Basic Reading in Judaism

 Recommended Reading: Books about Judaism

C.M. Hoffman Teach Yourself Judaism, Hodder, 2nd edition 2008. ISBN 978-0-340-96881-9

This is a very well written survey of the basic facts and issues about Judaism. It comes from a British author and so, not surprisingly, many of the issues discussed are illustrated from a British Jewish perspective.

Hoffman is not Jewish, but an academic expert on Judaism. She therefore has no axe to grind regarding differences of opinion on Jewish issues. She draws on her extensive contacts in Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish circles to present a balanced picture of contemporary Jewish life in a community which is long established and (mostly) ‘at home’ in the mainstream culture, i.e. ‘normal’ Jews.

Eli Barnavi (ed.) A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, Schocken Books, revised edition 2002. ISBN 0-8052-4226-0.

Jewish history spans more than three millennia and most parts of the world. It is an extraordinary saga set forth pictorially in this comprehensive, and richly illustrated volume. With brilliantly detailed maps, photos, and drawings, and chronologies and commentaries by leading experts, this revised edition is a very engaging read. Virtually all the key elements of Jewish history and culture are examined: from pre-history through the Biblical period, exile and diaspora to the modern Middle East.

Each pair of pages covers a single topic or two related topics, clearly indicated in page titles. The editors have struck a very fine balance between text and illustrations. There is sufficient written material to give the reader a brief, but adequate, outline of each topic. This text is balanced and enhanced by a very thoughtful selection of illustrations.

The volume has an extensive index and a very useful glossary to help the reader with unfamiliar terms. Oddly, the three-page table of contents is at the back of the book rather than at the front.

Anita Diamant Living A Jewish Life: Jewish traditions, customs and values for today’s families, Collins, 2007 (revised edition). ISBN 978-0-06-117364-6.

Anita Diamant is widely known as author of a best selling novel, The Red Tent. However, she has written a number of books on Jewish life in present-day America. These books are very much in the style of ‘how to’ manuals. This book follows the pattern of explaining the ‘why’s and wherefores’ of being Jewish in an open society.

Like Hoffman’s ‘Teach Yourself’ book, Diamant draws on the experience of the Jewish life lived in her surroundings, Boston and the North Eastern United States.

Ronald Eisenberg The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, Jewish Publication Society, 2004. ISBN-10: 0827607601 & ISBN-13: 978-0827607606

The publisher’s introduction printed on the dust jacket of this book asks:

Have you ever wondered …

Why ten people are required for a minyan?

Why a wedding ceremony is conducted under a chuppah?

Why the kaddish became an important part of the service?

Why the mezuzah is affixed to the door at an angle?

What is the traditional Jewish view on euthanasia and assisted suicide?

This book is part of the acclaimed Jewish Publication Society Desk Reference series.

It is divided into four sections:

  1.  Life cycle Events
  2.  Sabbath and Festivals
  3.  Synagogue and Prayer
  4. Miscellany (this includes food, animals, magic and superstition).

The surprising fact about this excellent, complete single volume reference book about Jewish traditions, beliefs and attitudes is that it was not written by a rabbi or a university academic. Ronald Eisenberg is a radiologist and a qualified attorney. But I defy you to find a more clearly written book, reflecting a range of Jewish views.

The Jewish Study Bible: by Adele Berlin (Editor), Marc Zvi Brettler (Editor), Michael Fishbane (Editor) Oxford University Press, 2004.

The Oxford University Press has produced an outstanding single volume published as The Jewish Study Bible. This work contains the most up to date English translation of the entire TaNaKh, or Hebrew Bible. Each book of the Bible is given its own introduction by a leading scholar in the field. There is a wide-ranging running commentary in the margin which draws upon the best of ancient, medieval and modern insights into the text. This is necessary because the Bible is not a collection of books which can simply be read, they must be studied in order to enter and appreciate the multi-faceted worlds in which this literature was created.

If this were all that there was to recommend the Jewish Study Bible, it would be a very fine investment, worth every cent. However, at towards the end of the volume there are two hundred and sixty pages of essays on virtually every scholarly topic in modern Biblical studies.

To help the reader further there are twenty five black and white maps and diagrams, plus other full-colour maps, charts and diagrams, tables and chronologies, a calendar and a timeline. The combination of all of this material in one volume makes it an unrivalled and source book of the Bible and about the Bible.

This list is not exhaustive. There are many other good books covering a wide range of topics of Jewish interest. Rabbi Ash will be happy to suggest other publications or advise you on books you may already own.