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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.

1. 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.
2. Eichah Rabbah 2:13. See R’ Yehudah Loewe of Prague (Maharal), Netzach Yisrael, chapter 31.
3. Talmud, Pesachim 54a.
4. Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 9a.
5. Talmud, Shabbat 88a; Zohar III:193a, 298b; Rashi to Genesis 1:31.
6. 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.”
7. 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.
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Discussion (6)
September 14, 2015
Who wrote down the Midrash or the Oral Torah?
September 30, 2014
Thank you for this beautiful article. My grandmother and my mother were Jewish but I was raised Catholic like my father's side of the family. I'm searching now to find out what I should be.
Chicago, USA
September 9, 2014
Excellent article. Beautifly written!
A. Tarshis
July 4, 2012
my take on Torah
It is the fabric of the universe, everything is Torah.
washington, dc
June 6, 2011
love it
I am relieved whenever someone takes Torah out of a static state. Teaching, instruction, blueprint are elementary terms. What we will find within ourselves is the active pursuit. How can i be a better person, a more G-dly person ? If i take your words correctly, that active pursuit is finding G-d/G-dliness/The Oneness relationship within ourselves. Accomplish that and it still is not a destination, merely a stopover for further enrichment. Enrichment/refinement is a never ending beautifying journey.
March 1, 2011
Torah is the holly book, and must be respected.
israeli pahtun
polokwane, south africa