The Difference Between the Tanakh & the Hebrew Bible

The word "Tanakh" or "Tanach" is an English transliteration of the Hebrew acronym made up of the letters tav (T), nun (N) and kaf (K or the gutteral Ch). The letters stand for Torah (the Five Books of Moses), Neviim (the Books of Prophets) and Ketuvim (literally "Writings") refers to final books in the Jewish holy canon. In most cases, when people talk about the Hebrew Bible, they mean the entire Tanakh, and therefore the terms are interchangeable. However, in some contexts, when people talk about the Hebrew Bible they are referring only to the Five Books of Moses.

  1. Torah

    • The Torah is most important text in Judaism; it forms the basis of all Jewish law. It is made up of the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Genesis, Exodus and Numbers tell the story of the creation of the world, the founding of the Jewish people, their enslavement in Egypt and subsequent exodus into the Sinai desert, where they receive the Torah from God. Leviticus and Deuteronomy are mostly books of law, representing the commandments which many Jews believe God gave to them while they were in the desert.


    • Nevi'im (pronounced neh-vee-IM) literally means "prophets," and this section of Tanach indeed includes records of the prophecies given to the Jews during the Biblical era. Nevi'im is comprised of eight books: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and The Twelve Prophets. This last section itself comprises 12 texts: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Ovadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakuk, Zefanya, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

      The books of Joshua and Judges recount the history of the Jews after they enter the Land of Israel from the desert, and their struggles to create a nation-state of their own. The books of Samuel and Kings followJewish history after they set up a monarchy, first under Saul and then under David, who succeeds in uniting the 12 tribes and establishing the First Commonwealth. They then trace the political and religious history surrounding David's descendents and the Jews' downfall and exile into Babylonia.

      The remaining books of Nevi'im record the prophecies given by various seers during different periods of the First and Second Commonwealths.


    • Ketuvim ("Writings") is something of a hodgepodge of texts from different eras, but all were deemed by the rabbis of the Talmudic era, who canonized the Tanach, to be holy works written with divine inspiration. It starts with the books of Psalms (poems written by King David) Proverbs (by his son, King Solomon) and Job (some believe Moses himself wrote it). It then continues with the Five Megillot (a megillah is a scroll): Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. These take place at various points of the Biblical era, ending with Esther, which is set in the Babylonian exile. The next three books -- Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah -- recount the Jews' return to Israel and the setting up of the Second Commonwealth. Finally, the books of Chronicles re-tell the stories of King David and the First Commonwealth; the book symbolizes the Jews' hope for the Messiah, who, it is said, will re-establish the throne of David's descendents and bring ever-lasting peace and security to Jews and to the world.

    Hebrew Bible

    • Most of the time, when people refer to the Hebrew Bible, they are referring to the entire Tanach, and distinguishing it from the Christians' New Testament. However, in some contexts -- usually ones having to do with religious law -- the word "bible" refers only to the Torah section, meaning the Five Books of Moses. This is because, in Judaism, the Five Books of Moses are considered more holy than Neviim and Ketuvim, and therefore texts from the Torah are weighted more seriously when it comes to deciding legal matters and customs. Many Orthodox and Conservative Jews make distinctions between biblical law -- dictated in the Torah -- and rabbinical law as set by the sages during the Talmudic era.

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