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Torah in Judaism. A presentation for REL 306. Dr. Laurence Boxer – Jan., 2004. Meanings of Torah. Law, teaching, instruction, tradition Five Books of Moses Tanakh – the Jewish Bible Oral Torah, Written Torah. T a N a KH – T orah, N evi’im, K ’tuvim - the Written Torah.

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torah in judaism

Torah in Judaism

A presentation for REL 306

Dr. Laurence Boxer – Jan., 2004

meanings of torah
Meanings of Torah
  • Law, teaching, instruction, tradition
  • Five Books of Moses
  • Tanakh – the Jewish Bible
  • Oral Torah, Written Torah
t a n a kh t orah n evi im k tuvim the written torah
TaNaKH – Torah, Nevi’im, K’tuvim- the Written Torah

Torah – 5 Books of Moses

  • Genesis
  • Exodus
  • Leviticus
  • Numbers
  • Deuteronomy
  • Nevi’im – Prophets
  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • I Samuel
  • II Samuel
  • I Kings
  • II Kings
  • Isaiah
  • Jeremiah
  • Ezekiel
  • Hosea
  • Joel
  • Amos
  • Obadiah
  • Jonah
  • Micah
  • Nahum
  • Habakkuk
  • Zephaniah
  • Haggai
  • Zechariah
  • Malachi
k tuvim scriptures wisdom literature
K’tuvim – Scriptures – “Wisdom Literature”
  • Psalms
  • Proverbs
  • Job
  • Song of Songs
  • Ruth
  • Lamentations
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Esther
  • Daniel
  • Ezra
  • Nehemiah
  • I Chronicles
  • II Chronicles
talmud oral torah
Talmud – Oral Torah
  • Commentary, explanation, “filling in the holes” of Tanakh
  • Evolution of legal system
  • Originally, transmitted orally – thus, “Oral Torah”
  • Persecution, increasing complexity necessitated putting into writing
talmud mishnah
Talmud - Mishnah
  • Consists of Mishnah, Gemara
  • Mishnah –literally, 2nd – 2nd Torah – “Mishnah Torah” also used as nickname for Deuteronomy (Greek translation) - as Deuteronomy reviews much of earlier Torah, Mishnah expands & clarifies much Torah
  • Mishnah compiled ~ year 200; Rabbi Judah haNasi (the Prince), ed., with teachings of many scholars of his & earlier times
talmud gemara
Talmud - Gemara
  • Gemara – completion (of Talmud), developed years ~200 - 600
  • Mishnah raised many questions of interpretation; Gemara seeks to clarify, both with legal discussion and aggadah – interpretive stories (historical, legends, Biblical commentary, tall tales, jokes)
  • Babylonian & Jerusalem Gemara, respectively, yield Babylonian & Jerusalem Talmud. Babylonian more highly regarded, as Roman persecutions drove many greatest scholars to Babylon.
  • Talmud not “completed” – later scholars published commentaries that are part of standard modern editions – text side-by-side with commentary
talmud christian antisemitism
Talmud & Christian Antisemitism
  • Many times, Christians burned Talmud as allegedly anti-Christian.
  • Actually, Christians & Christianity are unimportant in Talmud. Talmud’s primary concerns: Jewish law & conduct of Jewish life; not relations with other religions.
  • Most references to Christians via “sectarians” – minim – deviants, heretics – dismissive term, indicating unimportance; merely one of several sects deviating from mainstream Judaism of Talmudic era
commandments of torah
Commandments of Torah
  • 613, including many obsolete due to current lack of central sanctuary
  • 7 for B’nai Noah – commandments expected of all mankind:
  • Establish courts
  • No blasphemy
  • 3. No idolatry
  • No incest
  • No murder
  • No robbery
  • No cruelty (specifically, ripping limb from live animal for food)
  • What does holiness mean? Is it a term concerned only with ritual & prayer?
  • Lev. 19:2: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy.
  • Subsequent verses include matters of prayer & ritual, but also laws of kindness: Lev. 19:9-10, 13, 14, 18 (“Golden Rule”)
holiness isaiah
Holiness - Isaiah
  • Isaiah often refers to G-d as “the Holy One of Israel” (e.g., 41:16, 43:3, 54:5, 55:5, 60:14).
  • Isaiah 1 condemns sacrifices of those who fail to aid the oppressed, corrupt justice with bribes.
  • On Yom Kippur (fast day; most intensely spiritual day of Jewish calendar), we read Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14; note condemnation of fast corrupted by business & oppression of poor (58:3-7).
holiness requires
Holiness Requires
  • Kindness to others – imitating G-d, who clothes the naked (Gen. 3:23) and buries the dead (Deut. 34:6)
  • Study: [Hillel said]an empty-headed person cannot be sin-fearing, nor can an ignorant person be pious… Avot (from Talmud) 2:5
  • Amos 5:24: Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
  • Deut. 16:20: Justice, justice shall you pursue….

Note tension implicit in wording – repetition of “justice” implies both

  • zeal, and
  • moderation – pursue justice justly – don’t allow zeal to lead you to think ends justify unjust means
justice an eye for an eye
Justice – An Eye for an Eye
  • Ex. 21:

22: And if men strive together….

23: But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life,

24: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, foot for foot ….

  • Does this call for retaliatory mutilation?

26-27: And if a man smite the eye of his bondman, or the eye of his bondwoman, and destroy it, he shall let him go free….

  • Verses 26-27 clarify that “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” calls for fair compensation, not retaliatory mutilation.
justice capital punishment
Justice – Capital Punishment
  • Several forms of capital punishment are mentioned in Torah – stoning, burning, sword, strangling (note not crucifixion)
  • Deut. 19:15: One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity … at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be established.
  • Note origin of 5th Amendment – this verse prevents torturing a confession from accused.
  • Further, witnesses were required to be mature and of high character.
  • Further, in capital case, witnesses were required to warn accused during commission of crime of possible capital punishment.
  • Further, accused was allowed to interrupt execution with additional testimony - repeatedly
  • Result: capital punishment rare in Jewish justice – a court that executed a criminal twice in 70 years was called destructive.
justice right and good
Justice – Right and Good
  • Deut. 6:18: And you shall do that which is right and good….
  • Why “and good”? Sometimes “right” (legal entitlement) is not “good.”
  • D’varim Rabbah 3:3: Simon ben Shetach bought a donkey and found a gem in the animal’s collar. It was his legal right to keep the gem, but he insisted on returning it to the animal’s seller.
  • In civil suits, Jewish ideal is compromise settlement – “good” above “right”
  • King must be student & scribe (Deut. 17:18-19) of Torah, and is subject to Torah.
  • Divided government – separation of courts, king (tribe of Judah), priests (Levites descended from Aaron), prophets; see esp. Deut. 16:18 – 18:22
  • System of multi-tiered appellate courts recommended by Jethro (Ex. 18:13-26); judges to be learned in law, capable and hating bribes
torah study religious obligation
Torah Study – Religious Obligation

Hillel taught:

  • Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving thy fellow creatures and drawing them near to Torah … Avot 1:12
  • …He who does not study, deserves to die…. Avot 1:13
  • ... Do not say, when I have leisure I will study; perhaps you will have no leisure. Avot 2:5

Shammai taught: Fix a period for your study of Torah…. Avot 1:15

torah is compared to
Torah is compared to
  • Water, wine, milk, bread in Isaiah 55:1-2 (urges buy these without money and without price – thus, they represent Torah wisdom, acquired without money). As one can’t go without water for 3 days, Torah is read in public every Mon., Thurs., Sat.
  • Light, fire: Deut. 33: 2, 4: The Lord came from Sinai … at His right hand was a fiery law …. Moses commanded us the Torah ….
torah compared to fig tree
Torah compared to fig tree
  • Proverbs 27:18: One who tends a fig tree will enjoy its fruit....
  • Why is Torah compared to a fig tree? Most trees & vines -- olive, grape, date -- have their fruit ripen together, but fig tree's fruit is picked gradually over a long time. Similarly with the Torah: “You learn some today and more tomorrow; you cannot learn it all at once.”
  • Further, fig trees are beautiful & give pleasant shade; Torah is described in Proverbs 3:13-18: Happy is the one that finds wisdom .... Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her, and happy is every one that holds her fast.
torah compared to song
Torah compared to Song
  • Deut. 31:30: And Moses spoke in the ears of Israel the words of this song …
  • Direct reference of “song” is Deut. 32:1-47, but reference is extended to entire Torah. Why?
  • Much of Torah is difficult. However, unlike many other areas of intellectual activity that appeal only to specialists, but like song, all can enjoy & learn Torah at their own level. As a professional musician or songwriter appreciates a song differently than average person, a Torah scholar appreciates Torah differently from the average person, but both can learn & enjoy.
methods of torah study
Methods of Torah Study

Torah is studied using a variety of methods. For an introduction to several of them, with examples, see my presentation at

Avot 5: 24: Ben Bag-Bag taught: Turn it [Torah] over, turn it over, for in it is contained everything ….

torah commentators
Torah Commentators

Torah is studied with the aid of the commentary of great scholars. Some of these commentaries:

  • Talmud – English version from Soncino, 18 vol.
  • Midrash Rabbah – English version from Soncino, ~12 vol. - compilation developed over several centuries from teachings of many
  • Rashi – Rabbi Shlomo (Solomon) ben Yitzhak, French, 1040-1105 – “Father of Commentators”
  • Ramban – Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (Nachmanides), Spanish, 1194-1268
  • R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, German, 1808-1888
torah commentators24
Torah Commentators

More commentators:

  • R. Joseph Hertz – British, 20th Cent. – Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Soncino – a popular commentary
  • Nechama Leibowitz – Israeli, 20th Century – New Studies in Bereshit/Shmot/Vayikra/Bamidbar/Devarim, Jerusalem, World Zionist Organization – interprets & compares great commentators’ work
  • Etz Hayim, Jewish Publication Society, 2001 – a popular commentary compiled by modern scholars