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What Is the Torah?

All About the Torah, Judaism's Most Important Text

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What Is the Torah?

A Sefer Torah

Getty Images/Steve McAlister

The Torah is Judaism’s most important text. It is composed of the Five Books of Moses and also contains the 613 commandments (mitzvot) and the Ten Commandments.  The word “Torah” means “to teach.”

Traditionally a Torah is written on a scroll that is then wound around two wooden poles. This is called a “Sefer Torah” and it is handwritten by a sofer (scribe) who must copy the text perfectly. When in modern printed form, the Torah is usually called a “Chumash,” which comes from the Hebrew word for the number “five.”

The writings of the Torah are also part of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), which contains not only the Five Books of Moses (Torah) but 39 other important Jewish texts. The word “Tanach” is actually an acronym: “T” is for Torah, “N” is for Nevi’iim (Prophets) and “Ch” is for Ketuvim (Writings).

The Five Books of Moses

The Five Books of Moses begin with the Creation of the World and end with the death of Moses.  They are listed below according to their English and Hebrew names. In Hebrew, the name of each book is derived from the first unique word that appears in that book.

  • Genesis (Bereisheet) – “Bereisheet” means “in the beginning.” This book talks about the Creation of the World, the Great Flood, and also tells the stories of Judaism’s patriarchs and matriarchs. These stories begin with Abraham and Sarah and end with Joseph in Egypt.
  • Exodus (Shemot) – “Shemot” means “names” in Hebrew. This book tells story of the Israelites bondage in Egypt, their journey to Mt. Sinai (where the Ten Commandments are received) and their wanderings in the wilderness.
  • Leviticus (Vayikra) – “Vayikra” means “And He Called” in Hebrew. This book deals mostly with priestly matters such as rituals, sacrifice, atonement and ritual purity.
  • Numbers (BaMidbar) – “BaMidbar” means “In the wilderness” in Hebrew. This book talks about the Israelites wanderings in the desert as they continue towards the Promised Land.
  • Deuteronomy (D’varim) – “D’varim” means “words” in Hebrew. This is the final book of the Torah. It recounts the Israelites’ journey according to Moses and ends with his death just before they enter the Promised Land.
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