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The Torah

There are three possible meanings associated with the word Torah. Torah can be used in its broadest sense to encompass the entire body of Jewish teachings and laws, including holy writings and oral traditions. However, the Torah may also refer more specifically to the Jewish bible or Jewish written texts.

The most specific use of the word Torah refers to the Five Books of Moses: known as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Five Books of Moses comprise the first texts of Jewish writings. These books are also found in the Old Testament, with some textual variation.

The Written Torah

The entire Written Torah is sometimes referred to as the Tanakh, which is an acronym for the Torah, Nevi'im and Ketuvim. These three sections comprise the writings of the Jewish bible that can interchangeably be referred to as the Written Torah or Tanakh. The Torah as it is found in the Written Torah or Tanakh in this case refers to the Five Books of Moses. These Books of Moses are also considered the written "Laws" and contain the following books:

  • Bereishith (Genesis)
  • Shemoth (Exodus)
  • Vayiqra (Leviticus)
  • Bamidbar (Numbers)
  • Devarim (Deuteronomy)

These books contain 613 commandments that have been dictated by God as received by Moses on Mount Sinai 50 days after the Jewish exodus from Egypt. These commandments provide a guide for Jewish people by which to live, the most famous of which are the Ten Commandments.

Nevi'im and Ketuvim represent the other two sections of the Tanakh and are deemed "The Prophets" and "The Writings" respectively.

The Oral Torah

The Oral Torah or the Talmud was taught to Moses by God, and is a tradition of explanation and interpretation of the written texts. This tradition existed solely in oral form until the second century CE when it was compiled in a document called the Mishnah. The Mishnah was elaborated upon to form the commentaries found in the Gemara, completed in the 5th century CE. The Mishnah and the Gemara are the two traditions that typically make up the Talmud.

Sacred Scrolls: The Use of The Torah

Specific rules surround the handling, use, and duplication of the Torah. Torah scrolls are removed from an Ark or sacred cabinet contained in a synagogue before each service. Portions of the Torah scrolls are read three times a week, with the largest service held the morning of the Sabbath. The entire scroll is read in sequence over the course of each year.

The scriptures used during religious services are handwritten on parchment scrolls made of kosher animal skins. The writing of a scroll is designated to a skilled scribe or "sofer" and requires great accuracy, as even the slightest of errors can render the scroll "pasul" or invalid.

The scriptures are written in Hebrew calligraphy featuring crown-like marks in the lettering. The reader of the scrolls requires advanced preparation and tremendous skill, as vowel markings and musical notations are not included in the writing of the scrolls. Readings are conducted using an ancient tune and are sung rather than spoken.

Touching the scroll directly with the hands is prohibited, and a pointer called a "yad" ("hand") is used when reading the scrolls. In addition, the scrolls are wrapped in fabric and decorated with a silver breastplate and crowned silvered handles.

It is believed that the Torah is so sacred that if accidentally dropped during a religious service, the entire congregation should collectively fast for a period of 40 days.

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