What Is The Torah?
Torah is regarded to form the central reference of the Judaic religious tradition and has a range of meanings. The word Torah translates to ‘teach’ and it is of particular importance to the Jewish community. Monotheism and a strong belief in the Torah as the sacred text characterize Judaism and unify Jews across the world. Considerable efforts have been made throughout history by Jews to preserve the Torah in the face of persecution. Originally written in Hebrew, the Torah was translated into Greek, Latin, and Arabic and subsequently into hundreds of languages across the world.
A Brief Overview
The Torah has different meanings regarding the context. In the most basic sense, the Torah refers to the five books of Moses in the Jewish Bible called the Tanakh. The five books are Genesis (Bresheit), Exodus (Shemot), Leviticus (Vayicra), Numbers (Bamidbar), and Deuteronomy (Devarism). According to Jewish beliefs, God dictated the writings of Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai after 50 days of their emancipation from Egyptian slavery. The Torah is written in Hebrew, which is the oldest language of the Jews. The Torah, in a broader sense, may refer to the whole Jewish Bible or the entire volume of Jewish teachings and law. The Torah in its broadest sense can even encompass the Jewish oral traditions. Such oral instructions include the Midrash, which is the compilation of laws and rulings and the corresponding Talmud, which are the details of the debate and discussion about the law or ruling. Traditionally, the Torah was written on a scroll which was subsequently wound around two wooden poles. A scribe was tasked with writing the Torah perfectly, and a Torah made this way is referred to as a ‘Sefer Torah.' It takes about 18 months for a Scribe to complete the process of writing the Sefer Torah. A Torah prepared in modern print form is referred to as ‘Chumash,' which is Hebrew for five.
Importance Of The Torah
The Torah is extremely significant to the Jews since it comprises of written and oral laws and instructions. The Torah guides the Jews on the code of conduct expected of its members. A total of 613 commandments (mitzvot) is contained in the Torah, although the Jews pay particular attention to the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus. Out of the 613 commandments, 248 of them detail things that should be done while the other 365 commandments include things that should not be done. Jews regard the commandments as their moral direction and strictly adhere to them.
Contents Of The Torah
The following is a brief summary of the books of Torah:
The book of Genesis starts with the tale of creation. Accounts of the first human beings, Adam and Eve as well as those of their descendants are told (Genesis 1-5). The story of Noah and his descendants follows (Genesis 6-10). The Tower of Babel, the lives of the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the life of Joseph (Genesis 10-50) are detailed. God promises the land of Canaan to the patriarchs, but the books end with Jacob’s descendants leaving Canaan for Egypt due to famine.
The book of Exodus narrates the story of Moses, who delivers the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to Mount Sinai (Exodus 1-18). It is on Mount Sinai where Moses received the Torah, and he relays its instructions and covenant to the people of Israel (Exodus 19-24). The first violation of the covenant, where a Golden Calf is constructed to be worshiped is narrated (Exodus 32-34). At the end of the book, instructions to build the Tabernacle are relayed (Exodus 25-31; 35-40).
The book begins with instructions on the use of the just constructed Tabernacle (Leviticus 1-10). The law on the clean and unclean are then laid out (Leviticus 11-15), which includes animals that may be eaten and rules concerning skin diseases. Leviticus 16 deals with the Day of Atonement while the moral and ritual laws sometimes referred to as the Holiness Code are contained in Leviticus 17-26. The book ends with rewards and punishments for following or not following God’s commandments.
The book begins with the consolidation of the Israelites as a community at Mount Sinai (Numbers 1-9). They set out for Canaan, but due to lack of faith at different points in the journey, particularly at Kadesh Barnea (Numbers 14), they are cursed to wander the desert for forty years. At the end of the book, the community moves to the plains of Moab, opposite Jericho in preparation to enter Canaan.
This book contains further instructions by Moses to the Israelites on obedience to God’s laws in Moab. Due to his sins, Moses is not allowed to enter Canaan and only sees it from a mountain. The Israelites subsequently begin their conquest of Canaan.
Oral Teachings Of The Torah
In addition to the written Torah, Jews believe that God also relayed to Moses the Oral law. The Law was then passed down from teacher to disciple and from father to son. During the 2nd century C.E, the Mishnah was compiled, which contains all the oral teachings that had been passed down from the preceding generations. Over time, with the proliferation of sacred traditions and lessons, the Gemara was developed, which contains thousands of pages of the Mishnah. The Mishnah and the Gemara are together called the Talmud, of which there are two types. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled in Babylon, while the Jerusalem Talmud was compiled in Jerusalem. The Babylonian Talmud takes precedence in case of a conflict. An increasingly popular practice among Jews has been studying a page of the Talmud daily, a practice called Daf Yomi (page of the day).
Usage Of The Torah
The Torah was kept in the Ark (Aron ha Kodesh) and small sections of it are read out three times each week in the synagogue. A weekly section is read in the morning of the Sabbath and is selected such that the whole Torah is read consecutively every year. Special portions are read on Jewish Holidays, the readings chosen being connected to the relevant day.
Relevance In Other Religions
Both Christianity and Islam acknowledge the importance of the Torah but do not accord it the central significance it is given in Judaism. The Christian Bible contains the five book of Moses, known as the Pentateuch. Islam believes that only the original Torah is a reflection of God’s commands. The Torah is referred to as the Tawrat in Islam and Muslims believe that the Torah has been corrupted over time by Jewish scribes.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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