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Definition: Torah from Philip's Encyclopedia

(Hebrew, law) Hebrew name for the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. The Torah is the body of written Jewish laws contained within these five books. The Torah also describes the complete Jewish Bible.


Summary Article: Torah
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

In Judaism, the first five books of the Tenakh, or Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. It contains a traditional history of the world from the Creation to the death of Moses; it also includes the Hebrew people's covenant with their one God (through the prophets Abraham and Moses), and the 613 mitzvot (commandments, or laws) that Jews should follow, beginning with the Ten Commandments. The mitzvot include rules for religious observance and guidelines for social conduct.

Following the Exodus from Egypt, the Hebrews are said to have wandered in the desert for 40 years, during which time the 613 laws of the Torah were revealed by God. Sefer Torahs, elaborately dressed Torah scrolls, are housed in every synagogue. They are stored in the ark, a sacred enclosure, and are offered great respect. Jews believe that the Torah was a renewal of God's covenant with his people, and that by observing the guidelines laid down in the Torah, they fulfil their part of the covenant with God.

In the Torah, Genesis tells the story of creation, of Noah and the Flood, and the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph. Exodus describes the slavery of the Jews in Egypt and their miraculous liberation to freedom. Leviticus is a book for the priests, telling them some of the laws and methods of sacrifice. Numbers contains a census of the Jews and their genealogy, with stories about Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and all the Hebrews as they came towards the end of their journey to Canaan, the Promised Land. The fifth book, Deuteronomy, repeats and underlines much of what has been conveyed in the first four books.

The word Torah may also be used either to describe the whole collection of Jewish written and oral scriptures, or all the books in the Hebrew Bible, including the Torah (first five books), Nevi'im (books of the prophets), and Ketuvim (remaining books such as Psalms).

Modern attitudes to the origin of the Torah vary, although all denominations treat the Sefer Torah scrolls with the utmost respect. Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah is the literal word of God, whereas less Orthodox denominations see it as the inspired creation of writers working in a particular age and for a particular people. For Orthodox Jews the Torah is to be obeyed, and it is not for humans to offer their opinion of the relative worth of the laws. For Liberal and Reform Jews, the Torah may be interpreted according to one's conscience, and some laws may be thought to apply to particular circumstances that have passed.

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