Introduction to The Torah

January 14, 2013 Back

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.

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