The Five Books of the Torah

January 14, 2013 Back

The Five Books of the Torah, also known as The Chumash in Hebrew, make up the most important section of the Written Torah.  The Chumash contains the entire basis of Judaism, from its basic beliefs, history and legal principles that the entire Oral Law and Jewish Legal Corpus are based.  Each of the five books has a core message beneath the events and commandments that take place.

Genesis: Creation, the Patriarchs and Egypt

The first book, Genesis, is known as Bereshit in Hebrew.  Genesis opens with the creation of the world, Adam and Eve and the expulsion from Eden.  It then traces the generations to Noah and the flood.  Following the flood, the book then traces ten more generations to Abraham whereupon the book focuses on the life of Abraham, his son Isaac, grandson Jacob, his children, their wives and their lives, ending with the descent of Jacob and his children to Egypt.  According to the major medieval commentaries, the message of this book is to prove the Jew’s rights to the land of Israel and this is the reason for the detailed genealogical records present in Bereshit.

Exodus: From Slavery to a Free Nation Under G-d

The book of Exodus, known as Shemot in Hebrew picks up right where Genesis ends and opens with the enslavement of the Jews under the Egyptians and the genocidal intentions of the Pharaoh towards the Jews.  At this point, the book speaks of Moses’ (Moshe) birth and his flight from Egypt to Midian after rebelling against the Egyptians and his eventual prophesy that leads him to return to Egypt and demand the Jews’ freedom.  The next section of Shemot details the plagues G-d struck Egypt with and the dramatic events that culminated with the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Res Sea.  Then the book gives the first set of rules regarding the Shabbat and the arrival at Sinai.  From this point onward until the end of the book, the Torah details a large portion of Jewish financial law and the construction of the Tabernacle, also known as the Mishkan in Hebrew, with an interruption in the middle to detail the catastrophic events surrounding the Golden Calf.

Leviticus: The Laws of Purity and Impurity and Morality

Leviticus, Vayikra in Hebrew, does not discuss any events other than those relating to the construction of the tabernacle and its dedication.  The book mostly discusses laws that relate to the holidays, purity and impurity, the temple service and all of the sacrifices a well as the laws of Kashruth, what a Jew may and may not eat.   The book also discusses morality, forbidding certain relationships, warning of punishment for oppressing people unnecessarily and the obligation to give charity.  According to many, Vaykira’s message is an exhortation to act in a manner befitting a nation chosen by G-d and not like the rest of the world.

Numbers: Counting, Rebellions, War and Other Events

The book of Numbers, or Bamidbar in Hebrew, returns to where Shemot ended and opens with a census of all the Jews as well as their positions in  the Jewish camp when at rest and during  travel.  It then discusses the Sin of the Spies in Kadesh Barnea and the events that transpired during the 40 year travail in the desert:  Korach’s Rebellion, Bilaam’s attempts to curse the Jews, war against Midian and the Emorites, the capture of the East Bank of the Jordan by the Jews and the settlement of the tribes of Reuben and Gad there.  The different events are broken up by discussions of laws, and the book closes with a list of the locations the Jews camped and the laws of inheritance.

Deuteronomy:  Moses’s Last Words, Repetition of the Torah and a Promise for the Future

Deuteronomy, or Devarim in Hebrew, is the final book of the Chumash.  It because it is mostly Moses’s final speech to the Jews, it is written primarily in first person and is in a different style in comparison to the other books.  Devarim opens with a stern rebuke of the Jews for their reaction to the Sin of the Spies and their repetitive testing of G-d’ patience.  Moses then encourages the Jews to make the right choices so that they will inherit the Land of Israel and never be removed from it.  The last half of Deuteronomy discusses the foundations of the legal system, a short repetition of the laws in the previous three books, the laws that are only relevant when one is in Israel.  The book closes with Moses’ final rebuke, warning about the future exile and the final redemption.  The book of Devarim has a message of redemption and hope for the future, regardless of the position the Jews may find themselves in.

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