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What Is the Torah Bookmark and Share
What Is the Torah
By: Rabbi Hayim HaLevi Dunin

The Jewish faith does not stop with "And G-d created the heavens and the earth." It starts there. It continues to acknowledge that "I am the L-rd your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt." He is a living G-d, who continues to play a role in the universe He created. He is a sovereign G-d, who is concerned about the behavior of the people He created, and to that end has found ways to make His will known to mankind.

Central to the belief in a living G-d is the Jewish belief that He communicated His will and His commandments to the creature whom He endowed with free will, but whom He called to be His obedient servant. The very essence of Judaism rests upon the acceptance of a spiritual-historical event in which our ancestors participated as a group, as well as upon acceptance of subsequent spiritual revelations to the Prophets of Israel. The extraordinary historical event I refer to is the promulgation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. G-d's will was also made manifest in the Written Torah, written down by Moses under Divine prophecy during the forty-year period after the exodus.

Side by side with the Five Books of Moses (Pentateuch), we believe that G-d's will was also made manifest in the Oral Tradition or Oral Torah which also had its source at Sinai, revealed to Moses and then orally taught by him to the religious heads of Israel. The Written Torah itself alludes to these oral instructions. This Oral Torah - which clarifies and provides the details for many of the commandments contained in the Written Torah - was transmitted from generation to generation until finally recorded in the second century to become the cornerstone upon which the Talmud was built.

Torah is a record of G-d reaching out to man, and not vice versa. No interpretation of Judaism is Jewishly valid if it does not posit G-d as the source of Torah.

What is "the Torah"?
Technically it refers to the Five Books of Moses. This is the Written Torah (Torah SheBiktav). The scroll upon which it is written and which is kept in the Holy Ark of the synagogue is called a Scroll of the Torah (Sefer Torah). In a sense, this is the constitution of the Jewish people. By Torah is also meant the Oral Torah (Torah She-B'al Peh) "which Moses received at Sinai, and transmitted to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly..." (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1).

The Oral Torah included the finer points of the commandments, the details of the general principles contained in the Scriptures and the ways by which the commandments were to be applied. For example, the Torah forbids "work" on the Sabbath. What constitutes "work"? How shall "work" be defined for purposes of the Sabbath? Except for several references to such tasks as gathering wood, kindling fire, cooking and baking, the Written Torah does not say. The Oral Torah does.

The Written Torah commands that animals needed for food be killed "as I have commanded you" (Deuteronomy 12:21). How shall this slaughtering take place? What regulations govern such slaughtering? The Written Torah does not say. The Oral Torah does.

The Written Torah commands us to "bind them as a sign upon your hands and as frontlets between your eyes." This reference to tefillin leaves us in the dark as to how they were to be made up, what they were to consist of, how they were to be donned. The Written Torah does not say. The Oral Torah does.

The Written Torah prescribes capital punishment for various crimes. What legal rules and procedures had to be followed before such a verdict could be handed down? What were the limitations? The Written Torah does not say. The Oral Torah does.

Ultimately, this Oral Torah was reduced to writing. During the second century C.E., it was incorporated into the Mishnah, which in turn became the cornerstone for the Gemara which consists of the monumental records and minutes of the case discussions and legal debates conducted by the Sages. Mishnah and Gemara together make up the Talmud.

The Torah, whether Written or Oral, is the teaching that directs man how to live. Although it speaks primarily to Israel, it also has directives for all of mankind. It is concerned with every aspect of human life. Ritual laws, generally thought of as "religious observances," are only part of the total complex of commandments. The commandments of the Torah, its statutes and regulations, cover the entire range of human and social behavior. It asserts its jurisdiction in areas of behavior which in other religions are generally thought of as belonging to the ethical or moral domains or to the jurisdiction of secular civil and criminal codes of law. Even its non-legal and non-statutory sections stress spiritual truths and convey insight into the still finer extra-legal ethical and moral norms of behavior.

The rest of the books of the Hebrew Bible, written over a period of many centuries, consists of the Prophets (Neviim) and the Sacred Writings (Ketuvim). These books convey the teachings of the Prophets in the context of Israel's history over a period of about seven hundred years. They tell of the Prophets' visions of G-d and of their ongoing struggles to promote greater allegiance among the people to the teachings of the Torah; of their struggles against the many false prophets and priests who so often misled the people and turned them away from G-d and the Torah. Among these books is the inspirational Psalms that reflects man's deepest religious sentiments.

The Torah, with the Neviim and the Ketuvim are together referred to as TaNaKh. (This is what the Christian world and non-Jews calls the "Old Testament" but which to the Jew has always been the only testament.) In the broadest sense, however, the study of Torah refers not only to the Scriptures and the Oral Torah, but also to the entire body of rabbinic legislation and interpretation based upon the Torah that developed over the centuries. For the Torah was always a living law, constantly applied by a living people to real conditions that were often changing. Though these are obviously the result of human efforts, they are an integral part of the entire body of religious jurisprudence to which the Torah itself grants authoritative status: "And you shall observe and do according to all that they shall teach you. According to the law which they shall teach you and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do" (Deuteronomy 17:10-11).

Torah is the embodiment of the Jewish faith. It contains the terms of his Covenant with G-d. It is what makes a Jew Jewish.