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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.
The five books are Genesis (Bereishit בראשית), Exodus (Shemot שמות), Leviticus (Vayikra ויקרא), Numbers (Bemidbar במדבר) and Deuteronomy (Devarim דברים) . 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 Humash חומש "fifth" for short) or Chumash.
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. In its widest sense, Jews use the word Torah to refer to any kind of teachings or philosophy.
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 beginings of Judaism, and 613 specific laws. Much of the five books (particuarly Genesis, the first part of Exodus and much of Numeri) 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 the basic Biblical commandments, in an ethical framework. According to a well-accepted rabbinic tradition cited in the Talmud, the Torah contains 613 mitzvot [מצוות] (tractate Makkoth 23b).
According to Jewish tradition, these books were revealed to Moses by God; some of it is said to have been revealed at Mt. Sinai (the Ten Commandments.) 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 happened other. 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. 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 (י), the smallest letter, 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 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 from Sinai and is still used as a tool for Torah study and 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, 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. Over the next four centuries this body of law, legend, 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 Talmud.
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.
Christian view of the Torah
Christianity also believes that the Torah is the word of God; however most Christians do not necessarily hold that it was "dictated" to Moses all at once. Further, traditional Christianity holds that while the Torah's quotes from God should literally be understood as quotes from God Himself, the rest of the text is not a direct quote, but rather human words written by a prophet under divine inspiration. Thus the entire Torah is held to be a holy revelation, but not all of it is seen as a quote. The Christian belief that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine has a very close analogy in the traditional Christian view of Scripture.
The Samaritans have their own version of the Torah, which contains many variant readings. Many of these agree with the Septuagint against the Masoretic Text, leading many scholars to believe that parts of the Samaritan text may have once been common in ancient Palestine, but rejected by the Masoretes.
Scientific view of the Torah
There is no scientific consensus on the dates of the writing and canonization of the Torah, and estimates range from the 10th to the 6th centuries BC. Several professors of archeology claim that many stories in the Old Testament, including important chronicles about Abraham, Moses, Solomon, and others, were actually made up for the first time by scribes hired by King Josiah (7th century BC) in order to rationalize monotheistc belief in Yahweh. Others claim that the foremost motivation behind the text is political and has to do with the division between the southern kingdom and the northern kingdom.
The prevailing theory amongst liberal and secular scholars, linguists and historians holds that the text of the Torah appears to be redacted together from a number of earlier sources; this is known as the documentary hypothesis (DH), sometimes called the "JEDP" theory. See the documentary hypothesis page for the arguments of its proponents and opponents.
Evidently, the extensive written records of neighboring countries such as Egypt, Assyria, etc., do mention some of the stories of the Bible and its main characters before 650 BC. See the book references below.
- William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites?, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI (2003).
- Neil A. Silberman et al., The Bible Unearthed, Simon and Schuster, New York (2001).