The Torah: Definition, Laws & Teachings

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The Torah has influenced leaders from King David of the Israelites to Martin Luther King, Jr. Central to both Judaism and Christianity (as the first five books of the Old Testament), the Torah's teachings lend to the belief held by some that it is nothing short of the word of God.

What Is the Torah?

Contrary to popular belief, the Torah is not synonymous with the Christian Old Testament. Instead, what Christians refer to as the Old Testament is better described as the Tanakh. The term Torah refers to the first five books, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, which are also known as the Pentateuch (a Greek term, meaning 'Five Scrolls'). These documents are viewed as a message from God for His people, and as such, are treated with the utmost respect, especially when written in the original Hebrew. As a result, during times of Jewish persecution, such as the Holocaust, Torah scrolls were often an important item to hide in safety.

The Torah
Torah in Cologne, Germany

Additionally, the word Torah also refers to the oral Torah, which itself became written following the fall of the Second Temple. With the movement of the Jews into Diaspora, it became clear that a way of transmitting sacred oral knowledge would be necessary if those that held that knowledge were separated from younger generations. As a result, the oral Torah was written in the Mishnah, with its explanations forming the Gemera. These writings form the Talmud, a basic document for all Jewish law. The Talmud exists in two versions, the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. Of the two, the Babylonian Talmud is by far the larger, and unless specifically stated otherwise, is the body of work that is used.

While both parts of the Torah may now be reunited in writing, it is important to emphasize that this was not the ideal arrangement. The oral Torah was supposed to be easy to explain, ensuring that its teachings could find relevance in any generation or environment. As a result of this, the Gemera, or writings explaining the Oral Torah, continue to grow with each passing year, as students of the Torah continue to grapple with its meaning.

How Does Law Work in the Torah?

More than just a history of the Jewish people from the time of Creation, the Torah is also a book of law. While often cited, sometimes critically, for its prohibitions on things from mixing fibers in a garment to eating pork to homosexual acts, the Torah above all seeks to separate those who identify as Jewish from those who do not through its creation of a separate community of believers.

That said, there is still a certain hierarchy in Jewish religious law, which is itself often called Talmudic law due to the importance of that document in its execution. As a first source, the written Torah, as the direct communication from God, is used, followed then by the oral Torah, due to the fact that this Torah was the word of God then written by man, after years of oral transmission. Finally, the writings of earlier scholars are then relied upon if no clear answer emerges from the texts.

Jewish men study the Mishnah
Jewish men study the Mishnah

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