What Do Jews Call the Old Testament?

by John Green
Tanakh is just one of several names for the Hebrew Scriptures.

Tanakh is just one of several names for the Hebrew Scriptures.

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The Old Testament is both a title and a doctrine. In addition to being a name for the Hebrew Scriptures, the term also expresses the Christian belief that the New Testament of Jesus Christ has superseded the covenant between God and Israel. However, Judaism does not share this point of view. Instead, the Jewish community has its own descriptive terms for the Hebrew Scriptures, some of which are as old as the books themselves.

Tanakh

Tanakh is the term now commonly used within Judaism for the collection of books that Christians call the Old Testament. For example, the Jewish Publication Society edition of Hebrew Scriptures is called the Tanakh, which is rooted in the ancient rabbinical commentaries known as the Mishnah and Talmud.

Tanakh Defined

The word "Tanakh" was derived from the first letters of the traditional three divisions within the Hebrew Scriptures: Torah, Nevi'im and Ketuvim. The Torah includes the five books traditionally ascribed to Moses, which are also known as the Pentateuch. The Nevi'im are the Prophets, which includes books named after prophets as well as several historical books from Joshua through Kings. The remaining books constitute the Ketuvim or "Writings," a later collection of historical and prophetic works also known as the Hagiographia.

Miqra'

Another name for the Hebrew Scriptures from rabbinical commentaries that continues to be used interchangeably with Tanakh is Miqra', or “Reading.” As the Encyclopaedia Judaica observes, this name, also spelled Mikra, might also be used in the biblical book of Nehemiah 8:8, which states that Nehemiah caused the Israelites "to understand the reading."

Torah

The word Torah has multiple meanings. As a section of the Tanakh it refers only to the Pentateuch, but Torah can also be synonymous with the Hebrew Scriptures in their entirety. This usage is consistent with the meaning of the word Torah itself, which in Hebrew means "teaching," "doctrine" or "instruction." The broad scope of the word Torah explains why it can also refer to all of Jewish religious instruction, including the Tanakh and rabbinical commentary.

Other Terms

According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, the first name given to the Hebrew Scriptures was Ha-Sefarim, "The Books." This term appears in Daniel 9:2, which states that Daniel "meditated in the Books." Hellenistic Jews translated this term literally into the Greek word for books, "biblia," which in English became the Bible. Other influential ancient terms for the Hebrew Scriptures include Ketvei ha-Kodesh (“The Holy Writings" or "Holy Scriptures") and Sefer ha-Berit ("The Book of the Covenant," or as Berit came to be translated in the Christian Scriptures, “Testament”).

About the Author

John Green is an attorney who has been writing on legal, business and media matters for more than 20 years. He has also taught law school and business courses in entrepreneurship, business enterprise, tax and ethics. Green received his J.D. from Yale Law School and his Ph.D. in religion from Duke.

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