The Torah

Five books of story, law, and poetry.

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For Jews, the concept of “Torah” is much broader than the books themselves, the delimited concept of the Torah. “Torah” can refer to all of traditional Jewish learning, but “the Torah” usually refers to the Torah she’bi’ktav, the written Torah, also known as the Humash (the five volumes or Pentateuch, sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses). Readings from the Torah, which are divided into 54 weekly portions (parshiyot), have always been the centerpiece of the Sabbath morning service, and as such, its stories, laws, and poetry stand at the center of Jewish culture.torah scroll

The Torah retells God’s creation of the world, the selection and growth of the family of Abraham and Sarah in relationship to God in the land of Canaan, the exile and redemption from Egypt of that “family-become-nation” known as Israel, and their travels through the desert until they return to the land of Canaan. Along the way, Israel enters into a covenanted relationship with God, and God reveals many of the rules for governing a just society and for establishing appropriate worship.

Traditionally, the Torah has been seen either as a document that was entirely revealed to Moses by God on Mount Sinai (along with the whole of the Oral Torah, i.e. the Mishnah and other works of Rabbinic literature which build upon the written Torah) or that Moses completed the Torah during the trek through the wilderness (including what was revealed on Mount Sinai). Historians and literary critics, noting historical inaccuracies and duplications that indicate a composite text have suggested that the Torah includes sources from the period of King David and King Solomon (around 1000 BCE), from the seventh century BCE during the reign of King Josiah, and from the sixth century BCE during the Babylonian exile.

In the works of the prophets, and in many of the writings, narrative elements from the Torah like the exodus from Egypt are re-used to make new points. Laws from the Torah like the specifics of Sabbath law prohibitions are also commented upon and expand their scope in later works. Another set of connections between the Torah and the Prophets is indicated by the weekly Prophetic portions (haftarot), which are paired with each of the 54 weekly Torah portions (Parshat haShavua). 

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