What Is the Special Significance of the Torah to the Jewish People?

by Jonathan Vankin

To call the Torah the most sacred text in Judaism is an understatement. Without Torah, there would be no Judaism. Through the Torah, a Jewish person is connected to God. The Torah existed before God created the world, tradition says. Over the years Jewish scholars have taken a more scientific approach, recognizing that the Torah was written by human beings over a period of time.

More Than a Book, or Five Books

The simplest definition of The Torah is the first five books of the Tanakh, which is the Bible excluding the New Testament. But Torah can also refer to the Tanakh as a whole, or even to the entirety of Jewish law in both written form and in oral tradition. The Torah is a collection of stories, such as the Garden of Eden, Moses’ leading the Israelites out of Egypt and many others. Most importantly, the The Torah is the book of the law by which God commands the people of Israel to live.

The 613 Commandments

The Ten Commandments are only the first. There are 603 more.

The first 10 are the most famous, but the Torah contains 613 commandments, or miztvot, throughout the text. The 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides put together the master list. He found 248 affirmative commandments. The rest are all “don’ts.” The mitzvot cover every aspect of daily life: food, business, religion, sex, etc. They address cosmic questions, such as the unity of God, and mundane ones like grooming and sanitation. The laws are not meant to be followed to the letter, impossible in the modern world. The Torah itself tells readers to consult wise men on points that need more interpretation.

Interpretations and Commentaries

The Talmud is book of commentary on the Torah by Jewish sages.

Judaism recognizes an oral tradition of laws and stories. This “Oral Torah” was also said to be imparted by God to Moses, but it was written down by the second century C.E. Rabbi Judah Hanasi called the book the Mishna, or “teaching.” Later, other rabbis felt at liberty to pitch in with their own interpretations. The compiled works of these rabbis, including the Mishna, over the ensuing three centuries became knows as the Talmud. This book and many subsequent commentaries provide guidance on how the Torah should be interpreted and its commandments followed.

Ritual Importance of the Torah

The Torah is not only a sacred text, it is a sacred object. Jews read a Torah portion weekly in synagogue. The reading uses a handwritten parchment Torah scroll, made from kosher animal skin. Even the Hebrew lettering has a significance, as it is written in lettering without vowel sounds and sung, not spoken. The parchment itself may not be touched, but is read with a Yad, a pointer shaped like a hand with the index finger raised. The reading ritual requires a high degree of skill and training. But the true significance of the Torah lies in its message, summarized by the first-century sage Rabbi Akiva in the single statement, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

About the Author

Jonathan Vankin is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has written for such publications as "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and Salon, covering technology, arts, sports, music and politics. Vankin is also the author of three nonfiction books and several graphic novels.

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