Throughout history, Jews have been called the “People of the Book” (or “Am HaSefer”) by both Jews and non-Jews. The simple and most obvious reason for this is the strong and eternal bond between the Jews (the people) and the Torah (the book), which includes both the written and oral traditions, and all of the works that expound upon them.

Indeed, Jews are constantly studying or lecturing on various Torah texts. It is the Torah that has kept our people alive, sustaining us throughout our long and turbulent history.

Source of the Term

Many point to Islam as the origin of this title. Indeed, although Islamic tradition sometimes considers Jews to be infidels, they are also referred to as “People of the Book.” Islam recognized that the Jewish people were in posession of a revelation from G‑d—namely the Torah—that was recorded before the advent of Islam. Thus, they were tolerated to the extent that they were permitted to live among Muslims, as long as they followed certain restrictions and paid a special tax.

However, this is not the source of the title, but instead a reflection of the deep and intrinsic bond between the Jewish people and “the book,” a.k.a. “the Torah.”

The Book Is a Person

To the Jewish people, the Torah is more than a source of wisdom or a guide to life. Rather, it is a living, breathing partner, with whom we enter into a lifelong relationship. The Talmud refers to the bond between the Jewish people and the Torah as one between a betrothed couple.1 Furthermore, the Midrash states that the very purpose of the Torah was for the Jewish people.2

A Jew is equated with a Torah scroll. In the words of the Talmud, “One who stands over the deceased at the time of the soul’s departure is obligated to rend his clothes. To what may this be likened? To a Torah scroll that is burned, for which anyone present is obligated to rend his clothes.3

Torah is considered the life-force of the Jew, as seen in the following incident with Rabbi Akiva:

Once, the wicked government [of Rome] decreed that the Jewish people were forbidden to study Torah. Pappus ben Judah saw Rabbi Akiva convening gatherings in public and studying Torah [with them]. Said he to him: “Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?”

Said [Rabbi Akiva] to him: “I’ll give you a parable.

“A fox was walking along a river and saw fish rushing to and fro. Said he to them: ‘What are you fleeing?’

“Said they to him: ‘The nets that the humans spread for us.’

“Said he to them: ‘Why don’t you come out onto the dry land? We’ll live together, as my ancestors lived with your ancestors.’

“Said they to him: ‘Are you the one of whom it is said that you are the wisest of animals? You’re not wise, but foolish! If, in our environment of life we have cause for fear, how much more so in the environment of our death!’

“The same applies to us. If now, when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is said, ‘For it is your life and the lengthening of your days,’4 such is our situation, how much more so if we neglect it . . .”5

As the classic phrase based on the Zohar succinctly put it, “The Jews and the Torah are one.”6

Thus, it is no wonder that we Jews have a holiday called Simchat Torah, in which we literally dance with a Torah scroll (for more on this, see Is It True That Jews Dance With Books? and On Simchat Torah, a Jew Never Dances Alone).

As the recently departed Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz) succinctly put it, “This is a Jew! One who kisses a book when he puts it down after reading from it.”

For more on this, see Bibliaphilia - A reflection on why Jews kiss Torah books.