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What Is Torah?

What Is Torah?

Beyond Wisdom

(tô'rä) תורה root: יורה
Related words: instruction הוראה, guide מורה

What it means

If you are confused by usage of this word, you’re probably on the right track. Grammatically, the word torah should mean any instruction, but in actual usage:

  • The title Torah often refers specifically to the Five Books of Moses. A parchment scroll version of the Torah, carefully written by an expert scribe, is kept in the ark of the synagogue and taken out to be read during services.
  • Torah can also refer to the entire Written Torah, meaning the entire canonized scripture.
  • Torah can also refer to the above plus the Oral Torah, which includes:
    • the compilation of laws and rulings known as Mishnah, along with other accepted compilations,
    • the discussion and debate of that material, known as Talmud or Gemara,
    • the stories and their lessons that are collected in the Talmud and Midrashic works,
    • any other teaching that has been accepted by a long-term consensus of the observant Jewish community, because it is based firmly on some precedent, or because it has been demonstrated to emerge by accepted means from previous texts and opinions.1

What’s so special about it?

“If someone tells you there is wisdom among other peoples, believe him . . . If someone tells you there is Torah among other peoples, do not believe him . . .”


Torah, it seems, is distinct from what we generally call wisdom. Our sages go so far as to say that Torah precedes all existence,3 that it contains the blueprint for the cosmos,4 and that the very existence of the cosmos is contingent upon Torah.5

Even the term “divine wisdom” is insufficient. Our universe, after all, is composed of divine wisdom. Our environment, our bodies and the very psyche with which we observe all of these are of unfathomable design. “How wondrous are Your works, O G‑d,” the Psalmist declares. “You made all of them with wisdom!”6 Yet the laws of nature are not the laws of Torah.

Human wisdom can be described as the ability to predict the outcomes of this wondrous design. We take note of its patterns and extrapolate into the future. We strive to know enough about what is to predict what will be—and therefore, what could be if we make informed choices. Nevertheless, what should be is decided by means that are not related to knowledge or wisdom.

Wisdom provides information about all that is and all that could be

For example, wisdom tells you that how you treat others is bound to come back to you. It’s up to you to decide whether you want that coming back or not. Possessing property that doesn’t belong to you might not be a good idea—for you or for the people around you. It’s up to you to decide whether or not to suffer the consequences for the sake of the immediate benefits.

Torah is the Creator sharing with us His innermost desire from which all things emerge.

Torah, on the other hand, doesn’t simply inform, it instructs, “Don’t steal.” It’s nice to know that respect of private property benefits you and the society in which you live, but that’s not the reason you refrain from stealing. You don’t steal because that is your Creator’s will.

Torah as Oneness

A construction worker looks at a blueprint and sees a building; an architect listens to the builder and understands what he really wants. The Torah is like the architect—which is why studying it tells us not only what is, but what should be. Torah is the Creator sharing His innermost desire with us, the created.

The seed of Torah was planted with the experience at Sinai, recorded in the Five Books of Moses. But the voice of Sinai continues to be heard in each generation as students of the Torah unfold the DNA of that seed, discovering new meanings that were always meant, new applications that had always lay dormant.7 After all, the ultimate instruction is that which lifts the student to a vantage point from which he can discern his own evaluation, using the same tools as the teacher.

What’s in it for us

When you immerse yourself in Torah, your goal is not simply to amass information, but to gain a sense of how the Creator of the Universe relates to His creations. To think in a G‑dly way. It is a sharing of spirit, until the same preferences and desires breathe within the two of you. His thoughts are your thoughts and your thoughts are His. There is no comparable union to be found in any other wisdom.

Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 1: “Scriptures, Mishnah, Talmud and Aggadah (stories)—even what a diligent student is destined to instruct before his teacher—all was already told to Moses at Sinai.” See also Shemot Rabbah 28 and Talmud, Menachot 29b.
Eichah Rabbah 2:13. See R’ Yehudah Loewe of Prague (Maharal), Netzach Yisrael, chapter 31.
Talmud, Pesachim 54a.
Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 9a.
Talmud, Shabbat 88a; Zohar III:193a, 298b; Rashi to Genesis 1:31.
Psalm 104:24. The opening words of the Torah, “In the beginning G‑d created . . .” are rendered in the Jerusalem Targum as, “With wisdom did G‑d create.”
Deuteronomy 5:19. See Rabbi Yeshayah Horowitz, Shnei Luchot Habrit, Bet Chochmah Telitai on the phrase קול גדול ולא יסף from this verse, where he explains the two contradictory translations of these words as complementary: “A great voice that never occurred again”—because it contains all, and “a great voice that never stopped”—as explained here.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Discussion (19)
June 1, 2016
To George
Rashi supplies us with two possibilities. Either he castrated him or he sodomized him. Either way, it must have been a nasty mess for Noah to sober up to.
May 31, 2016
In Genesis 9:25 Ham is cursed for seeing the nakedness of his father. Why was that bad. What is the real meaning?
George Kahn
February 7, 2016
Did Torah talk of something about a black man?, or do Torah have something give blackman!!.
Paul Houstone Otieno
January 27, 2016
I have seen Torahs that are centuries old.
These are holy and amazing things.
I'm not Jewish, but I get wisdom from Torahs.
George Vreeland Hill
September 14, 2015
Who wrote down the Midrash or the Oral Torah?
June 4, 2015
Kindness and Justice in the Torah
I once read that in the Torah there is reference to " Kindness is the highest form of Justice". Can you confirm that statement and it's precise location?
Michael Porter
Salisbury, England
January 29, 2015
is the Torah teaching us the correct way of living?
January 10, 2015
what are the parts of the torah?
what are the parts of the torah?
March 12, 2014
is the torah the same as the bible?
harry kassel
February 15, 2013
the written Torah
The Torah The written word was given to Moses who faithfully recorded it as the word of the living God, prior to that was the oral tradition which was handed down from generation to generation lasting about 500 years.
Susan B Lange
Norfolk, Va.
The landscape of classic Jewish thought is painted with a finite set of themes and motifs...
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