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Five Books No Jew Should Be Without

04/06/2015 08:27:00 AM


Five Books No Jew Should Be Without
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

"Why do I need to own a Siddur? Every time I come to shul they give me one to use." A good question -- asked by a Hebrew School student during the Dalet Class Siddur ceremony a few weeks ago. Why own a Siddur? Because I don't want you to borrow Judaism, I want you to own it. What does it say when all of the resources of Jewish life -- the Siddur, the Humash, the Haggaddah, the Lulav and Etrog, the Tallit, -- are owned by the community, and kept in the synagogue, and only used by Jews who attend?

A Jewish family needs to own these things -- along with a Seder plate and a menorah, Shabbat candlesticks and a Kiddush cup --because they represent our ownership of this tradition.

Most especially the books. "Jerusalem is where your books are," preached my professor in Seminary. Because there's something mystical in the relationship between Jews and books. Of all places to locate the connection between God and the world, we chose a book. Of all places to find the meaning of life, we find it in books. When you drop a yarmulke or a tallis, a kiddush cup or a menorah, you pick it up and dust it off. When you drop a Siddur or a Humash, you kiss it.

What five books should every Jew own? What five books would you make sure your son or daughter took with them to college? What five books would you give to a Bar/Bat Mitzvah? Here's my list, see if you agree:

1. Tanakh - The Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1988) Every Jew should have a Bible, and this is the best English translation available. It's readable, it's authoritative, and it's available everywhere.

2. A complete daily prayer book: Siddur Sim Shalom (New York: Rabbinical Assembly 1985) or, Daily Prayer Book, ed. Philip Birnbaum (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1949). The prayer book we use in synagogue is only for Sabbath and Festivals. These "daily" prayer books include prayers for weekdays, holidays, special occasions and a wealth of sources for study and meditation.

3. A good perspective on Jewish history: The Source by James Michener (New York: Fawcett, 1988) is a very readable novelization of Jewish history. Robert Seltzer's Jewish People, Jewish Thought (New York: MacMillan, 1980) is a fine and comprehensive academic textbook on the history of Judaism and the Jewish people.

4. An interpretation of Jewish life and thought: Abraham Joshua Heschel's masterwork, God in Search of Man (New York: Harper & Row, 1955) is a challenging book to read, but it is the most powerful philosophy of Judaism in English. Reading Heschel requires special sensitivities. Think of it as fine wine, to be sipped and savored, a little at a time. As an alternative, The Jewish Way by Rabbi Irving Greenberg (New York: Summit, 1988) is a moving, uplifting interpretation of the Jewish holidays. I would also include Rabbi Schulweis's new book, For Those Who Can't Believe, which offers the most accessible, profound, and honest answers to the fundamental questions of Jewish faith available today.

5. A final book -- one that somehow captures and represents the character of the Jewish people. I asked around for help with this one: Rabbi Schulweis suggested Martin Buber's classic, Tales of the Hasidim (New York: Schocken, 1948). Cantor Fox offered, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg (New York: Viking Penguin, 1953). Others proposed Elie Weisel's chilling recitation of his own experiences at Auschwitz, Night (New York: Bantam, 1982). Or Milton Steinberg's novel of the Talmudic sage and rebel Elisha ben Abuya, As A Driven Leaf (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1987). My choice for one book that captures the Jewish soul would be Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1969/71).

Are these books in your home? Are they in the homes of your children and grandchildren? To own them, to read them, is to make the wisdom and vision of our tradition your own...not borrowed but owned and held sacred.

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