The Torah, also known as the Five Books of Moses, lies at the core of Judaism and Jewish tradition. The focal point from which all subsequent interpretations of Jewish law and values emanate, the Torah forms the first part of what we today call the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. While many scholars consider the word “Torah” applicable to the whole sea of Jewish learning, it also refers to those first five books when used specifically.
Conservative and orthodox Jews believe that the entire Torah was given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Scholars and rabbis also distinguish the “written” Torah, those same Five Books of Moses, from the Oral Torah. The latter refers to the compilations of laws and traditions based in the Torah and collected in the Mishnah and other rabbinical works.
What follows is a quick summary of each of the books in the written Torah, all of which are rich repositories of Jewish history, wisdom, and poetry:
- Genesis—The Hebrew word for Genesis is “bereshit,” which translates to “in the beginning.” Genesis not only contains the early traditional Jewish view of how the world began, but it also reveals a rich tapestry of stories of exceptional individuals who, nevertheless, exemplify the full range of human flaws.
The story of the creation of the world, with its stirring phrases and poetic images, is among the most treasured accounts of our origins in the annals of humanity. The verses that follow describe God’s creation of plants, animals, and human beings, as well as Adam and Eve’s transition from the Garden of Eden into the world of suffering, pain, and death.
Genesis also recounts the story of Noah and the ark he built to safeguard his family and the animals from the great flood. The Tower of Babel and its confusion of languages as human beings attempt to reach heaven is one of the stories from Genesis that often fascinates young children.
A focal point of this book is the tale of Abraham, the first Jew. He and his wife Sarah are considered the ancestors of the Jewish people, based on God’s promise, “I will make of you a great nation.” Moving through the generations that followed, Genesis recounts the deeds of Abraham’s son Isaac, his sons Jacob and Esau, and Jacob’s son Joseph, who was sold into Egypt by his brothers. The book ends with Joseph gaining power and honor in Egypt, and giving shelter to his brothers and their families during a famine.
- Exodus—Known in Hebrew as “Sh’mot,” meaning “names,” Exodus covers some of the most exciting events in the Bible. The exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt and Moses’ receiving of the Ten Commandments have been the basis of novels, films, and other forms of popular entertainment throughout history. And, of course, the Exodus story is the central part of the Passover Seder, which Jewish people worldwide retell every year from generation to generation.
The book begins with Pharaoh’s daughter lifting the baby Moses from a basket in the river, where his mother hoped he would find a rescuer after the decree that all Hebrew baby boys must be put to death. He grows up among the elite in Pharaoh’s household. After Moses’ encounter with the spirit of God in the burning bush, he fulfills his destiny by returning to Egypt and securing the freedom of his people. The Egyptians suffer the 10 plagues before Pharaoh relents and the Israelites escape. But at the last minute, Pharaoh orders his soldiers to pursue them. The Red Sea parts to allow the Israelites to pass through, but the waters return to drown the Egyptians.
The Exodus story also encompasses the Israelites’ wandering through the desert, Moses’ journey down from the mountain to present the Ten Commandments to the people, and the construction of the Tabernacle.
- Leviticus— The Hebrew word for this book is “Vayikra,” which means “he called.” This text deals with the laws of Judaism as God set them forth to Moses. It also contains details of the priestly service in the Temple, the laws concerning the kohanim, or high priests, the rules of ritual cleanliness, and the requirements for the festivals. In addition, Leviticus also contains the “Golden Rule” verse that commands human beings to love their neighbors as they love themselves. This emphasis on empathy and charity has remained a marked characteristic of Judaism throughout its history.
- Numbers—In English, the first words of this book mean “in the desert.” Numbers (B’midbar) discusses the wanderings of the Israelites and describes additional laws, the first census-taking, and the positions and movements of the various tribes. This book also tells how the Israelites sent spies out to survey the Land of Canaan, how Korach’s revolt affected the people, and how the Israelites captured and settled the Jordan River’s east bank.
- Deuteronomy—This book’s Hebrew name is “devarim,” which means “words.” It focuses on Moses’ final prophecies, as well as his warm encouragement and words of warning. Tradition says that Moses gave his final speech to the Israelites and then completed the writing of 13 Torah scrolls, one for each of the 12 tribes, and the final one for inclusion in the Ark of the Covenant. The Torah concludes with a moving and poetic account of Moses’ sight of the Promised Land as he prepared himself for his passage from life into death. Moses, knowing he could glimpse but never enter the land of Israel, was nevertheless granted a view of it from atop Mount Nebo.