What is Torah: A Jewish Perspective

Torah Scrolled on Lectern partially un-rolled
What is Torah: A Jewish Perspective
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About the Author

Stephen Wise

Stephen Wise

Rabbi Wise has focused much of his rabbinate in striving passionately to connect Jews of all ages to their Judaism. Whether its through prayer services, learning or social action, each presents a gateway to stronger Jewish identity. Rabbi Wise has worked recently developing programming for young adults in their 20-30's, starting ongoing successful groups in NYC and Florida, reigniting their connections to Judaism. Rabbi Wise is the spiritual leader for Oakville's Jewish community, and his congregation is Shaarei Beth-El on Morrison Road.

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In Judaism Torah specifically means “teaching” in English and most commonly refers to the first 5 books of Moses, the first 5 books of the Bible. This includes Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. At the end of this article is a brief description of the contents of each of the first five books of the Torah.

However for Jews, the concept of Torah is much broader than the books themselves. It often refers to all Jewish learning, beginning with the written text, the Bible, and also the oral text, the Talmud.

Jewish scholarship always begins with the words of Hebrew scripture, given from God to Moses and down to the people. But it is an ongoing revelation, that needs humans to analyze, interpret and discuss the concepts and laws from the written tradition and expand it to help guide our lives in fulfilling gods commandments. Thus when we say we are studying a little Torah, this might be a portion from the weekly reading, a set of stories to fill in the blanks from the scriptural verses, or a delicate debate on the nuances of how to perform the commandment of keeping kosher.

Indeed when the Rabbi leads a sermon on Shabbat, he or she is often offering what is called a “dvar torah” literally a few words of Torah. It also allows us to tell our children, “eat your vegetables, its in the Torah” because its likely somewhere in 3000 years of traditions, customs and laws, there is bound to be a section on eating healthy.

From www.myjewishlearning.com, a wonderful online Jewish resources. The English names for each of the Torah’s five book are actually Greek, and like the Rabbinic names for the books, they are descriptive of the contents. The common names for the books come from a significant word in the beginning verses of the book.

The following are the names of the five books and a brief summary of each:

  1. Bereishit (“In the Beginning”) / Genesis (“Origins”) tells the story of creation, Noah and the flood, and the selection of Abraham and Sarah and their family as the bearers of God’s covenant. Stories of sibling conflict and the long narratives of Jacob and his favorite son Joseph conclude with the family dwelling in Egypt.
  2. Shemot (“names”) / Exodus (“The Road Out”) tells of how the family of Jacob grew and then was enslaved in Egypt. The baby Moses, born of Israelites but adopted by Pharaoh, becomes God’s prophet who, after bringing 10 plagues down upon Egypt, leads the Israelites through the Red Sea to freedom and to the revelation at Mt. Sinai. The story of the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, which follows soon after the revelation at Mt. Sinai, is almost obscured by lengthy materials on the building of a sanctuary in the wilderness.
  3. Vayikra (“And God Called”) / Leviticus (“Laws of the Levites”) deals mostly with laws of Israelite sacrificial worship. Related rules include the basis for Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) and issues of purity and impurity. The holiness code, which describes a sanctified communal life, is a highlight of the book.
  4. Bamidbar (“In the Wilderness”) / Numbers (“The Census”) begins with a census of the Israelites and the tribe of Levi. A group of Israelites spy out the land of Canaan; their discouraging report sends them back into the desert for an additional 38 years, during which the Israelites continue to behave badly, rebelling against the authority of Moses and his brother Aaron, and having illicit relations with Moabite women.
  5. Devarim (“Words”) / Deuteronomy (“Second Law”) is Moses’ final message to the people of Israel before they cross over the Jordan River into Israel. Moses reminds the people of how God has redeemed the people from Egypt and of the details of the covenant between Israel and God. In stark language, Moses describes the rewards for observance of the laws of the covenant and the punishment for disobedience. Finally, Moses passes along his authority to Joshua who will lead the people into the land.
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