rulings they made about the laws, which form a chain of legal precedents. It also includes stories, legends, parables, a little bit of snark and shitposting about each other, some bad medical advice, some okay medical advice, and a couple recipes.

The Mishna and Gemara together form the Talmud. And your average Jew is far less familiar with the Talmud than with the Written Torah. Most of us are willing to let rabbis just deal with that stuff -- it's dense and complicated. If we have questions, most of us will just as a rabbi and let THEM deal with it

Me, I know a couple cool stories from here and there in it, but don't really have any significant understanding of it. I mentioned in comments the story of the "snake oven" in Bava Metzia 59b, which involves an argument about whether a stove is kosher, a hopping carob tree, a voice from heaven, the destruction of a third of the crops in the country, the role of humanity and the role of heaven in administration of the law, and the death of the leader of the country as a result of hurt feelings. But the important part of the story is about how to be polite.

And then there's my FAVORITE bit, from Bava Batra 23b -- they're discussing the rule that, if you've got a dovecote, and a fledgling dove is hopping around on the ground near it, if it's within fifty cubits of the dovecote, it belongs to the owner of the dovecote, and if it's outside, it belongs to the person who found it.
"Rabbi Yirmeya raises a dilemma: If one leg of the chick was within fifty cubits of the dovecote, and one leg was beyond fifty cubits, what is the halakha? The Gemara comments: And it was for his question that they removed Rabbi Yirmeya from the study hall."

But, of course -- Jewish law and scripture doesn't stop there with the compilation of the Gemara. As Naomi Lebowitz Sipple pointed out, a major purpose of the Gemara is to show how we're supposed to hold these arguments. That's not the stopping point. We're supposed to keep going. So we have commentaries on the commentaries, and commentaries on THOSE. We have letters which form precedents, and different communities who make different rulings on things. And it keeps going, and going, and will CONTINUE to keep going, forever.

Posted at https://xiphias.dreamwidth.org/803956.html; you can comment there or here. There are comment count unavailable comments over there.

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