What is Torah?
What is the literal meaning of the word Torah? Some I’ve asked have conjectured it means “The Book” or Hebrew for the Greek “Bible.” Someone else thought it meant tradition. Are these correct?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Although “Torah” does refer to the Five Books of Moses, or the Bible, and at times it refers to the combination of the written and oral laws, this is not the literal meaning of the word.
The accurate meaning of “Torah” is twofold. Firstly it comes from the word “hora’ah,” which means teaching. More precisely it means “teaching with direction,” i.e. the type of teaching which enables and empowers one with a direction to proceed. The same word could be used in Hebrew with such teachings both in spiritual and secular realms.
The second meaning is from the word “orah,” which means light. One example of this reflected in the verse which states, “A mitzvah is a candle, and Torah is the light” (Proverbs 6:23). This can be understood on multiple levels:
One thought is that the Torah is the source of spiritual illumination in the world. Besides it being the source of Judaism, through it and its teachings we serve as a light unto the nations. As such the Torah serves as the foundation of much of Christianity and Islam.
The Torah also, more importantly, serves as the source of illumination for our own lives. Like the Clouds of Glory which guided the Jews for 40 years in the Desert, providing illumination and direction at night, the Torah lights our paths and provides the Jewish people with direction throughout our long period of exile, even through the darkest of times.
The Torah also provides direction in each Jew’s personal life. In business, family life or interaction with others, the Torah offers the ethical and moral compass by which to navigate the most complicated and tempestuous, thorny issues.
So whether in regard to individual guidance or the entire Jewish people, the two meanings of Torah – teaching with direction and illumination – form the centrality of Jewish life.
In the deeper, Kabbalistic writings, we find a more profound meaning of Torah and its connection to Light. Torah is not simply compared to light, it actually is a type of light. At its source, it is like a flaming spiritual fire. Its light provides the spiritual source of the physical light of the sun and all the constellations of the entire universe. All those lights will be dwarfed by the eventual unmasking of the hidden spiritual light to be revealed in the World to Come.
This is the reason the Torah was transmitted on Mount Sinai through fire. This was not only to create an effect – it revealed the essence of the Torah as a spiritual fire, a brilliant Light. Our souls and the Torah, both dazzling lights, were created from the same Source, and reconnect and ignite each other when a Jew deeply studies the Torah. When the Jewish people light up our souls with the fire of Torah, they we truly become a “light unto the nations.”