What is the Tanakh

The Tanakh is made up of the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuv’im. The Tanakh is the basis of understanding the laws, philosophy, and history of Judaism. As such, studying the Tanakh is the first step to understanding the whole of Judaism.

The Tanakh is divided into three sections: Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuv’im.

The Torah (the Five Books of Moses) (תורה) is made up of five books that were given to Moses directly from God shortly after the Exodus from Egypt around 1230BCE. The Written Torah was handed down through the successive generations from the time of Moses.

Books of the Torah

  • Bereishit (Genesis) – written by Moshe
  • Shemot (Exodus) – written by Moshe
  • Vayikra (Leviticus) – written by Moshe
  • Bamidbar (Numbers) – written by Moshe
  • Devarim (Deuteronomy) – written by Moshe

The Nevi’im (נביאים) (Prophets) covers the time period from the death of Moses through the Babylonian exile (ca.1200BCE-587BCE) and contains 19 books. The Nevi’im covers the time from the Hebrews entering the Land of Israel, conquest of Jericho, conquest of the Land of Israel and its division among the tribes, judicial system, Era of Saul and David, Solomon’s wisdom and the construction of the First Temple, kings of the Land of Israel, prophecy, messianic prophecies, and the Babylonian exile.

Books of the Nevi’im

  • Nevi’im Rishonim (Early Prophets)
    • Yehoshua (Joshua) – written by Yehoshua
    • Shoftim (Judges) – written by the Shoftim
    • Shmu’el (Samuel) – written by Shmu’el
    • Melakhim (Kings) – written by the Melakhim
  • Nevi’im Aharonim (Latter Prophets)
    • Yeshayahu (Isaiah) – written by Yeshayahu
    • Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) – written by Yirmiyahu
    • Yechezkiel (Ezekiel) – written by Yechezkiel
  • Trei Asar (Twelve Prophets)
    • Hoshea (Hosea) – written by Hoshea
    • Yoel (Joel) – written by Yoel
    • ‘Amos (Amos) – written by ‘Amos
    • Ovadiah (Obadiah) – written by Ovadiah
    • Yonah (Jonah) – “written by Yonah
    • Michah (Micah) – written by Michah
    • Nachum (Nahum) – written by Nachum
    • Chavakuk (Habakkuk) – written by Chavakuk
    • Tzefaniah (Zephaniah) – written by Tzefaniah
    • Chaggai (Haggai) – written by Chaggai
    • Zechariah (Zechariah) – written by Zechariah
    • Malachi (Malachi) – written by Malachi

The Ketuv’im (כתובם) (Writings) covers the period after the return from the Babylonian exile (6th century BCE) and contains 12 books. The Ketuvim is made up of various writings that do not have an overall theme. This section of the Tanakh includes poems and songs, the stories of Job, Ruth, and Esther, the writings and prophecies of Daniel, and the history of the kings of the Land of Israel.

Books of the Ketuv’im

  • Tehillim (Psalms) – written by David, Solomon, Moshe, Jeduthun, Korach, Asaph, Sons of Korach, Heman, Ethan/Abraham, Melchizedek
  • Mishlei (Proverbs) – written by Solomon
  • Iyov (Job) –written by Moses
  • Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) – written by Solomon
  • Rut (Ruth) – written by Samuel
  • Eichah (Lamentations) – written by Jeremiah
  • Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) – written by Solomon
  • Ester (Esther) – written by Mordechai
  • Dani’el (Daniel) – written by Daniel
  • Ezra (Ezra) – written by Ezra
  • Nechemiah (Nehemiah) –written by Ezra
  • Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles) – written by Ezra

The Tanakh is also called Miqra (meaning “reading” or “that which is read”). The three-part division reflected in the acronym “Tanakh” is well attested to in documents from the Second Temple period. During that period, however, “Tanakh” was not used as a word or term. Instead, the proper title was Miqra, because the biblical texts were read publicly. Miqra continues to be used in Hebrew to this day alongside Tanakh to refer to the Hebrew scripture. In modern spoken Hebrew both are used interchangeably.

The Tanakh was not originally broken into chapter and verses. The idea of chapter and verses – as well as the breaking apart of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles – is a leftover from Christians in the 13th century. The chapter divisions and verse numbers have no significance in the Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, they are noted in all modern editions of the Tanakh so that verses may be located and cited. The division of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles into parts I and II is also indicated on each page of those books in order to prevent confusion about whether a chapter number is from part I or II, since the chapter numbering for these books follows their partition in the Christian textual tradition. The adoption of the Christian chapter divisions by Jews began in the late Middle Ages in Spain, partially in the context of forced clerical debates (the debates required a common system for citing biblical texts) which took place against a background of harsh persecution and of the Spanish Inquisition.

From the standpoint of the Jewish textual tradition, the chapter divisions are not only a foreign feature with no basis in the mesorah (tradition) but are also open to severe criticism of three kinds:
-The chapter divisions often reflect Christian exegesis of the Bible.
-Even when they do not imply Christian exegesis, the chapters often divide the biblical text at numerous points that may be deemed inappropriate for literary or other reasons.
-They ignore the accepted closed and open space divisions which are based on the mesorah.

Nevertheless, because they proved useful for citations, they are often included in most Hebrew editions of the biblical books.

A parsha formally means a section of a biblical book in the Masoretic text of the Tanakh. In common usage today the word often refers to the Weekly Torah portion.

The weekly Torah portion is a section of the Torah read during Shabbat services. In Judaism, the Torah is read publicly over the course of a year, with one major portion read each week in the Shabbat morning service. Each weekly Torah portion adopts its name from one of the first unique word or words in the Hebrew text. Dating back to the time of the Babylonian captivity (6th Century BCE), public Torah reading mostly followed an annual cycle beginning and ending on Simchat Torah, with the Torah divided into 54 weekly portions to correspond to the Hebrew calendar. There was also an ancient triennial cycle of readings which was established by the Egyptian and Palestinian Jewish communities.

In the masoretic text, parasha sections are designated by various types of spacing between them, as found in:

  • Torah scrolls
  • Scrolls of the books of Nevi’im or Ketuvim (especially megillot)
  • Masoretic codices from the Middle Ages
  • Printed editions of the Masoretic text.

The division of the text into parashiot for the biblical books is independent of chapter and verse numbers, which are not part of the Masoretic tradition. Parashiot are not numbered, but some have special titles. The division of parashiot found in the modern-day Torah scrolls of all Jewish communities is based upon the systematic list provided by Maimonides in his section of the Mishneh Torah known as the Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Torah Scrolls. Maimonides based his division of the parashiot for the Torah on the Aleppo Codex.

The division of parashiot for the books of Nevi’im and Ketuvim was never completely standardized in printed Hebrew bibles and handwritten scrolls, though important attempts were made to document it and create fixed rules.

A parsha break creates a textual pause, roughly analogous to a modern paragraph break. Such a pause usually has one of the following purposes:

  1. In most cases, a new parasha begins where a new topic or a new thought is clearly indicated in the biblical text.
  2. In many places, however, the parasha divisions are used even in places where it is clear that no new topic begins, in order to highlight a special verse by creating a textual pause before it or after it (or both).
  3. A special example of #2 is for lists: The individual elements in many biblical lists are separated by parasha spacing of one type or another.

To decide exactly where a new topic or thought begins within a biblical text involves a degree of subjectivity on the part of the reader. This subjective element may help explain differences amongst the various Masoretic codices in some details of the section divisions (though it should be emphasized that their degree of conformity is high).

The idea of spacing between portions is mentioned in Midrashic literature, and the idea of “open” and “closed” portions is mentioned in the Talmud. Early Masoretic lists detailing the Babylonian tradition include systematic and detailed discussion of exactly where portions begin and which type they are. Tiberian Masoretic codices have similar but not identical parasha divisions throughout the Bible. Unlike the Babylonian Mesorah, however, Tiberian Masoretic notes never mention the parasha divisions or attempt to systematize them. This is related to the fact that the Babylonian lists are independent compositions, while the Tiberian notes are in the margins of the biblical text itself, which shows the parashiot in a highly visible way. In the centuries following the Tiberian Mesorah, there were ever-increasing efforts to document and standardize the details of the parasha divisions, especially for the Torah, and even for Nevi’im and Ketuvim as time went on.

In most modern Torah scrolls and Jewish editions of the Bible, there are two types of parashiot: An “open portion” and a “closed portion.” An “open portion” is roughly similar to a modern paragraph: The text of the previous portion ends before the end of the column (leaving a space at the end of the line), and the new “open” portion starts at the beginning of the next line (but with no indentation). A “closed portion”, on the other hand, leaves a space in the middle of the line of text, where the previous portion ends before the space, and the next portion starts after it, towards the end of the line of text. An “open portion” is often abbreviated with the Hebrew letter “פ” (peh), and a “closed portion” with the Hebrew letter “ס” (samekh). Rough English equivalents are “P” and “S” respectively.

In Masoretic codices and in medieval scrolls, these two spacing techniques allowed for a larger range of options:

  • An “open portion” always started at the beginning of a new line. This could happen the way already described, but also by leaving a blank line between the two portions, thus allowing the previous portion to sometimes entirely fill its last line of text.
  • A “closed portion” never began at the beginning of a line. This could happen as in modern scrolls (a space in the middle of a line), but also by the previous portion ending before the end of the line, and the new portion beginning on the next line after an indentation.

Most printed Hebrew bibles today represent the parashiot using the more limited techniques found in typical modern Torah scrolls: A space in the middle of a line for a closed portion, and beginning at the start of the next line for an open portion (not a blank line).

Medieval Ashkenazic sources beginning with the Mahzor Vitry also refer to a third spacing technique called a parasha sedurah. This involved starting a new parasha at the same point in the line where the previous parasha ended on the line above.

Due to the influence of Maimonides, the parsha divisions in the Torah have become highly standardized, and there is close to exact agreement amongst Torah scrolls, printed Jewish bibles, and similar online texts.


David Stein (ed.). JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999.

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