There are some basic concepts in the Jewish scriptures that can be easily overlooked by those who teach Judaism. To many Jews these things are so obvious that they do not need to be described. Perhaps one the most essential of the basics is that of scriptural ranking, or hierarchy of authority, and the relationships of the books to one another. How Jewish tradition fits into scriptural hierarchy can be still more complex, especially when one considers Rabbinical versus Karaite thought.
How does each level of revelation relate to the other revealed books? Do the newer revelations supersede the older? Are they all equal? Do the older revelations supersede the newer? These questions arise from discussions about religious law. Do the Prophets bring us new commandments or only explanations of the existing ones? Should we draw laws, doctrines, and practices from these later revelations?
For many who are interested in learning about Judaism, some basics may elude them. For example, Christianity and Judaism arrange the Bible differently. Christianity orders what they call the “Old Testament” differently. Jews order the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) according to a specific hierarchy: the Torah contains the books of B’reishit (Genesis), Shemot (Exodus), Vayikra (Leviticus), Bemidbar (Numbers), and Devarim (Deuteronomy), the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. These books tell us that they are divine revelation given directly to Moshe (Moses) by Hashem. There are stories included of our ancestors the Patriarchs, Moshe, and the Israelites who departed Egypt. The commandments are then laid out, complete with human institutions of authority, ritual practice, and rules that must be observed in civil society. We learn of the Israelites in the desert and their difficulties observing the laws. In Devarim (Deuteronomy) Hashem reiterates the laws through Moshe and gives the Israelites their marching orders for entering the Holy Land and laws specific to settled societies.
Aside from being the divine revelation of Hashem, the Torah tells us several other things that help us understand the relationship between those books and the remainder of the scripture. First, the Torah tells us, in Devarim 4:2, that we should not add to nor subtract from the commandments written in the Torah. Karaite Jews argue that the Rabbis who wrote the Talmud added to and subtracted from the written Torah and that there is no “Oral Torah”.
The Torah also tells us in Devarim 34:10 that there has never been a prophet like Moshe, who had a direct relationship with Hashem. We are told that Hashem will send us prophets with messages for us after the time of the Torah. In Devarim 18:20-22, we are instructed that if a man claims to be a prophet and foretells a sign that does not appear, then we are not to fear him or treat him as a prophet. In Devarim 13:2-6 we are further given that if a prophet comes forward and gives a sign or prediction that comes to pass, but then leads us away after false deities, not only should we not follow him, we are commanded to put him to death!
We may not add to the Torah, there has never been a prophet like Moshe, false prophets who try to amend our beliefs are to be ignored or punished. Therefore, we may understand that the written Torah is complete, thorough, and gives sufficient instruction that the men so authorized by it–the Kohanim (Priests), Leviim, Sarim (ministers; judges), the King or Shofet (ruler, chieftain), Elders and Hackamim (wise men; leaders)–to provide traditions and practices that expand upon what is written and provide explanations, regulations, and organization for the community. What follows these books is our history, the words of men given messages from Hashem directed to the Israelites in a specific time and context, and in specific circumstances.
One cannot observe the Torah only, without any additional scriptures. Why? Because the Torah says that
- The Israelites will enter the land and possess it implying that the stories of this conquest will follow;
- The Torah tells us that Hashem will choose a place to set His name, a location for the Temple and it follows that this would be included in further works; and
- The Torah tells us that Hashem will send prophets and that eventually there will be kings, implying that these, too, will be written of and recorded for posterity.
If we do not recognize any further books, then we must ask whether the Israelites actually occupied the Holy Land, who was the referenced great king, where Hashem chose to set His name, and what messages future prophets might have brought.
A person who believes Torah and not in the subsequent books will differ in their beliefs and practices to a significant degree from those who observe the entire Tanakh; much as our friends the Shomronim (Samaritans) believe. They do not accept books after Yehoshua (Joshua). The poetic metaphors of the Prophets, the choice of Jerusalem as the holy city, the return from the Chaldean (Babylonian) Exile, and visions of the Maccabee Revolt are all contained in the Neviim (Prophets) and Kethuvim (Writings). These are just some of the effects of choosing which “Bible” to follow. These additional scriptures also play an important role in reinforcing the Torah. Yet, would anyone argue that a Prophet like Yeshaiyahu (Isaiah) is equal to Moshe (Moses)? Surely, Moshe is the greatest Prophet! The Torah clearly states that there can be no prophet like him. The messages of the later prophets apply the revelations already given to Moshe to the circumstances of later times.
There is a clear hierarchy among the scriptures: the Torah describes the origins of our people, lays out a constitution and covenant between Hashem and the Holy Nation of Israel. It provides ample guidance for communities and individuals to live clean, healthy, and decent lives. The Torah was given to Moshe, the greatest Prophet, who led our people out of Egypt after Hashem devastated that country with plagues. The written Torah is at the center of Jewish religion and supersedes all other revelation. Everything that follows from the one written Torah is subordinate to it. Later books and scholars may reference the Torah, reinforce it, and may offer the messages the Torah states will be forthcoming. Nothing substantial may be added to our faith or beliefs, no new commandments may be issued nor may commandments be disestablished. All revelation must follow in the vein of the themes set forth in the Torah.
The Neviim (Prophets, Histories)
The Neviim (Prophets) contain the books of Yehoshua (Joshua), Shoftim (Judges [Judges, Rulers, Chieftains]), 1st and 2nd Shmuel (Samuel), 1st and 2nd Melekhim (Kings), Yeshaiyahu (Isaiah), Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah), Yekhezkel (Ezekiel), Hosea, Amos, Ovadiah (Obadiah), Yonah (Jonah), Micah, Nahum, Habbakkuk, Zephaniyah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. These offer explanations of the laws and practices under the Torah and include the history of the Israelites. They contain no new commandments but only explanations of those already given in the Torah and exhortations to the Israelites to observe them.
From these books we learn that the Israelites did enter the Holy Land and occupy it, although they quickly descended into idolatry; that Hashem chose Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) as the Holy City and the threshing floor of Arunah, the former Yebusite King, as the place where He would set His name. Hashem choose King David and his descendants as the rulers of the people. These complete matters left open in the Torah.
After this, these books are primarily the history of the application of the laws contained in the Torah and failure of the Israelites to follow them. Thus, when Yeshaiyahu (Isaiah) 58:13 says:
“If you will not turn away your foot from observing the Shabbat, turn away from pursuing your business on My holy day; and call the Shabbat a delight, and the holy of YHVH honourable; and shall honour it, not doing your preferred ways, nor pursuing your business, nor speaking of it;”
Is this a new commandment about Shabbat observance or simply an explanation of how the Shabbat that is commanded in the Torah is supposed to be observed? I argue for the latter case. There are no new commandments in the Neviim (Prophets) simply further explanation of how to observe those listed in the written Torah.
The prophets interpreted what they witnessed from historical events and gave messages from Hashem based upon their understandings of what He wanted in light of the Torah. The Navi (prophet) was a status and an office in the Unified Kingdom and in the northern kingdom of Israel. A prophet was religious officer whose job it was to explain events that took place and why Hashem had caused them to happen. If people witnessed these events without explanations of how those events reflected the will of Hashem they might have abandoned their faith. The prophets taught the Israelites to turn tragedies into positive changes and explained current events and those on the horizon. The war with Assyria, for example, gave cause for the citizens of the southern kingdom to return to the proper observance of the Torah during the reign of King Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah).
In Yiremyahu (Jeremiah) 26:18 states that the Prophet Micah had prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem if the Israelites did not reform and return to the law. King Hizkiyahu did, and thus Yiremyahu explains that this prophecy of Micah was averted. It was thus understood that the prophecies given in those times were meant to come to pass within the life of the Prophet himself or within a few years thereafter. Prophecies could be both averted and fulfilled. Micah’s prophecy did eventually come to pass in a way when the Chaldeans (Babylonians) conquered and destroyed Jerusalem.
Devarim (Deuteronomy) chapter 28 lays out blessings for those who observe the law and curses for those who do not. The Prophets take this concept and expand upon it in the imagery of the times in which they live. This is the cycle of exile and return that Hashem promised in Torah.
It has been noted that here and there the Prophets appear to issue commandments to the Israelites to whom they are speaking. In fact, these instructions or directives are not separate or new commandments, but refer back to those contained in the Torah. A prophet holds authority only in consequence of the Torah in the first place An instruction regarding fasting or a prohibition against praying toward the sun, these are instructions given in consequence of Torah practices. The Torah, by the fact of referring to them, makes it clear that the words of Prophets are to be heeded. It can then be understood that the Prophets do not give new commandments, but instructions or directives provided for under commandments already issued in the Torah.
The Kethuvim (Writings)
The Kethuvim likewise contain no new commandments and do not contain any new doctrinal points. Only the holiday of Purim is derived from Esther which is treated like a national holiday by Karaite Jews today. The Kethuvim (writings) adds material for prayers, ancient wisdoms, additional thoughts and the history of the Jewish People during the Exile and after their return. They teach us today about our history, give us philosophical suggestions, and offer the beauty of poetic verse.
While there are no new doctrinal points or commandments given in the Kethuvim they do expand upon concepts begun in the Torah. The Torah discusses philosophy in some areas, speaks of wisdom, and provides that the priests and later authorities will provide for ritual practices including prayers and supplications. Works like Tehilim (Psalms), Mishley (Proverbs), and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) expand upon these ideas and provide prayers, precepts to enlighten our lives, and explanations of Hashem’s construction of existence. These works also expand upon the ideas of the Prophets who likewise speak of philosophy and try to impart wisdom. In essence these draw back to the basic foundations provided in Torah: live a disciplined life of decency, kindness, and being servient to Hashem.
Karaite Tradition and Practice
Upon these scriptures can be built traditions and practices. The Torah establishes a priesthood, religious courts, and a Torah government to enact the laws by providing the requisite details of daily life and practice. The Prophets mention many such practices and traditions as they describe the good and the bad of their particular times. Traditions and practices are thus integral parts of the scriptures, as they build upon the laws to create a daily life and practice. Ancient Israelites observed these traditions as priestly statutes, court precedent, and as administrative law. Today, these institutions no longer exist, which reverts the control of traditions to the respected elders and Hakhamim (wisemen) of each separate community and those respected by the community as a whole. Karaite Judaism is thus led by Hakhamim (wisemen), who earn their leadership role through scholarship and learning of the law, and by earning the respect of the members of the community. Over the course of the past 12 centuries, Karaite Hakhamim have build a rich tradition for Karaism. To learn more about Karaite tradition click here.
Great care must be taken to be certain that traditions do not come into conflict with what is written in the Torah. In Karaism we live by the axiom “search well the scriptures and rely on no man’s opinion [as definite].” This oft misunderstood phrase means that we would never hold any individual person’s opinion over what is written. Nevertheless, we do hold that every commandment can have but a single proper interpretation. A community cannot function where thousands of individuals interpret several commandments in various ways. As an example, the Torah tells us not to eat any hamets during the Chag Hamatsot (the seven days of Pesach). How do we define hamets? Our sages define it as leavened bread. This definition allows the community to observe the law. In addition, we also avoid eating grains during the Chag because they might become hamets if they somehow leaven during the seven days. This is not adding to the Torah, because it is not a law; it is merely a precaution against violating the law. If the speed limit is 65 mph, then we certainly do not want to drive at 70 mph; if as a precaution we always drive at 60 mph we are less likely ever to exceed 65 mph.
It is important to avoid the “heresy” of giving more authority to these sages than they are due. If we should find ourselves holding the opinion of a person to be of greater weight than the law itself, we will certainly be in error. The written Torah and holy scriptures that Hashem provided us through Moshe, the prophets, and other authors must be held paramount. Everything we include in our faith and practice should ideally have some root in the written Torah, or at the very least must not be in conflict with what is written. If it does not, but also does not conflict with the Torah, it becomes optional and may be adopted by the community for the benefit of collective worship.
The traditional Karaite Brit (circumcision) ceremony includes a practice whereby a young woman holds the baby and is flanked by two more young women. These three advance toward the father and withdraw backwards seven times as he recites important passages from the scriptures and essential Karaite prayers. This symbolizes the importance of the covenant (b’rit). This also involves a young woman approaching marriageable age seeing the celebration of new life, the happiness of the community at its new member, and the happiness of the parents. It is a celebration of femininity, fertility, family, and life itself. The Torah requires only the actual circumcision, but does not prohibit the community from expanding upon the concept and developing rituals surrounding the commandment’s fulfillment.
Karaite Judaism has been influenced by Rabbinical thought, they are our brethren after all, although we arrive at our customs from a very different thought process. I can thus say with accuracy that we are 99% the same religion, although the small, largely technical, differences have a broad impact. Islam, Arab culture, and Turkic culture have also influenced Karaite thought, as Karaites lived among these peoples for centuries; and these have likewise influenced other Mizrachi (Eastern) and Sephardic (Spanish) Jews of the Rabbinical tradition. Today, western culture, both Israeli and American, is exerting some considerable influence as well. There is nothing wrong with nuanced changes in tradition and practice over time as the needs and circumstances of the community change; provided, of course, that our focus and centre remains the Torah and scriptures.
In the bullseye earlier in the article, you can see how Judaism is constructed with the Torah in the centre, the Neviim building on some doctrinal points and offering further explanations, the Kethuvim adding poems, prayers, and additional history, and the traditions and practices that we have built upon them. Everything comes from Torah and grows outward from it.
Rabbinical Judaism today holds that the Rabbis are the modern incarnation of the Mishnaic sages. These sages, so it is claimed, were members of the Sanhedrin and held a certain authority from holding such an office. It is common to claim that these Mishnaic Rabbis were in possession of an “oral Torah,” which expands upon the written with the opinions of prominent Rabbis. This centres on the Mishna and Gemara which purport to represent the opinions of ancient Mishnaic Sages, like Rabbi Akiva. There is some debate over whether Rabbi Ben Yehudah merely wrote down the previously unwritten Mishna, or whether he invented its content himself. While Rabbinical authorities go out of their way to argue that the Moshna predated ben Yehduah, and even produce documents to this end, the question of just how great a role he played in the crafting of the Mishna remains open.
Upon these works the Talmudic commentaries are built (the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds). Technically, the Mishna is the work that holds authority in Rabbinical Judaism while the Talmud and commentaries built upon it are merely interpretations of later sages of the commentaries put forth by the great Mishnaic Sages. In practice, most Rabbinical Jews look upon the Talmud and later commentaries as being authoritative.
Medieval Rabbis who by the Hebrew acronyms of their names, like Rashi, the Rambam, the Ramban, and such, built still further commentaries. Modern Rabbis also add commentaries although these must accept the authority of previous sages. The Hassidic community adds to these an emphasis upon the particular teachings of past and present Rebbes whom they hold in high regard. In Rabbinical tradition, the “oral Torah,” represented by the Talmud, is tied to the Torah itself and supersedes the other scriptures, the Neviim and Kethuvim.
Rabbis themselves hold religious authority in their communities. In Rabbinical theory at least, Rabbis are teachers and leaders who influence and educate Jews in the Torah and its commentaries. In practice, a Rabbi’s word is usually considered the authoritative answer to any question. If the Rabbi has given erroneous information to a congregant, many consider this to be the Rabbi’s responsibility not that of the congregant. Truthfully, it is tradition that every Jew is responsible for his own conduct. I must note that there are many different permutations of Rabbinical Judaism and each looks upon the role of the Rabbi in a unique light. The sweeping generalizations I make here cannot be true of all Rabbinical movements.
Whereas a Hakham in Karaism hold authority, insofar as it extends, only based upon his learning and respectability, a Rabbi is seen as holding authority when ordained irrespective of personal learning or respectability. Many Rabbis attain high office for their respectability and there are many scholars, but this is not necessarily a prerequisite to an individual holding the office.
While the entire Tanakh is included in the Rabbinical canon, the canon being uniform throughout Judaism, the Neviim and Kethuvim play a much smaller role in exegesis. This is one of the reasons that when one learns Rabbinical traditions it can be difficult to understand how the religion is based upon the Hebrew Bible.
It All Flows From Torah
The Torah is the central document of Karaite Judaism and from it the rest of our faith flows. The Torah sets in motion the events of the Neviim and the prayers, writings, and later histories of the Kethuvim. Our tradition and practice are built from there, extrapolating a lifestyle, ritual practice, and communal laws, such that the faithful can live the Torah. Even our Rabbinical brethren find the roots of their oral tradition and practices in the original written Torah.
These five books and the later works that follow from them, are at the core of the longest sustained cultural tradition in human history. It is the reason that the flag of Israel today is decorated with the same blue and white colours that can be found on temples and civil structures in the ancient city of Ur from whence Avraham and his ancestors hailed. This written document is by far the greatest and most influential literary work in the history of mankind. To this day, our people are dedicated to living the laws of the Torah, to serving Hashem, and to transmitting our beliefs to future generations as our ancestors have done.