People of the Book(s)

Get your SKINNY on in less time than it takes to buckle your ski boots.


(the pitch)

Last week, our peeps seed-funded and constructed the first pop-up synagogue called the mishkan (me-sh-kahn). It was a place for God’s presence to dwell and for people to perform religious ceremonies. Team SKINNY heard they didn’t charge for tickets to High Holiday services either! (If you were hitting the slopes on President’s Day and missed the mishkan-building, we’ll wait while you catch up.) This week’s Torah reading, Tetzaveh (tets-ah-veh) means You command! because God had spent way too much time in the Bossy Girls’ Club and commanded Moses to tell us what to do with the mishkan. First, God said to put EVOO into a candle holder every evening to set some mood lighting. Then, the holy priests – called Kohanim (co-ha-neem) – were told how to dress. Kohanim were the descendants of Aaron – Moses’ brother. Their role was to perform religious services in the mishkan and they dressed in regal clothing while on the job. The Torah scroll is wrapped with royal embellishments, based in part on Kohanim’s clothes. Jews with the last name Cohen get bragging rights as it’s told they’re descendants of the Kohanim. After reading the NYT’s Sunday Style section, God then detailed instructions for the 7-day initiation of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. (Do you finally believe us about Lucky #7!?)


(the over think)

The Kohanim got to dress in cool robes and perform rituals in the mishkan, but they didn’t have a monopoly on Jewish knowledge and study. Torah isn’t exclusive to the priestly class. In Judaism, everyone is supposed to be in-the-know. And we’re supposed to start the learning early. It’s a tradition for parents to teach their children to say this sentence as their first words: Torah tziva (ts-i-vah) lanu (lah-noo) Moshe (Moe-sheh), morasha (more-ah-shah) kehilat (ke-he-lot) Yaakov (yah-ah-cove), which is a lot of Hebrew all at once, even for an adult. It translates to: Torah was commanded to us through Moses and is the inheritance of every Jew. It means: Don’t view the Torah and Judaism as a burden, but as a rich inheritance. Smarty-scholars who lived a long time ago had a lot to say about the importance of study. Rambam (rahm-bahm), who was a prominent medieval Jewish theologian, wrote that we should schedule Torah study into our lives the same way we block off time in our Outlook calendar for Soul Cycle. (We’re paraphrasing here, but you get the gist.) Rabbi Hillel, who lived in the 1st century and was one of the most respected religious scholars in Jewish history, had a carpe diem attitude about Torah study. He advised: “Don’t say, ‘I will learn when I have the time,’ because you may never have it.” Rambam added: “A parent shouldn’t ignore her/his own Torah study. Just as it’s a commandment to educate our children, so too are parents commanded to educate themselves.” Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, whose name is so hard to pronounce he’s better known as the Kotzker (coat-tzer) Rebbe (reh-be) was a scholar who lived from 1787-1859. Had he been alive today, he would’ve been a popular daddy-blogger because he said: “If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself in their presence. They will follow your example. Otherwise, they will not themselves study Torah, but will simply instruct their children to do so.” We get it…Torah study is really essential to being Jewy. Team SKINNY weighs in and says proudly: Reading the SKINNY definitely counts! 


(to be in-the-know)

Studying Torah isn’t just about reading the Five Books of Moses (or the SKINNY for that matter). There are many sacred books in Judaism that cover everything from traditions, holidays, laws, prayer, regulations, prescriptions, and prohibitions – to DIYs on living a meaningful and ethical life. Torah means teaching or instruction, but it means a lot of bigger things too, depending on the context, including the entire body of Jewish sacred books, laws, and teachings. We’re called the “People of the Book” but it really should be plural: “People of the Books” because there are a lot of ‘em. Here’s the SKINNY on the People of the Books’ books:

FIVE BOOKS OF MOSES: In the narrowest sense, when people say: Torah, they’re usually referring to the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) that comprise the starting point for everything in Judaism. If you want to sound like a Torah-scholar, get your scratchy-throat on and call it Chumash (choo-mah-sh), which comes from chamesh (chah-may-sh), the Hebrew word for five. A Chumash usually includes commentaries, interpretations, and translations.

Tanach: Torah also refers to the Tanach (tah-nach – like Bach with an “n”), which is an acronym for Torah (tore-ah), Nevi’im (nev-ee-eem) – Prophets – and Ketuvim (keh-too-veem) – Writings. (SKINNIES who are grammar-geeks: keep reading. Everyone else can skip to the next section.) Since Tanach is an acronym for Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim, you’d expect it to be pronounced TaNaK with a hard “k” at the end for Ketuvim instead of with a scratchy “ch”. The first letter of the word, Ketuvim, is a Kaf. Certain Hebrew letters, including Kaf, can have a dot inside them called a dagesh (dah-gay-sh) that changes their sound. When a Kaf has a dagesh, it sounds like a hard “k” as in cough. Without the dagesh, it’s called Chaf with a scratchy “ch”. What’s more, some Hebrew letters change their sound when the letter occurs at the end of the word. So, Kaf in the word Ketuvim has a dagesh and is pronounced with a hard “k”, but when it shows up as the final letter in the acronym Tanach, it becomes a dot-less Chaf that’s pronounced in all its scratchy glory.

Non-Grammarian SKINNIES resume here:

Torah (the “t” in Tanach) is the Five Books of Moses:
  1. Genesis | Bereisheit (beh-rey-sheet) in Hebrew, means In the Beginning
  2. Exodus | Shemot (sheh-mote) in Hebrew, means The Names
  3. Leviticus | Vayikrah (vie-eek-rah) in Hebrew, means And God Called
  4. Numbers | Bamidbar (Bah-meed-bar) in Hebrew, means In the Desert
  5. Deuteronomy | Devarim (deh-var-eem) in Hebrew, means The Words
For SKINNIES who like to keep track: We’re a little more than half-way through the book of Exodus in this week’s SKINNY.
Nevi’im (the “n” in Tanach) includes the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the 12 Later Prophets. The books are kinda-historical, mostly prophetic, and were intended to teach about morals to our peeps who – at the time – were straying like a cat. (More on these books soon. We pinky promise!)
Ketuvim (the “k” or “ch” in Tanach as those who stayed for the grammar lesson above know) includes…well…additional writings: David’s Psalms, Solomon’s Proverbs, the Five Megillot (meh-gee – like Glee without the “l” – lote) or scrolls (Song of Songs, the Book of Ruth, the Book of Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and the Book of Esther), the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and Chronicles. Like the compilation of books in Nevi’im, these writings are kinda-historical and mostly teach us how-to live an ethical life. (Pinky promise we’ll get to these too!)
MISHNAH (me-sh-nah) is a compilation of the laws and teachings that Moses got from God on Mt. Sinai along with other Jewish gems that collectively are called the Oral Law because our peeps passed them down orally from one generation to the next. The Oral Law was eventually written down in the 3rd century in a document called the Mishnah. It comprises Jewish civil rules on marriage and divorce, property disputes, and theft and ritual practices, like holidays and food.
GEMARA (ge –like get without the “t”– mar-ah) is the commentary and questions on the Mishnah. After the Mishnah went to press, later rabbis read and discussed it a lot and then wrote down their discussions. 
TALMUD (tall-mood) is what we call the Mishnah and Gemara together. There are two versions of the Talmud: the Babylonian and the Jerusalem, which are named for the places where they were written. The Babylonian Talmud is more comprehensive and is the one most people mean when they say: Talmud.
MIDRASH (mid-rah-sh) tries to answer the questions raised by all the other books through allegories and folklore. Judaism not only permits, but encourages Qs. Smarty-scholars throughout Jewish history asked a lot of them and the answers that stuck are collectively known as Midrash, which means search or investigation. There are two branches of Midrashim (mid-rah-sheem; plural of Midrash). The first is called Midrash Halachah (hah-lah-chah – scratch the “ch”), which answer legal questions. Midrash Aggadah (ah-gah-dah) expands on the stories in the Torah and often highlights ethical issues. And new Midrashim continue to be written to this day!
ZOHAR (zo – like go with a “z” – har – like bar with an “h”) is the primary text of Kabbalah (ka-bah-lah), Jewish mystical tradition.



(bookmark. reflect. share.)

Some Jews believe that God gave the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. That is, the Torah is divine revelation. Others assert that the Torah is a compilation of writings by various authors throughout history. Team SKINNY is bi. (Isn’t everybody these days?) We spiritually believe the Torah is a sacred, holy book AND a historical document. We respect the mystery and ambiguity of God in religious thought and honor the human condition to confront and understand that mystery. Team SKINNY thinks uncertainty is part of the adventure of life! What do you believe? Discuss at dinner on Friday night (or any other night).


(to chew on)

  • Jews don’t tend to refer to the Torah as the Old Testament because it implies that there’s a New Testament that supplants it. Put another way: Old Testament denotes that the testament or covenant between God and the Jewish people has been superseded. It’d be like referring to the Old Testament as 1.0 and the New Testament as 2.0. We Jews are quite satisfied with the Torah the way it is, #thankyouverymuch.
  • Reading the Torah and other sacred Jewish books can connect us to our ancestors. More importantly, understanding what the Torah meant to our peeps, observing how that meaning has adapted over time, and then viewing it through the lens of modern times can help us understand and give meaning to our own lives today.