Jewish bookshelf

Building Your Jewish Library

Image: Bookshelves of Jewish books, art, and objects. (Ruth Adar, all rights reserved.)

What books should be part of a Jewish household? Beyond that, how does one build a Jewish library?

  1. Every Jewish home should have a Jewish Bible. Not an “Old Testament,” not a “Living Bible,” not the “King James Bible” or any of its descendants – a Jewish Bible. How can you tell if it is a Jewish Bible? There will be no New Testament in there. It may have the word “Tanakh” on the cover. It will be arranged into Torah, Prophets, and Writings. There are several good Jewish Bibles on the market. One excellent option is to get one that comes with a commentary, such as:
    1. The Torah, A Modern Commentary, ed. Plaut.
    2. Etz Hayim, Torah & Commentary, ed. Lieber.
    3. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, eds Eskenazi, Weiss
  2. For quick answers to Jewish questions, you either need access to some of the excellent Jewish web sites on the Internet, or a good basic reference workJewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is one excellent choice.  A Guide to Jewish Practice by David A. Teutsch is a three volume set of books that is even more detailed. The text I use for my Introduction to the Jewish Experience class is Settings of Silver, by Stephen Wylen. It is a single volume with a good index.
  3. A Jewish home should have a siddur (Jewish prayer book,) or a book of Jewish prayers for the home, or both. The siddur should be the one you normally use at synagogue (ask your rabbi.)  On the Doorposts of Your House has home rituals of many kinds, from hanging your mezuzah to celebrating the holidays. At a minimum, a card or bentcher with the basic blessings for Shabbat will come in handy.
  4. Every home should have at least one haggadah, the script for the Passover seder. There are a zillion haggadot on the market, ranging from free give-aways to very expensive art books. Which one(s) you choose will depend on your tastes.

Beyond the absolute basics, your interests will shape your Jewish library. For instance, if you are interested in Torah study, you may want to own one or more commentaries. If you are interested in Jewish film, there are a number of good books on those subjects.

For more suggestions of books and topics, see My Basic Jewish Book List.


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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

3 thoughts on “Building Your Jewish Library”

  1. I can’t tell you how valuable this list is. I’m pleased that I have the Women’s Commentary already and am working through that on schedule, one portion per week according to the proper calendar, and am writing up my thoughts on each portion every week. I’m also studying classical Hebrew.

    I am not attending a class for conversion yet, since the one nearest me starts in October and I only really began looking into it in earnest in December, but I’m using the months until then to get my feet under me a bit more.

    Basically, I fear that I’ll never learn everything I need to learn and that I’ll never have my “Velveteen Rabbit” moment; there’s so much more than scripture and keeping the holidays the right ways on the right days to being a Jew. It doesn’t seem to be something one can do properly alone. And it’s exacerbated by the fact that I’m an introvert and a bit of a hermit, and so find it hard to reach out. Websites like yours are a gold mine for me, beyond just book lists — also as places of encouragement.

    1. I remember that “I’ll never be able to learn enough” feeling. It is important to know that NOBODY knows everything, not even the most learned rabbis. I’m taking a class on text right now, and it is full of learners from age 25-ish to in their 80s. I’m a beginner at the topic (Zohar.) My first area of real expertise was in Outreach (conversion and interfaith issues and texts.) My rabbinical school thesis was on the halakhah and Jewish ethics of money. And now 10 years later I’m back to studying conversion, but through a different lens. My point is, like all Jews there are things I know and things where I’m a beginner.

      In the beginning, learn broadly. Read good books. Find a synagogue with a Torah study group. Maybe take a cooking workshop, or an Israeli dance class. DO lots of things in environments with Jews. Have Jewish experiences.

      Have you found a rabbi yet? That’s the real beginning point.

  2. I have talked with a very nice young rabbi at a nearby synagogue, and he gave me some guidance as to how to get started and let me know that he’d be available when I was up for visiting the synagogue. I think I’d like to just get a bit of a tour of the place myself so that I know what each part of the building is and what the outline is of a typical Saturday morning service before I just show up; like I said, I’m a bit of a hermit and going into a building full of total strangers where I don’t know what’s happening is a little intimidating.

    As far as activities go, I wish I could find more about klezmer; I’m a musician and have some collections of tunes but again, it’s something one needs to do in a group.

    I am planning on doing the local classes at that synagogue in October as well.

    I’m also trying to educate myself on Jewish history more, too. I’m finding that especially challenging for harder to describe reasons. Pursuing Judaism for myself has begun to make the history of the persecutions my story, or at least I can see that approaching me. I have to learn how to make myself fit to carry my share of that burden of memory in a new way. There’s a big different between outrage on behalf of one’s own community and outrage on behalf of another. I’m not sure how to do that as a convert or if I even have the right to, but I guess I just have to move forward even if I’m not sure how it’ll work out. I feel like I’m driving on a road and paving it at the same time.

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