Known as the people of the book, Jews are inextricably bound to the sacred texts of Judaism, ranging from the Biblical canon that dates back to the dawn of our peoplehood to the novellae produced by contemporary scholars.

In Judaism, studying these texts (known collectively as Torah - “teaching”), is a sacred act in which one connects to G‑d on the deepest level. While there are thousands upon thousands such texts, we have selected 10 that one would expect to find in a basic Jewish library.

1. Five Books of Moses (Torah)

(Photo: Beis Yisroel Torah Gemach)
(Photo: Beis Yisroel Torah Gemach)

Often referred to simply as the Torah, especially when in scroll format, the Five Books of Moses are the foundation of Judaism. Until this very day, the text—which was written in Hebrew over 3,000 years ago—has been carefully preserved by the Jewish people. It is also known as the Chumash or Pentateuch (related to the respective Hebrew and Greek words for “five”).

As their name indicates, the books were written by Moses, as dictated by G‑d Himself. Jewish people view every letter and nuance as a sacred communication from G‑d, laden with meaning and significance. They contain 613 mitzvahs—Divine commandments which shape the lives of Jewish people everywhere.

Read: A Summary of the Five Books of Moses

2. Psalms (Tehillim)

The Five Books of Moses are followed by 19 other books which comprise the Prophets (Neviim) and Writings (Ketuvim). Collectively the set is known as Tanach. Each of these books is a treasured revelation of the Divine Wisdom, but one in particular has found a special place in the Jewish heart: the Book of Psalms (Tehillim). Its 150 chapters—compiled by King David—express the deep faith, yearning, and joy that are part and parcel of being a Jew. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866) once said that if we only knew the power of Psalms, how the words break through all barriers and ascend unimpeded to the Heavenly Throne, surely we would recite them all day!

Read: Who Wrote Psalms?

3. Megillah (Book of Esther)

One of the last books added to the Biblical canon is the Book of Esther, also known as the Megillah (“Scroll”). One of five megillahs included in the canon, Esther is the only one commonly read from a handwritten parchment scroll. It tells the dramatic Purim story, in which Queen Esther is the Divinely-placed heroine through whom the Jewish people who live in the sprawling Persian empire are saved from Haman’s evil scheme of annihilation.

The Megillah is read twice every Purim, once in the evening and again in the morning.

Read: A Summary of the Book of Esther

4. Mishnah

(Photo by Wikimedia)
(Photo by Wikimedia)

Moses received the Torah along with the Oral Torah—which unpacks and elucidates the somewhat terse language of Scripture—and a set of laws through which it could be analyzed and expounded.

Throughout the years, the sages developed a body of oral traditions to accompany the laws of the Torah. In the tumultuous years following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Rabbi Judah the Prince compiled many of these rabbinic traditions into a wide-ranging text, known as the Mishnah (“repetition” or “learning”). Divided into six “orders” (volumes), the Mishnah is the foundational text of rabbinic law.

Read: The Compilation of the Mishnah

5. Talmud

A complete set of the Babylonian Talmud. (Photo by Wikimedia)
A complete set of the Babylonian Talmud. (Photo by Wikimedia)

Over the course of several hundred years, the sages (mostly in Israel and Babylon) studied and analyzed the Mishnah alongside other rabbinic texts (beraiotot) that were not included in the compendium.

In time, this crystalized into two distinct bodies of tradition: the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. Spread out over many volumes, the Babylonian Talmud is the most widely studied Jewish text—a labor of love that can take a lifetime.

The traditional Aramaic Talmud text is printed alongside the tightly-packed commentaries of Rashi, Tosafot, and others, each of which adds crucial perspective.

Read: Comprehensive Guide to the Talmud

6. Zohar

A page of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s notes on Zohar, written in exile with ink prepared by Rebbetzin Chana. Notice the various colors of this homemade ink (Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad).
A page of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s notes on Zohar, written in exile with ink prepared by Rebbetzin Chana. Notice the various colors of this homemade ink (Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad).

One of the preeminent sages of the Mishnah was Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, who flourished in Israel during the era of Roman oppression. He was also a master teacher of the Kabbalah, the “hidden” part of Jewish tradition.

Many of his teachings, especially those from right before he passed away, were collected into the Zohar, an Aramaic text that typically fills three volumes and has been arranged to correspond to the weekly Torah portions.

Read: The Mysterious Origins of the Zohar

7. Mishneh Torah

The opening of Maimonides' "Mishneh Torah", copied and illuminated in northwestern France. MS Kaufmann 77A, Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest. (Photo by Wikimedia)
The opening of Maimonides' "Mishneh Torah", copied and illuminated in northwestern France. MS Kaufmann 77A, Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest. (Photo by Wikimedia)

As rabbis and learned Jews continued to refine and revisit the rulings of the Talmud, the discussions grew so vast and intricate that the average layman could not access practical guidance for day-to-day living (halachah).

To remedy this, Rabbi Moses Maimonides (known as Rambam) compiled what he called Mishneh Torah (“Torah Review”), a clearly organized encyclopedia of halachic rulings culled from all of rabbinic literature. This set the standard and formed a platform for many important rabbinic works to follow.

As part of a unifying effort to master the entire Torah, many study Mishneh Torah (or its companion, Sefer Hamitzvot) on an annual or tri-annual cycle.

Read: How to Learn Mishneh Torah Daily

8. Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law)

The first page of the Shulchan Aruch, printed in Venice during the lifetime of the author.
The first page of the Shulchan Aruch, printed in Venice during the lifetime of the author.

Known in Hebrew as Shulchan Aruch (“Set Table”), the Code of Jewish Law provides day-to-day instructions extracted from Maimonides’ code and other commentaries. It was written by Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488-1575), a Sephardic sage who lived in the holy city of Safed in the north of Israel. Shortly after it was published, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, an Ashkenazi rabbi in Krakow, Poland, added glosses in which he notes anytime Ashkenazic tradition differs from Rabbi Caro’s rulings.

The unified text became accepted by all segments of the Jewish world; its very name has become synonymous with Jewish law. When one wishes to describe a Jew whose every move is in sync with halachah, one could call him or her a “Shulchan Aruch Yid.”

Read: 14 Facts About the Code of Jewish Law

9. Siddur (Prayerbook)

The Jewish prayers were composed by the Anshe Knesset Hagedolah,“Men of the Great Assembly”—a panel of 120 prophets and sages comprising the ultimate religious authority at the onset of the Second Temple Era. In addition to the Amidah (“Silent Prayer”) and other compositions, the Jewish prayers include sections of Scripture, notably the Shema and a selection of Psalms.

Since the times of Saadya Gaon (882-942), the Jewish prayers have been recorded in the Siddur (prayerbook). There are thousands of Siddurim on the market, reflecting the different traditions of diverse Jewish communities as well as various styles of translation and layout.

The Chabad Siddur (Nusach Ari) was compiled by the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, based on the teachings of the Arizal, the foremost of the renaissance-era Kabbalists.

In modern times, the Siddur is a staple of the Jewish home and the indispensable companion of the observant Jew.

Explore: Get the Perfect Siddur App for Your Smartphone

10. Tanya

The primary text of Chabad Chassidism’s approach to life, the Tanya provides a roadmap to the soul and invaluable advice for maintaining joy, inspiration, and consistency throughout life’s challenges. Authored by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, it is studied by Chabad chassidim on a daily basis.

Read: Why Is it Called Tanya?