Image: Open Torah scroll. Photo by Susan Krauss, all rights reserved.

“I keep trying to read the Bible, but I get bogged down…”

If you are trying to read the Bible cover to cover and it’s just too much, or not much fun, stop now!

The Jewish Bible is an anthology – a library, really – of books in the canon, the official list of scriptures recognized by the Jewish People. We don’t read it “cover to cover” – we read some parts of it daily, some weekly, some once a year, and a few parts, rarely. If you want to get to know your Bible better, there are a number of common approaches. These readings are done publicly in synagogue but you can also read them yourself at home or with a study group:

WEEKLY PORTION – Every week throughout the year Jews read a section of the Torah according to the calendar. We call that the parashah or portion. To find out about this week’s portion, go to http://hebcal.com. A the top of the page, there will be the words “Parashat —–” with a link. Click on the link. That link will give you the portion for the week, and if you click on the page it takes you to, you can read the portion, or even hear it chanted in Hebrew. Over the course of a year, the weekly portions will take you through the entire Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.)

HAFTARAH – The Haftarah is the reading from the Prophets for every week. You can find it on hebcal.com also. Unlike the Torah, where we read it all and we read it in order, the Haftarah readings skip around in the books. Usually those readings are related to the Torah reading for the week, although sometimes it is quite a puzzle to find the connection.

MEGILLOT – The five megillot, or five scrolls, are shorter books of the Bible read on particular holidays during the year. We read Ecclesiastes during Sukkot, Esther on Purim, Song of Songs on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, and Lamentations on Tisha B’Av. You can find the dates for all these holidays in the current year at hebcal.com.

Other parts of the Bible are embedded in our worship. The daily prayer cycle includes many readings from the Psalms, particularly. Psalms is also good for personal reading because it comes in relatively short chapters, each expressing an individual or communal set of emotions and needs.

Some books, like Job, Esther and Ruth, are short novels. Parts of some other books are very readable as units, also: the Joseph story from chapters 37 to 50 in Genesis is a good example, as are the stories in the book of Judges. Other books are tougher going: the long detailed instructions for sacrifices in Leviticus are not everyone’s cup of tea.

Reading, however, is only the beginning! Tomorrow I’ll write about the ways Jews approach these books to get the most out of them.