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”.


Permalink 1 Comment

A problem with metonymy

February 2, 2008 at 12:30 am (Arabic, Christianity, English, Hebrew, History, Islam, Judaism, Languages, Religion, Religions, Urdu/Hindi)

In the English language (and, in this specific regard, many other languages), “church” is a versatile word. It can refer to a particular building (or building style); it can refer to a particular congregation; it can refer to a particular denomination. So when someone says “the Catholic Church” (and here “says” is more important than “writes” because capitalization provides more clarity than the spoken word in this case), one can be referring to a particular building (St. Mary of the Angels Parish Church, perhaps), to a congregation (those that meet in St. John Cantius Parish Church), or to Roman Catholicism as a whole. The same applies to other denominations, almost all of which can be described as the “X Church” (the Lutheran Church; the Mormon Church; the Episcopalian or Anglican Church; the United Methodist Church; the Presbyterian Church; the Church of Christ, Scientist; the Orthodox Church; the Reformed Church; perhaps even the United Church of Christ). (Obviously this does not apply for everyone: exceptions I can think of are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quakers, Pentacostals, Evangelicals, Christadelphians, Disciples of Christ. With Baptists, often “the Baptist church” refers to a specific building and/or congregation as there is no united Church of Baptists, each congregation being autonomous even in conventions or groups.)

But this is something only in Christianity. Read the rest of this entry »

Permalink Leave a Comment

Bad news: Hamas rejects the two-state solution

November 15, 2006 at 1:54 am (Blogs, Hebrew, International community, Islamism, Israel, Judaism, Middle East, Palestinian Territories)

Vital Perspective writes: “Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum says a new Palestinian government will not recognize Israel or accept a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict.” (Do read the rest of the short post: “Hamas Says Unity Govt Will Not Recognize Israel or Accept Two-State Solution” at Vital Perspective.)

This is very bad news, and I suspect it means that a unity government will not be formed. Frankly, under pressure from certain allies of Israel in The West (namely, The United States), the international commuity will not accept any Palestinian government that does not recognize Israel or, at the very least, that does not recognize the two-state solution. The two-state solution is the foundation of Israeli-Palestinian relations and, indeed, the future of Israel and Palestine. Read the rest of this entry »

Permalink 1 Comment

Justice: Judaism versus Islam

October 29, 2006 at 4:01 am (Arabic, Books, Christianity, Hebrew, History, Islam, Islamism, Judaism, Personal, Religion, Religions, The West, Theology)

Here is a post, inspired by what Robert Spencer wrote in The Truth about Muhammad, comparing justice, historically and currently, in Judaism to that in Islam.

In page 120 of his book, Spencer mentions a Hadīth. (From this point on, everything is my extrapolation.) Read the rest of this entry »

Permalink 6 Comments


September 22, 2006 at 3:53 am (Hebrew, Judaism, Religion)

Qabalah (which, like many Hebrew words, is spelled about a hundred and one ways) – so mysterious! so exotic! so in! What do you think about when you hear or read the word “Qabalah”? People tying red wristbands (bendels)? Esoteric doctrines? The Tree of Life?

“Qabalah” – and I use this spelling because it most closely reflects the original Hebrew word from which it came – comes from the Hebrew (קַבָּלָה, qabalah, “reception” or “the act of receiving”). There is nothing exotic about this word. In every-day Hebrew, it means “reception” as in a hotel’s reception desk. I don’t know why this word was chosen to refer to what it refers to. Technically, all Jewish tradition, texts, rituals, beliefs, observances, law, and so on, is received by one generation, handed down by the one before it. In any case, “Qabalah” also refers to a part of Jewish mysticism. (There’s more to Jewish mysticism than Qabalah.) Read the rest of this entry »

Permalink Leave a Comment

Answers to al-Imām Zia Sheikh; أخوبة للإمام ضياء شيج

September 22, 2006 at 12:31 am (Arabic, Christianity, Hebrew, Islam, Judaism, Languages, Religion, Religions, Theology)

Answers to some of his questions and comments. Read the rest of this entry »

Permalink 9 Comments

Random Judaica factoids

September 20, 2006 at 2:44 am (Hebrew, Judaism, Languages, Religion)

Jews often say “Mazal tov!” (מזל טוב) Do you know what it means? It means “Good star!” as in “Your stars were in a good/fortunate position!” and refers to astrology.

Another form of congratulating is: “Yasher koach!” (ישר כוח) or (ישר כח) meaning “May you be strengthened.” When someone receives an aliyah (see this and this for information on what an aliyah in this context is), it is customary to wish them with “Yasher koach!” as if to say, “May your strength in holding up the Torah (figuratively and literally) be firm!”

Permalink Leave a Comment

Pork and the universal rôle of the Qur’an

September 16, 2006 at 4:17 pm (Arabic, Culture, Hebrew, History, Islam, Judaism, Religion, Religions, Theology)

I wrote about pork a few days ago. I’d now like to explain something about Islam and the Muslim paradigm: the belief by Muslims that God gave universal edicts, which everyone should follow and which are separate from those edicts incumbent upon Muslims.

It is true that Islam believes that Islam is incumbent on everyone, and that anyone who has rejected Islam (by not converting) is rebelling against God. (Recall that Muslims believe that every person is born a Muslim, so not being a Muslim is by default having rejected Islam, whether consciously or not.) As such, one can say that Islam’s edicts are universal, that Islam’s commandments are incumbent, or should be, on everyone. Nevertheless, Islam recognizes that certain edicts are incumbent on Muslims only and others are for everyone. Read the rest of this entry »

Permalink 26 Comments

Wishing harm and invocations

July 9, 2006 at 3:15 pm (Arabic, Blogs, Culture, Hebrew, Islam, Judaism, Languages, Pakistan, Persian, Personal, Religion, Religions, South Asia, The West)

This is as a result of reading this post approving harm (Heaven forfend) upon Jeff Goldstein by tony robbins.

One of the things that disturbs me about insults and violence-tinged comments and wishes is that I have inherited a somewhat superstitious attitude towards words written and spoken. South Asian Muslims are very careful to add some qualifier when discussing something negative that has not happened. In Urdu, we use “khudaa nakhaasta” or “khudaa nakhwaasta” (Persian, literally “may God not desire (it)). Jews use “chas v’shalom”. In English, “God/Heaven forbid” is often used. (I personally like “Heaven forfend.” It sounds quaint.) Of course, the best thing is to avoid such talk all together. Read the rest of this entry »

Permalink Leave a Comment