What Are the Five Books of Moses?

Often referred to as Torah, especially when in scroll format, the Five Books of Moses are the foundation of Judaism. Until this very day, the text—which is written in Hebrew—has been carefully preserved by the Jewish people. It is also known as Chumash and Pentateuch (related to the respective Hebrew and Greek words for “five”).

As their name indicates, the Books were written by Moses, as dictated by G‑d Himself. Jewish people see every letter and every nuance as a sacred communication from G‑d, rife with significance and meaning. They contain 613 mitzvahs, Divine commandments that shape the life of Jewish people everywhere.

The Five of Books:

The open ark in the main sanctuary of Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie.
The open ark in the main sanctuary of Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie.

Bereishit (Genesis): The creation of the world and the early history of the Jewish nation, including the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Joseph. (summary | full text)

Shemot (Exodus): The slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, the Giving of the Torah, and the building of the Tabernacle. (summary | full text)

Vayikra (Leviticus): Deals with the Temple sacrifices, kosher, and other aspects of Jewish ritual life. (summary | full text)

Bamidbar (Numbers): Many events that happened to the Israelites on their way to the promised land, including G‑d counting the people, the Spies debacle, the Korach uprising. (summary | full text)

Devarim (Deuteronomy): Nearing the end of his 40 years of leadership, Moses speaks to the people, preparing them for life in the Promised Land. (summary | full text)

The Significance of the Five Books of Moses

In the Jewish synagogue service, the Torah is read no less than four times every week, and the entire text is completed once a year. Many Jews are particular to study the weekly portion (known as Parshah) every day, often with the commentary of Rashi.

Although Jewish teachings have expanded to fill thousands of books—including the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), Talmud, Midrash and more—all of it has its source in the timeless, Divinely inspired words of the Five Books of Moses.

Read the Five Books of Moses in Hebrew or English with Rashi’s commentary

Summaries of the 5 Books of Moses

A Summary of the Book of Genesis

The first book of the Torah is known in Hebrew as Bereishit (“In the Beginning”), because the opening lines describe how G‑d created heaven and earth. In English it is called Genesis (from the Greek for “origin”).

To keep things simple, let’s divide the book into three parts:

Pre-History

Portion: Bereishit

G‑d Cain kills his brother Abelcreates the world in six days and rests on the seventh. Adam and Eve are created on day number six and placed in the wonderful Garden of Eden, but they sin by eating from the tree of knowledge and are expelled from the garden. Their son Cain kills his brother Abel, and the world descends into chaos.

Portion: Noach

Ten generations later, G‑d determines to press “restart” on His creation by flooding the world and washing away all life. Noah, the only righteous individual in his time, is commanded to build an ark to save himself, his family and a mated pair of each species. After the flood, Noah’s descendants start to build a tower to centralize their power. G‑d destroys the tower of Babel and disperses them by causing them to speak different languages.

The Patriarchs

Portions: Lech Lecha, Vayeira

We are introduced to Abraham, 10 generations from Noah, who faithfully follows G‑d to the future Land of Israel and overcomes multiple tests that G‑d sends his way. G‑d promises Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation. But Abraham’s wife Sarah is barren. Sarah suggests that Abraham marry her maid, Hagar, who bears him a son, Ishmael. Abraham follows G‑d’s instruction to circumcise himself, and he and Sarah are blessed with a son, Isaac, at the ages of 100 and 90, respectively. Abraham’s most famous test comes when G‑d commands him to sacrifice Isaac on an altar. Abraham is willing, but G‑d stops him at the last moment.

Portions: Chayei Sarah, Toldot

Isaac marries Rebecca, and after several years of praying for children, they are blessed with twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Jacob is a studious “dweller in tents,” and Esau is a hunter. In his old age, Isaac wants to bless Esau, his firstborn. Knowing that Esau does not deserve the blessings, Rebecca Esau does not deserve the blessingstells Jacob to impersonate his brother and take the blessings himself. Jacob then flees to his uncle Laban to escape his brother’s wrath.

Portions: Vayeitzei, Vayishlach

Jacob marries Laban’s two daughters, Rachel and Leah; grows prosperous; and has twelve sons. Upon G‑d’s instruction, he returns to the Holy Land, and even makes peace with Esau.

The Brothers

Portion: Vayeishev

Of Jacob’s 12 sons, Joseph is his favorite. His jealous brothers sell him to slave traders, and he ends up in Egypt. Joseph is wildly successful there, but is thrown into jail after he refuses the overtures of his master’s wife.

Portions: Mikeitz, Vayigash

Joseph is taken out of prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, predicting years of plenty followed by a famine. Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph that he appoints him viceroy and charges him with preparing for the famine. When famine sets in, people come from all over to purchase food from Joseph—including his own siblings.

Joseph recognizes his brothers and interrogates them. Holding his brother Simeon hostage, he has them return to his father and bring back Benjamin, the only brother with whom he shares both father and mother. They return with Benjamin, and Joseph continues to trouble them. At last, Joseph is Joseph recognizes his brothersunable to contain himself and reveals his identity to his brothers. At Joseph’s invitation, Jacob and his family settle in Egypt.

Portion: Vayechi

Jacob lives the last—and best—17 years of his life in Egypt. Before his passing, he blesses his children and enjoins them to take his body back to Canaan and bury him in the same plot as his parents and grandparents in Hebron. They fulfill his wish and then return to Egypt—setting the stage for the enslavement and subsequent exodus recorded in the book of Exodus.

What began as a cosmic tale ends focused on a small group, the seed of Abraham, whose legacy will shape the course of world events in ways still unfolding today.

A Summary of the Book of Exodus

The second book of the Torah describes the birth of the Jewish people: their enslavement in Egypt, their miraculous exodus, the climactic event at Mount Sinai, and the building of the Sanctuary in which the new nation served G‑d in the wilderness.

In Hebrew the book is known as Sefer Shemot (“Book of Names”), because it opens with the verse, “These are the names of the children of Israel . . .” On a deeper level, this reflects the fact that it is the book in which our identity (name) as a nation is forged. In English Following a lost sheep from his flock, Moses encounters a burning bush.it is known as the Book of Exodus, because it contains the story of our leaving Egypt.

Let us take a quick look at the major events that shape this book and its eleven portions:

Enslavement (portion: Shemot)

Sefer Shemot opens with the names of the sons of Israel who settle in Egypt under the protection of their brother Joseph. After they die, Pharaoh enslaves the Hebrews (throughout the exodus narrative, our people are referred to as “Hebrews” and “Israelites”), and commands the Jewish midwives to kill all newborn Hebrew boys. One mother seeks to save her baby by hiding him in a basket in the the Nile River. Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby and names him Moses (Moshe). Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s palace, tries to help his suffering brethren, gets in trouble, and flees to Midian, where he finds work as a shepherd.

Exodus (portions: Shemot, Va’eira, Bo)

Following a lost sheep from his flock, Moses encounters a burning bush. G‑d speaks to him from the fire and commands him to go back to Egypt in order to free his brethren from bondage. Moses reluctantly agrees.

Moses and his brother, Aaron, repeatedly approach Pharaoh with the famous demand, “Let my people go.” When Pharaoh refuses, G‑d brings ten plagues on Egypt: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, pestilence, boils, hail, grasshoppers, darkness, and death of the firstborn. Finally, after the tenth plague, Pharaoh agrees, and they are off. G‑d gives the Israelites their first commandments, to create a calendar and to offer the Passover sacrifice, and protects the newborn nation with clouds of glory, guiding them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Splitting of the Sea (portion: Beshalach)

At the last minute, Pharaoh has a change of heart and leads his army into the desert to retrieve his former slaves. Israel is trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea. G‑d makes a miracle: the sea splits and the Jews pass through on dry land. When the Egyptians follow, the sea covers them and they drown. The thankful Israelites sing a song of praise to G‑d.

Revelation (portion: Yitro)

Israel arrives at Mount Sinai; they begin to purify themselves, and Moses goes up the mountain. On the third day, G‑d appears and proclaims the Ten Commandments to the entire nation. The eternal covenant between G‑d and His people is formed.

The eternal covenant between G‑d and His people is formed.

Action (portion: Mishpatim)

Translating the covenant into action, G‑d conveys to Israel laws covering many areas of life, ranging from ownership of slaves to protecting the vulnerable.

Build Me a Home (portions: Terumah, Tetzaveh)

Perhaps as a sign of their renewed relationship, following the sin of the golden calf (see Sin and Forgiveness),1 G‑d commands that Israel build Him a Tabernacle, in which they will worship Him and He will dwell among them. It is to be made of tapestries and hides draped over wooden beams. It shall include an inner room, containing the ark in which the tablets are stored, and an outer room, containing the showbread table, the menorah (lamp) and the incense altar. It is to be surrounded by a courtyard, where there is a laver and a large copper altar for animal sacrifices.

Sin & Forgiveness (portion: Ki Tisa)

Moses ascends Mt. Sinai for 40 days, after which he is to descend with two tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. The people fear that he will not return, and create and worship a golden calf. Upon seeing what has happened, Moses shatters the tablets on the ground. Moses goes up for another 40 days and pleads with G‑d to forgive His people, and finally, on Yom Kippur, He does.

Tabernacle Is Built (portions: Vayakhel, Pekudei)

The Tabernacle is made, and Moses erects it according to G‑d’s specifications. G‑d’s presence (manifested in a cloud) fills the Tabernacle.

The “Book of Names” begins with a nameless group of slaves, and ends with a G‑dly people, proudly bearing His name, honored to serve Him and make Him a home in this world.

A Summary of the Book of Leviticus

The third book of the Torah, known in Hebrew as Vayikra (after the first word of the text, which means “and He called”), is also called Torat Kohanim, the Teaching of Priests, because so many of its laws revolve around the service and lifestyle of the Levite priests, descendants of Aaron. This is the source of its English (Greek) name, Leviticus.

Though sometimes viewed as a collection of arcane laws of animal sacrifices and ritual purity, Leviticus is very much valued in Judaism. In fact, traditionally, the first Torah verses that children learn are from Leviticus. We read in the Midrash, “[When] we start the children with the book of Vayikra, G‑d says, ‘Let the pure ones come and involve themselves in the pure [laws], and I will consider it as if they brought a sacrifice before me.’”

What it contains

Coming on the heels of the Book of Exodus, where we read how the people of Israel built the Tabernacle, a home for G‑d in the desert, Leviticus opens with the laws of the sacrifices that would be offered there:

  • Olah: A sacrifice to be burned on the altar, brought from cattle, goats, sheep, or birds.
  • Minchah: An offering of grain mixed with oil (and frankincense). Part was burned on the altar, and the priests consumed the remainder.
  • Shelamim: A peace offering, part of which was burned on the altar, the remainder eaten by the priest and the one who offered the sacrifice.
  • Chatat: A sin offering brought for accidental transgressions. The exact procedure was different for private individuals, public officials, and instances of communal guilt.
  • Asham: A guilt offering brought for specific sins.

We also read of the special seven-day inauguration of the Mishkan during which Moses served as high priest, bringing special sacrifices and anointing Aaron and his sons, who would then take on the mantle of priesthood.

On the eighth day, tragedy struck when Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, brought an unwarranted incense offering in the Holy of Holies. A fire came forth from G‑d, and their souls expired. In a great display of stoic faith, Aaron was silent.

Many of the laws focus on how G‑d’s special people must be sanctified through living a holy lifestyle:

  • A holy people only consume animals deemed fit by G‑d. The Torah lists mammals and birds that are unfit.
  • The laws of ritual purity dictate that a person who comes in contact with corpses, unclean carcasses, or people emitting certain fluids must be cleansed through immersion and must offer a sacrifice.
  • A significant portion of the book is dedicated to the laws of tzaraat, a discoloration that appears on skin, clothing, or even homes, as a sign of spiritual deficiency.
  • As they prepare to enter the Promised Land, G‑d tells the people that they must rise above their neighbors by not engaging in forbidden relationships, serving idols or mimicking other practices of the surrounding nations.
  • Priests are not to come into contact with dead bodies – except for their close relatives – and are limited regarding whom they can marry.
  • Priests who are deformed are not to serve in the Tabernacle, and only unblemished animals are to be used as sacrifices.
  • Sanctity is also conferred upon the calendar, as G‑d outlines the major holidays: Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.
  • Even business is to be elevated. Ancestral fields are to be returned to their owners at the Jubilee (50th) year, and debts are to be cancelled on the Sabbatical (7th) year. Farm work is forbidden during both time periods.

In the last section, G‑d tells the people that if they follow His laws, they will live in peace and security. If, however, they choose to ignore His Torah, they will endure persecution, starvation and fear. But even then, G‑d will remember His covenant and redeem His people.

A Summary of the Book of Numbers

The Book of Bamidbar (“In the Desert”) gets its name from its opening verse, “And G‑d spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai . . .” It is also known as the Book of Numbers (Chomesh HaPekudim, in Hebrew), because it begins and ends with a detailed census of Israel.

Here is the book in brief:

As a sign of His love, G‑d tells Moses to count the twelve tribes of Israel, with the assistance of one representative from each tribe. The total number of male Israelite warriors (excluding the Levites) is 603,550.2 G‑d then tells Moses that the Levites are to camp around the Tabernacle, surrounded by the rest of Israel. The Israelite camp is organized into four groups, one for each side of the Tabernacle.3

The Levites are then counted (and assigned Tabernacle duties), and their number is slightly less than that of all Israelite firstborn, whom they replace as priests because of the sin of the Golden Calf. The remaining firstborn redeem themselves from their obligation with silver.4

We are introduced to the laws of the sotah (the wayward wife),5 and the nazir (who lives an austere life with no wine or other pleasures), as well as the priestly blessing, which Aaron and his descendants are to confer upon Israel.6

After the Tabernacle is completed and the princes bring special inaugural sacrifices,7 we learn more about how the Tabernacle is set up and dismantled. We also learn how Israel would travel through the desert following the Ark.8

This is followed by a long series of (mostly unfortunate) events:

● The people complain about the manna, wishing for meat. G‑d responds by sending birds for them to eat, but then punishes them with a mighty blow for their ingratitude.9

Miriam and Aaron criticize Moses for having separated from his wife. Miriam is punished with tzaraat, leprosy.10

© Ahuva Klein
© Ahuva Klein

● In anticipation of the Israelites’ imminent arrival, spies are sent to scout out the Land of Israel. They return with disparaging reports of an impenetrable terrain inhabited by giants. The people are frightened and rebel. G‑d responds by informing them that they will spend the next 40 years in the desert, during which time almost all adult males will perish.11

● A man desecrates the Shabbat, and is punished by stoning.12

● Korach, Dathan and Abiram lead a mutiny against Moses and Aaron. The ringleaders and their households are swallowed up by the earth; other challengers are burnt in a heavenly fire. 13 G‑d reinforces Aaron’s position by mandating that tithes and other gifts be given to Aaron’s descendants, the kohanim.14

● We are introduced to the red heifer, whose ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled upon a person who becomes impure.15

● Miriam dies, and the miraculous Well of Miriam that followed the Israelites in the desert disappears. There is no water to drink, so G‑d tells Moses to speak to a rock, which will bring water. Instead, Moses strikes the rock. As a result, G‑d tells him that he and Aaron will not live to enter the Holy Land. Aaron dies and is buried at Hor HaHar.16

● Amidst successful battles against Amalek, the Amorites and Bashan, the Israelites complain once again, and G‑d sends fiery serpents to punish them.17

● With Israel poised to enter the Land, Balak, King of Moab, hires Balaam, a soothsayer, to curse Israel. Even after G‑d discourages him (and sends Balaam’s donkey and an angel to do the same), Balaam brings sacrifices and prepares to curse Israel. However, every time he opens his mouth, blessings flow forth instead.18

● Israelite men sin with Moabite women, and G‑d punishes Israel with a plague. When a prince of Israel publicly takes a Moabite woman into his tent, Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, zealously slays them both. G‑d rewards him and his descendants with priesthood, and the plague stops.19

After this terrible blow, G‑d once again has Israel counted, and the total is 601,730, slightly less than there were 39 years earlier.20

© Ahuva Klein
© Ahuva Klein

As Israel prepares to divide the Land, the daughters of Tzelafchad ask that they be given land, since their father has died without male heirs, and their wish is granted. In an emotionally charged encounter, G‑d commands Moses to ascend Mount Abarim to gaze upon the land that he will not live to enter. Moses pleads with G‑d to appoint his successor, and G‑d selects Joshua, Moses’ aide.21

We are taught the laws of the holiday sacrifices and of vows.22

G‑d tells Moses to wage a punishing war against Midian. The warriors return with spoils of war, including women. Moses commands that all grown women be killed (as they had caused Israel to sin). As the spoils are divided, we learn the laws of koshering food vessels.23

Although the Israelites have not yet entered the Holy Land, they have already conquered much territory. The tribes of Reuben and Gad wish to settle these territories, because the grassy lands are excellent for their livestock. After they promise to lead the charge to conquer the Promised Land before settling their own land, Moses (as G‑d’s representative) agrees to their request.24

The book concludes by recounting the 42 trips that the Israelites took during their forty-year journey through the desert,25 as well as defining the borders of the future Land of Israel.26 This includes cities given to the Levites, which also served as cities of refuge for those who involuntarily committed manslaughter.27

The final verses of Bamidbar tell how G‑d commands the daughters of Tzelafchad to marry only their fellow kinsmen, so that their ancestral plots will remain in the tribe forever.28

In his very first comment on Numbers, Rashi points out the connection between the repeated act of counting and love. One counts and recounts that which he cherishes. The Book of Numbers begins and ends with a census of Israel to show that G‑d’s love for His nation remains constant, no matter what their tumultuous trip through the desert brings.

A Summary of the Book of Deuteronomy

Nearing his 120th birthday, Moses, the wise leader of 40 years, gets personal with his flock, many of whom were not yet alive at the Exodus. Not just conveying messages from G‑d, but talking to his people from his own perspective. The result: the Book of Deuteronomy.

What Is It?

The fifth of the Five Books of Moses, the Book of Deuteronomy primarily contains Moses’ last will and testament to the Children of Israel as they are poised to enter the Promised Land.

In Hebrew the book is commonly referred to as Devarim, meaning “words” or “things,” based on the opening line, “And these are the words that Moses spoke to the children of Israel.”29 Since Moses uses this book to recount many events and commandments previously recorded in the other books of the Torah, it is also known as Mishneh Torah,30 “a second Torah,” or Deuteronomy (from the Greek words for “second law”).

Moses revisits many of the high points and low points in the Jews’ 40-year sojourn in the desert.

Addressing the Jewish people, Moses revisits many of the high points and low points in the Jews’ 40-year sojourn in the desert. He uses the opportunity to urge the people to follow the mitzvahs and live a G‑dly life. Many mitzvahs and laws are also found here. Some are repeated from the previous books; others are taught here for the first time.

Some Major Landmarks

The 10 Commandments: Moses recounts the event at Sinai, and repeats the 10 Commandments with some minor additional explanations.31

Shema: The verse that has become central to Jewish worship and belief, “Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is one,” is followed by the paragraph of Veahavta, where we are told to love G‑d, learn Torah, recite the Shema, teach our children, wear tefillin and affix mezuzahs.32

Shirat Haazinu: The penultimate portion, Haazinu, is largely a poetic song (arranged in two side-by-side columns) in which Moses exhorts the people to remain faithful to G‑d and admonishes them for not doing so.33

Finally, Moses delivers an individual message and blessing to each of the tribes.34 The last lines of the book tell us of Moses’ passing, and how G‑d Himself buried Moses in an unknown place on Mt. Nebo.35 Who wrote those last lines? According to one Talmudic tradition, those eight verses were written by Joshua after Moses’ death. Others, however, say that G‑d dictated them to Moses, who transcribed them in tears.

The Bridge

The Torah contains two parts, the Written Torah and the Oral Tradition (which was first committed to writing in the Talmudic era). Deuteronomy, which is Moses’ written transcript of his oral exhortation, bridges these two bodies of Torah.