What is the Torah?
Although the word "Torah" is sometimes used to refer to the entire Tanakh or even the whole body of Jewish writings, it technically means the first five books of the Tanakh. These books are also known as the Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch.
In English, the names for the books of the Torah are derived from Greek and describe the general topic of the book:
- Deuteronomy ("Second Law")
Judaism for Dummies offers this helpful mnemonic device for these names: "General Electric Lightbulbs Never Dim."
The Hebrew names of the books of the Torah reflect not the subject, but the first major word of each book:
- Bereisheet ("In the beginning")
- Sh'mot ("Names")
- Vayikra ("And he called")
- BaMidbar ("In the wilderness")
- D'varim ("Words")
Among other things, the Torah contains an account of the creation of the world, God's special call to Abraham, the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses, God's rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt, the wandering in the wilderness, and the conquering of Canaan, the Promised Land. The Torah is by far the most important part of the Tanakh because, in addition to including these important stories, it also details the commandments (mitzvot) God gave the Jewish people through Moses.
Accordingly, the Torah scroll (Sefer Torah) is the most important object in a synagogue. The text is carefully handwritten in Hebrew calligraphy on a parchment made of animal skins, and the scroll is kept in an ark (short for aron kodesh, "holy cabinet"). The Torah has been read publically since the time of Ezra (c. 450 BCE). Today, a portion of the Torah (parashiyot) is read in the synagogue on Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and holidays. (See Practices: The Synagogue.)
- Essential Judiasm: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals by George Robinson (Pocket Books, 2000).
- "Torah, Torah, Torah: The Unfolding of a Tradition." Judaism for Dummies (Hungry Minds, 2001).
- Tracey R. Rich, "Torah." Judaism 101 (1995-99).