I have always been fascinated by Scripture. Whether versions of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), New Testament, Qu’ran, Sutras (Buddhist sacred writings), Native American prayers or any other form of holy writing, I am captivated by the differences and, most important, the similarities between the holy words of the world’s religions. I have written often about The Golden Rule—“Do Unto Others…”—and how it can be found in some form in all faiths dating back to Hammurabi.
When it comes right down to it, however, I have always been partial to the words of what I grew up knowing as the “Old Testament” and became captivated by Torah when (almost 29 years ago now!) an enthusiastic rabbi opened a Torah scroll and showed me that there are no vowels in the Torah. That revelation was life changing for me, as it led to my rethinking the Bible I had grown up with, caused me to decide to raise my children as Jews and ultimately led to my own conversion to Judaism. You can read more about that story here.
In addition to lacking vowels, Torah scrolls also lack punctuation, paragraphs, pagination and any sense of chapter and verse. Nevertheless, centuries ago, the Torah was divided into 54 parshot or portions. One parsha/portion is read each week throughout the year. The last parsha/portion (the death of Moses) and the beginning of the first (The seven days of creation) are read on the holiday of Simchat Torah (the joy of Torah) to represent the eternal nature of Torah, and the cycle begins anew.
The weeks following the High Holidays are some of the best times to begin reading the weekly parsha/portion with children, as many of the Bible Stories we grew up with take place in Breishit/Genesis and Shemot/Exodus, the first two books of the Hebrew Bible.
The Rabbis say “the Torah has 70 faces” (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15) inferring that each word of Torah can—and often does—have a variety of meanings. It is up to the scholars of our generation (and I believe each of us as well) to find the meanings appropriate for our time and place in order to make the Torah’s words significant for society and our families today.
The following are some Bible story and Jewish story collections I have found especially appealing for families looking to introduce these stories to their children for the first time. Also, take a look at the G-dcast videos about each parsha/portion, they are terrific.
With a Mighty Hand: The Story in the Torah
Adapted by Amy Ehrlich. Paintings by Daniel Nevins.
©2013, Candlewick Press. All Ages.
I have many versions of the Torah on my bookshelves. I enjoy reading how individual writers/commentators/adapters interpret the Hebrew and bring the Bible story to life for the English reader. This is a beautiful, descriptive adaptation with language suitable for children. It is told in storyteller fashion, as though sitting around a fire, weaving the tale of an ancient people’s beginning, their struggle through slavery and their triumph into a new land. The artwork is, in a word, exquisite.
The Oldest Bedtime Story Ever
Written and illustrated by Benjamin Morse.
©2012, Orson & Co. Ages 6 – Adult.
All the stories you know and many of those you don’t in a unique, oversized picture book using minimalist art that will have you and your kids smiling, talking, explaining, laughing and wondering. What a perfect way to start a discussion about a Torah topic. In addition, the website associated with this book has fun activities for all levels of skill and interest.
The JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible
Retold by Ellen Frankel. Illustrated by Avi Katz.
©2009, Jewish Publication Society. All Ages.
The stories in this exceptional volume are well told and very true to the original texts. The selection of stories is excellent and hits all major Biblical highlights. Breathtaking illustrations bring each story to life using vibrant colors, vivid detailing and exceptional expression. An author’s notebook in the back provides an insightful description of how the material was chosen and adapted.
Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens
Edited by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin.
©2012, Jewish Lights Publishing. Ages 13+.
Jewish minds across the denominational spectrum (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, Renewal, etc.) look at the 54 parshot/portions of the Hebrew bible and provide a brief, not more than two page insight into how that parsha/portion relates to the life of a teen. This is a perfect book for families entering a Bar/Bat Mitzvah year.
The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales
by Shoshana Boyd Gelfand. Illustrated by Amanda Hall. Includes a story CD by Debra Messing.
©2013, Barefoot Books Ltd.
There are times when the Torah portion is just not something you want to discuss with the children. Explaining animal sacrifices, what “begat” means or why there seems to be so much bloodshed can get very tiresome. That’s when it’s time for a story! This is an extraordinary collection of some of the best. The ones you probably already know, and definitely want to pass on to your children. Well written, gorgeously illustrated and with the added bonus of a CD in case you have just had enough and want to listen yourself for a change.