Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility Skip to content

Keep Scrolling

In elementary school I had to learn the names of all the books of Tanakh in order. Many hours were spent on memorization and tunes to recall them, especially those tricky little Trei Asar books. Imagine my surprise to read the Gemara whose order is different than what I learned:

鈥渢he Sages taught: The order of the Prophets: Joshua and Judges, Samuel and Kings, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and Isaiah and the Twelve Prophets. , , the order of the Writings is: Ruth and the book of Psalms, and Job and Proverbs; Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Lamentations; Daniel and the Scroll of Esther; and Ezra and Chronicles.鈥 (Bava Batra 14b)

Why is the Gemara鈥檚 order different than that of most printed Bibles today? Before we answer that question, let鈥檚 address a different one: in the time of the Mishnah and for many centuries after, there were no 鈥淏ibles鈥 like we have today. Each book was written on its own scroll and they were not combined into one codex into the early Middle Ages. So what does the Gemara mean when they talk about the 鈥渙rder鈥 of the books? Rashi on daf 11 explains that they used to write all the books of the Prophets and the Writings in one scroll, like our Sefer Torah today. But as far as I know we do not have archaeological evidence of such a scroll in ancient times.

A beautifully decorated Scroll of Esther

Fred Schaerli, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Encyclopedia Judaica suggests two other possibilities. By late Second Temple times there were famous libraries in the Mesopotamian and Hellenistic world, probably the most famous one is the library in Alexandria, Egypt. These libraries had vast collections and so like libraries today they needed a method of cataloguing, or keeping order. So too with the works that make up the Bible, they needed to be kept in a certain order, so that one could find them in a larger collection. Another possibility is that students learning to be scribes had to go through a prescribed education and learn books in order.

British Museum display of Ashurbanipal’s library in Assyria

Gary Todd, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

So how does the Gemara order the books? For the books of the Prophets, the order is largely chronological. The first four books: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings 鈥 tell a historical story from the entrance of the Israelites into the land up until the destruction of the Temple and the exile. After that the chronology goes awry. Rather than putting Isaiah first, then Jeremiah and Ezekiel, as our Bibles do today, the Gemara puts Jeremiah and Ezekiel before Isaiah, against their historical order. Why? The answer is thematic, as well as educational:

鈥淪ince Kings ends with the destruction, and Jeremiah deals entirely with the destruction, and Ezekiel begins with the destruction but ends with consolation and Isaiah deals entirely with consolation we juxtapose destruction to destruction and consolation to consolation.鈥 (Bava Batra 14b)

The Rabbis want to connect related themes as well as leave us with a message of consolation and redemption, not one of destruction.

Another interesting question is the grouping of the Trei Asar, the Twelve Prophets. Some of these prophets go together chronologically: Hoshea, Amos and Micah lived at the same time, as did the final three prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. Others are at completely different periods or we are not sure when they prophesied. Why are they all lumped together? Simple:

鈥渟ince it is small it would be lost.鈥 (Bava Batra 14b)

The mini books of the Trei Asar range from one chapter (Ovadia) to fourteen (Zechariah). Such small scrolls could go astray on library shelves so the Rabbis bound them together to keep them from getting lost.

The Writings are even harder to order. The historical order is unclear as is the thematic. Where does the book of Psalms, written by multiple authors, fit? How about Job whose authorship is unclear? Chronicles tells the story of the world from the Creation to the return to Zion, should it be first or last?

Today most Bibles group the five Megillot: Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations (Eicha), Ecclesiastes (Kohelet),聽 and Esther – together since they are all read on holidays.聽 They also list them in the order of the holidays that we read them, rather than in chronological order. But as we can see, the Gemara chose a different order and we have yet another order in the Leningrad Codex, one of the oldest Bibles, dating back over one thousand years. There we have Chronicles first, followed by Psalms, Job and Proverbs, then the five Megillot and finally Daniel and Ezra.聽 Today we usually put the three large books: Psalms, Proverbs and Job 鈥 together, then the Megillot, then the books of the Return to Zion: Daniel Ezra/Nehemiah. We complete the writings with Chronicles, partly because it has a (literally) uplifting ending:

鈥淭hus said King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me with building Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any one of you of all His people, the LORD his God be with him and let him go up.鈥 (Chronicles II 36:23)

Today when we quote from the books of the Bible we usually cite the chapter and verse. This allows people to easily find what we are referring to. But these useful divisions are not the traditional Jewish way of dividing up the books. Jews indicate a transitional section by leaving spaces between the verses 鈥 what is called a 鈥渃losed鈥 parsha 鈥 and a new section by starting a new line 鈥 an 鈥渙pen鈥 parsha. The cantillation notes (teamim) also help us to determine where verses start and end.


A page from the Aleppo Codex, notice the spaces indicating open and closed parashot

Yad Ben Zvi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the twelfth century Bishop Stephen Langton divided the Bible by chapters; Jews started to use his system in the fourteenth century, partly because when they were forced into disputations with the Church, it was easier to find the verses that priests were citing. By the time the Hebrew Bible began to be printed, the chapter system became the norm.

Gutenberg Bible

NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng), CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

While convenient and useful, the Bishop鈥檚 divisions often reflect an incorrect, and even anti-Semitic understanding of the text. One example is at the very beginning of Bereshit. The Jewish system puts all of creation as one parsha, culminating with Shabbat. The Christian division ends chapter one with Friday鈥檚 creation and only puts Shabbat in chapter two, de-emphasizing the importance of the Jewish Sabbath.

Books, chapters, verses 鈥 however you order your Torah, make sure to learn some every day!







Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
Scroll To Top