What Is the Torah?

All About the Torah, Judaism's Most Important Text

Scholars At Beth El Synagogue
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The Torah is Judaism’s most important text. It is composed of the Five Books of Moses and also contains the 613 commandments (mitzvot) and the Ten Commandments.  These five books of Moses also comprise the first five chapters of the Christian Bible. The word “Torah” means “to teach.” In traditional teaching, the Torah is said to be the revelation of God given to Moses and written down by him. It is the document that contains all rules by which the Jewish people structure their spiritual lives.

 

The writings of the Torah are also part of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), which contains not only the Five Books of Moses (Torah) but 39 other important Jewish texts. The word “Tanach” is actually an acronym: “T” is for Torah, “N” is for Nevi’iim (Prophets) and “Ch” is for Ketuvim (Writings). Sometimes, the word "torah" is used to describe the entire Hebrew Bible.

Traditionally, each synagogue has a copy of the Torah written on a scroll that is then wound around two wooden poles. This is called a “Sefer Torah” and it is handwritten by a sofer (scribe) who must copy the text perfectly. When in modern printed form, the Torah is usually called a “Chumash,” which comes from the Hebrew word for the number “five.”

The Five Books of Moses

The Five Books of Moses begin with the Creation of the World and end with the death of Moses.  They are listed below according to their English and Hebrew names. In Hebrew, the name of each book is derived from the first unique word that appears in that book.

  • Genesis (Bereisheet).“Bereisheet” means “in the beginning.” This book talks about the Creation of the World, the Great Flood, and also tells the stories of Judaism’s patriarchs and matriarchs. These stories begin with Abraham and Sarah and end with Joseph in Egypt.
  • Exodus (Shemot). “Shemot” means “names” in Hebrew. This book tells the story of the Israelites bondage in Egypt, their journey to Mt. Sinai (where the Ten Commandments are received) and their wanderings in the wilderness.
  • Leviticus (Vayikra). “Vayikra” means “And He Called” in Hebrew. This book deals mostly with priestly matters, such as rituals, sacrifice, atonement and ritual purity.
  • Numbers (BaMidbar). “BaMidbar” means “In the wilderness” in Hebrew. This book talks about the Israelites wanderings in the desert as they continue towards the Promised Land.
  • Deuteronomy (D’varim). “D’varim” means “words” in Hebrew. This is the final book of the Torah. It recounts the Israelites’ journey according to Moses and ends with his death just before they enter the Promised Land.

Authorship

The Torah is such an old document that its authorship is unclear. While the Talmud (the body of Jewish law) holds that the Torah was written down by Moses himself--except for the last eight verses of Deuteronomy, describing Moses death, which is said to be written by Joshua-- modern scholars analyzing the original texts have concluded that the five books were written by several different authors and that they underwent several editings. The Torah is thought to have achieved its final form sometime in the 6th or 7th century CE.