The Torah (תּוֹרָה, “Instruction”, “Teaching” or “Law”) has a range of meanings. It can most specifically mean the first five books (Pentateuch) of the 24 books of the Tanakh, and it is usually printed with the rabbinic commentaries (perushim). It can mean the continued narrative from the Book of Genesis to the end of the Tanakh (Chronicles), and it can even mean the totality of Jewish teaching, culture and practice, whether derived from biblical texts or later rabbinic writings. Common to all these meanings, Torah consists of the origin of Jewish peoplehood: their call into being by God, their trials and tribulations, and their covenant with their God, which involves following a way of life embodied in a set of moral and religious obligations and civil laws (halakha).
In rabbinic literature the word Torah denotes both the five books (תורה שבכתב “Torah that is written”) and the Oral Torah (תורה שבעל פה, “Torah that is spoken”). The Oral Torah consists of interpretations and amplifications which according to rabbinic tradition have been handed down from generation to generation and are now embodied in the Talmud and Midrash. According to rabbinic tradition, all of the teachings found in the Torah, both written and oral, were given by God through the prophet Moses, some at Mount Sinai and others at the Tabernacle, and all the teachings were written down by Moses, which resulted in the Torah that exists today. According to the Midrash, the Torah was created prior to the creation of the world, and was used as the blueprint for Creation. The majority of Biblical scholars believe that the written books were a product of the Babylonian captivity (c. 600 BCE), based on earlier written and oral traditions, which could only have arisen from separate communities within ancient Israel, and that it was completed by the period of Achaemenid rule (c. 400 BCE).
Traditionally, the words of the Torah are written on a scroll by a scribe (sofer) in Hebrew. A Torah portion is read publicly at least once every three days in the presence of a congregation. Reading the Torah publicly is one of the bases of Jewish communal life.
Meaning and names
The term “Torah” is used in the general sense to include both Rabbinic Judaism’s written law and Oral Law, serving to encompass the entire spectrum of authoritative Jewish religious teachings throughout history, including the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Midrash and more, and the inaccurate rendering of “Torah” as “Law” may be an obstacle to understanding the ideal that is summed up in the term talmud torah (תלמוד תורה, “study of Torah”).
The earliest name for the first part of the Bible seems to have been “The Torah of Moses”. This title, however, is found neither in the Torah itself, nor in the works of the pre-Exilic literary prophets. It appears in Joshua (8:31–32; 23:6) and Kings (I Kings 2:3; II Kings 14:6; 23:25), but it cannot be said to refer there to the entire corpus (according to academic Bible criticism). In contrast, there is every likelihood that its use in the post-Exilic works (Mal. 3:22; Dan. 9:11, 13; Ezra 3:2; 7:6; Neh. 8:1; II Chron. 23:18; 30:16) was intended to be comprehensive. Other early titles were “The Book of Moses” (Ezra 6:18; Neh. 13:1; II Chron. 35:12; 25:4; cf. II Kings 14:6) and “The Book of the Torah” (Neh. 8:3), which seems to be a contraction of a fuller name, “The Book of the Torah of God” (Neh. 8:8, 18; 10:29–30; cf. 9:3).
Christian scholars usually refer to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible as the “Pentateuch” (pentáteuchos, “five scrolls”), a term first used in the Hellenistic Judaism of Alexandria.
- Tanakh (Judaism)
- Torah (Instruction)
- Nevi’im (Prophets)
- Ketuvim (Writings)
- Old Testament (Christianity)
The Torah starts from the beginning of God’s creating the world, through the beginnings of the people of Israel, their descent into Egypt, and the giving of the Torah at biblical Mount Sinai. It ends with the death of Moses, just before the people of Israel cross to the promised land of Canaan. Interspersed in the narrative are the specific teachings (religious obligations and civil laws) given explicitly (i.e. Ten Commandments) or implicitly embedded in the narrative (as in Exodus 12 and 13 laws of the celebration of Passover).
In Hebrew, the five books of the Torah are identified by the incipits in each book; and the common English names for the books are derived from the Greek Septuagint and reflect the essential theme of each book:
- Bəreshit (בְּרֵאשִׁית, literally “In the beginning”)—Genesis, from Γένεσις (Génesis, “Creation”)
- Shəmot (שְׁמוֹת, literally “Names”)—Exodus, from Ἔξοδος (Éxodos, “Exit”)
- Vayikra (וַיִּקְרָא, literally “And He called”)—Leviticus, from Λευιτικόν (Leutikón, “Relating to the Levites”)
- Bəmidbar (בְּמִדְבַּר, literally “In the desert [of]”)—Numbers, from Ἀριθμοί (Arithmoí, “Numbers”)
- Dəvarim (דְּבָרִים, literally “Things” or “Words”)—Deuteronomy, from Δευτερονόμιον (Deuteronómion, “Second-Law”)
Genesis begins with the “primeval history” (Genesis 1–11), the story of the world’s beginnings and the descent from Adam. This is followed by the story of the three patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), Joseph (Genesis 12–50) and the four matriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel). God gives to the patriarchs a promise of the land of Canaan, but at the end of Genesis the sons of Jacob end up leaving Canaan for Egypt due to a regional famine. They had heard that there was a grain storage and distribution facility in Egypt.
Exodus begins the story of God’s revelation to his people of Israel through Moses, who leads them out of Egypt (Exodus 1–18) to Mount Sinai. There the people accept the covenant with God, agreeing to be his people and abide by his holy Law, in return for his agreeing to be their God, and protect and defend them from their enemies, and provide for them and make them prosper. Moses receives the Torah from God, and teaches His laws and Covenant (Exodus 19–24) to the people of Israel. It also talks about the first violation of the covenant when the golden calf was constructed (Exodus 32–34). Exodus includes the instructions on building the Tabernacle and concludes with its actual construction (Exodus 25–31; 35–40).
Leviticus begins with instructions to the Israelites on how to use the Tabernacle, which they had just built (Leviticus 1–10). This is followed by rules of clean and unclean (Leviticus 11–15), which includes the laws of slaughter and animals permissible to eat (see also: Kashrut), the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16), and various moral and ritual laws sometimes called the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17–26). Leviticus 26 provides a detailed list of rewards for following God’s commandments and a detailed list of punishments for not following them. Leviticus 17 establishes sacrifices at the Tabernacle as an everlasting ordinance, but this ordinance is altered in later books with the Temple being the only place in which sacrifices are allowed.
Deuteronomy is a series of speeches by Moses on the plains of Moab opposite Jericho. Also referred to as Mishneh Torah in Hebrew (a repeat of the Torah) the essential gist of the entire book is a rebuke to the Children of Israel to not worship idolatry, to not follow in the ways of Cana’an, and to cleave to God. Moses proclaims the Law (Deuteronomy 12–26), gives instruction concerning covenant renewal at Shechem (Deuteronomy 27–28) and gives Israel new laws (the “Deuteronomic Code”). At the end of the book (Deuteronomy 34) Moses is allowed to see the promised land from a mountain, and then dies. The text emphasises that no one knows where Moses was finally buried (34:6). Knowing that he was nearing the end of his life, Moses had appointed Joshua his successor, bequeathing to him the mantle of leadership. Soon afterwards Israel begins the conquest of Canaan.
The Talmud holds that the Torah was written by Moses, with the exception of the last eight verses of Deuteronomy, describing his death and burial, being written by Joshua. Alternatively, Rashi quotes from the Talmud that, “God spoke them, and Moses wrote them with tears”. The Mishnah includes the divine origin of the Torah as an essential tenet of Judaism.
The modern scholarly consensus is that the Torah has multiple authors and that its composition took place over centuries. This contemporary common hypothesis among biblical scholars states that the first major comprehensive draft of the Pentateuch was composed in the late 7th or the 6th century BCE (the Jahwist source), and that this was later expanded by the addition of various narratives and laws (the Priestly source) into a work very like the one existing today.
The consensus of scholarship is that the stories are taken from four different written sources and that these were brought together over the course of time to form the first five books of the Bible as a composite work. The sources are known as J, the Jahwist source (from the German transliteration of the Hebrew YHWH), E, the Elohist source, P, the priestly source, and D, the Deuteronomist source. … Thus, the Pentateuch (or Torah, as it is known by Jews) comprises material taken from six centuries of human history, which has been put together to give a comprehensive picture of the creation of the world and of God’s dealings with his peoples, specifically with the people of Israel. (Professor John Riches of the University of Glasgow).
According to Jewish tradition, the Torah was recompiled by Ezra during Second Temple period.
Torah and Judaism
The Talmud (Menachot 30a) says that the last eight verses of the Torah that discuss the death and burial of Moses could not have been written by Moses, as writing it would have been a lie, and that they were written after his death by Joshua. Abraham ibn Ezra and Joseph Bonfils observed that phrases in those verses present information that people should only have known after the time of Moses. Ibn Ezra hinted, and Bonfils explicitly stated, that Joshua wrote these verses many years after the death of Moses. Other commentators do not accept this position and maintain that although Moses did not write those eight verses it was nonetheless dictated to him and that Joshua wrote it based on instructions left by Moses, and that the Torah often describes future events, some of which have yet to occur.
All classical rabbinic views hold that the Torah was entirely Mosaic and of divine origin. Present-day Reform and Liberal Jewish movements all reject Mosaic authorship, as do most shades of Conservative Judaism.
According to Legends of the Jews, God gave Torah to the children of Israel after he approached every tribe and nation in the world, and offered them the Torah, but the latter refused it so they might have no excuse to be ignorant about it. In this book, Torah is defined as one of the first things created, as remedy against the evil inclination, and as the counselor who advised God to create human in the creation of world in order to make him the honored One.
Main article: Torah reading
Regular public reading of the Torah was introduced by Ezra the Scribe after the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian captivity (c. 537 BCE), as described in the Book of Nehemiah. In the modern era, adherents of Orthodox Judaism practice Torah-reading according to a set procedure they believe has remained unchanged in the two thousand years since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 CE). In the 19th and 20th centuries CE, new movements such as Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism have made adaptations to the practice of Torah reading, but the basic pattern of Torah reading has usually remained the same:
As a part of the morning prayer services on certain days of the week, fast days, and holidays, as well as part of the afternoon prayer services of Shabbat, Yom Kippur, and fast days, a section of the Pentateuch is read from a Torah scroll. On Shabbat(Saturday) mornings, a weekly section (“parashah“) is read, selected so that the entire Pentateuch is read consecutively each year. The division of parashot found in the modern-day Torah scrolls of all Jewish communities (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Yemenite) is based upon the systematic list provided by Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Torah Scrolls, chapter 8. Maimonides based his division of the parashot for the Torah on the Aleppo Codex. Conservative and Reform synagogues may read parashot on a triennial rather than annual schedule, On Saturday afternoons, Mondays, and Thursdays, the beginning of the following Saturday’s portion is read. On Jewish holidays, the beginnings of each month, and fast days, special sections connected to the day are read.
Jews observe an annual holiday, Simchat Torah, to celebrate the completion and new start of the year’s cycle of readings.
Torah scrolls are often dressed with a sash, a special Torah cover, various ornaments and a Keter (crown), although such customs vary among synagogues. Congregants traditionally stand in respect when the Torah is brought out of the ark to be read, while it is being carried, and lifted, and likewise while it is returned to the ark, although they may sit during the reading itself.
Biblical law refers to the legal aspects of the Bible, the holy scriptures of Judaism and Christianity.
The Torah contains narratives, statements of law, and statements of ethics. Collectively these laws, usually called biblical law or commandments, are sometimes referred to as the Law of Moses (Torat Moshe תּוֹרַת־מֹשֶׁה), Mosaic Law, or Sinaitic Law.
The Oral Torah
Rabbinic tradition holds that Moses learned the whole Torah while he lived on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights and both the oral and the written Torah were transmitted in parallel with each other. Where the Torah leaves words and concepts undefined, and mentions procedures without explanation or instructions, the reader is required to seek out the missing details from supplemental sources known as the oral law or oral Torah. Some of the Torah’s most prominent commandments needing further explanation are:
- Tefillin: As indicated in Deuteronomy 6:8 among other places, tefillin are to be placed on the arm and on the head between the eyes. However, there are no details provided regarding what tefillin are or how they are to be constructed.
- Kashrut: As indicated in Exodus 23:19 among other places, a young goat may not be boiled in its mother’s milk. In addition to numerous other problems with understanding the ambiguous nature of this law, there are no vowelization characters in the Torah; they are provided by the oral tradition. This is particularly relevant to this law, as the Hebrew word for milk (חלב) is identical to the word for animal fat when vowels are absent. Without the oral tradition, it is not known whether the violation is in mixing meat with milk or with fat.
- Shabbat laws: With the severity of Sabbath violation, namely the death penalty, one would assume that direction would be provided as to how exactly such a serious and core commandment should be upheld. However, most information regarding the rules and traditions of Shabbat are dictated in the Talmud and other books deriving from Jewish oral law.
According to classical rabbinic texts this parallel set of material was originally transmitted to Moses at Sinai, and then from Moses to Israel. At that 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 exile, dispersion, and persecution, this tradition was lifted when it became apparent that in writing was the only way to ensure that the Oral Law could be preserved. After many years of effort by a great number of tannaim, the oral tradition was written down around 200 CE by Rabbi Judah haNasi, who took up the compilation of a nominally written version of the Oral Law, the Mishnah (משנה). Other oral traditions from the same time period not entered into the Mishnah were recorded as “Baraitot” (external teaching), and the Tosefta. Other traditions were written down as Midrashim.
After continued persecution more of the oral law was committed to writing. A great many more lessons, lectures and traditions only alluded to in the few hundred pages of Mishnah, became the thousands of pages now called the Gemara. Gemara is written in Aramaic, having been compiled in Babylon. The Mishnah and Gemara together are called the Talmud. The Rabbis in Israel also collected their traditions and compiled them into the Jerusalem Talmud. Since the greater number of Rabbis lived in Babylon, the Babylonian Talmud has precedence should the two be in conflict.
Orthodox and Conservative branches of Judaism accept these texts as the basis for all subsequent halakha and codes of Jewish law, which are held to be normative. Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism deny that these texts, or the Torah itself for that matter, may be used for determining normative law (laws accepted as binding) but accept them as the authentic and only Jewish version for understanding the Torah and its development throughout history. Humanistic Judaism holds that the Torah is a historical, political, and sociological text, but does not believe that every word of the Torah is true, or even morally correct. Humanistic Judaism is willing to question the Torah and to disagree with it, believing that the entire Jewish experience, not just the Torah, should be the source for Jewish behavior and ethics.
Divine significance of letters, Jewish mysticism
Kabbalists hold that not only do the words of Torah give a divine message, but they also indicate a far greater message that extends beyond them. Thus they hold that even as small a mark as a kotso 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” (אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, Exodus 20:2) or whether it appears in “And God spoke unto Moses saying” (וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה. Exodus 6:2). In a similar vein, Rabbi Akiva (c. 50 – c. 135 CE), is said to have learned a new law from every et (את) in the Torah (Talmud, tractate Pesachim 22b); the particle et is meaningless by itself, and serves only to mark the direct object. In other words, the Orthodox belief is that even apparently contextual text “And God spoke unto Moses saying …” is no less important than the actual statement.
Production and use of a Torah scroll
Main article: Sefer Torah
According to Jewish law, a sefer Torah (plural: Sifrei Torah) is a copy of the formal Hebrew text handwritten on gevil or klaf (forms of parchment) by using a quill (or other permitted writing utensil) dipped in ink. Written entirely in Hebrew, a sefer Torah contains 304,805 letters, all of which must be duplicated precisely by a trained sofer (“scribe”), an effort that may take as long as approximately one and a half years. Most modern Sifrei Torah are written with forty-two lines of text per column (Yemenite Jews use fifty), and very strict rules about the position and appearance of the Hebrew letters are observed. See for example the Mishnah Berurah on the subject. Any of several Hebrew scripts may be used, most of which are fairly ornate and exacting.
The completion of the sefer Torah is a cause for great celebration, and it is a mitzvah for every Jew to either write or have written for him a Sefer Torah. Torah scrolls are stored in the holiest part of the synagogue in the Ark known as the “Holy Ark” (אֲרוֹן הקֹדשׁ aron hakodesh in Hebrew.) Aron in Hebrew means “cupboard” or “closet”, and kodesh is derived from “kadosh”, or “holy”.
Main article: Targum
The Book of Ezra refers to translations and commentaries of the Hebrew text into Aramaic, the more commonly understood language of the time. These translations would seem to date to the 6th century BCE. The Aramaic term for translation is Targum. The Encyclopedia Judaica has:
At an early period, it was customary to translate the Hebrew text into the vernacular at the time of the reading (e.g., in Palestine and Babylon the translation was into Aramaic). The targum (“translation”) was done by a special synagogue official, called the meturgeman … Eventually, the practice of translating into the vernacular was discontinued.
However, there is no suggestion that these translations had been written down as early as this. There are suggestions that the Targum was written down at an early date, although for private use only.
The official recognition of a written Targum and the final redaction of its text, however, belong to the post-Talmudic period, thus not earlier than the fifth century C.E.
Main article: Septuagint
One of the earliest known translations of the first five books of Moses from the Hebrew into Greek was the Septuagint. This is a Koine Greek version of the Hebrew Bible that was used by Greek speakers. The Greek version’s name in Latin is the Septuagint: Latin septem meaning seven, plus -gintā meaning “times ten”. It was named Septuagint from the traditional number of its translators. This Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures dates from the 3rd century BCE, originally associated with Hellenistic Judaism. It contains both a translation of the Hebrew and additional and variant material.
Later translations into Greek include seven or more other versions. These do not survive, except as fragments, and include those by Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion.
Early translations into Latin—the Vetus Latina—were ad hoc conversions of parts of the Septuagint. With Saint Jerome in the 4th century CE came the Vulgate Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible.
From the eighth century AD, the cultural language of Jews living under Islamic rule became Arabic rather than Aramaic. “Around that time, both scholars and lay people started producing translations of the Bible into Judeo-Arabic using the Hebrew alphabet.” Later, by the 10th century, it became essential for a standard version of the Bible in Judeo-Arabic. The best known was produced by Saadiah, and continues to be in use today, “in particular among Yemenite Jewry”.
Rav Sa’adia produced an Arabic translation of the Torah known as Targum Tafsir and offered comments on Rasag’s work. There is a debate in scholarship whether Rasag wrote the first Arabic translation of the Torah.
The Torah has been translated by Jewish scholars into most of the major European languages, including English, German, Russian, French, Spanish and others. The most well-known German-language translation was produced by Samson Raphael Hirsch. A number of Jewish English Bible translations have been published.
As a part of the Christian biblical canons, the Torah has been translated into hundreds of languages.
In other religions
See also: Biblical law in Christianity and Development of the Old Testament canon
Jesus himself emphasized the Law of Moses, saying that whoever believed in Moses’ writings would also believe Jesus’ words:
Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust. For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me; for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings (Torah), how shall ye believe my words?— John 5:45-47
Among early centers of Christianity the Septuagint was used by Greek speakers, while Aramaic Targums were used by Aramaic speakers such as the Syriac Orthodox Church. It was regarded as the standard form of the “Old Testament” in the early Greek Christian Church and is still considered canonical in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Though different Christian denominations have slightly different versions of the “Old Testament” in their Bibles, the Torah as the “Five Books of Moses” (or “the Mosaic Law”) is common among them all.
While Christianity includes the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch) among their sacred texts in its “Old Testament”, Islam states that only the original Torah was sent by God. In neither religion does the Torah retain the religious legal significance that it does in Orthodox Judaism.
The Quran refers heavily to Moses to outline the truth of his existence and the religious guidelines that God had revealed to the Children of Israel. According to the Quran, Allah says,
“It is He Who has sent down the Book (the Quran) to you with truth, confirming what came before it. And He sent down the Taurat (Torah) and the Injeel (Gospel).” [3:3]
Muslims call the Torah the Tawrat and consider it the word of God given to Moses. However, Muslims also believe that this original revelation was corrupted (tahrif) (or simply altered by the passage of time and human fallibility) over time by Jewish scribes and hence do not revere the present “Jewish version” Torah as much (7:144–144). The Torah in the Quran is always mentioned with respect in Islam. The Muslims’ belief in the Torah, as well as the prophethood of Moses, is one of the fundamental tenets of Islam.
The Bahá’í position on the Torah was composed in 1906 by its official interpreter on all matters religious, Sir ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’ Abbas K.B.E.
“The Torah, held to be the most ancient of histories, existeth today in three separate versions: the Hebrew, considered authentic by the Jews and the Protestant clergy; the Greek Septuagint, which was used as authoritative in the Greek and other eastern churches; and the Samaritan Torah, the standard authority for that people. These three versions differ greatly, one from another, even with regard to the lifetimes of the most celebrated figures. In the Hebrew Torah, it is recorded that from Noah’s flood until the birth of Abraham there was an interval of two hundred and ninety-two years. In the Greek, that time span is given as one thousand and seventy-two years, while the Samaritan, the recorded span is nine hundred and forty-two years. Refer to the commentary by Henry Westcott for tables are supplied therein which show the discrepancies among the three Torahs as to the birth dates of a number of the descendants of Shem, and thou wilt see how greatly the versions differ from one another. Moreover, according to the text of the Hebrew Torah, from the creation of Adam until Noah’s flood the elapsed time is recorded as one thousand six hundred and fifty-six years, while in the Greek Torah the interval is given as two thousand two hundred and sixty-two years, and in the Samaritan text, the same period is said to have lasted one thousand three hundred and seven years. Reflect now over the discrepancies among these three Torahs. The case is indeed surprising. The Jews and Protestants belittle the Greek Torah, while to the Greeks, the Hebrew version is spurious, and the Samaritans deny both the Hebrew and the Greek versions.”
‘Abdu’l Bahá’s elucidations above in 1906 are found in his letter to Ethel Jenner Rosenberg.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia