In a typical yeshiva curriculum, one traditionally concentrates on Talmud study with less emphasis on Bible study. As one swims through the great ocean of the Talmud, however, one regularly encounters verses from Scripture, which often entails looking up the original source. But short of such intermittent encounters, many yeshiva students aren’t very familiar with the Bible.
I was once sitting on a plane when I overheard two Christian girls behind me discussing the Bible. One asked the other if she’d read the “Good Book.” The other responded that she had indeed read it a number of times.
When I heard that, I was overwhelmed with feelings of lowliness. Here are these two young ladies who had both read the Bible multiple times, and I, a rabbi, hadn’t made my way through our Written Law even once! I immediately resolved to start learning Tanach (Bible) on a regular basis.
Yeshiva-curriculum issues aside, why don’t more Jews read the Bible?
The Megillah states, “The king removed his signet ring from his hand and he gave it to Haman.”
Rabbi Aba bar Kahana taught: The removal of this ring was more powerful than the forty eight prophets and seven prophetesses who prophesied to Israel, none of whom were able to return them to righteousness; whereas the removal of the ring returned them to righteousness.”
The Rabbis taught: Forty eight prophets and seven prophetesses prophesied to Israel and did not detract from nor add to that which is written in the Torah, except for the reading of the Megillah.
How did they expound this obligation? Rabbi Chiya bar Avin quoted Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha who explains, “If we sang a song at the Red Sea when we were taken from slavery to freedom, should we not offer praise for being taken from death to life?”
The Gemara asks: Were there no more than forty eight prophets and seven prophetesses? Is it not written in the Book of Samuel, “There was one man from the Ramasayim-Tzofim,” which is interpreted to mean ‘one of the two hundred (masayim) seers (tzofim) who prophesied to Israel?
The Gemara answers: There were indeed many more prophets, as the Beraisa teaches, “Many prophets arose among Israel, double the number of those who left Egypt. However, the prophecy that was needed for all future generations was recorded in Scripture, and that which was unnecessary was not recorded.”
The reason many of us are not conversant in the Bible is that we read through it and we find it arcane, complex and perceive it to be written to an audience thousands of years ago. We read the prophecies of Jeremiah and we think he was talking to the Jews prior to the destruction of the First Temple. We read the Book of Ezra and we think that it’s a story of the return from Babylonia, something that happened long ago, way in the past.
But the Talmud teaches that any prophecy that is recorded in Scripture is “needed for all future generations!” If it’s in the Book, then it’s relevant to us! Our challenge is to read the Tanach with enough depth and concentration, together with our classic commentators, to develop the insight to apply the prophets’ messages to our lives today.
Torah comes from the word horaah, meaning instruction or lesson. The Torah is not a storybook; it is an instruction manual for how we are to live. The Written Torah consists not just of the Chumash (Pentateuch), but of the entire Tanach – the Torah, Prophets and Scriptures. It’s all relevant, the lessons and instructions throughout Tanach were recorded for posterity because they contain an important message for all generations. But if you don’t read it, you can’t hear the message.
Read the Bible! Start by taking an English Tanach and devoting ten minutes a day to simply reading through it. You will finish it in less than a year. Next year, read some of it each day in the Hebrew. After that you can add commentaries to ensure you are getting the accurate interpretation and not misunderstanding G-d’s Word. But most importantly, after you’ve read it, throughout your day, think about the message of the prophecy you’ve read and how it is relevant to your life today!