5 Books? Much More? What is Torah?

Image: A group of Jews studying Torah together (Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved)

What does the word “Torah” really mean?

Jews use the word in multiple ways, and it can be very confusing to those who haven’t spent a lot of time inside the community. Let’s unpack those multiple meanings:

FIVE BOOKS – The first five books of the Bible are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They are what is written in the Torah Scroll that you see in the synagogue. We have gone to great lengths to preserve the written words exactly as they have come down to us. The words are Hebrew. Some of them are hard to translate. More of them are hard to understand. Some of them are extremely upsetting. But we preserve them all.

ORAL TORAH – The “Oral Torah” is a body of literature that has come down to us from ancient times. The idea is that Moses didn’t write everything down; some laws and interpretations of the law were handed down from Moses, to Joshua, and on down to us:

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence for the Torah. – Pirkei Avot 1:1

Originally it was not written down – hence the name “Oral Torah” – but periodically our community faced a crisis in which the leaders feared the knowledge might be lost, and that wisdom was recorded. Oral Torah includes the Talmud and other writings.

A WAY OF LIFE – Beyond any written sources, many communities and families hand down understandings of how Torah is to be lived. While scholarly members of those communities usually can tie those understandings back to written sources, the majority of Jews simply live the traditions as they were taught them. We see this in the way a particular community understands the practice of keeping kosher: this many hours between meat and milk, this way of preparing the kitchen for Passover, these heckshers (rabbinical certifications) are acceptable and those are not. Another community will disagree: no, more hours between meat and milk, etc. A third community or household might say, no, the point of kashrut is to move us towards vegetarianism or veganism! In all cases, the speakers will regard what has been handed down to them, or what they have adopted after study as Torah.

So if someone explains something to you by saying, “It’s Torah!” it is perfectly OK for you to say to them, “Tell me more.” Maybe they will point you to a verse in the book of Exodus. Maybe they will cite a passage from Talmud. Maybe they will say, “That’s what my rabbi / my grandmother taught me.” All are legitimate.

However, “legitimate” does not mean that it is written in stone. Talking to other Jews about Torah is one way to learn. Studying with a rabbi (or many rabbis) is another way to learn. Reading the texts for yourself, or better yet, studying them with other Jews, is an excellent way to learn. Experimenting with your own practice is another way to learn.

Ultimately, living a life of Torah means engaging with it, both Written and Oral Torah, and including the handed-down traditions that have no text. Engaging with it may mean saying, “Yes, I will commit to that!” or it may mean, “Goodness, no, that conflicts with everything else I know about Torah!” It may even mean saying, “I will commit to that for now, and continue to learn.”

Torah is a path towards holiness, not just a list of laws. In the book of Exodus in the story about receiving Torah on Mt. Sinai, there is a wonderful verse:

 וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית, וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע.

And he took the book of the covenant, and he read so that the people could hear, and they said, “All that the Eternal has said, we will do and we will hear.” – Exodus 24:7

“We will do and we will hear.” – This, after hearing a reading of Torah! This was the beginning of a process of Torah: hearing and doing and hearing and doing and so forth and so on, through all time.

Torah doesn’t stop. It isn’t a frozen thing. It is a way of life and a process of engagement with holiness. As Hillel said:

This is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it. – Shabbat 31a




What is the Talmud?

“Talmud” is one of those words that mystifies many non-Jews. Anyone with knowledge of Western Civilization has a frame of reference for “the Bible,” even though our Bible is slightly different from the Christian Bible, but “Talmud” – what is that?

Here’s the simplest answer I can give you: Talmud is a record of discussions that took place over roughly 500 years. The subject of those discussions was “How To Live a Life of Torah.” It includes not only majority opinions but minority opinions and lengthy digressions. 

These lengthy discussions were necessary because the Torah itself comes to us without operating instructions. For instance: the Torah says “Keep the Sabbath” and “Remember the Sabbath.” How do we keep the Sabbath? What does it mean to remember it? Something that seems straightforward (“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”) turns out to be complex: “What about the case of the one-eyed offender who puts out one eye of a person who has two good eyes?” The rabbis argued about these things, and the discussions come down to us in the collections known as the Talmud.

Torah includes both Written Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and Oral Torah (the discussions that flesh out the sometimes enigmatic commandments in the Written Torah.)

To put it algebraically:

Torah = Written Torah + Oral Torah

The first batch of discussions took place between about 100 BCE and 200 CE. Initially these were oral discussions, and special memorizers learned every word of them and recited them on demand in the rabbinic academies in Israel. In 200 CE, Rabbi Judah the Prince produced a written, edited version of the discussions and called it the Mishnah, [“Repetition.”] Here is a photo of my copy of the Mishnah which includes the Mishnah itself, an English translation, and commentary:

Blackmun Mishnah (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar)
Mishnah, Blackmun ed. (Photo: Ruth Adar)

As you can see, it isn’t very long, just six volumes. Each volume is a large general topic: Seeds, Festivals, Women, Damages, Holy Things, and Purity. If that seems an odd way to divide things up, welcome to the study of Talmud. While sometimes the rabbis say things that seem amazingly modern, they lived in a very different time, under different circumstances, and their world was organized differently than ours.

However, after the Mishnah was redacted (written down and edited) the discussions continued, now with questions about the Mishnah. They continued at rabbinic academies in Israel and in Mesopotamia (Babylon.) The continued discussion, the “new” stuff, would later grow into the Gemara [from the Aramaic gamar, “study.”]  The Gemara discussions were not redacted until centuries later. The Gemara by the academies in Israel were redacted about 500 CE.  The Gemara of the academies in Babylon were redacted about 600 CE.

I’ve never seen a volume of just Gemara. It’s always published with the verses of Mishnah related to it. A page will give you a “lead in” of lines from the Mishnah, then the Gemara associated with those lines, the discussion on the discussion. An oversimplified version of it would look like this:

Mishnah: When is the earliest we say the evening Shema?

Gemara: Voice 1: Why does this rabbi start with this question? Why not the morning Shema? Voice 2: He starts with this because of the commandment, “You will say them [the words of the Shema] when you lie down and when you rise up.” The time begins when the priests enter to eat their terumah [their slice of the Temple offerings]… and so on. They talk about terumah, and the priests, and what time the priests ate, and the grammar, and word meanings, and many other things.  

Here’s another equation for you:

Talmud = Mishnah + Gemara

Some of the Gemara becomes a very central item of the tradition, and some of it doesn’t. There are recipes for beer, and cures for snakebite, and interesting (!) ideas about anatomy. Some parts of it are clearly out of date (the anatomy, for instance) and some very sophisticated (insights about grief.) All of it comes in a context, and without that context it is meaningless. Rabbis study Talmud with a volume of Talmud containing multiple commentaries, one or two good dictionaries, a book of abbreviations, a Bible, and other references as well. If someone gives you a quote and says “It’s from the Talmud” be skeptical!

What is the Talmud? It’s a record of discussions that took place between 100 BCE and 600 CE in the Land of Israel and in Babylon. While the general thrust of it is “How is one to live a life of Torah?” it include a wealth of other material.

How can I study Talmud? To answer that, I will give you a quote from Pirkei Avot, which is in Volume “Damages” of the Mishnah:

“Find yourself a teacher, acquire yourself a friend.” – Pirkei Avot 1:6

  1. First, learn some Torah. The better you know your way around a Jewish Bible, the easier time you will have of it.
  2. Find a teacher. If there are no local classes available, use an online resource like 10 Minutes of Talmud.
  3. Acquire a friend. While a teacher can help you find your way, there’s no substitute for studying with and talking with a fellow student.
  4. Finally, don’t think you are going to master all of it. There is a program called Daf Yomi, where people learn a page a day of Talmud. When they get to the end, they begin again. They do this because as with every other aspect of Torah, there is no limit to the learning there.

OK, so this wasn’t a very simple answer. Talmud isn’t simple. However, it’s part of our rich heritage of Torah, and it belongs to every Jew.