Torah study is the near-ritualistic dedication to studying religious texts that has evolved among the Jews over generations. In some circles, most notably the Orthodox and Haredi, Torah study has become a way of life: in some communities, men forego work and spend their entire lives studying Torah (intended to mean all the sacred writings and commentaries on the Bible, especially the Talmud).
Torah study per se is not a biblical mitzvah (commandment), and is only alluded to in the verse in (Deuteronomy 6:7): "And you shall teach it to your children". The Talmud comments on this that "Study is necessary in order to teach." The fact that study rose to such prominence rather quickly is attested to in another Talmudic discussion about which is preferred: study or action. The answer there, a seeming compromise, is "study that leads to action."
Although the word Torah refers specifically to the Five Books of Moses, Jews also use the word to refer to Jewish Scripture in general; this includes the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.
It is thought by some that the origin of this devotion to study developed in the Hellenistic period, and may be a Jewish imitation of the Greek academies. This theory has been supported by an examination of other commandments closely related to Torah study, for example, the Passover seder, where fathers are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus to their sons--another opportunity for study. It is suggested that the seder format in which this takes place is structured along the lines of a Greek drinking festival.
Traditional view of Torah study
In rabbinic literature, the highest ideal of all Jews was Torah study; Jewish society taught an eagerness for study and a thirst for knowledge which expanded beyond the text of the Torah, to all Jewish literature and related theology. According to many historians, this carried over into the general characteristics of Jewish society, both religious and non-religious, down to the present. Some examples of traditional teachings:
- As the child must satisfy its hunger day by day, so must the grown man busy himself with the Torah each hour (Yerushalmi Ber. ch. 9).
- The mishnah reading (Pe'ah i.) incorporated in the daily prayer service declares that the study of the Torah transcends all things, being greater than the rescue of human life, than the building of the Temple, and than the honor of father and mother (Meg. 16b).
- Torah study is of more value than the offering of daily sacrifice (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 63b);
- A single day devoted to the Torah outweighs 1,000 sacrifices (Talmud Shabbat 30a; comp. Men. 100a);
- While the fable of the Fish and the Fox, in which the latter seeks to entice the former to dry land, declares Israel can live only in the Law as fish can live only in the ocean. Whoever separates himself from the Torah dies forthwith (Talmud Avodah Zarah 3b);
- God weeps over one who might have occupied himself with Torah study but neglected to do so (Talmud Hag. 5b).
- The study must be unselfish: "One should study the Torah with self-denial, even at the sacrifice of one's life; and in the very hour before death one should devote himself to this duty" (Sotah 21b; Ber. 63b; Shab. 83b).
- All, even lepers and ritually unclean, were required to study the Law (Ber. 22a)
- It was the duty of every one to read the entire weekly lesson twice (Ber. 8a)
- "A Gentile who studies the Torah is as great as the high priest" (B. ?. 38a).
- "God Himself sits and studies the Torah" (Talmud Avodah Zarah 3b).
Forms of traditional Jewish Torah study
The Talmud (Kiddushin 30a) comments: "The words of Torah shall be sharp in your mouth so that if someone asks you something, you shall not fumble and then tell it to him, rather you shall tell it to him immediately." In Yeshivas (schools of higher Jewish education), rabbinical schools and Kollels (schools or study circles of higher Jewish education) the primary ways of studying Torah include study of:
- The weekly Torah portion with its Meforshim (Biblical commentators)
- Ethical works
Most Orthodox Jews study the text of the Torah on four levels as described in the Zohar:
- Peshat, the surface meaning of the text;
- Remez, allusions or allegories in the text
- Derash, a rabbinic or midrashic way of reading new lessons into the text
- Sod, the hidden mystical Kabbalistic reading of the Torah.
The initial letters of the words Peshat, Remez, Derash, Sod, forming together the Hebrew word PaRDeS (also meaning "orchard"), became the designation for the four-way method of studying Torah, in which the mystical sense given in the Kabbalah was the highest point. One can find examples of its use in The Chumash: The Stone Edition (Mesorah Publications), used in many Orthodox synagogues
Torah Study by non-Orthodox Jews
Like their Orthodox peers, non-Orthodox Jews may use any or all of the traditional areas and modes of Torah study. They study the weekly Torah portion, the Talmud, ethical works, etc. They may study simply the peshat of the text, or they may also study the remez, derash and sod, which is found in Etz Hayyim: A Torah Commentary (Rabbinical Assembly), used in many Conservative congregations. It is common in Torah study among Jews involved in Jewish Renewal. Some level of PaRDeS study can even be found in forms of Judaism that otherwise are strictly rationalist, such as Reconstructionist Judaism. However, non-Orthodox Jews generally spend less time in detailed study of the classical Torah commentators, and spend more time studying modern Torah commentaries that draw on and include the classical commentators, but which are written from more modern perspectives.
Prior to The Enlightenment Jews believed that the Tanakh was authored by God or divinely inspired, and that it directly reflected God's intentions in human language. As both divine intentions and human language are complex, Scripture required interpretation. After the Enlightenment many Jews began to participate in the wider European society, where they learned critical methods of textual study, the modern historical method, hermeneutics, and fields relevant to Bible study such as near-Eastern archaeology and linguistics. Many Jews found the findings of these disciplines compelling and considered them relevant. In this view the Bible was written by different people (who may have been divinely inspired) living at different times and in different societies. Consequently, one way to add more to Torah study would be to learn more about the intentions of these people, and the circumstances under which they lived. This type of study depended on evidence external to the text, especially archeological evidence and comparative literature. See the entries on Biblical Higher criticism and the Documentary hypothesis.
Today, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist Rabbis draw on the lessons of modern critical Bible scholarship as well as the traditional forms of Biblical exegesis. Orthodox Rabbis, however, typically reject most or all critical Bible scholarship as highly speculative and incompatible with Judaism.
Religious Jews of all denominations hold as a belief that one must constantly strive to engage in Torah study. Orthodox Jews still hold to this requirement more rigorously than most Jews in other denominations, although committed Jews of all denominations engage in regular study as well.
- A Practical Guide to Torah Learning, D. Landesman, Jason Aronson 1995. ISBN 1568213204