Prev | Table of Contents | Next

Written Torah | Torah Scrolls | Chumash | Talmud | Other Writings


Level:  Basic

 The word "Torah" is a tricky one, because it can mean different things in different contexts.  In its most limited sense, "Torah" refers to the Five Books of Moses:  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  But the word "torah" can also be used to refer to the entire Hebrew Bible (the body of scripture known to non-Jews as the Old Testament and to Jews as the Tanakh or Written Torah), or in its broadest sense, to the whole body of Jewish law and teachings.

Written Torah

To Jews, there is no "Old Testament" (an offensive term suggesting that God's Word has been replaced by a newer and better "testament").  The books that Christians call the New Testament are not part of our Hebrew scriptures (they were written in Greek in a spirit quite alien to Hebrew thought).  Our Bible is also known to us as the Written Torah.

This is a list of the books of Written Torah, in the order in which they appear in the best old Hebrew manuscripts, with the Hebrew name of the book, a translation of the Hebrew name (where it is not the same as the English name), and English names of the books (where it is not the same as the Hebrew name).  The Hebrew names of the first five books are derived from the first few words of the book.  The text of each book is more or less the same in Jewish translations as what appears in Christian bibles, although there are many slight differences in the numbering of verses and chapters and many highly significant differences in the translations; this is meaningful enough that we recommend studying only in the more reliable Jewish translations.

TORAH (The Law):

NEVI'IM (The Prophets):

KETHUVIM (The Writings):

Written Torah is often referred to as the Tanakh, which is an acrostic of Torah, Nevi'im, and Ketuvim.

Torah Scrolls

 The scriptures that we use in services are to be written in scrolls on specially prepared skins of kosher animals.  They are always hand-written, in attractive Hebrew calligraphy with "crowns" (crows-foot-like marks coming up from the upper points) on many of the letters.  You are not supposed to touch the parchment on these scrolls:  some say because they are too holy; some say because the parchment, made from animal skins, is a source of ritual defilement; others say because your fingers' sweat has acids that will damage the parchment over time.

 Instead, you follow the text with a pointer, called a Yad.  "Yad" means hand in Hebrew, and the pointer usually is in the shape of a hand with a pointing index finger.  When not being read, the scrolls are protected by a fabric covering or a decorated cylindrical box, often ornamented with silver crowns on the handles of the scrolls and other decorations.

 The scrolls are kept in a cabinet in the synagogue called an "ark", as in Ark of the Covenant, not as in Noah's Ark.  The words are different and unrelated in Hebrew.  The former is an acrostic of "aron kodesh", meaning holy cabinet, while the latter is an English translation of the Hebrew word "teyvat" meaning container.

The Torah scrolls that we read from in synagogue are unpointed text, with no vowels or musical notes, so the ability to read a passage from a scroll is a valuable skill, and usually requires substantial advance preparation (reviewing the passage in a text with points).  See Hebrew Alphabet for more on pointed and unpointed texts.


The Five Books of Moses are often printed in a form that corresponds to the division into weekly readings (called parashiyot in Hebrew).  Scriptures bound in this way are generally referred to as a chumash.  The word "chumash" comes from the Hebrew root meaning five.  Sometimes, a chumash is simply a collection of the five books of the Torah alone bound in a single volume; but often, a chumash includes the haftarah portions inserted after each week's parashah and popular commentaries, and is bound in five small volumes.


In addition to the written scriptures we have an "Oral Torah", a tradition explaining what the Five Books of Moses mean and how to interpret them and apply the Laws.  Orthodox Jews believe God taught the Oral Torah to Moses, and he taught it to others, and others taught it to others down to the present day.  This tradition was maintained in oral form only until about the 2d century C.E., when much of the oral law was compiled and written down in a document called the Mishnah.

Over the next few centuries, authoritative commentaries elaborating on the Mishnah and recording the rest of the oral law were written down in Israel and Babylon.  These additional commentaries are known as the Tosefta, Mekhileta, Sifra, Sifre, Jerusalem Talmud, and Babylonian Talmud.  The last was completed at about 500 C.E.

The two largest works are the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud.  The Babylonian one is more comprehensive, and is the one most people mean when they refer to The Talmud.

The Mishnah is divided into six sections called sedarim (in English, orders).  Each seder contains one or more divisions called masekhtot (in English, tractates).  There are 63 masekhtot in the Mishnah.  Most, though not all, of these masekhtot have been addressed in the Talmud.  Although these divisions seem to indicate subject matter, it is important to note that the Mishnah and the Talmud tend to engage in quite a bit of free-association, thus widely diverse subjects may be discussed in a seder or masekhtah.  Below is the division of the Mishnah into sedarim and masekhtot:

Other Writings

In addition to these works, we have midrashim, which are basically stories expanding on incidents in the Bible to derive principles of Jewish law or to teach moral lessons.  For example, there is a midrash about why Moses was not a good speaker (he put coals in his mouth as a child as a way of proving that he was not greedy), and another one about Abram discovering monotheism and rejecting his father's idolatry (that is a nice one:  he smashes up all his father's idols except the big one, then blames the mess on the big one, as a way of showing his father that the idols do not really have any power).  Some of them fill in gaps in the narrative.  For example, in Genesis 22,2, why does God say, "thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac"?  Would not the name alone be enough?  One story says that the narrative is skipping out Abraham's responses.  "Take thy son." "Which one?" "Thine only son." "But I have two!" "Whom thou lovest." "I love them both!" "Even Isaac."

We also have a mystical tradition, known as Kabbalah.  The primary written work in the Kabbalistic tradition is the Zohar.  Traditionally, rabbis discouraged teaching this material to anyone under the age of 40, because it is too likely to be misinterpreted by anyone without sufficient grounding in the basics.

Prev | Table of Contents | Next

Got a question or comment?