For thousands of years, Jewish people have recorded their history, poetry, parables, and discourses. These writings span lifetimes, forging a connection to generations who came before.
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Holy texts include:
- The Hebrew Bible (also known as the Tanakh) — Contains the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), the Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, etc.) and the Writings (Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Job, Esther, etc.)
- The Mishnah — Written versions of Jewish oral tradition
- The Talmud — Rabbinical debates and commentary about a wide range of topics
- The Midrash — Biblical interpretations and commentary
To explore the Jewish library in depth, see the nonprofit site Sefaria, which is an enormous repository of Jewish texts. We also recommend the book Judaism Without Tribalism: A Guide to Being a Blessing to All the Peoples of the Earth by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, which exemplifies an expansive take on the tradition.
How Do We Know What Is Wise?
Hillel the Elder, a Jewish religious leader who lived in the 1st century BCE, was once visited by a man who said that he’d convert to Judaism if Hillel could recite the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel replied, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.”
We use this same view when it comes to finding Judaic wisdom — or wisdom anywhere, for that matter. If a passage or story aligns with a sense of boundless compassion, it is wise. If a passage or story doesn’t align with a sense of boundless compassion (and many passages in ancient stories, including passages attributed to the divine don’t), it isn’t wise. It might be a cultural story, but it’s not wise.
Selected Wisdom Passages from the Hebrew Bible
All selections come from The Contemporary Torah from the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), which is generally regarded as the standard translation of the Hebrew Bible.
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” — Exodus 23:9
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people. Love your fellow as yourself.” — Leviticus 19:18
“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” — Leviticus 23:22
“Wisdom is more precious than rubies.” — Proverbs 3:15
“Speak up, judge righteously,
Champion the poor and the needy.” — Proverbs 31:9
“Only to do justice
And to love goodness.” — Micah 6:8
Stories From the Hebrew Bible
The Hebrew Bible tells the story of a people called the Israelites, a word which comes from a scene where a man named Jacob wrestles all night with deity and is then given the new name of Israel, a word which means “one who wrestles with God.”
Viewed in this way, the Hebrew Bible is about a group of “God-wrestlers,” people who are perpetually wrestling with and struggling to understand the divine. (In other words: human beings.)
Part of the lasting appeal of the Hebrew Bible is that it tells stories of flawed people who are trying to make sense of a brutal and confusing world. From Abraham to Moses and beyond, men and women exhibit a full range of human emotions and behaviors. The text is remarkable in its complexity — refusing at every turn to reduce anyone into a one-dimensional hero or villain.
**A Note About the Names of God**
We want to offer parents a way to read the stories of the Hebrew Bible alongside stories from other traditions. As such, we’ve chosen to use the word Yahweh (pronounced “Yah-way”) to refer to deity in this text — a word that is commonly used in academic circles and which situates the stories in their particular cultural context.
Yahweh comes from the story of Moses and the Burning Bush when Moses is told to tell the Israelites that YHVH (or YHWH) sent him. Since YHVH is unpronounceable variation of the Hebrew verb “to be,” it is rendered as Adonai, or LORD when the text is read out loud. Yahweh, then, is another invented attempt to pronounce the unpronounceable. For better or for worse (depending on who you ask), the word has gained acceptance in most academic circles.
We’ve made the choice to use Yahweh so you can read the text as literature, giving you the freedom to let your kids know that these stories were written by people who 1) often disagreed with each other about who Yahweh was, and 2) often justified harmful and unwise actions by attributing them to Yahweh. We believe using the word Yahweh opens up a healthy gap for you to explore as a family what is divine and what isn’t within the text.
That said, you might prefer God or LORD or Elohim or YHVH (or a variety of each, depending on the original use of certain root words in the text). We encourage you to choose the word that works best for you.
These retellings will help your kids quickly and simply learn these famous and — often morally ambiguous — cultural stories. You can use our discussion questions if you’d like or just enjoy the stories as they are.
Note that this is a work in progress.
- Genesis (Adam & Eve, Noah, Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebekah, Jacob & Leah & Rachel, Joseph)
- Exodus (Moses, Aaron)
- Joshua (Joshua, Rahab)
- Judges (Deborah, Gideon, Samson)
- Ruth (Ruth and Naomi)
- Samuel (Samuel, Saul, Jonathan, David, Absalom)
- Kings (Solomon, Jeroboam, Elijah, Elisha)
- Additional Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jonah, etc.)
- Esther (Esther)
- Job (Job)