Excerpted from Gateway to Judaism: The What, How and Why of Jewish Life.
The word “Torah,” in its narrow sense, refers to the Five Books of Moses. In a broader sense, however, Torah includes the entire Written Law (Tanach), and the entire Oral Law (Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash). In the broadest sense, Torah refers to the entire body of Jewish writings and thought, including the works of commentators throughout the ages.
The Written Law
Five Books of Moses – Torah, Chumash (choo-MASH)
1. Genesis – Bereishit (be-ray-SHEET)
Bereishit means “In the beginning.” It deals with Creation; Adam and Eve; the Flood; the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs of the Jewish people, and ends with the descent of Jacob and his family to Egypt. It also contains the commandment of circumcision, and God’s promise to Abraham that he would receive the Land of Israel and that his descendants would be a major, positive influence on the entire world.
2. Exodus – Shmot (sh-MOTE)
Shmot, meaning “Names,” refers to the names of the Jews who entered Egypt with Jacob. It deals with their exile, slavery and suffering; the life of Moses, and his initial prophecies; the Ten Plagues and the Exodus. It also describes the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, where the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments, and the Written and Oral Torah. Exodus closes with the building of the Tabernacle (Mishkan), a portable Temple that housed the Holy Ark containing the Tablets of the Law.
3. Leviticus – Vayikra (va-yikRA)
Vayikra means “He called.” God calls to Moses and informs him in detail of the laws regarding the festivals, Priests (Kohanim) and the Temple service. Much of the Jewish code of morality, ethics and charity appears in Vayikra, including the famous commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
4. Numbers – Bamidbar (ba-midBAR)
Bamidbar, “In the desert,” details the travels, battles and struggles of the Jews during their 40-year sojourn in the desert after the Exodus. It records a census of the tribes, the positioning of each tribe when they camped and traveled, Korach’s rebellion, and the events surrounding sending the spies to Israel. Bamidbar ends with the capture of the East Bank of the Jordan River and the subsequent settlement there of the tribes of Reuben and Gad.
5. Deuteronomy – Devarim (d’vaREEM)
Devarim, “Words,” refers to Moses’ address to the Jewish people before his death. This prophetic farewell includes rebuke, encouragement, warnings and prophecies. In it, many commandments that would only apply in the Land of Israel and that govern interaction with other nations are explained, and new commandments are given, many of which concern the courts and justice system. After his farewell, Moses wrote 13 complete copies of the Torah, gave one to each tribe, and placed one in the Holy Ark. The Five Books close with the death of “the greatest of all prophets” and “the most humble of all men,” Moses.
The Prophets – Nevi’im (ne-vee-YIM)
6. Joshua – Yehoshua (yeho-SHUa)
This first book of the Prophets continues from the death of Moses, with the appointment of Joshua as the new leader of the nation. It recounts the battle of Jericho, the further conquest and subsequent division of the Land of Israel, and gives detailed accounts of the wars with the Canaanites. It closes with Joshua’s exhortation to the people to remain unified in their service of God.
7. Judges – Shoftim (shau-fe-TEEM)
The Book of Judges details Jewish history following the era of Joshua up to the first kings. The Judges ruled the people in matters of civil and criminal law, Jewish practice, and military and political affairs. The theme of the book is that when the Jewish people are loyal to God, they enjoy tranquility. When they lapse, they are oppressed by invaders until they repent, and a Judge chosen by God would drive out the enemy. Among the numerous Judges in the book are Gideon, Samson and Deborah.
8. Samuel – Shmuel (shmu-EL)
This is divided into two books: 1-Samuel and 2-Samuel. Samuel was born in answer to the prayers of his childless mother, Chana, and served from his youth in the Tabernacle under the High Priest, Eli (who was also the last of the Judges). Shmuel was one of the greatest of all prophets. At God’s behest, he anointed Saul to be the first king of Israel, and chose David as Saul’s replacement when the latter failed to destroy the Amalekite enemies of the Jewish people. The life of King David, the most renowned of Israel’s monarchs, is recounted, including his slaying of Goliath, the Philistine; his flight from King Saul; and the rebellion of his son, Absalom. Both a warrior and a poet, David became known as the “Sweet Singer of Israel.” David’s Psalms, written over his lifetime of ordeals and tribulations, have given hope and inspiration to millions of people the world over. A descendant of King David is destined to be the Messiah.
9. Kings – Melachim (m’la-CHEEM)
This is divided into two books: 1-Kings and 2-Kings. King David’s son, Solomon, ruled over Israel at a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity, and built the First Holy Temple. At the end of his reign, Jeroboam and Rehoboam (Solomon’s son) split the country into the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The Book of Kings describes the history of the nation, and those who reigned until the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of the Jews to Babylon. The kingdom of Judah was led mostly by righteous kings; but the kingdom of Israel (comprised of ten tribes) was led almost exclusively by notorious sinners. As a result, the kingdom of Israel was exiled several generations before Judah – hence the mystery of the Ten Lost Tribes. Other main topics include the prophecies of Elijah and Elisha, and Elijah’s discrediting of the worshippers of the idol Baal on Mount Carmel.
10. Isaiah – Yeshayahu (yesha-YAHU)
Isaiah predicted the destruction of the First Temple in vivid detail. He is best known for his prophecies of consolation and redemption, which are read as Haftarot on the Sabbaths following the Ninth of Av. Isaiah’s prophecy includes the well-known verse, “They will beat their swords into plowshares … nation shall not raise sword against nation, and they will no longer study war.”
11. Jeremiah – Yirmiyahu (yeer-mee-YAHU)
The Book of Jeremiah warns of the Holy Temple’s coming destruction and records the history of the period leading up to that tragedy. Jeremiah witnessed the destruction and describes the terrible suffering that ensued. His later prophecies comfort the Jewish people in their exile, counsels them to put down roots in Babylon, but at the same time to prepare for their return to Israel. Jeremiah’s uplifting prophecy – that “the sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the voices of a bride and groom” will again be heard “in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem” – is part of the Jewish wedding ceremony.
12. Ezekiel – Yechezkel (yeh-chez-KAIL)
Ezekiel rebuked the Jewish people for their failings and warned that if they do not change, the Temple would be destroyed. He saw the destruction of the Temple and joined the people in their exile to Babylon. He offered them hope of the return to Zion and the future Messianic age. Ezekiel’s vision of the “Divine Chariot” is a primary source for many Jewish mystical writings. His book closes with his description of the Third Holy Temple, to be built in the Messianic era.
13. Twelve Shorter Books of Prophets – Trei Asar (tray aSAR)
These 12 Books of Prophets are grouped because of their brevity. One of the most famous is Jonah, in which the prophet warns the city of Nineveh of its impending destruction; the people of Nineveh repent, and the decree is rescinded. Malachi closes the Books of the Prophets with an exhortation to follow the Torah, and a prophecy of Messianic times, when “the hearts of parents will return to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents.” The 12 Books are:
1. Hosea – Hoshea (ho-SHAY-a)
2. Joel – Yoel (yo-EL)
3. Amos (ah-MAUS)
4. Obadiah – Ovadiah (oh-vad-YAH)
5. Jonah – Yonah (yo-NAH)
6. Micah – Michah (mee-CHAH)
7. Nachum (na-CHOOM)
8. Habakkuk – Chavakuk (cha-va-KOOK)
9. Zephaniah – Tzephaniah (tzeh-phan-YAH)
10. Haggai – Chaggai (chah-GUY)
11. Zechariah (ze-char-YAH)
12. Malachi (mal-a-CHEE)
Writings – Ketuvim (ke-too-VIM)
14. Psalms – Tehillim (te-hee-LEEM)
The Hebrew name of Psalms — Tehillim — means “praises.” It refers both to the content and purpose of this book. Here, King David, along with nine authors who contributed individual psalms, gives expression to the whole range of human emotion and thought as it relates to God. Through poetry and song, the Psalms capture the soul’s praise for God in all situations – favorable and unfavorable. Much of Jewish liturgy, music and poetry are based on Psalms. Individual psalms were sung by the Levites in the Holy Temple and today they form a central part of the Jewish prayer book (siddur).
15. Proverbs – Mishlei (mish-LAY)
Proverbs was written by King Solomon and contains his ethical and practical teachings in the form of proverbs. This book forms the basis of many later works of ethics and character improvement.
16. Job – Iyov (EeYAUV)
The Book of Job recounts the story of the sufferings of a righteous man, Job, and various responses to his suffering. Throughout the centuries, this book has been a source of insight into some of the foremost philosophical problems in religious thought – the suffering of the righteous, the existence of evil, Divine Providence and free will, and the workings of Divine Justice.
The next five books are the Five Scrolls – Chamesh Megillot:
17. Songs of Songs – Shir Hashirim (sheer ha-shee-REEM)
The Sages describe Song of Songs as the most holy of all prophetic literature. Its author, King Solomon, portrays the love between the Jewish people and God in the form of a poetic dialogue between a man and a woman. Extensive Midrashic and Rabbinic commentaries elucidate this beautiful work and explain the depth of the allegories used by King Solomon. The work is read in the synagogue on Passover, when God designated the Jewish people as his own.
18. Ruth – Rut (root)
This book tells about a Moabite woman, Ruth, and her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, who lived during the period of the Judges. Because of a severe famine, Naomi and her family left the Land of Israel and settled in Moab. When both her husband and sons died, Naomi decided to return to her homeland, bidding her Moabite daughters-in-law to return to their families. Instead, Ruth insisted on accompanying Naomi back to Israel. A righteous convert to Judaism, Ruth later married Boaz, the leader of that generation. She gave birth to a son, who was to be King David’s grandfather. She is therefore the mother of the royal line of David. Ruth embraced Judaism with the famous phrase: “Wherever you go, I will go… your nation is my nation, and your God is my God.” The book is read in the synagogue on the holiday of Shavuot, the anniversary of David’s death.
19. Lamentations – Eichah (ay-CHAH)
The prophet Jeremiah predicted and witnessed the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians. In this book, he mourns the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, the desolation of Israel, and the exile of the Jewish people. Eichah, meaning “How,” is the tragic lament that begins this book and is often repeated: “How does the city sit solitary, (the city) that was full of people? How has she become like a widow? She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how has she become a vassal?” The Book of Lamentations is read annually in the synagogue on Tishah B’Av, when the destruction of the Holy Temple is mourned.
20. Ecclesiastes – Kohelet (kau-HELet)
Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon, who refers to himself here as Kohelet, son of David. In this book, King Solomon analyzes the futility of a materialistic lifestyle, and points out the frustrations and the cynicism of one who lives without a spiritual dimension. Ecclesiastes includes the often quoted-passage, “To everything there is a season, and there is a time for everything under heaven...” It closes with a verse that proclaims the essential holy message of the book: “The sum of the matter, when all has been considered: Fear God and keep His commandments, for that is man’s whole duty.” Ecclesiastes is read in the synagogue on the holiday of Sukkot.
21. Esther (eh-STARE)
The Scroll of Esther, named for Queen Esther, relates the story behind the celebration of Purim. Set in Shushan – the capital city of Persia, c. 360 BCE – it describes Haman’s plan to annihilate the Jews and the miraculous turn of events through which they were saved. It shows how a seemingly unrelated string of “coincidences” was orchestrated by God to achieve His goals, teaching us to recognize the Hand of God in seemingly mundane events. This book is read publicly on Purim, and tells us to celebrate the festival through charity and joy.
22. Daniel (danee-YALE)
Daniel, a Judean youth of great wisdom and beauty, was captured and taken to Babylon shortly before the destruction of the First Temple. He was trained to be a servant to the king, Nebuchadnezzar. There, he laid the foundation for the continuity of Torah study and Judaism for which Babylonian Jewry later became famous. The Book of Daniel is written in Aramaic, the language of Babylon. It contains the famous message of the “handwriting on the wall,” and portrays the various enemies of the Jewish people using the famous metaphor of the four beasts.
23. Ezra and Nechemiah (ne-chem-YAH)
The Books of Ezra and Nechemiah are regarded as one book, because of their common author (Ezra) and common subject matter – the return to Israel from captivity in Babylon. The resettlement of the Jewish people in Israel and the building of the Second Temple are described in detail. Ezra instituted public Torah readings on Mondays and Thursdays, in addition to the usual reading on Shabbat (which had been introduced by Moses).
24. Chronicles – Divrei Hayamim (div-RAY ha-ya-MIM)
Divided into two parts, Divrei Hayamim means “the events of the days.” It details the genealogy of all the major figures in the Bible, from Adam until Ezra the Scribe. Chronicles is also a summary of Jewish history from the beginning of time until the building of the Second Temple.
The Oral Law
Six Orders of Mishnah – Shishah Sidrei Mishnah (acronym Shas)
This is the first codification of the Oral Law. It was redacted by Rabbi Yehudah “The Prince.” He was known simply as “Rebbe,” because he was the paramount teacher and leader of the nation. The Mishnah was redacted during the second century C.E. Following are the six sections, known as tractates.
1. Seeds – Zerayim
The first tractate (masechta) of this order is Berachot — ”Blessings” — that teaches the laws of blessings, prayers and the synagogue service. The other 10 tractates discuss the agricultural laws that apply in the Land of Israel, as well as some that apply outside of Israel.
2. Times – Moed
This order deals with the sanctity of time. It contains 12 tractates that discuss Shabbat, festivals, the High Holidays, the calendar and the fast days.
3. Women – Nashim
This order deals with the sanctity of the male-female relationship. Its seven tractates discuss the laws of marriage and divorce, the marriage contract (ketubah), incest and adultery, vows and their annulment, and levirate marriages (yibum and chalitzah).
4. Damages – Nezikin
This order deals with the laws governing a person’s possessions. Its nine tractates discuss: damages and torts; lost and abandoned objects; business ethics and laws of trade; property and inheritance; jurisprudence, government and the monarchy; laws of evidence, punishment and oaths; the prohibition of idol worship and relationships with pagans; and the laws of erroneous rulings by a court.
5. Holiness – Kodashim
Kodashim contains 11 tractates. It discusses the laws of the offerings in the Holy Temple; the laws of redemption of the firstborn; donations to the Temple treasury; and the laws of kashrut, the Jewish dietary code.
6. Purity – Taharot
Taharot deals with the laws of spiritual purity and impurity (tumah v’taharah). Its 12 tractates discuss the laws of family purity, impurity caused by death and disease, and the various methods of purifying people and objects. The laws, structure and purpose of the mikveh are also detailed.
The Talmud (Gemara) is a compilation of the discussions and explanations of the Mishnah. This voluminous work is the basis of Jewish religious and civil law, ethics, morality and Scriptural interpretation. Because Roman oppression made it impossible for the centers of scholarship in Israel and Babylon to work together, each country produced its own edition of the Talmud.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) was redacted in 350 CE by Rav Muna and Rav Yossi in the Land of Israel. It contains explanations of the Mishnah, a synopsis of the discussions, questions and decisions of the academies in Israel. The agricultural laws of the Land of Israel are discussed in great detail. It is written in the Hebrew-Aramaic dialect of the time.
The Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli) was redacted in 500 CE by Ravina and Rav Ashi, two leaders of the Babylonian Jewish community. Like the Jerusalem Talmud, it is written in Hebrew-Aramaic. It contains explanations of the Mishnah, legislation, customs, case histories and moral exhortations, a synopsis of the discussions of the great Babylonian academies that flourished for more than 300 years. The Babylonian Talmud has the advantage of being slightly more authoritative, since it was written later in time. As such, it is studied more commonly, and the expression “learning Gemara” generally refers to Talmud Bavli.
Midrash is a generic term for a group of approximately 60 collections of rabbinic commentaries, stories, metaphors and ethical essays organized according to the Books of the Torah, Prophets and Writings. It also includes various commentaries on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Most midrashim date back to the time of the Mishnah and Gemara. Many authors of the Midrash appear in the Mishnah and vice versa. Many of the central concepts and commentaries of the Midrash are part of the Oral tradition from Sinai.
The most famous collections are Midrash Rabba, Midrash Tanchuma, Sifri, Sifra, Mechilta and Yalkut Shimoni.
Regarding Midrash, the Maharal of Prague wrote that, “most of the words of the Sages were in the form of metaphor and the analogies of the wise… unless they state that a particular story is not a metaphor, it should be assumed that it is a metaphor. Therefore one should not be surprised to find matters in the words of the Sages that appear to be illogical and distant from the mind” (Be’er Hagolah, Fourth Be’er p. 51).
The Zohar was written by the students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who transcribed his teachings circa 170 C.E. in the Land of Israel. It discusses the concepts of Creation ex nihilo; Divine Providence and its mechanisms; the metaphysical meaning of the commandments of the Torah; and the connection between the physical and the spiritual. Written in Aramaic, it follows the order of the Five Books of Moses. The Zohar is the primary text of the Kabbalah, the Torah’s mystical teachings.
Scholars and Their Works
“Exalted Ones” (Geonim)
The Geonic period extends from c. 690 C.E. until the 11th century. The first Geonim were the heads of the Babylonian academies. Most of the Geonim lived in Babylon, Egypt or North Africa. They wrote responsa (responses of Torah scholars to questions of Jewish law posed to them by both laymen and experts), as well as brief commentaries on the Talmud. Among the most famous Geonim were Rav Saadya Gaon, Rav Hai Gaon and Rav Sherira Gaon.
Early Scholars (Rishonim)
The period of the Rishonim starts from approximately the 11th century C.E. and extends to the 15th century. Among the most famous Rishonim are:
Rashi (RAH-she) is an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, a French scholar born in 1040. He is the most popular and prolific of the medieval commentators. Rashi wrote commentaries on the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets,the Writings, the Mishnah, the Gemara and the Midrash. His works are such an essential part of Jewish literature, that the Code of Jewish Law considers it mandatory for every Jew to study the Torah with Rashi’s commentary weekly.
Tosafot literally means “additions,” and refers to commentaries on the Talmud written by a number of schools of scholars from the 13th-15th centuries. The scholars lived mostly in France, Germany and England and the four major teachers and leaders of these schools were grandchildren of Rashi. These commentaries are found on the page of all standard editions of the Talmud.
Rif is an acronym for Rav Yitzchak Alfasi, i.e., Rabbi Isaac of Fez (Morocco). The Rif lived from 1013-1103 and wrote one of the earliest Jewish legal tracts. He condensed the Talmud, leaving out much debate and other parts not accepted as law (halacha). His condensation is therefore the basis for much of the codification of Jewish Law.
Rosh is an acronym for Rabbeinu Asher, i.e., Our Teacher Asher, who lived from 1250-1327. He lived in Germany and eventually became a leader of the Jewish community in Spain. He is best known for his codification of the legal parts of the Talmud in a style that combines the discussions of the Tosafos and the codification of the Rif.
Maimonides, or Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, acronym Rambam (RAHMbahm), was one of the first codifiers of Jewish law. His 14-volume Mishneh Torah covers all of Jewish law, belief and practice. He was born in Spain in 1135, lived most of his life in Egypt, and died there in 1204 (though eh is buried in Tiberias, Israel). His works include the Book of Mitzvot, enumerating and explaining all 613 commandments; the Guide for the Perplexed, a complete philosophy of Judaism; as well as many letters and responsa. He was also a famous physician who wrote numerous medical treatises.
Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, is also known by his acronym Ramban (rahm-BAHN). He was born in Spain in 1195, where he lived for most of his life, and died in the Land of Israel in 1270, after immigrating there in his later years. Nachmanides wrote commentaries on the Five Books of Moses, the Talmud, and a number of books of the Tanach. He is considered one of the greatest of the Kabbalists and his commentary on the Torah contains many mystical insights.
Rashba is an acronym for Rav Shlomo ben Avraham ibn Aderet, i.e., Rabbi Solomon son of Abraham son of Aderet. The Rashba lived from 1235-1310, and was a student of Nachmanides. He wrote a commentary on the Talmud, various works on Jewish law, and authored thousands of answers to Jews on virtually every subject in Judaism. He lived in Barcelona, and was the leader of all Spanish Jewry.
Later Scholars (Acharonim)
The period of the Acharonim starts from approximately the 15th century C.E. and extends to contemporary times. Among the most famous of the Acharonim are:
- Rabbis Yosef Karo and Moshe Isserles, the authors of the Code of Jewish Law
- Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna
- the Chassidic masters: “the Baal Shem Tov,” Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi
In the last 150 years, Torah study and halachic rulings have been enriched by Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik; Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chafetz Chaim; and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, to name just a few. These scholars wrote commentaries on the Talmud and the Written Law, works of philosophy and ethics, and responsa.
Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch)
Shulchan Aruch means the “Set Table” because it arranges Jewish law systematically. It contains four sections:
1. Orach Chaim — the laws of daily practice, Sabbaths and festivals
2. Yoreh Deah — the laws of Kashrut, mourning, family purity, vows, circumcision, Torah scrolls and conversion
3. Choshen Mishpat — the laws of business, finance, contracts, jurisprudence, torts and damages
4. Even HaEzer — the laws of marriage and divorce
The Shulchan Aruch was written in Tzfat in approximately 1560 C.E. by Rabbi Yosef Karo, a Sephardic scholar. Current editions also contain the concurrent rulings and comments of Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Krakow, regarding European Jewish customs (Ashkenazic).
Responsa Literature (She’elot U-Teshuvot)
Responsa are the responses of Torah scholars to questions of Jewish law posed by both laymen and experts. These scholars apply the law and philosophy of Judaism to the changing circumstances of Jewish life; to technological and social innovations; to medical issues; and to other aspects of contemporary living. Responsa literature provides insight into the workings of Jewish law, and reveals the concerns of Jews around the world and throughout the ages.