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Women reading a Torah scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem
Mazel tov!
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Kosher articles
A dime a dozen
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Divine scribblings

The Hebrew word Torah (תורה) (literally meaning 'teaching' or 'law') is usually refers to the first five books of the Tanakh or Hebrew Scripture. These are also the first five books of the Christian Old Testament, and the text Muslims refer to as Tawrat (law).

The word Torah is sometimes used by Jews to refer to the entirety of Jewish law, including Nevi'im (Prophets), Ketuvim (Writings) and Mishnah (Oral law). The term can also refer to the entire body of Jewish teaching, depending on context.

Orthodox Jews consider the Torah (a term used sometimes to refer to all of Jewish law) the literal word of God, directly dictated to Moses; the written words are absolutely perfect so not even one letter or one decoration of a letter can be changed. Conservative and progressive Jews are much less inclined to agree with this.

The books of the Torah[edit]

Though Bereishit (Genesis) and Shemot tell clear stories, it is traditionally understood that the five books of the Torah scrolls lie outside of time, and are not in a specific chronological order. (This tradition allows Orthodox Jews to explain the duplications and misalignments that are found throughout the Torah).

Development of the Torah[edit]


See the main article on this topic: Documentary hypothesis

Many modern Biblical scholars consider the Torah to be the edited work of at least five different writers with roots in both Israel and Judah. The documentary hypothesis is based on the fact that there are variations in language use, shifts in world view, repetition, and inconsistent, illogical story telling markers. Those who view the Torah to be God's literal word have their own traditional explanations that do not follow modern academics.

The basic authors are:

  1. Yahwist or J: rooted in Judahite tradition; refers to God as YHWH
  2. Elohist or E: rooted in Israelite tradition; prefers the grammatically ambiguous "Elohim" as the name of God
  3. Deuteronomist or D: believed to have come from the camp that led religious reforms under the Judahite king Josiah; later revised after Josiah's untimely death in Egypt
  4. Priestly or P: Probably written under the auspices of the Kohanim, the priestly clan said to be descended from Moses' brother Aaron and those in charge of daily operations at the Jerusalem temple
  5. The Redactor or R (possibly the Biblical figure Ezra): While responsible for little or no original content, the Redactor is thought to have been responsible for knitting related but separate Israelite and Judahite traditions, as well as varying schools of thought within Judah, into a single, more-or-less coherent whole.

Later development[edit]

Prior to the 9th century CE, the making of copies of the Torah followed the same good-enough-but-not-perfect practices as happened when copying other important documents. This resulted in multiple "traditions," as different copying and editing preferences created slight variations on the original. The existence of extremely old texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls allows us to see how the Torah may have varied, both in times and between different traditions (the Dead Sea Scrolls belonged to the Essenes, a sect apart from mainstream Jewish culture, so differences wouldn't be too surprising). One interesting difference is in Deuteronomy 32:8: the well-known version refers to God dividing up the "sons of Adam", while the Dead Sea Scrolls version refers to the "sons of God", which is theologically interesting to say the least - Christians believe Jesus was the son of God but Jews don't believe God had sons.[1]

In the 9th century, a group called the Masoretes decided to impose much stricter copying rules, including something akin to a checksum system to ensure that all copies were accurate reproductions of the original with no mistakes or edits. They chose one specific tradition of the Torah as their starting point, and have been making absolutely faithful copies ever since. Thus, we can be sure that any Masoretic text of the Torah has come down to us unchanged since the 9th century CE. It is this Masoretic text that is often referred to as "the" original Hebrew of the Bible, even though earlier surviving copies sometimes differ.

The Torah vs. the Pentateuch[edit]

Most versions of the Christian Old Testament are derived from the Septuagint, a pre-Christian translation of the Hebrew Bible (along with various apocrypha) into koine Greek. This Greek was then translated into many other languages, often via Latin (see Bible translation), before becoming the translations Christians know (although more recently there has been a trend to go back to the Hebrew). This results in many Christian versions that are somewhat different to the Masoretic text, as Christians strain to twist the Old Testament to prove that their guy is the guy.

The consequence is significant changes in later parts, including chunks being lopped out or inserted, and whole books being added or removed (and different Christian denominations having different opinions on what belongs), as well as many changes in the Prophetic Books to fit later events such as cunningly changing Isaiah 7:14 which in the Masoretic text promises a young women will bear the Messiah but in Christian texts this has magically become a "virgin" (not the actual Hebrew word used).[2] In first five books the differences are smaller, on the level of translations of individual words and phrases, slight rearrangements, generally having a fiddle. Christians typically explain these differences by saying the Masoretic text is crappy.[2]

This is obvious when the New Testament quotes the Tanakh, because the early Christians authors were familiar with the Septuagint and Jesus would have known something similar. Some examples are Deuteronomy 8:3 in Matthew 4:4, Deuteronomy 6:13 in Matthew 4:10, and Genesis 2:24 over and over. Another is Exodus 21:17 (quoted in Matthew 15:4): different translations vary on what happens to someone who curses his mother and father, with the Septuagint (Brenton translation) saying he will die and most other texts more forceful about him being put to death.[3][4] And in Acts 7:14 Luke writes that Jacob had 75 descendants while the Masoretic text says 70 (three times: Genesis 46:8-27, Exodus 1:5, and Deuteronomy 10:22); did Luke have a different translation, did the Masoretes change it for some reason, or was the author of Acts just dumb?[2][5]

Jewish mysticism and the Torah[edit]

Jewish mystics have had a field day with the concept of the written Torah, describing it as written in black fire on white fire (see in Midrash Rabbah and Midrash Tanchuma). This is said to be the form of the Torah before the creation of the world, as Midrash Rabbah states the Torah existed before the world, and the world was created for the purpose of the Torah. However, aside from a few hints as to the pre-creation stage of the world, not much detail is given on it. As it is stated in Midrash Rabbah: "Why was the world created with the letter bet? "ב" The reason is that the bet is closed on three sides and open only on the side going forward (don't forget that Hebrew is written right to left, thus while an English reader sees that opening at the front of the letter, in Hebrew it is the back of the letter) as we can only study and understand from the creation of the world forward, what came before is hidden from us. The idea that what came before the creation of the universe cannot be known to us is actually a scientific one as well: there the concept is that in the first trillionth of a second after the Big Bang the laws of nature as we know it were not yet set[citation needed] and thus differed from what we have now. Due to that, we will never be able to meaningfully measure or describe the state of the universe then.

Sacred aspects of the Torah[edit]

A Torah scroll contains the words of the five books written on parchment according to specific rules, several of which, regarding the nature of proof reading and copy-editing are the foundation for the claim that "The Torah is a perfectly copied document". Unfortunately for the Jewish scribes, copies of the Torah from the Dead Sea show that there are many errors in copies — several of which had been carried over into the accepted, legitimate copies.

When copying the Torah[edit]

  • The parchment must be scored with lines
  • The ink must be of a specific formulation to be the correct consistency and darkness
  • It must be written with a specific type of quill
  • The person writing it must be an observant Jew
  • The parchment must be written "Lishma" i.e. with the correct intention. For this reason even if all the technical aspects are met for a Torah scroll, if the person writing it is deemed to be an apostate the scroll is not considered to be "kosher" (fit for use), has zero sanctity and should be burnt.
  • The sofer (trained scribe) writing it has to do so in a specific script (Ktiv Ashuri) and style, keeping spacing and distance to certain traditional norms (of which a few minor differences appear in the traditions of certain communities)
  • It must be treated with a profound respect.

When handling the Torah[edit]

  • The parchment itself must not be touched.
  • Scrolls are kept covered in fabric, per the Ashkenazi tradition, or in a wooden case, in the Sephardi tradition. It is a blessing to touch them bringing luck or health to oneself, and it is often done with the hem of the prayer shawl or with a prayerbook.
  • It has historically been the case that women were not to touch the Torah scroll. This is changing, and there are a few female scribes who have copied the Torah. However, as with all things about women rabbis and Judaism, not everyone will accept that such a Torah is kosher.

The Book of J[edit]

In The Book of J, Harold Bloom argues that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible were compiled by the "Redactor" (probably Ezra) around the time of the Exile using Jahwist, Elohist, Priestly, and Deuteronomist sources. In this book Bloom separates out the "J" or Jawist document alone and presents it in all its original glory. One thing that stands out in J when it is isolated this way is how interesting the female characters are compared to their male counterparts, and how the J document states origins in such a way that emphasizes the Kingdom of Judah's claim to the scepter over that of the northern Kingdom.

After compiling all the evidence, Bloom makes the case that the author of J was a brilliant female poet and writer in the court of Solomon. Yahweh as a deity is anthropomorphized to a greater extent in J than in any other source. He's a hands-on sort of God who must "go down" to see what they are building at Babel and actually wrestles with Jacob. Over time, Jewish priests cleaned up J's depiction of Yahweh by first calling his appearances to men "The angel of the LORD" which introduced a buffer (an example is the burning bush speaking to Moses), and even later, angels were described as created conscious beings in their own right as messengers of Yahweh, thus completing his elevation to an unknowable transcendence.

See also[edit]