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Why Are Jews Called People of the Book?

November 7, 2021 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

5 facts about this curious term

Jews are known as the “People of the Book.” What are the origins of this curious term? Here are five interesting facts about being the People of the Book.

Muslim Origins

The term People of the Book originated in Arabic: Ahl Al-Kitab. It’s first found in the Koran, and describes not only Jews but also Christians, Zoroastrians and another group known as Sabians (whose precise identity isn’t known today). In Islam, all of these religious groups are considered to own divine books and have therefore historically enjoyed some protections in Muslim-controlled lands.

The Koran allows “People of the Book” the right to live in Muslim lands, with severe restrictions on their freedoms, and gives them the right to practice their religions (again, with some restrictions) – freedoms traditionally denied to other religious groups who were considered to have no claim to religious legitimacy.

Importance of Torah Study

Despite its Muslim origins, many Jews have embraced the term People of the Book. Perhaps this is because it seems to describe the close relationship we Jews have with the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, and with learning the Talmud. In fact, studying the Torah is a mitzvah, a commandment, in Judaism.

We stand in its presence as if it were a king, dance with it as if it were a bride, and if, God forbid, it is desecrated or ruined beyond repair we bury it as if it were a relative who had died.

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, a Medieval Spanish sage (also known as Rambam or Maimonides), put this bluntly: every Jew, “whether he is poor or rich, whether his body is healthy and whole or afflicted by difficulties, whether he is young or an old man whose strength has diminished…” is obligated to spend at least some of their day studying the Torah.

Infusing Reading with Joy

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks noted that “the holiest object in Judaism is a book, the Scroll of the Law. The reverence we pay it is astonishing. We stand in its presence as if it were a king, dance with it as if it were a bride, and if, God forbid, it is desecrated or ruined beyond repair we bury it as if it were a relative who had died.”

Each year on the holiday of Simchat Torah, we dance with the Torah; on the holiday of Shavuot we celebrate having the Torah by staying up all night studying. Books and learning are causes for celebration in Judaism. Learning the Talmud, which is so wide and vast, is often compared to swimming in an ocean. There is a book for each and every Jew that speaks to them.

Treating Books with Respect

Our intense respect for the Torah extends to treating Torah scrolls and other Jewish sacred books with honor. Jewish holy books (such as Bibles or prayer books) are never placed on the floor. If one falls on the floor by accident, Jews have a custom to kiss it after they pick it up. Jewish books are not used for other purposes, for example to prop open a door or as a holder for a cup of coffee. That would be considered a sign of disrespect.

In synagogues, this respect that we Jews accord our holy books is especially pronounced. The congregation stands when the aron, the cabinet containing the Torah scrolls, is opened. The Torah scrolls themselves are beautifully dressed and decorated with rich robes and crowned with real silver crowns, just as a human monarch would be.

The Book of Life

Perhaps another reason Jews have so readily welcomed being labeled the People of the Book is the vivid imagery the Talmud employs in describing the solemnity of Rosh Hashanah, when God sits “on the throne of judgment” with “the Books of Life and before Him” (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 32b).

It’s a stirring image that conveys the core Jewish belief that everything we do and say in our lives has profound consequences and is recorded for posterity. We are part of the never-ending story of the Jewish people. Each of us is engaged in writing the next chapter of Jewish history. Accessing the timeless Jewish wisdom through our holy books can help equip us to live the very best lives we’re each capable of creating.

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