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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

A presentation for REL 306

Dr. Laurence Boxer – Jan., 2004

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Meanings of Torah

  • Law, teaching, instruction, tradition

  • Five Books of Moses

  • Tanakh – the Jewish Bible

  • Oral Torah, Written Torah

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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

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K’tuvim – Scriptures – “Wisdom Literature”

  • Psalms

  • Proverbs

  • Job

  • Song of Songs

  • Ruth

  • Lamentations

  • Ecclesiastes

  • Esther

  • Daniel

  • Ezra

  • Nehemiah

  • I Chronicles

  • II Chronicles

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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)

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  • 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”)

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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).

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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

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  • 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

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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.

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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.

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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”

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  • 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

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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

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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 ….

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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.

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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.

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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 ….

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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

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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