People of the Book

By David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks

We sometimes refer to ourselves as the “people of the book.”  What does this mean and what does it say about who we think we are?

The expression’s origin is not Jewish – it is Islamic.  Ahl al-kitab (Arabic for People of the Book) refers to non-Muslims who adhere to a previous/alternative documented divine revelation – this refers to Jews, Christians, and a few other monotheistic groups from the Middle East in the time of Mohammed.

For us Jews, Am ha-Sefer (People of the Book in Hebrew), refers to THE Book – Torah, which each of us is commanded to study  (“Torah tziva lanu Moshe morashat kehillat Yaakov” – just before Moses dies, we are told that the Torah is commanded to us, that it is our inheritance).

But what does “Torah” mean?  The Torah is five books, the Tanach includes those, plus eight additional books of the prophets and eleven additional books of writings for a total of 24.  But Torah is generally understood to include Torah b’al peh (the oral law) – the Talmud, which includes another 63 tractates. And then there is nearly two millennia of Responsa – a never ending conversation about Torah among rabbis that continues to this day.

For many Jews, People of the Book, goes beyond Bible and Talmud.  Torah began the Jewish love affair with books.  It did not end there.

How do you relate to this idea?