What is it?
Torah literally means "Teaching". The Torah is the central 'teaching' of Judaism. The Torah consists of the 'Five Books of Moses':
The Torah is printed as the first part of the Tanach. The Torah is often called the Chumash. This comes from the Hebrew word for five, 'chamesh', because there are five books of Torah. Similarly, the English term for the Chumash, Pentateuch, is derived from the Greek 'penta' (meaning 'five') and 'teuch' (meaning 'book'). A Torah scroll in synagogue - the Sefer Torah - contains the text of the Torah (or Five Books of Moses).
All Jews acknowledge the Torah as the most important writing that we have. The word Torah is in fact often used to refer to the whole body of Jewish religious texts and teachings - from the earliest writings to a book written today. This dual usage can be confusing, but it is usually easy enough to tell if somebody is referring to the book/scroll, or to the whole of Jewish teachings.
What is it about?
As a narrative, it starts with the story of Creation and ends with the death of Moses, just before the entry to the Land of Israel. However, it is important straight away to say two things:
Bereshit (Genesis) starts with two accounts of Creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah. It then continues in chronological order through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the Patriarchs). It then goes on to tell the story of Jacob's sons and especially of Joseph, his life in Egypt, and then concludes with Joseph's death in Egypt.
Shemot (Exodus) describes the slavery of the Jews in Egypt, and of their redemption under Moses. It describes the leaving of Egypt, and the Revelation at Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments and many other laws, and the details of the building of the Sanctuary in the Wilderness are to be found in Shemot.
Vayikra (Leviticus) contains laws and only a small amount of narrative. In Vayikra, God tells Moses to explain the laws on Priesthood, sacrifices, purity, and certain civil and criminal laws.
Bamidbar (Numbers) describes how the Jews continued their journey through the Wilderness. It tells of the twelve spies, and the subsequent wanderings of the Jews. Bamidbar ends with the Jews at the borders of the Promised Land, forty years after leaving Egypt.
Devarim (Deuteronomy) contains a review of the Torah, and Moses' parting words to the Children of Israel prior to his death. It also contains further laws. The final chapter describes Moses' death.
Where does it come from? Who wrote it down?
There is obviously controversy amongst different streams of Judaism and Jewish thought about the origin of the Torah. The traditional view is that the Torah is the word of God, communicated to and written down by Moses. This view holds that all of the Torah up until Revelation at Mount Sinai (i.e. until the middle of Shemot) was written down by Moses. There is then debate about when Moses wrote the rest of the Torah. The issue is that if Moses wrote it all down whilst on Mount Sinai he would have known what would happen next! Some think that Moses wrote the rest of the Torah as it happened, in stages; some believe that Moses did write it all on Mount Sinai. All agree that it had all been written by just after the death of Moses. Joshua is thought by some to have written the last few verses of the Torah, dealing with Moses' death.
What does it look like?
The Torah text (as written meticulously by a scribe) is different from the Chumash (or Tanach) text.
The Torah scroll does not contain chapter divisions (e.g. Numbers 13:2). These were added later by Christian scholars, but are used in the Chumash printed editions as a universal reference tool. They don't refer to anything fundamental in the text - from a Jewish point of view. Unlike the Chumash, The Torah scroll doesn't contain vowels or cantillation (singing) marks. The cantillation marks are used to allow leining (singing) from the Torah in a prescribed manner.
In what language is it written?
The Torah is written in Hebrew. This Biblical Hebrew is a very old Hebrew, and is different from more recent dialects (eg. Mishnaic or modern Hebrew). This difference is similar in kind and degree to Shakespearean and modern English. Hence Israelis can read and understand the Torah like English people can read and understand (or not) Shakespeare.
What do we do with it?
"For it was taught: 'And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water (Exodus 25:22)'. Upon which those who expound verses metaphorically said: Water means nothing but Torah, as it says: 'Ho, everyone that thirsts should come for water (Isaiah 55:1)'. It thus means that as they went three days without Torah they immediately became exhausted." - Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Kama 82a.
The Torah is read in public on three different days of each week. It is read on Shabbat morning and afternoon (at the Shacharit and Minchah services), Monday morning (at the Shacharit service) and on Thursday morning (again at Shacharit). Thus there is never a gap of more than three days between public readings of the Torah.
The sages divided the Torah into 54 portions to allow for a completion in an annual public reading. These portions are called sidrot. Each week, a different sidra is read in synagogue. (Because there are 54 sidrot, some weeks two sidrot are read.) On festivals, two special selections from the Torah relevant to that day are read.
The word parasha is often used to mean sedra, but this is a misnomer. Technically a parasha is a paragraph marked by an indent on a midline blank space in the Torah scroll. Parashot can be as short as a sentence and as long as an entire sidra.
Each sidra is divided into seven aliyot (points at which someone from the congregation makes a blessing on the Torah, commonly known as "call ups"). These aliyot are decided by convention, based on natural spaces in the text. These can be seen in the Torah itself, although they are also made with reference to the content of the passages. On Saturday afternoon, Monday, and Thursday, the first aliyah (call up, or division of the sidra) for the following Shabbat is read - but three people are given the honour of reading it. The first aliyah is therefore subdivided into smaller units for use on three days of the week (these smaller units are still called aliyot though!) Four people are called to the Torah on Rosh Chodesh (the New Month), five - for major festivals (Pesach, Shavout, Succot, Rosh Hashanah) and six are called to the
Torah on Yom Kippur.
On Shabbat, at least seven people are called to the Torah. It is possible to divide the Torah reading into more parts to let more people share in the honour of being called to read it, but whatever happens, the entire Parasha must be read on Shabbat morning.
The Torah is studied extensively, and is the basis for all Jewish learning. That is why the Torah is read in public - to make sure that Jews are learning it. Torah is taught in Jewish schools and synagogues.
There is a custom of reading one division of the sidra each day of the week, so that each week the entire sidra is learnt. There are a number of different ways to learn the 'Parashot HaShavua' (which literally means 'the weekly sidra') - by classes or reading. Study of Torah at home, on the way to work, during leisure time etc. is part of the lifestyle of many Jews. The Torah is one of the most extensively studied Jewish texts.
If I want to read it...
Purchase or borrow a copy of the Torah, or Chumash. The best editions will have easy to read English and a lot of commentaries. The commentaries are the comments of scholars that make interesting points about the Torah text. Reading commentaries is easy and adds a lot of depth to your understanding. Just sit down, maybe start at Bereshit (the first book of Moses), and start to read. Or perhaps try to read the weekly sidra each week (perhaps an aliya each dayThe editions of the Chumash that one usually finds in synagogue (Hertz or Soncino) have some commentaries on the text included. The Art Scroll edition is also highly recommended.
If you want to understand the themes and appreciate the depths of the Torah, perhaps try to read some other book alongside your Chumash. This is the sort of thing one might need to do when studying Shakespeare or Descartes in an attempt to really appreciate the text. One wouldn't just read Shakespeare, but a book about the play as well. You can subscribe to weekly newsletters or e-mails on the sidra. But remember, if you don't read the actual text first, your understanding will be limited (just like with Shakespeare).
Tanach | Neviim
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