Torah in the narrowest sense refers to the first five books of the Bible
In a broader sense, Torah includes all Jewish law and tradition
Torah was given to Moses in written form with oral commentary
The oral component is now written in the Talmud
There are additional important writings
word "Torah" is a tricky one, because it can mean different things in different
contexts. In its most limited sense, "Torah" refers to the Five Books of
Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and
Deuteronomy. But the word "torah" can also be used to refer to the entire
Jewish bible (the body of scripture known to non-Jews as the Old Testament and
to Jews as the Tanakh or Written Torah), or in its broadest sense, to the whole
body of Jewish law and teachings.
To Jews, there is no "Old Testament." The books that Christians call the New
Testament are not part of Jewish scripture. The so-called Old Testament is
known to us as Written Torah or the Tanakh.
This is a list of the books of Written Torah, in the order in which they appear
in Jewish translations, with the Hebrew name of the book, a translation of the
Hebrew name (where it is not the same as the English name), and English names
of the books (where it is not the same as the Hebrew name). The Hebrew names of
the first five books are derived from the first few words of the book. The text
of each book is more or less the same in Jewish translations as what you see in
Christian bibles, although there are some occasional, slight differences in the
numbering of verses and there are some significant differences in the
TORAH (The Law):
- Bereishith (In the beginning...) (Genesis)
- Shemoth (The names...) (Exodus)
- Vayiqra (And He called...) (Leviticus)
- Bamidbar (In the wilderness...) (Numbers)
- Devarim (The words...) (Deuteronomy)
NEVI'IM (The Prophets):
- Yehoshua (Joshua)
- Shoftim (Judges)
- Shmuel (I &II Samuel)
- Melakhim (I & II Kings)
- Yeshayah (Isaiah)
- Yirmyah (Jeremiah)
- Yechezqel (Ezekiel)
- The Twelve (treated as one book):
- Hoshea (Hosea)
- Yoel (Joel)
- Ovadyah (Obadiah)
- Yonah (Jonah)
- Mikhah (Micah)
- Chavaqquq (Habbakkuk)
- Tzefanyah (Zephaniah)
- Zekharyah (Zechariah)
KETHUVIM (The Writings):
- Tehillim (Psalms)
- Mishlei (Proverbs)
- Iyov (Job)
- Shir Ha-Shirim (Song of Songs)
- Eikhah (Lamentations)
- Qoheleth (the author's name) (Ecclesiastes)
- Ezra & Nechemyah (Nehemiah) (treated as one book)
- Divrei Ha-Yamim (The words of the days) (Chronicles)
Written Torah is often referred to as the Tanakh, which is an acrostic of
Torah, Nevi'im and Ketuvim.
scriptures that we use in services are written on parchment scrolls. They are
always hand-written, in attractive Hebrew calligraphy with "crowns"
(crows-foot-like marks coming up from the upper points) on many of the
letters. This style of writing is known as
STA"M (an abbreviation for "Sifrei Torah, Tefillin
and Mezuzot," which is where you will see that
style of writing). For more information about the STA"M alphabet, including
illustrations and relevant rules, see
Alphabet used in writing STA"M.
are not supposed to touch the parchment on these scrolls; some say because they
are too holy; some say because the parchment, made from animal skins, is a
source of ritual defilement; others say because your fingers' sweat has acids
that will damage the parchment over time. Instead, you follow the text with a
pointer, called a Yad. "Yad" means "hand" in Hebrew, and the pointer usually is
in the shape of a hand with a pointing index finger (I always find this
incredibly amusing). The scrolls are kept covered with fabric, and often
ornamented with silver crowns on the handles of the scrolls and a silver
breastplate on the front.
scrolls are kept in a cabinet in the synagogue
called an "ark," as in Ark of the Covenant, not as in Noah's Ark. The words are
different and unrelated in Hebrew. Noah's ark (and also the ark that Moses was
placed in) are called in Hebrew teyvat (ship). I was taught that the
"Ark" of the Covenant and the ark in synagogue are an acrostic of "aron kodesh"
(holy cabinet), but others have told me that it is merely an archaic English
word derived from the Latin arca (cabinet).
The Torah scrolls that we read from in synagogue are unpointed text, with no
vowels or musical notes, so the ability to read a passage from a scroll is a
valuable skill, and usually requires substantial advance preparation (reviewing
the passage in a text with points). See Hebrew
Alphabet for more on pointed and unpointed texts.
Jewish scriptures are sometimes bound in a form that corresponds to the
division into weekly readings (called parshiyot
in Hebrew). Scriptures bound in this way are generally referred to as a
chumash. The word "chumash" comes from the Hebrew word meaning five, and refers
to the five books of the Torah. Sometimes, a chumash is simply refers to a
collection of the five books of the Torah. But often, a chumash contains the
entire first five books, divided up by the weekly parshiyot, with the haftarah
portion inserted after each week's parshah.
Oral Torah: The Talmud
addition to the written scriptures we have an "Oral Torah," a tradition
explaining what the above scriptures mean and how to interpret them and apply
the Laws. Orthodox Jews believe G-d taught the Oral
Torah to Moses, and he taught it to others, down
to the present day. This tradition was maintained only in oral form until about
the 2d century C.E., when the oral law was compiled
and written down in a document called the Mishnah.
Over the next few centuries, additional commentaries elaborating on the Mishnah
were written down in Jerusalem and Babylon. These additional commentaries are
known as the Gemara. The Gemara and the Mishnah together are known as the
Talmud. This was completed in the 5th century C.E.
There are actually two Talmuds: the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud.
The Babylonian Talmud is more comprehensive, and is the one most people mean if
they just say "the Talmud" without specifying which one.
There have been additional commentaries on the Talmud by such noted Jewish
scholars as Rashi and
Rambam. Adin Steinsaltz recently completed a new
edition of the Talmud, with his own commentary supplementing the Mishnah,
Gemara, and Rashi commentaries.
The Talmud is not easy to read. It reminds me of someone else's class notes for
a college lecture you never attended. There are often gaps in the reasoning
where it is assumed that you already know what they are talking about, and
concepts are often expressed in a sort of shorthand. Biblical verses that
support a teaching are often referenced by only two or three words. The Talmud
preserves a variety of views on every issue, and does not always clearly
identify which view is the accepted one.
The Mishnah is divided into six sections called sedarim (in English, orders).
Each seder contains one or more divisions called masekhtot (in English,
tractates). There are 63 masekhtot in the Mishnah. Approximately half of these
masekhtot have been addressed in the Talmud. Although these divisions seem to
indicate subject matter, it is important to note that the Mishnah and the
Talmud engage in quite a bit of free-association, thus widely diverse subjects
may be discussed in a seder or masekhtah. Below is the division of the Mishnah
into sedarim and masekhtot:
- Zera'im (Seeds), dealing with agricultural laws
- Maaser Sheni
- Mo'ed (Festival), dealing with Shabbat and
- Rosh Hashanah
- Moed Qatan
- Nashim (Women), dealing with marriage,
divorce and contracts
- Nezikin (Damages), dealing with tort laws and other financial laws
- Baba Qamma
- Baba Mesia
- Baba Batra
- Avodah Zarah
- Avot (also known as Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers)
- Kodashim (Holy Things), dealing with
sacrifices and the
- Toharot (Purities), dealing with laws of ritual purity and impurity
In recent times, many observant Jews have taken up the practice of studying a
page of Talmud every day. This practice, referred to as daf yomi (page of the
day), was started at the First International Congress of the Agudath Yisrael
World Movement in August, 1923. Rav Meir Shapiro, the rav of Lublin, Poland,
proposed uniting people worldwide through the daily study of a page of Talmud.
Daf Yomi started its 12th cycle on March 2, 2005. The 13th cycle will begin on
August 3, 2012. A calendar of the cycle and other resources can be found at
Daf Yomi Calendar.
In addition to these works, we have midrashim, which are basically stories
expanding on incidents in the Bible to derive principles or Jewish law or to
teach moral lessons. For example, there is a midrash about why
Moses wasn't a good speaker (he put coals in his
mouth as a child basically as a way of proving that he wasn't greedy), and
another one about Abram discovering monotheism and rejecting his father's
idolatry (that's a nifty one: basically, he smashes up all his father's idols
except the big one, then blames the mess on the big one, as a way of showing
his father that the idols don't really have any power). Some of them fill in
gaps in the narrative. For example, in Gen. 22:2, why does
G-d say, "thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest,
even Isaac." Wouldn't the name alone be enough?
One story says that the narrative is skipping out
Abraham's responses. "Take thy son." "Which
one?" "Thine only son." "But I have two!" "Whom thou lovest." "I love them
both!" "Even Isaac." (I'm not sure this is a traditional one -- I got it from a
questionable source -- but I like it).
There is also a vast body of responsa, answers to specific questions of
Jewish law. Beginning in the middle ages, when local
rabbis were faced with difficult issues of Jewish
law, they often wrote to the most respected rabbis in the world to get answers
to these questions. The local rabbi would present the situation, often
including detailed references to the Talmudic
passages he had reviewed and his own interpretations of these authorities, and
the world-renowned rabbi would provide a reasoned argument in favor of his
answer. Over time, these responsa were collected into printed volumes. This
tradition continues to the present day, and there are several rabbis in this
century who have developed responsa on issues relating to modern technologies.
For example, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who died in the 1980s, wrote responsa on
such diverse topics as the permissibility of cosmetic surgery, the
kashering of dishwashers, and artificial
insemination. There are literally thousands of volumes of responsa. A project
at Bar-Ilan University is compiling these responsa into a computer database.
See their website at The Responsa
Project for more information.
As you can see, the body of Jewish tradition is very vast. Is there any place
to get quick answers? In the middle ages, there were several attempts to create
definitive codes of Jewish law. The best-known of
these codes are Rambam's Mishneh Torah and Joseph
Caro's Shulchan Arukh. In their own time, these works were very controversial,
because they did not identify the Torah or Talmudic basis for their opinions
and generally ignored conflicting opinions. There was concern that such works
would discourage Jews from studying the primary sources: Torah and Talmud.
Today, however, these sources are well-respected. In fact, the Shulchan Arukh
is often treated as a primary source.
We also have a mystical tradition, known as
Kabbalah. The primary written work in the
Kabbalistic tradition is the Zohar. Traditionally, rabbis discouraged teaching
this material to anyone under the age of 40, because it is too likely to be
misinterpreted by anyone without sufficient grounding in the basics.
© Copyright 5756-5771 (1995-2011), Tracey R Rich
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