What is Torah?
Torah literally means “instruction.” It also is closely related to the Hebrew word which means “light.” It is the instruction manual for the cosmos, illuminating us on how it’s supposed to work. G-d illuminated Moses and all the Children of Israel with it on Mt. Sinai a few thousand years back, and Jews have been studying and living it ever since.
Most specifically, the word Torah refers to what’s commonly known as The Five Books of Moses. “A Torah” is that handwritten parchment scroll in your synagogue’s ark.
More generally, the word Torah includes anything that authentically explains or expands the instructions received at Sinai: the Prophets and Scriptures, the Mishnah, Talmud, Shulchan Aruch (that’s the Code of Jewish Law), and the thousands of books and commentaries on them all. They all fit under the vast, ever-expanding Torah umbrella.
Why should I study Torah?
The primary reason for studying Torah is not because of the use we receive from the knowledge we are obtaining. Rather we study Torah because Torah is G-d’s wisdom and when we study Torah we are uniting our minds and ourselves with G-d through His Torah. The unity with G-d which is achieved through Torah study is much greater than the unity which is attained through doing mitzvahs.
So what is greater: dabbling in all sorts of temporary physical pleasures which in the long run will offer you no satisfaction or benefit, or uniting with your Creator, who is constantly sustaining you, giving you life and everything else which you take for granted?
What function does the Oral Law serve?
The Torah is a closed book without the Oral Law.
Allow me to illustrate this point:
The Torah has no vowels in it. Imagine the word BIRD, without the letter I to indicate its vowelization. Now take this word B-R-D — is it bird, beard, bread, or perhaps any of many different permutations?
The entire Torah is written in this way!
Recently I was in synagogue listening to a Torah reading. In the course of the reading, the Hebrew word for “burnt-offering” was used several times in connection to the sacrifices offered in the Holy Temple during the holiday of Sukkot. The word for burnt-offering in Hebrew is Isheh, but since there are no vowels, it could be read as Ishah, which means woman. How then do I know that we are not required to offer human sacrifices — “a woman offering”?!
I know this is because the Oral Law tells us that the proper pronunciation is Isheh not Ishah.
It should also be pointed out that one wouldn’t begin to recognize Judaism if the Talmud and the Oral Law were stripped away.
Here is a common example:
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year, marked by a 25 hour sunset to nightfall fast. In the Torah, there is no mention of “fasting” on this day. We are merely told to “afflict” ourselves on this day; which the Oral Law informs us to mean fasting (as well as some other forms of affliction).
What are the Mishnah and Talmud?
The Torah–i.e. the Five Books of Moses–is very vague. For instance, the Torah says not to “work” on Shabbat. But what’s “work?” To answer this and many other questions (like how to slaughter an animal in the Kosher way, what Tefillin are and so on), G-d explained the entire Torah to Moses. Moses then explained the entire Torah to the people orally. This explanation is therefore called the Oral Torah, since it was transmitted by word of mouth and was not written down.
The Oral Torah was taught mouth-to-ear, mouth-to-ear, through the generations until the 2nd Century CE, at which point the sages felt that it would be forgotten unless it was written down. Rabbi Judah the Prince indeed went ahead and compiled the basics into a 63 volume document called the Mishnah. The Mishnah was taught in schools through the generations, with an accompanying oral explanation. In the 5th Century CE, it became too vast and confusing for people to understand, and the oral explanation was written down in a massive collection that dwarfs the Mishnah. This explanation is known as the Gemara, and together they – the Mishnah with its Gemara commentary – form the Talmud.
The 63 volumes of the Mishnah are divided into six sections, each one on a different area of Jewish life: Agriculture, Shabbat and Holidays, Family Relations, Civil Law, Temple Sacrifices and Ritual Purity. Thirty eight volumes of the Mishnah have accompanying Gemara commentary, making them Talmudic Tractates. The Talmud thus consists of huge books crammed with densely packed Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language that uses the Hebrew alphabet. The Talmud follows the six-section structure of the Mishnah.
How do I study Talmud?
- You can study with a partner or with a class.
OK, you’ve decided to study Talmud on your own, with your brand-new English-language version. Now, you’re cruising through the third page, and you get stuck—something doesn’t make sense. The commentaries help, but not completely—what do you do? To preempt this problem, The Rabbis instituted what might be called the “buddy system”—always studying Torah, and particularly the intricate, challenging Talmud—with a partner. Better yet, go to a Talmud class—you’ll learn even more and meet people who share your avid interest in Talmud, too. Chances are your local Chabad center offers one.
- Remember what you’re doing:
The Talmud is not just an engrossing exposition of Jewish law and lore—it’s part and parcel of the Torah. In other words, it’s not just another book—it’s a Jewish book. When you study Talmud, remember that you’re studying Torah, Divine wisdom.
When was the Torah given at Mount Sinai?
The Torah was given to the Israelites in the Sinai Desert on the 6th day of Sivan 2448 years after Creation. This corresponds to early summer of the year 1313 BCE.
Why don’t I feel like the Torah I study is affecting me?
The Torah is compared to bread. If you eat unbaked dough your intestines will not digest it. Your body will not absorb it and it will not become a part of you. But if you eat baked bread it is digested by the intestines and is absorbed by the limbs. The bread becomes literally one with you. (That’s why it is so important to eat Kosher, since the food you eat becomes a part of you forever.)
So it is with the food of the soul, Torah. When it is not “baked” (as we shall explain), it does not become one with the person who studies it, even if he studies an abundance of Torah. The Torah remains in its own realm and he in his own. He receives no nourishment from it like physical bread that has not yet been baked.
But when the Torah is “baked” within the person it becomes absorbed by all of his 248 limbs. He and the Torah become one.
The Torah has to be “baked” in the fire of the soul’s love for G-d and its desire to cleave to Him. One can study thousands of pages of Torah and remain unaffected. To digest Torah so that it permeates all of one’s being, one must evoke the soul’s sometimes-dormant love for G-d. This is the fire that prepares the Torah for human digestion.