One of the basic concepts of biblical religion and rabbinic literature. The meaning of “torah” (Hebr. tôrâ) is “instruction, teaching.” “Torah” is often rendered “law,” as consistently in the Septuagint, although Greek nomos had broader meaning than simply “law.” This rendering has been deplored, but it has validity. For example, Exodus 12.49 reads, “There shall be one torah for the native and for the resident alien.” Clearly the translator must render “torah” here as “law.” “Law” is an extension of the basic meaning of “torah,” for divine instruction assumes the force of law. In Leviticus and Numbers particularly, the individual divine laws are referred to as “torahs” (Hebr. tôrôt). Underlying the biblical concept of Torah is another concept, one of there being a way of God that had to be followed, a concept that finds its fullest expression in the prophets and in the Psalms.

If the divinity is the promulgator of Torah as law, Torah in its broadest sense may be promulgated by kings, priests, wise men, and even wise women (Prov. 1.8; 6.20). Most significant historically is the promulgation of Torah through Moses, an idea found already in the Pentateuch, as in Deuteronomy 4.44: “This is the torah that Moses set before the Israelites.” The tractate of the Mishnah known as “the Ethics of the Fathers” (Pirqe ʾAbot) begins with the statement “Moses received the Torah at Mount Sinai,” one of the fundamental precepts of rabbinic Judaism. Not only were the Ten Commandments given at Sinai, but, as we shall see, the Torah in a wider sense.

The development of the concept of Torah proceeded as follows: (1) the promulgation of individual divinely directed tôrôt; (2) the Torah of the divinely inspired figure of Moses; (3) a definite idea of Torah as the book of the Torah, which by the days of Ezra and Nehemiah meant the Pentateuch in an early form; (4) in the rabbinic period, the Torah as Pentateuch, in a form not unlike the Pentateuch of the present day (See Canon). Rabbinic usage of the term was quite broad. It could refer to the five books of Moses or to the totality of divine revelation. It included two basic types of materials: legal (halakhic) and literary (aggadic), with the latter including everything from stories to poetry to nonlegal interpretation of biblical texts and more. The rabbis extended Torah to include another dichotomy: the written Torah and the oral Torah, the latter consisting of traditions that were transmitted orally until they were given written expression in the Mishnah, the basis of the Talmud (cf. the “Temple Scroll” from Qumran, which may have functioned as an additional book of Torah). Both Torahs were considered to have descended from heaven; there was even a rabbinic tradition that the Torah preexisted creation, and another that through it God effected creation (cf. Sir. 24.1–23; Prov. 9.22–31). Rabbinic Judaism stressed the joy of fulfilling the Torah's commandments; Torah observance ensured salvation. It is difficult to overstate the importance of Torah in early Judaism, an emphasis that has continued to the present.

In biblical tradition the role of the king in relation to Torah is specified in Deuteronomy 17.18: “When he [the king] is seated on his royal throne, he shall have written for himself a copy of this torah on a book before the levitical priests.” No king of Israel or Judah is known to have followed this law, with the partial exception of Josiah, who read the book without actually having it written out (2 Kings 23.3). The king's role in relation to Torah is hinted at in the lament of Lamentations 2.9: “Her king and her princes are among the nations; there is no torah.” Priests as well are upholders of God's Torah and its interpreters as part of their everyday functions (Jer. 18.18; Hag. 2.11–13). The prophets too were greatly concerned with Torah, especially when the people failed to follow the divine way (Isa. 1.10; 5.24; Jer. 2.8; 9.12). Malachi 4.4 is the only prophetic reference to the Torah of Moses, showing that the early conception of Torah as direct divine teaching had precedence for the prophets over the concept of the Mosaic Torah.

The earliest Christian attitudes toward Torah were ambivalent. One view is found in Jesus' saying in Matthew 5.17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” But this clear‐cut and positive view is not that of the entire New Testament. Paul, though expressing the belief that the law may be fulfilled through love (Rom. 13.8–10), also asserts that “a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2.16) and that “the power of sin is the law” (1 Cor. 15.56); see Justification. With these radical doctrines, Paul was able to sever the Judaic umbilical cord and to set Christianity on its present track.

See Interpretation, History of, article on Jewish Interpretation; Law; Lectionaries, article on Jewish Tradition; Synagogue


Philip Stern