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Torah (תורה) is a Hebrew word meaning "teaching," "instruction," or "law." It is the central and most important document of Judaism revered by Jews through the ages. It primarily refers to the first section of the Tanakh–the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, but the term is sometimes also used in the general sense to also include both of Judaism's written law and oral law, encompassing the entire spectrum of authoritative Jewish religious teachings throughout history, including the Mishnah, the Talmud, the midrash, and more.

The five books and their names and pronounciations in original Hebrew are as follows:

  • Genesis (בראשית, Bereishit: "In the beginning...")
  • Exodus (שמות, Shemot: "Names")
  • Leviticus (ויקרא, Vayikra: "And he called...")
  • Numbers (במדבר, Bamidbar: "In the wilderness..."), and
  • Deuteronomy (דברים, Devarim: "Words", or "Discourses")

(The Hebrew names are taken from initial words within the first verse of each book. See, for example, Genesis 1:1.)

The Torah is also known as the Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch (Greek for "five containers," which refers to the scroll cases in which books were being kept). Other names include Hamisha Humshei Torah (חמשה חומשי תורה, "[the] five fifths/parts [of the] Torah") or simply the Humash (חומש "fifth"). A Sefer Torah is a formal written scroll of the five books, written by a Torah scribe under exceptionally strict requirements.

For Jews, the Torah was traditionally accepted as the literal word of God as told to Moses, a very difficult notion for those who are not connected to that type of thinking. For many, it is neither exactly history, nor theology, nor legal and ritual guide, but something beyond all three. It is the primary guide to the relationship between God and man, and the whole meaning and purpose of that relationship, a living document that unfolds over the generations and millennia.


File:241530 7953 torah.jpg
A Sefer Torah opened for liturgical use in a synagogue service

The five books contain both a complete and ordered system of laws, particularly the 613 mitzvot (613 distinct "commandments", individually called a mitzvah), as well as a historical description of the beginnings of what came to be known as Judaism. The five books (particularly Genesis, the first part of Exodus, and much of Numbers) are, primarily, a collection of seemingly historical narratives rather than a continuous list of laws; moreover, many of the most important concepts and ideas from the Torah are found in these stories. The book of Deuteronomy is different from the previous books; it consists of Moses' final speeches to the Children of Israel at the end of his life.

Many Jewish laws are not directly mentioned in the Torah, but are derived from textual hints, which were expanded orally, and eventually written down in the Talmud and Mishnah. According to the Jewish view, the stories in the Torah are not always in chronological order, and sometimes they are ordered by concept (Talmud tractate Pesachim 7a) -- Ein mukdam u'meuchar baTorah "[There is] not 'earlier' and 'later' in [the] Torah".

Production and usage of a Torah scroll

A Torah can be written for ritual purposes (i.e. religious services) on a scroll, called a Sefer Torah ("Book [of] Torah"). These are written using a painstakingly careful methodology by highly qualified scribes, and copies of the text that are centuries or millennia old have come down to us with almost unchanged wording as a result of this system. The reason for such care is it is believed that every word, or marking, has divine meaning, and that not one part may be inadvertantly changed lest it lead to error. The text of the Torah can also be found in books, which are mass-printed in the usual way for individual use, often containing both the Hebrew text and a translation in the language of publication (English, French, Russian etc). For more details on production of ritual scrolls, see the article Sefer Torah.

Printed versions of the Torah are known as a Chumash (plural Chumashim) ("[Book of] Five or Fifths"). They are treated as respected texts, but not anywhere near the level of sacredness accorded a Sefer Torah, which is often a major possession of a Jewish community. A chumash contains the Torah and other writings, usually organised for liturgical use, and sometimes accompanied by some of the main classic commentaries on individual verses and word choices, for the benefit of the reader.

All Torah scrolls are stored in the holiest part of the synagogue in the Ark known as the "Holy Ark" (אֲרוֹן קֹדשׁ aron kodesh in Hebrew.)

The Torah as the core of Judaism

The Torah is the primary document of Judaism, and is the source of all Biblical commandments, in an ethical framework.

According to Jewish tradition, these books were revealed to Moses by God; some of it is said to have been revealed at Mount Sinai in 1280 BC. Classical rabbinic writings offer various ideas on when the entire Torah was revealed. Some sources state that the entire Torah was given all at once on Mount Sinai. In the maximalist view, this dictation included not only the "quotes" which appear in the text, but every word of the text itself, including phrases such as "And God spoke to Moses...", and included God telling Moses about Moses' own death and what would happen afterward. Other classical sources hold that the Torah was revealed to Moses over many years, and finished only at his death. Another school of thought holds that although Moses wrote the vast majority of the Torah, a number of sentences throughout the Torah must have been written after his death by another prophet, presumably Joshua. All classical views, nonetheless, hold that the Torah was entirely or almost entirely Mosaic and of divine origin..

The Rabbis hold that not only are the words giving a Divine message, but indicate a far greater message that extends beyond them. Thus they hold that even as small a mark as a kotzo shel yod (קוצו של יוד), the serif of the Hebrew letter yod (י), the smallest letter, or decorative markings, or repeated words, were put there by God to teach scores of lessons. This is regardless of whether that yod appears in the phrase "I am the Lord thy God," or whether it appears in that oft repeated "And God spoke unto Moses saying." In a similar vein, Rabbi Akiva, who died in 135 CE, is said to have learned a new law from every et (את) in the Torah (Talmud, tractate Pesachim 22b); the word et is meaningless by itself, and serves only to mark the accusative case. In other words, the Orthodox view is that even apparently contextual text "And God spoke unto Moses saying..." is no less important than the actual statement.

One kabbalistic interpretation is that the Torah constitutes one long name of God, and that it was broken up into words so that human minds can understand it. While this is effective since it accords with our human reason, it is not the only way that the text can be broken up.

There is little support for higher biblical criticism in Orthodox Judaism, and absolutely none in Haredi Judaism and Hasidic Judaism. Applying the techniques of higher criticism to books of the Bible other than the Torah is frowned upon, but applying these techniques to the Torah itself is usually considered to be both mistaken and heretical. As such, the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Judaism views the documentary hypothesis to be heretical. Orthodox rabbis well-known for taking issue with documentary hypothesis include Meir Leibush Malbim and Samson Raphael Hirsch.

The Torah and the oral law

Orthodox Judaism holds that the Torah has been transmitted in parallel with an oral tradition. They point to the text of the Torah, where they believe many words are left undefined, and many procedures mentioned without explanation or instructions; they believe the reader is assumed to be familiar with the details from other, oral, sources.

This parallel set of material was originally transmitted orally, and came to be known as the oral law. At the time, it was forbidden to write and publish the Oral Law, as any writing would be incomplete and subject to misinterpretation and abuse. However, after great debate, this restriction was lifted when it became apparent that it was the only way to ensure that the law could be preserved.

To prevent the material from being lost, the ancient rabbis began to write down their oral traditions. Around 200 CE, Rabbi Judah haNasi took up the redaction of a written version of the oral law; it was compiled into the first major written work of rabbinic Judaism, the Mishnah. Other writings from the same time period which record details of the Oral Law are called "Baraitot" (external teaching), and include the Tosefta. Over the next four centuries this body of law, legend, and ethical teachings underwent debate and analysis in both of the world's major Jewish communities (in Israel and Babylon). These commentaries on the Mishnah, called gemara, eventually came to be edited together into compilations known as the Talmuds.

Most Jews follow the traditional explication of these laws that can be found in this later literature. Karaites, who reject the oral law, and adhere solely to the laws of the Torah, are a major exception.

Other views of the Torah

See also



  • William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites?, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI (2003).
  • Neil A. Silberman et al., The Bible Unearthed, Simon and Schuster, New York (2001).

External link

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