Central to the Jewish belief in a living G-d is the belief that He communicated His Will to man, the one creature whom He endowed with free will to follow it. In fact, the very essence of Judaism rests upon the acceptance of an extraordinary one time event in history, the Divine revelation at Mount Sinai in which the entire Jewish people participated as a group. The result was the giving of the 10 commandments, the root of everything that today we call "Torah,” meaning "to teach,” a profoundly beautiful tapestry of Divine law that teaches man how to live in this world in the fullest sense of the word. It was the sprouting of the Tree of Life.
After Mount Sinai, the "Written Torah” was written down by Moses through direct Divine prophecy during the forty-year period after the Exodus. If the 10 commandments are the root of the Tree, the Five Books of Moses ("Chumash”) are the trunk. Beginning with the Creation of the World and ending with Moses’ death, the Chumash is on the surface a body of instructive stories which contain an expanded array of commandments, however underneath are worlds of infinite depth and understanding which transcend age and intellect. In Hebrew, the name of each book is derived from the first word that appears in each book:
• Genesis (Beresheit) – "Beresheit” ("in the beginning”). This book chronicles the Creation of the World, the Great Flood, and also tells the stories of Judaism’s patriarchs and matriarchs. These stories begin with Abraham and Sarah and end with Joseph in Egypt.
• Exodus (Shemot) – "Shemot”( "names”) . This book tells story of the Israelites servitude in Egypt, their journey to Mt. Sinai (where the Ten Commandments are received) and their subsequent wanderings in the desert.
• Leviticus (Vayikra) – "Vayikra” means ("And He Called”). This book deals mostly with priestly matters such as rituals, sacrifice, atonement and ritual purity.
• Numbers (Bamidbar) –("In the wilderness”). This book talks about the Israelites wanderings in the desert as they continue towards their journey to Israel.
• Deuteronomy (D’varim) – ("Words”). This is the final book of the Torah. It recounts the Israelites’ journey according to Moses and ends with his death just before they enter the Promised Land.
The rest of the books of the Hebrew Bible consist of the Prophets (Neviim) and the Sacred Writings (Ketuvim), written down over the following centuries. The Neviim convey the teachings of various Prophets in the context of Israel’s early history. Prophets were role models of holiness, scholarship and closeness to G-d. They set the standards for the entire community. These 12 books tell of the Prophets’ visions for the Jewish people, including their ongoing struggles to promote greater adherence to the teachings of the Torah.
The Ketuvim can be divided into four sections: prayer and spiritual wisdom (Psalms, Proverbs, and Job), the Megillot, or Scrolls (Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations of Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes, and Esther), prophecy (Daniel), and a continuation of the historical narrative from the exile into Babylon until the return to the Land of Israel and the building of the Second Temple history (Ezra, Nehemiah, and I and II Chronicles). Torah, with the Neviim and the Ketuvim are together referred to as TaNaKh.
"Torah” also refers to the Oral Torah (Torah She-B’al Peh) "which Moses also received at Sinai, and transmitted to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly…” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1). The Oral Torah embodies the branches of the Tree, an intricate web of all the finer points of the commandments, the details of the general principles contained in the Written Torah and the ways by which the commandments were to be applied. For example, the Torah forbids "work” on the Sabbath. What constitutes "work”? How shall "work” be defined for purposes of the Sabbath? Except for several references to such tasks as gathering wood, kindling fire, cooking and baking, the Written Torah does not say. The Oral Torah does.
Ultimately, in order to ensure its survival, the Oral Torah was also redacted to writing, (around 200 C.E.), and codified into the "Mishna”, which in turn became the basis for the Talmud, a massive collection of legal and philosophical discussions and commentaries based on the underlying principles of the Mishna.
In the broadest sense, however, the study of Torah refers not only to the Written and Oral Torah, but also to the entire body of Rabbinic law and interpretation based upon the Torah that developed over the centuries. For the Torah was always a living body of work, constantly applied by a living people to ever evolving circumstances. Though the result of human effort, these "fruits” of labor are an integral part of the Jewish law to which the Torah itself grants authoritative status: "And you shall observe and do according to all that they shall teach you. "According to the law which they shall teach you and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do” (Deuteronomy 17:10-11). The intensive sum total of Rabbinic literature over thousands of years is the "Torah” in its largest meaning – one of the greatest libraries in the world.
The Torah, whether Written, Oral or Rabbinic is the heart and soul of Judaism, creating, sustaining and guiding the Jewish people throughout the centuries, until the present day. However, the goal has always been the same, the enabling of a relationship between G-d and man and the resulting unity and harmonization of all Creation as a result.