What is Torah?

When the word Torah is used it is meant in several ways. These different meanings often create some amount of confusion. The confusion disappears the better one understands what is meant by Torah and when and how these different meanings ought to be applied. When we speak of Torah we might mean it one of several ways. The first way refers specifically to the first five books of Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our Teacher)—Bereishit through Devarim (Genesis through Deuteronomy).

Another way is to speak of the oral Torah. At Mt. Sinai God gave the children of Israel two Torahs, a written Torah and an oral Torah. Although the written Torah tells the Jewish people what they should do; it is often unclear how they should do it. Part of the difficulty of how to do something is by not understanding meaning in words. When the Torah says, “…the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God; in it thou shalt do no labor.”7The question is immediately asked what does the word labor mean, what is it, how do we define it so as not to break this commandment? “The basic task of the oral law, therefore, was to transmit the meaning of words.”8Only with the aid of the Talmud, a document that is able to recall through the shifting traditions of time, are the Jewish people able to understand labor in its original meaning, the meaning that existed at Mt. Sinai. Therefore, the Jew is able to know with certainty what activities are forbidden. Those that do not possess this knowledge are forced to make up their own oral law to determine what is considered labor, such as those in the Seventh Day Adventist and Kairite movements, and then keep this law according to their current cultural understanding of labor, and not according to the real meaning of the word.

Although many would claim that the oral Torah is an invention by the Rabbis. Anyone that actually tries to keep the Torah is forced, in some way, to create their own oral law. Even groups like the Karites, Jews who claim only the written Torah is from God, are forced to invent their own oral tradition. It is clear, then, that the Jewish people’s claim of an oral Torah is not unfounded or unreasonable. This oral Torah is just as important to non-Jews as it is to the Jewish people since it is the oral Torah that tells us, specifically, about the Noachide Laws and all the needed details of them.

We could also say we are studying Torah if we are studying any of the other parts of the Tanach, Torah, prophets, and writings; these three sections comprise what many people call the “Old Testament,” which is a theologically charged word that makes the Tanach seem ’old hat’. This is why those aligned with Judaism typically refer to in the non-insulting more accurate way as the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew Scriptures is composed of the Torah (teaching), Nevaim (prophets), and the Ketuvim (writings). Together these words are referred to as the TaNa”Kh, we arrive at TaNa”Kh by putting together from the first letters of each of the words and hence we have TaNa”Kh or Tanak or Tanach. There are several different ways to write it. The Nevaim (prophets) and the Chituviim (writings) can also be referred together to separate it from the Torah. The prophets and writings without the Torah is called the Na”kh. When one studies Tanach they are studying Torah. This is because the Tanach either explains or gives us examples of the Torah in action. Therefore, anything written in the Nach (prophets and writings) cannot contradict or present something new to the Torah.The Tanach aids the student of the Noachide laws. Each of the Noachide laws are found somewhere within, which helps us know how to apply them better. It also demonstrates the consequences of disobedience to these laws, as well as the reward for obeying.9 Even better, often Nach lights the fire under people to inspire them to action.

The final way that Torah is meant is to refer to anything that helps expand our understanding of God’s Torah. Whether we study astronomy or physics, or even philosophy if this study is meant to aid in our understanding and appreciation of Torah it too is called studying Torah.

As we see Torah is meant in four ways. It is meant as written Torah, Oral Torah, Nach, and finally as secular matters studied for the sake of understanding Torah. This clarity on the use of the word Torah will aid the Torah student in future studies. When reading the word Torah it is important to determine which of these definitions is meant.



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