What is Torah?

May 14, 2008 at 11:14 pm (Hebrew, Judaism, Religion)

Inspired by a question asked by BrewFan, I believe, in the IB thread: “Isaiah Manuscript On Display”.

Learning about Judaism as understood by Orthodox (and especially ultra-Orthodox, and even more especially haredi ultra-Orthodox) is very difficult because of specialized language and unspoken assumptions. For example, for the furthest right on the Judaism spectrum (which was normative until the rise of Reform and Conservative Judaism), “Torah” (literally “Law”) referred to:
1. The Pentateuch (also known as the Five Book of Moses, specifically the books known to English-speaking people as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and known in Hebrew as B’reshis (In-the-Beginning), Shemos (Names), Vayiqra (And-He-Called), B’midbar (In-the-Wilderness), and Devarim (Words)); or
2. The Law as written (Torah she bi-khtav, Torah that is written) in the scrolls (Sifrei Torah) and as passed down orally (Torah she be-al-peh, Torah that is from the mouth) in Talmud (Mishnah and Gemara).

Thus, Torah could refer to a few books from the Hebrew Bible or to the entire corpus of authoritative literature (the entire Hebrew Bible and the Talmud), which comprises a lot of written material. If one includes the Midrashim, as most on the far right of the Judaism spectrum do, then “Torah” comprises a few hundred books.

The importance of the non-Biblical literature should not be underestimated.

A criticism I have read and heard a number of times during my studies of Judaism, lodged against ultra-Orthodox Jews, is that they do not study and are little aware of the Hebrew Bible. To a degree, this is true. The Hebrew Bible is studied insofar as the weekly portions (singular: parshah, plural: parshiyos) are read and studied. Nevertheless, even the weekly portions are not extensively studied in such great contextual depth as other Jews and non-Jews are wont to do. Instead, when ultra-Orthodox refer to “studying Torah”, they usually mean studying Talmud or Midrashim. This is because it is believed that the words of the Written Torah (the Hebrew Bible) are explained authoritatively and practically by the extra-Biblical authorities, which comprise the Oral Torah. Thus, although not part of the scrolls, these books and commentaries are just as authoritative as the part of Torah written on scrolls. Indeed, a common assumption is that if one studies the Written Torah, one must study the corresponding elements of the Oral Torah in order to grasp what it’s talking about, while if one studies the Oral Torah (which quotes and refers to the Written Torah), one need not bother with the Written Torah. It is as if the Written Torah is just the framework for the Oral Torah.

And no cannot discount the Oral Torah. Let us use an example. Torah says (Deuteronomy 6:8-9):

Uqshartom l’os al yodekho, v’hoyu l’totofos bein eineikho. Ukhsavtom al-m’zuzos beisekho uvish’oreikho.

Translated as (KJV):

And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.

Or as (Artscroll):

Bind them as a sign upon your arm and let them be tefillin between your eyes. And write them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

A more literal translation would be:

And bind them as a sign upon your hand, and let it by totofos between your eyes. And write it on the post of your house and upon your gates.

What on earth does this mean and, more importantly, how is it implemented? While the Written Torah provides no details whatsoever, the Oral Torah has pages and pages of details, from how it is to be done, from what materials, how those materials are to be prepared, what requirements makes an item for use in this endeavor valid and invalid, and so on. It is nothing short of amazing that from a few words from the Written Torah, we get the intricate ritual items known as tefillin (and, frankly, unless one has studied what tefillin are and what rules are behind their construction and use, it is not possible to appreciate how intricate and detailed this is). The point being that the Oral Torah fills in the very, very many blanks left by the Written Torah.

Modern-day Judaism, even the far left forms, are all a product of Talmudic Judaism (or, properly, Rabbinic Judaism, as the Rabbis created Talmud).
Pirqei Avos says in its very first verse:

Moshe qibeil Toro mi-Sinoy, umsoroh li-Hoshua’, vi-Hoshua’ lizqeinim, uzqeinim linviim, unviim m’soruoh l’anshei kh’neses hagedolo.

Which means:

Moses received Torah from Sinai, and he passed it on to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets passed it on to the Men of the Great Assembly (Sanhedrin).

As a bit of trivia, the rest of the verse says:

Heim omru sh’losho d’vorim: hevu m’sunim badin, v’haamidu talmidim harbei, vaasu s’yog latoro.

Which means:

They say three things: Be generous in justice, accumulate many students, and make a fence around Torah.

S’yog la-Toro refers to the practice of creating rules around key rules so that the key rules will not be violated. Thus, it is forbidden to walk on grass on Shabbos because doing so might push a seed into the soil, thereby planting a seed, and planting is forbidden as active/creative work on Shabbos.

So if you ask a Jew, “What is Torah?” the answer depends on many things, and in the end it may refer to a few books from the Hebrew Bible or to a veritable library, all of which contains the revelation of God as passed down successively through generations of experts and teachers known as the Sages. The Torah inked on the scrolls is the same as the Torah given by God to Moses orally (which he passed down, as Pirqei Avos demonstrates) and passed down to Jews today, now also in written form (the volumes of Talmud and Midrashim).

Now, “Torah” literally means “law” but specifically to authoritative law or the sources of Jewish law (the Written and Oral Toros). It is from Torah that Jewish law (“halakha”) is derived. And so “Torah” refers to a more abstract notion while “halakha” refers to specific examples. Thus, when explaining the origin and justification of why the straps (“retzuos”) of the tefillin have to be black, the response is “halakha l’Moshe mi-Sinai” (“the law given to Moses from Sinai”, in other words it was revealed as is without any explanation or extrapolation) rather than “Torah l’Moshe mi-Sinai”.


1 Comment

  1. BrewFan said,

    The reason I asked what he meant by Torah aligns with your explanation. I wanted to know if he was resting on the authority of God’s word (The Pentateuch) or the authority of fallible man (Talmud). As you may have guessed I don’t but much stock in extra-biblical revelation.

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