According to Jewish tradition, the Torah is the word of God, which He dictated to Moses who then wrote it down for the Jewish people. Because of this, the Torah is very holy and important to the Jewish religion.
The Torah is the foundation of Judaism. It is the most basic and important of all Jewish texts. All other Jewish texts are based on the Torah and the values in it.
The word ‘Torah’ means ‘teaching’ – it is called this because it is what God (often called ‘HaShem’ by Jews) taught to the Jewish people. The Torah is made up of 5 different books, and these 5 books are found at the beginning of the Bible. These 5 books are:
|Hebrew name & meaning||English name & meaning||Contents|
|1||Bereishit* - 'in the beginning'||Genesis - 'origin(s)'||Tells the story of the creation of the world and its early history, then focuses on the family of Abraham and its history.|
|2||Shemot* - 'names'||Exodus - 'going out'||Tells the story of the Jews going out from slavery in ancient Egypt and of their subsequent wandering in the desert on the way to the Promised Land (Israel).|
|3||Vayikra* - 'and he called'||Leviticus (having to do with the Levites, the Jewish tribe responsible for religious matters)||Deals primarily with many religious rules and regulations.|
|4||BaMidbar* - 'in the desert'||Numbers (called this because in it the Jewish people are twice counted in a census)||Continues the story of the Jewish people wandering in the desert on their way to the Promised Land (Israel).|
|5||Devarim* - 'words' or 'statements'||Deuteronomy - 'second law' (this name is based on a mistake in understanding the Hebrew in one of the verses in the book)||A long speech given by Moses to the Jewish people shortly before his death and reminding them of their history and God’s law. The book ends with the death of Moses shortly before the Jewish people entered the Promised Land (Israel).|
* each of these words is a key word in the opening sentence of the book.
These 5 books together are also sometimes called the ‘5 Books of Moses’.
Because the Torah is so important in Judaism, it is read at least 3 times every week in synagogue (on Monday morning, Thursday morning and Shabbat morning). In weeks where there are special religious occasions, it may be read even more often. The reading on Shabbat mornings is particularly long, usually 3 to 4 chapters. This is because the entire Torah is read in synagogue over the course of one year, and in order to do this it is necessary to read 3 to 4 chapters every week.
When the Torah is read in synagogue, it is read from a Sefer Torah or Torah scroll. The custom of reading the Torah every week is very old – it started before books were invented, and in those days long documents (like the Torah) would be rolled up to make a scroll. The Jewish custom has remained that when the Torah is read in public, it is done from a scroll and not from a book.
Each Torah scroll is hand-written by a sofer (scribe). There are many rules about how to write a Torah scroll and a lot of care is needed to make sure there are no mistakes; it takes about one year of full-time work for a sefer to write a Torah scroll. Even one mistake in a Torah scroll makes it pasul or invalid to be used. It sometimes happens that a letter in a Torah scroll gets damaged so that it cannot be read properly – when this happens, the scroll is also pasul and must be taken to a sofer to be repaired before the scroll may be used again. (See the videos below for more information about how a Torah scroll is written).
Another important thing to know about the public reading of the Torah is that it is done in Hebrew, the language in which the Torah was originally written and which is still the language of Israel. This is done even in countries outside Israel. Also, the text is not read in the way we read ordinary texts – instead it is chanted (sung to a special tune).
This makes reading a Torah scroll in public very hard because the person reading not only has to be able to read Hebrew (which has its own alphabet), but he also has to remember the correct tune to use as it is not written down in the Torah scroll. Most synagogues employ a special reader who does the reading. This means that a person who is ‘called up’ to read the Torah only has to say the blessings before and after the reading, but the actual reading is done by the special reader.
The 5 Books of Moses are sometimes called the ‘written Torah’. That is because there is also an ‘oral Torah’ which explains and tells us more about what is in the written Torah. The name ‘oral Torah’ is used because for many generations it was not written down at all but taught and passed down orally (by speaking) – only later was it written down, at first in the Mishnah, and then in the Talmud and other books.
Some people also use the word ‘Torah’ to mean something more than the 5 Books of Moses – when this happens, it usually means Jewish tradition and values.
Video: A visit to the Sofer (Scribe). (A visit to a Sofer who explains about his job and how a Sefer Torah is made. Note that a Sofer also writes documents other than Torah scrolls, such as the texts which go inside tefillin and a mezuzah).
Video: Writing a Sefer Torah (shows the actual writing of a Sefer Torah. Note that the writing is shown at double the actual speed so as to save time.)
Video: Having an Aliyah (being called up to the Torah)