What Is the Torah?

Judaism's Most Important Text

Boy reading Torah Bar Mitzvah
A Bar Mitzvah boy reads from the Torah at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, Israel.

 

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The Torah, Judaism's most important text, consists of the first five books of the Tanakh (also known as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses), the Hebrew Bible. These five books—which include the 613 commandments (mitzvot) and the Ten Commandments—also comprise the first five books 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 of the rules by which the Jewish people structure their spiritual lives.

Fast Facts: The Torah

• The Torah is made up of the first five books of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. It describes the creation of the world and the early history of the Israelites.

• The first full draft of the Torah is believed to have been completed in the 7th or 6th century B.C. The text was revised by various authors over subsequent centuries.

• The Torah consists of 304,805 Hebrew letters.

The writings of the Torah are the most important part of the Tanakh, which also contains 39 other important Jewish texts. The word "Tanakh" is actually an acronym. "T" is for Torah ("Teaching"), "N" is for Nevi’im ("Prophets") and "K" 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 wound around two wooden poles. This is known as a Sefer Torah and it is handwritten by a sofer (scribe) who must copy the text perfectly. In modern printed form, the Torah is usually called a Chumash, which comes from the Hebrew word for the number five.

Books of the Torah

The five books of the Torah begin with the creation of the world and end with the death of Moses. In Hebrew, the name of each book is derived from the first unique word or phrase that appears in that book.

Genesis (Bereshit)

Bereshit is Hebrew for "in the beginning." This book describes the creation of the world, the creation of the first humans (Adam and Eve), the fall of man, and the lives of Judaism's early patriarchs and matriarchs (the generations of Adam). The God of "Genesis" is a vengeful one; in this book, he punishes humanity with a great flood and destroys the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The book ends with Joseph, the son of Jacob and the grandson of Isaac, being sold into slavery in Egypt.

Exodus (Shemot)

Shemot means "names" in Hebrew. This, the second book of the Torah, tells the story of the Israelites' bondage in Egypt, their liberation by the prophet Moses, their journey to Mount Sinai (where God reveals the Ten Commandments to Moses), and their wanderings in the wilderness. The story is one of great hardship and suffering. At first, Moses fails to convince Pharoah to free the Israelites; it is only after God sends 10 plagues (including an infestation of locusts, a hailstorm, and three days of darkness) that Pharoah agrees to Moses's demands. The Israelites' escape from Egypt includes the famous parting of the Red Sea and the appearance of God in a storm cloud.

Leviticus (Vayikra)

Vayikra means "And He called" in Hebrew. This book, unlike the previous two, is less focused on narrating the history of the Jewish people. Instead, it deals primarily with priestly matters, offering instructions for rituals, sacrifices, and atonement. These include guidelines for the observance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as well as rules for the preparation of food and priestly behavior.

Numbers (Bamidbar)

Bamidbar means "in the desert," and this book describes the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness as they continue their journey toward the Promised Land in Canaan (the "land of milk and honey"). Moses takes a census of the Israelites and divides the land among the tribes.

Deuteronomy (D'varim)

D'varim means "words" in Hebrew. This is the final book of the Torah. It recounts the end of the Israelites' journey according to Moses and ends with his death just before they enter the Promised Land. This book includes three sermons delivered by Moses in which he reminds the Israelites to obey the instructions of God.

Timeline

Scholars believe that the Torah was written and revised by multiple authors over the course of several centuries, with the first full draft appearing in the 7th or 6th century B.C. Various additions and revisions were made over the centuries that followed.

Who Wrote the Torah?

The Torah is such an old document that its authorship is unclear. Jewish and Christian tradition claims that the text was written by Moses himself (with the exception of the end of Deuteronomy, which was allegedly written by Joshua). Scholars, however, maintain that the Torah was assembled from a collection of sources by different authors over the course of about 600 years.