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What does the word Torah refer to?

The Torah is the center of it all. It is the axis around which the whole of Judaism revolves. If you want to know the Jewish approach to any issue; if you want to define who the Jewish people are; if you want to taste and smell and feel Judaism - for all of these, you look in the Torah.

But what is the Torah? How do you pin it down? How do you define its borders?

"We read the Torah in synagogue last week..."

"The Torah view of cloning is..."

"...a whole lifetime spent on Torah isn't enough..."

You might have heard all of these things said about "Torah," but it might not be apparent how they can all be describing the same thing. That scroll in the synagogue is big, but it can't be big enough to require a whole lifetime of study, can it? And where does it say anything about cloning? Is there even a Hebrew word for cloning?

So now there is a confession to make: The word "Torah" is not so precise. It can be used at different times to mean different things. To be more exact, "Torah" is used to describe different parts of one big thing. That does not mean that there is no precise definition, and that the "Torah" is just some vague, murky collection of mutterings, ideals and dreams. It just means that "Torah" is a very versatile word.

"Torah" is sometimes the name given to the Five Books of Moses (also called "Chumash", or "Pentateuch"). In traditional Judaism, these five books are considered a faithful and exact record of the word of G-d to His prophet, Moses. These books describe the creation of the world, the main events of the first 2000 years of history, the origins of the family which was to become the Jewish people, our exile and slavery in Egypt, redemption, the giving of the "Torah" at Mt. Sinai and some very limited details of the 613 mitzvos which the Jews were commanded to observe.

"Torah" sometimes also refers to the whole Bible (Old Testament; "Tanach"). This collection includes the five books of Moses, eight books of the prophets, and eleven books of the "writings." These 24 books make up the written law.

However, that does not tell the whole story. There are times when the word "Torah" will be used to cover the whole, huge body of Jewish teaching - both written and oral. That includes the Tanach, the Mishna, the Talmud and many other works - all studied without stop throughout the generations until this very day.

And finally, there's "Torah" used without reference to any specific book, but to the sum of all the knowledge that's to be found in all of these works together. How to apply the principles of the Torah to a world forever changing has been the work of every generation's greatest scholars. The sum total of the untiring labor of these thousands of dedicated leaders is the "Torah" in its largest meaning - one of the greatest libraries in the world.

Rabbi Boruch Clinton teaches at the Ottawa Torah Institute yeshiva high school and Machon Sarah high school for girls (both in Ottawa, Canada). You may reach him with comments and questions at

You can now read some of Rabbi Clinton's essays on Torah life at

You can also buy his collection of essays on the Book of Shmuel (Samuel) in printed form at

Copyright © 2000 by Rabbi Boruch Clinton and Project Genesis, Inc.



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