Torah for the Nations

Torah for the Nations: Judaism 101

6. Milestones of Torah Literature

A. The Written Torah

The term "The Written Torah" refers particularly to the Five Books of Moses (Hebrew: Hamishah Humshey Torah ) often simply called the Torah. But the Written Torah also includes all the books of the Prophets of Israel, Neviim , and certain books of wisdom, prayer and history known collectively as the Writings , Ketuvim.

Thus, the Written Torah consists of 3 parts:

•  The Five Books of Moses, Hebrew: Hamishah Humshey Torah

•  The Prophets, Hebrew: Nevi'im

•  The Holy Writings, etuvim (holy writings:

From the initial letters of the Hebrew words Torah, Nevi'im and Ketuvim, these three parts of the Written Torah are collectively known as TaNaKh. To the non-Jewish world they are known as the Hebrew Bible or "Old Testament".

The Five Books of Moses

Bereishit (Genesis) Records the spiritual history of the world from Creation and the fall of Adam through Noah's flood and the times of the founding fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to the descent of Jacob's family, the Children of Israel, to Egypt.

Shemot (Exodus) Describes the enslavement of the Children of Israel in Egypt, their miraculous redemption by G-d under the leadership of Moses and their departure ("Exodus") from Egypt into the Wilderness, where at Mount Sinai they received the Torah, many of whose laws are set forth in the Book of Shemot, as is the design of the Sanctuary, prototype of the eventual Temple in Jerusalem.

Vayikra (Leviticus) Sets forth the detailed laws governing the Temple sacrifices, the priesthood, ritual purity and impurity, forbidden relationships, conduct between us and G-d and between person and person, festivals of the year and many more.

Bamidbar (Numbers) Records the wilderness count of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Levites before they departed from Mount Sinai to journey through the Wilderness to the Promised Land, and narrates the rebellions, trials and tribulations of the people until reaching the borders of the Land of Israel.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) Moses's final discourses to the Children of Israel prior to his death, setting forth the foundations of Torah faith and practice and repeating many of the commandments before concluding with Moses' last reproof to the people, his blessings to the Twelve Tribes and his death.

The Early Prophets

Joshua Describes the entry of the Children of Israel into the Promised Land through the miraculous crossing of the River Jordan and their wars of conquest against the idolatrous Canaanite nations who previously inhabited the Land, after which the Tribes of Israel settled in their allotted territories.

Judges Takes the history of the Children of Israel in the Land of Israel from after the death of Joshua until prior to the birth of Samuel the Prophet, telling of the stormy times in which the people's sins led to repeated wars and suffering at the hands of other peoples until they were saved by their Judges, who brought them to repentance.

Samuel (Books 1 and 2) Recounts the birth of Samuel the Prophet, who was the last of the Judges and who began to save the people from the persecutions of the Philistines. Samuel anointed Saul as the first king of Israel, and then David, the story of whose life occupies the remainder of the Book of Samuel.

Kings (Books 1 and 2) Narrates the history of Israel from the death of King David and accession of King Solomon through the reigns of his successors and the rebellion of the Ten Tribes of Israel against Judah until their exile from the Land of Israel by the Assyrian king Sennacherib, followed some generations later by the exile of the people of Judea to Babylon and the destruction of King Solomon's Temple by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar.

The Later Prophets

Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel each have an entire book devoted to their prophecies, which are lengthy and detailed.

Isaiah prophesied in Jerusalem from the time of Uzziah king of Judah until the reign of King Hezekiah, whom he supported during the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrian king Sennacherib. Isaiah's prophecies include visions of the age of Messiah and many comforts after the tribulations of exile.

Jeremiah prophesied in Jerusalem during the closing generations of the First Temple, through whose destruction by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar he lived. He was forced to give many bitter reproofs to the sinful people of his time.

Ezekiel was the only major prophet who prophesied outside the Land of Israel, in Babylon, where he was among the exiles from Judea. There he saw visions of the departure of the Divine Presence from the Temple in Jerusalem prior to its destruction, and he reproved the people and gave detailed prophecies about the form of the Future Temple, its sacrifices and the final disposition of the Land of Israel among the priests and the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

The Twelve Shorter Prophets (Hebrew: Trey Assar) lived at different times during a span of several hundred years from before the exile of the Ten Tribes by Sennacherib (Hosea , Joel , Amos , Ovadiah and Jonah) through the later years of the First Temple (Micah , Nahum , Habakuk and Tzephaniah) until after the building and inauguration of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (Haggai , Zechariah and Malakhi). The prophecies of The Twelve are no less important than Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel but their prophecies are too short for each one to have a separate scroll to itself so they are traditionally written in one scroll.

The Holy Writings

Five Megilloth (Scrolls):

1. Ruth Story of how Ruth the Moabite converted to Judaism and married Boaz, becoming great grandmother of King David
2. Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs)
by King Solomon: Love Song between G-d and Israel
3. Kohelet (Eccesiastes)
The mature wisdom of King Solomon
4. Eichah (Lamentations)
Elegies lamenting the destruction of the Temple
5. Esther
Gripping story of the miraculous salvation of the Jews from Haman's extermination plot in Persia through the righteousness of Mordechai and Esther

Psalms Prayers, praises, thanksgiving, supplications and entreaties by King David and certain other prophets and Temple singers covering every aspect of the life of each individual and of Israel and the entire world. The Psalms are used daily in prayer until today

Proverbs Collected discourses and proverbs of King Solomon on the true path in life and the dangers of sin and transgression

Job Discussions between Job - suffering from catastrophic losses and sickness - and his wise companions investigating the problem of why the righteous suffer while the wicked often seem to prosper

Daniel Dreams and visions of Daniel at the time of the Judean exile in Babylon depicting the rise and fall of the leading empires until the End of Time and the ultimate redemption of Israel.

Ezra & Nehemiah Narrate the return of the exiles from Babylon to Judea and the building of the Second Temple in face of unremitting opposition by their surrounding enemies and some of the people straying from the Torah

Chronicles (Books 1 & 2) Genealogies of the Tribes of Israel, priests and Levites, and history of the kings of Judah from the time of King David until the destruction of the First Temple

Key Bible Commentaries

Targum: Translation and exposition of the Hebrew Biblical texts in Aramaic, the everyday language of the Jews for hundreds of years before and during the Second Temple period and after its destruction

Targum of Onkelos the Ger (Convert, c. 35-120 C.E.) Translation of the Five Books of Moses into Aramaic

Targum of Rabbi Yonatan ben Uzziel (1st century C.E.) A more excursive translation of the Five Books of Moses and the other books of the Prophets and Holy Writings into Aramaic

Commentary of "Rashi" (=R abbi Sh lomo I tzhaki, 1040-1105 C.E.) on the Five Books of Moses, universally acknowledged as the foremost classic commentary on the Torah. Rashi also wrote commentary on all the Prophets and Holy Writings as well as on the Babylonian Talmud.

The Biblical canon

By tradition the TaNaKh consists of 24 books recognized by Jews as authoritative. Towards the end of the Second Temple period and in the times of the Tannaim (sages of the Mishnah) the inclusion of certain texts (Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes) was subject debates that were resolved during the 2 nd century C.E.

Various other works from the post-Biblical period were known to the rabbis and have in some cases survived (such as the Books of the Maccabees and the Book of Ben Sirach) but they were not considered worthy of inclusion in the TaNaKh.

B. The Order of Prayer: Siddur

Prayer is one of the fundamental pillars of Judaism, together with practice of the Commandments (Mitzvot) and study of the Torah.

From the time of the Founding Fathers until the end of the First Temple period, the ways of prayer were taught to the people by their prophets and leaders, some of whose prayers are included in the TaNaKh, especially in the Book of Psalms.

At the beginning of the Second Temple period, after the Jews had returned from their exile in Babylon to Judea, the sages saw that many of the people were no longer conversant with the Hebrew language or the ways of prayer.

Accordingly, the supreme council of the people at that time, known as the Men of the Great Assembly (Hebrew: Anshey Knesset HaGedolah ), including great prophets such as Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, instituted set blessings and prayers for daily, Sabbath and festival use. These make up the basis of the Jewish prayer services until today. They are recorded in the Talmud and later works, and until today the same prayers with very minor textual variations are found in the prayer traditions of widely diverse Jewish communities that lived as far apart as Germany, France, Poland, Russia, Spain, Portugal, N. Africa, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, India and China.

The traditional Hebrew prayer book is called the Siddur (from the Hebrew word Seder=Order).

With the passage of time, different communities added various additional prayers and supplications for use on Shabbat and festivals, fast days and other occasions, and these became incorporated into the prayer books of their respective communities.

C. The Oral Torah
The Mishnah

We have seen ( Module 5 The Written and Oral Torah ) that the Oral Torah was put down in writing for the first time by Rabbi Yehudah the Prince in the form of the Mishnah.

The Mishnah is divided into Six Orders (Hebrew: Shisha Sedarim ). Each Order (Hebrew: Seder ) contains an average of around ten Tractates. The Hebrew word for a Tractate is Masechta , literally "a weave", since each Tractate is a weave of laws and traditions relating to a particular subject area. Different Masechtot of the Mishnah range from as few as three chapters to as many as thirty, and each chapter contains an average of between three to fifteen or more separate paragraphs (Hebrew: Mishnahs) giving the details of the different laws.

Six Orders of the Mishnah:

1. Zera-im ("Seeds") Laws of blessings and prayers, agriculture, tithes and priestly gifts

2. Mo-ed ("Seasons") Sabbath, Festivals and New Moons

3. Nashim ("Women") Marriage and Divorce

4. Nezikin ("Damages") Civil, business and criminal law; legal procedure

5. Kodoshim ("Holy sacrifices") Temple sacrifices and services

6. Taharot ("Purifications") Ritual purity and impurity

The Talmud

For generations after the writing of the Mishnah, its teachings were the central focus of study and discussion in the Torah academies in the Land of Israel and Babylon, where they were analyzed, compared and contrasted with other traditional legal formulae that were not included in the Mishnah. These are known as Beraitot , "outside teachings", and are collected in the Tosefta ("additions" to each tractate of Mishnah) and Midrash Halachah , derivations of laws from Torah text, Mechilta on Exodus, Sifra on Leviticus, and Sifri on Numbers & Deuteronomy.

Each of the teachers of the Mishnah is called a Tanna (plural, Tanna'im ), while the sages in the following generations who analyzed and expounded the Mishnahs were each called an Amora (plural: Amora-im ).

These teachers not only gave legal rulings but also handed down a wealth of Midrash Aggadah , moralistic interpretations of Torah texts including many parables and wise sayings.

All these legal and other traditions were collected in two very extensive works based on the different Tractates of the Mishnah, recording the discussions and associated teachings on each one, chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph.

•  Talmud Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud Compiled in the Land of Israel in about 350-400 C.E.

•  Babylonian Talmud Compiled in Babylon in about 400-500 C.E. The legal decisions of the Babylonian Talmud were accepted as binding by all Torah-observant Jewish communities.

Midrash Aggadah

Besides the Midrash Aggadah mentioned in the Talmud, several collections of Midrashim have survived from the times of the Tannaim and Amoraim. Foremost among them is the Midrash Rabbah ("Great Midrash") covering the Five Books of Moses and Five Megillot. An most important later collection based on earlier works is Yalkut Shimoni ("Shimon's Satchel" by Rabbi Shimon of Frankfurt, c. 12 th -13 th century C.E.)


The teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Galilee, 2nd century C.E.) on the mystical dimension of the Torah are collected in the Zohar , an extensive commentary on the Five Books of Moses, and the Tikkuney Zohar , a collection of 70 discourses on the secrets of creation.


For practical purposes, the single most important area of the Oral Torah is the Halachah. The Hebrew word Halachah comes from the root HaLaCh , "go/went" and signifies to the path we must follow in practicing the details of the 613 commandments. A Halachah is a law ; the plural, Halachot , means "laws".

In the generations that followed after the redaction of the Talmud, few scholars had sufficient knowledge and understanding to derive specific practical legal rulings from the sources in the Mishnah and the intricate discussions in the Talmud. Someone who tries to draw his own conclusions from the Talmud without the guidance of a qualified teacher and all the necessary background knowledge will certainly come to error.

Over many centuries from the time of the redaction of the Talmud until the Middle Ages, rabbis and scholars across the known world had extensive discussions on every facet of Torah law. On the basis of all these discussions, certain outstanding rabbinical authorities set themselves to codify Torah law in a definitive, orderly manner in order to provide clear legal directives for practical conduct in all areas of life.

Mishneh Torah Comprehensive Torah law code by Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known as RAMBAM, Rabbi Moses Maimonides (c. 1135-1204 C.E.). Encyclopedic 14-volume work covering all of the 613 Commandments with all their detailed laws as they apply both at times when the Temple is standing and when it is absent. Maimonides' crystal clear defintions of the commandments and their ramifications are regarded as authoritative, and although his legal decisions are not always universally accepted as binding without further qualifications, they serve as one of the principal reference points for all subsequent halachic discussions.

Arba Turim , "The Four Rows" (referring to the four rows of precious stones on the Temple High Priest's "Breastplate of Justice") by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (1270-1340 C.E.) presents detailed laws in all the areas that apply during the time of exile when there is no Temple, covering the daily blessings and prayers, Shabbat and festivals, laws of kosher food, family purity, business, civil and criminal law, marriage and divorce.

Shulchan Arukh, "The Set Table" by Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575 C.E.) follows the structure and chapter divisions of the Arba Turim, providing a compendium of the accepted legal decisions in all areas of Torah law applicable during the time of exile, accompanied by supplementary glosses written by Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1520-72) giving expression to the customs and accepted practices of the Ashkenazi Jewish communities where they differ from those of other communities.

The legal decisions of the Shulchan Arukh as clarified and developed by subsequent commentators are until today accepted as authoritative and binding by all Jewish communities who have remained faithful to the Torah.

Mussar & Chassidut

The literature of Mussar ("reproof" or "ethics") and Chassidut ("piety" or "devotion") sets forth pathways of self-improvement based upon the teachings of the sages of the Talmud and the Kabbalah but directed to the later generations. The most famous and beloved Mussar text is Mesillat Yesharim, "Path of the Just" by Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzatto (1707-1747 C.E.). Classic texts of Chassidut are Tanya by Rabbi Shneuer Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of Chabad-Lubavitch movement, and Likutey Moharan by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810).