Introduction to The Torah
Most people have heard the term “Torah” used to
refer to the Old Testament or minimally in reference first five books of what
is known as Tanakh. The Torah is the
text that serves as the foundation to Judaism.
However, the term has both broad and specific connotations.
Torah as a General Term
The word Torah comes from the Hebrew infinitive “Lehorot”, “to teach”
and means “Teaching.” In regards to
Judaism, the word Torah refers to the entire body of the Oral and Written
traditions, including the 24 books of Tanach and the entire corpus of Jewish
Law, theology and tradition. The two
terms used loosely to refer to the written and oral traditions are the Written
and Oral Law.
Tanakh and the Written Tradition
The Jewish written tradition contains of 24 major books that consist
of the Five Books of Moses, Prophets and Writings, or Torah, Nevi’im and
Ketuvim in Hebrew. The term Tanakh,
which refers to these books, is created by taking the first letters of each
section in Hebrew and refers to those 24 books.
The Christian tradition divides many of these books in two and organizes
them differently as well.
The Five Books of Moses, the section called Torah,
consists of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and
Deuteronomy. This section of the Jewish
tradition contains the history of the world, the lives of the Patriarchs, the
descent and redemption from Egypt, the primary corpus of Jewish Law as well as
the different events surrounding the Jews until Moses’ death and the entry into
the Land of Israel. The Torah section is
considered to be the holiest of texts and in Jewish tradition is read publicly
during prayer services twice during the week, Sabbath and holidays.
The Prophets section of Tanach, or Nevi’im consists
of all of the major prophets, judges and kings over the course of Jewish
history starting with Moses’ successor Joshua until the final prophet – Malachi
and the exile from Israel. This section
of the written Jewish tradition is considered to be the accurate history of the
Jewish people during the period of time in which they lived in Israel during
the first temple period. Some of the
well known figures from this section of the Torah include Joshua, Samson,
Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Solomon.
The final section of the Written Tradition is known
as Writings, or Ketuvim in Hebrew. The
Ketuvim section mostly contains books of poetry, the five scrolls, psalms and a
summary of Jewish history in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles.
Oral Tradition and Commentaries
The other part of the Torah is known as the Oral Law and consists of
all of the commentaries on the 24 books of Tanakh and the entire Halachik
corpus consisting of the Midrash, Mishnah and Talmud.
The Midrash refers to the explanations attached to
the stories in Tanach. Included in this
are legal interpretations that were included in the Mishna and Talmud. The vast majority of the explanations are
allegorical in nature very often are not to be interpreted literally. The Midrash Rabba, Mechilta, Sifra, Sifri,
Midrash Midrash Tanchuma and Yalkut Shim’oni are the most famous collections of
the Midrash. Included in the Midrash is
the Zohar, the book of Jewish Mysticism, although there is much controversy
surrounding this section and many do not include it as part of Midrash and
instead as its own area of Jewish tradition.
The Mishna, also known as Shas, was the first
codification of the Jewish Legal tradition.
It was recorded by Rabbi Judah who was known as Rabbi Judah the Prince
or as “the Teacher” because he was the leader and teacher of the nation. His recording of the Talmud took place during
the second century. The Mishna has six
sections, each of which contains the laws pertaining to an area of Jewish
life. Those areas are agricultural laws,
the Jewish calendar and holidays, male-female relationships, damages, the laws
of purity and impurity and the sacrifices offered in the Temple.
The term the Talmud usually refers to the Talmud
compiled in Babylonia by the Talmudic Scholars Ravina and Rav Ashi in the year
500 CE. However, it may also refer to
the Jerusalem Talmud that was compiled 150 years earlier. The Talmud is also known in Jewish circles as
“Gemara”. The Talmud is actually a
commentary on the Mishna although it is also a transcription of the discussions
that occurred in Jewish Talmudic Academies immediately following the
destruction of the second temple.
The Halachik Corpus and Jewish Law
The remaining section of the Torah is the realm of Jewish Law. This area contains hundreds of thousands of
works that are recordings of the issues in Jewish law which arose over the
centuries as well as several codifications of Jewish Law, the most famous of
which are Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Rabbi Joseph Cairo’s Shulhan Aruch and
Rabbi Yisrael Mair Kagan’s Mishnah Berura.