I have found that the first thing to do when you want to learn something about a subject, is to start with the idea that you know absolutely nothing. I understand, for example, that Judaism has either branches, or sects, or various subgroups. I'm interested in understanding Orthodoxy, which I understand isn't even one branch, but a bunch of branches.

(Update: if "branch" is an incorrect word, please understand that I mean only, groups which could be held distinct in some way, from the rest of Orthodox Judaism.)

What is a good book that helps with understanding Orthodox Judaism, as it exists today and is practiced, it's history and ideas and most of all, the underlying principles or forms, or ideas, which make it itself. A good book for me would answer these questions:

  • What do the authorities within Orthodox judaism say about Orthodox Judaism. How do they define it?
  • What is the daily life of those comitted to the practices of Orthodoxy look like, including the practice of "Shabbat/"Shabbos"
  • Introducing the the study of Torah, Tanakh, and Talmud, as it is understood by Orthodox authorities.

I realize that all of the above are worthy of their own books. But imagine, you simply want somewhere to start. is there a good book on what Orthodox judaism is, that addresses at least a little bit of those subject areas, that would be readable by someone with zero knowledge of Hebrew?

The most important thing I want to know is that the view in the book is presented by those who themselves hold the views they are describing. That is, I am not looking for an external, or academic view. I am looking for an internal view, but perhaps written so that those who are not part of the religion, or practicing it themselves, might be able to understand it.

  • 4
    You should know that the Jewish tradition does not distinguish among branches of Judaism. There are tribes en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tribal_allotments_of_Israel, but they have little significance nowadays. There are so-called Ashkenazic and Sepharadic Jews (and some others), but that's just a name given to Jews who have lived in various areas and developed their own culture and practices; there's no real difference between an Ashkenazi and a Sepharadi like there is between, though I hate to make the comparison, a Catholic and a Protestant. [continued]
    – msh210
    Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 2:17
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    Warren P, Welcome to mi.yodeya, and thanks very much for this important question! I look forward to seeing you around.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 4:01
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    @Warren Take a look at this Wikipedia article: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… In particular, I like its description of Orthodox: "Orthodox Jews generally see themselves as practicing normative Judaism, rather than belonging to a particular movement. Within Orthodox Judaism there is a spectrum of communities and practices, including Modern Orthodox Judaism, Haredi Judaism, and a variety of movements that have their origins in Hasidic Judaism." (continued)
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 21:18
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    (continued) The reason you see "Orthodox" as having a bunch of branches is that unlike the defined Reform, Conservative, etc. movements, "Orthodox" really just means "all those who stick with the tradition that was there before people started creating new 'movements'," so that includes all different kinds of communities, some of whom have never heard of the term "Orthodox," with no single, central authority.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 21:31
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    That's what I thought. @IsaacMoses - In light of that, how can you say that Orthodox Judaism doesn't have branches? Or that it's people just going on tradition. Seems wrong and simplistic to me. Commented Aug 13, 2012 at 22:21

8 Answers 8

  1. Horeb, by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, is definitely directed to a Jewish audience, but is, I suspect, largely comprehensible by others.
  2. Herman Wouk's This Is My God is directed mostly to an irreligious Jewish audience, but was interesting to me (a religious Jew) also and is certainly comprehensible by non-Jews.
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    +1 for Horeb (amazon.com/Horeb-Philosophy-Jewish-Laws-Observances/dp/…). It summarizes something resembling the gamut of Jewish observances, observance by observance, giving all the "whats" "hows" and "whys" from R' Hirsch's point of view, which has had an important influence on contemporary Orthodox understanding.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 15:53
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    The Herman Wouk one looks great, and so does Horeb. Both in fact, seem quite promising! Thanks!
    – Warren P
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 21:01
  • By the way, the first half of Horeb is available in English online (apart from a few Hebrew volumes on HebrewBooks)
    – b a
    Commented Aug 13, 2012 at 21:58
  • Second "This is My G-d"; it's fantastic. Also anything by Jonathan Sacks, including his talks
    – SAH
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 19:16

Some book ideas (I'll add more if I think of them):

  • Now you've inspired a new question. Great novels featuring jewish observance and religious life. I just love Chaim Potok's The Chosen, and My Name is Asher Lev, for example.
    – Warren P
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 21:03
  • Rabbi Benjamin Blech is amazing. He also writes for the Aish.com website. Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 6:20

Here is another one.

Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism [Paperback] Dennis Prager

(The Intelligent Skeptic's Guide to Judaism)


Gateway to Judaism by Rabbi Mordechai Becher

"Based on years of answering thousands of challenging inquiries, Becher's work blends elements of Jewish philosophy and law with an intensely practical explanation of how Jews actually live."


I highly suggest you read The Non-Orthodox Jew's Guide to Orthodox Jews by David Baum. It is exactly what it sounds like. You will understand a lot about traditional Judaism from this book.


Here is yet another great book, The Outsider's Guide to Orthodox Judaism by Rabbi Arnie Singer.

  • Welcome to Mi Yodeya!
    – Scimonster
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 17:44
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    Thanks very much for bringing this suggestion. Could you please edit your post to include more information about why this resource would be particularly useful for the question at hand?
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 18:24

A highly recommended book is "Masterplan" by Rabbi Aryeh Carmell.

Here's a description of the book:

Maybe you believe in God, but fail to see what this has to do with how one spends Friday night or which restaurant one eats in? Or maybe you think that the primary purpose of the mitzvot was to preserve Jewish identity—a function that has now been taken over by the State of Israel? Or perhaps you are Orthodox, but have no clear idea of the nature of the Torah’s overall aims or the structure of its value system? Masterplan shows that the mitzvot that have come down to us over the ages form a dynamic and comprehensive system designed to elevate human beings and establish a just and caring society that can serve as a model for all humanity to emulate. It was for this purpose that the Land of Israel was given by God to the Jewish people. We live in a tumultuous age when large sections of mankind are searching for guidance. Masterplan shows that Judaism’s program of mitzvot, encompassing all aspects of life—personal growth, interpersonal and family relationships, commerce, industry, government and environment—is eminently relevant to our contemporary concerns.

  • That sounds exactly like what I was asking about.
    – Warren P
    Commented Oct 7, 2021 at 17:28


I enjoyed reading your question. I hope my answer is of some assistance.

The Durants in their book the Story of Civilization write:

As we have it, the Mishna (i.e., oral teaching) is the result of much editing and interpolation since Jehuda; even so it is a compact summary, designed for memorizing by repetition, and therefore tantalizingly terse and obscure to one who comes to it from any background except that of Jewish life and history.

This is the case for practically all the literature put forth over the past two millennia since the Mishna by practicing orthodox Jews. That is, if your looking for the real stuff you may have some trouble "getting into it".

That said, you might try this introductory material on-line; here and here.

Best to you,


  • I read that first link already before once. Aish.com seems pretty great. I'm reading lots on the second one too. I am, I must confess, addicted to reading those offline objects composed of paper, so I hope someone comes along with a book idea, too.
    – Warren P
    Commented Apr 26, 2011 at 21:33
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    Check the "Books" link at the Shalom Center shalom-center.org/lectuur.htm Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 5:30

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