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Torah, (תורה) is a Hebrew word meaning "teaching", "instruction", or especially "law". It primarily refers to the first section of the Tanakh–the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, or the Five Books of Moses, but can also be used in the general sense to also include both the Written and Oral Law.

The five books of the Torah are:

Genesis (Bereishit בראשית) Parshas Bereishis
Exodus (Shemot שמות) Parshas Shemos
Leviticus (Vayikra ויקרא) Parshas Vayikra
Numbers (Bemidbar במדבר) Parshas Bamidbar
Deuteronomy (Devarim דברים) Parshas Devorim

Collectively they are also known as the Pentateuch (Greek for "five containers", where containers presumably refers to the scroll cases in which books were being kept), Hamisha Humshei Torah (חמשה חומשי תורה) (Hebrew for "the five parts of the Torah", or just (C)Humash (חומש "fifth" for short).

also see: Tanakh and Talmud

A Torah is a specially written scroll of the five books, a Sefer Torah. Jews also use the word Torah, in a wider sense, to refer to the entire spectrum of authoritative Jewish religious teachings throughout history. In this sense it might include the entire Tanakh, the Mishnah, the Talmud and the midrashic literature.

Paper Torahs


Structure of the five books

The five books do not contain a complete and ordered system of legislature (which is found in the Talmud), but rather, a general philosophical basis, a historical description of the beginnings of Judaism, and 613 specific laws. Much of the five books (particularly Genesis, the first part of Exodus and much of Numbers) are actually stories rather than lists of laws, but many important concepts and ideas are found in these stories. The book of Deuteronomy is different from the previous books; it consists of Moses' final speeches to Israel at the end of his life, and reiterates many laws mentioned previously.

Many laws of Judaism are not directly mentioned in the Torah, but are derived from textual hints, which were expanded orally, and eventually written down in the Talmud and Mishnah. According to the Jewish view, the stories in the Torah are not always in chronological order, and sometimes they are ordered by concept (Talmud tractate Pesachim 7a).

Jews believe that every single word, and even letter, in the Torah is significant and has a reason for appearing there.

Jewish view of the Torah

The Torah is the primary document of Judaism, and is the source of all Biblical commandments, in an ethical framework. According to a well-accepted rabbinic tradition cited in the Talmud (tractate Makkoth 23b), the Torah contains 613 mitzvot [מצוות].

According to Jewish tradition, these books were revealed to Moses by God; some of it is said to have been revealed at Mt. Sinai. Classical rabbinic literature offers various ideas on when the entire Torah was revealed. Some sources state that the entire Torah was given all at once on Mount Sinai. In the maximalist view, this dictation included not only the "quotes" which appear in the text, but every word of the text itself, including phrases such as "And God spoke to Moses...", and included God telling Moses about Moses' own death and what would happen afterward. Other classical sources hold that the Torah was revealed to Moses over many years, and finished only at his death. Another school of thought holds that although Moses wrote the vast majority of the Torah, a number of sentences throughout the Torah must have been written after his death by another prophet, presumably Joshua. All classical views, nonetheless, hold that the Torah was entirely or almost entirely Mosaic and of divine origin.

The Rabbis hold that not only are the words giving a Divine message, but indicate a far greater message that extends beyond them. Thus they hold that even as small a mark as a kotzo shel yod (קוצו של יוד), the serif of the  Hebrew letter yod, the smallest letter,  י  was put there by God to teach scores of lessons. This is regardless of whether that yod appears in the phrase "I am the Lord thy God," or whether it appears in that oft repeated "And God spoke unto Moses saying." In a similar vein, Rabbi Akiva, who died in AD 135, is said to have learned a new law from every et (את) in the Torah (Talmud, tractate Pesachim 22b); the word et is meaningless by itself, and serves only to mark the accusative case. In other words, the Orthodox view is that "And God spoke unto Moses saying..." is no less important than the actual statement.

One kabbalistic interpretation is that the Torah constitutes one long name of God, and that it was broken up into words so that human minds can understand it. While this is effective since it accords with our human reason, it is not the only way that the text can be broken up.

There is little support for higher biblical criticism in Orthodox Judaism. Applying the techniques of higher criticism to books of the Bible other than the Torah is frowned upon, but applying these techniques to the Torah itself is usually considered to be both mistaken and heretical. As such, the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Judaism views the documentary hypothesis to be heretical. Orthodox rabbis well-known for taking issue with documentary hypothesis include Meir Leibush Malbim and Samson Raphael Hirsch.


Torah translations have existed for over 2000 years. An early example is the Septuagint, which the Talmud says was produced at the instigation of a king or pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty.

The best-known translation of antiquity is probably the Targum of Onkelos the Proselyte, who based his translation on an oral tradition and is still used as a tool for Torah study. It is quoted extensively by Rashi in questions on etymology.

The Torah and the oral law

Rabbinical Judaism (i.e. Orthodox Judaism) holds that the Torah has been transmitted in parallel with an oral tradition. They point to the text of the Torah, where they believe many words are left undefined, and many procedures mentioned without explanation or instructions; they believe the reader is assumed to be familiar with the details from other, oral, sources.

This parallel set of material was originally transmitted orally, and came to be known as the oral law. At the time, it was forbidden to write and publish the Oral Law, as any writing would be incomplete and subject to misinterpretation and abuse. However, after great debate, this restriction was lifted when it became apparent that it was the only way to ensure that the law could be preserved.

To prevent the material from being lost, the Rabbis began to write down their oral traditions. Around AD 200, Rabbi Judah haNasi took up the redaction of a written version of the oral law; it was compiled into the first major written work of rabbinic Judaism, the Mishnah. Other writings from the same time period which record details of the Oral Law are called "Baraitot" (external teaching), and include the Tosefta. Over the next four centuries this body of law, legend, and ethical teachings underwent debate and analysis in both of the world's major Jewish communities (in Israel and Babylon). These commentaries on the Mishnah, called gemara, eventually came to be edited together into compilations known as the Talmuds.

Most Jews follow the traditional explication of these laws that can be found in this later literature. Karaites, who reject the oral law, and adhere solely to the laws of the Torah, are a major exception.