The Jerusalem Council

A Global Association of Orthodox Jewish Disciples of Messiah Yeshua

What is the Torah?

The word Torah has become increasingly popular in recent years partly due to the Hebrew Roots movement in Christianity and partly due to Kabbalah interest in the Media. Unfortunately overuse of the term has only served to add to the confusion. Part of the problem is that these modern writers can’t make sense of how Jewish writers are using the term.

We thought it would be good to take a moment and thoroughly define what Torah means so it doesn’t become just another buzz word in religious rhetoric. We hear questions all the time: “What is the Torah?” “Where did it come from?” “How does the Torah differ from the Bible?” In the rest of this article we will try to give a good introduction to Torah and how it plays a part in our lives.

What does the word “Torah” actually mean?

The word Torah comes from the Hebrew root yarah which means “the mark”.  This is meant to bring to mind an archer as he strives to “hit the mark”. Conversely, the Hebrew word for “sin” means to litteraly “miss the mark”.  Torah most litterally means “teaching” or “instruction” . Thus, the picture that the word Torah is meant to paint is aiming for the center of the target to do what is right.

Torah is most often used to reference to the five Books of Moses. (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) However, sometimes the word Torah may also be used to refer collectively to all Scripture or even to include all teaching derived from Scripture. With all of these meanings floating around it’s easy to see why the word Torah needs defining.

For the sake of this article we will define Torah as: The divine document written by HaShem given to Moses at Mt. Sinai.

Though it contains laws and commands, the Torah is better understood as G-d’s teaching and instructions on life rather than some divine municipal governance. The Torah teaches us how to do what is right and by doing so, find blessing. It also warns us how to avoid the curse from doing wrong. According to the Scriptures, the Torah is truth, our delight, holy, good, spiritual, and many other attributes.

The Torah is the following books of the bible – B’reisheit (In the Beginning), Shemot (Names), Vayikra (And He Called), Bamidbar (n the Wilderness), and Devarim (Words). Also known as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Giving of the Torah

By nature the Torah is oral.  The Ten Words were spoken from Mt. Sinai to all the world. It was those words that HaShem wrote on the “tables” he gave to Moses.

When HaShem gave the Torah, He gave it as one of three things:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, עֲלֵה אֵלַי הָהָרָה–וֶהְיֵה-שָׁם וְאֶתְּנָה לְךָ אֶת-לֻחֹת הָאֶבֶן וְהַתּוֹרָה וְהַמִּצְוָה, אֲשֶׁר כָּתַבְתִּי לְהוֹרֹתָם

Exodus 24:12
“And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Come up to Me into the mount and be there; and I will give thee the tables of stone, and the Torah and the commandment, which I have written, that thou mayest teach them.'”

The tables of stone are easily understood as the concise written form of the Ten Words. The commandment is singular as it is written mitzvah instead of mitzvot. We understand from this that there is only one correct mitzvah in the full walking out (Halachah) of Torah, which is HaShem’s will. The Torah itself may be interpreted in many different ways, but there is only one halacha, one correct mitzvah in any circumstance. The Torah and its commandment is called the “Oral Torah,” in Judaism.

“The Torah” was given to Moses, and it was the teaching and instruction in how to carry out the Ten Words. Likewise, the “commandment for their instruction” was also given to Moses in addition to the tablets, and the Torah, as the “command for their instruction” is the correct application of the Torah. Just as the “commandment” is the instruction for the Torah, so too the Torah is the correct teaching and instruction of the Ten Words, and the Ten Words being the correct written form of the oral Torah that G-d gave to the world at Mt. Sinai.

The Torah, being a divine document, was given in a single day, in its entirety, lacking nothing. Now this may seem strange to the narrative of the text, as we find Moses still writing the Torah later. However, it is understood literally that HaShem gave Moses the entire Torah, even its conclusion, even concerning his death, on the day he gave the Tablets, the Torah and the commandment for their (the Torah)  instruction. This teaches us that the entire Torah is to be read as a contextual document – that its existence, even though it appears anachronistic in the narrative sense, was never meant to be only taken only in the narrative, progressive sense, but was also meant be taken in the contextual sense of it being a singular, whole document – namely evident that the reason that the Torah doesn’t define something in one narrative, is because the Torah defines it elsewhere.

The Torah is meant to be taken as a whole, with its context giving us the full meaning of its instruction. We are not to understand the Torah when it gives us a narrative that does not explain its details as meaning that those details were all that existed at the time, and the rest of the Torah didn’t exist at the time of the narrative to explain the details of the narrative; but rather we are to understand that explanation of the finer details of the narrative are in fact to be found in the rest of the Torah concerning the subjects found within the first narrative. In short,  it means that the Torah waits to tell us what it’s talking about in one narrative, until it gets to a more appropriate narrative from which to give us the full meaning of its divine instruction, being very conservative with its words until absolutely necessary. The Torah assumes we have read the whole thing already, as it presents to us the divine instruction contained therein in a narrative format that is supplemented by the contextual wholeness of Torah.

Case in point, when Cain makes an offering of firstfruits that is not accepted over his brother’s, and he slays his brother, yet HaShem approaches him and says:

Genesis 4:7
“If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted up? and if thou doest not well, sin coucheth at the door; and unto thee is its desire, but thou mayest rule over it.”

From a narrative perspective, one may argue that the Torah did not exist. That G-d hadn’t defined sin yet, hadn’t defined what a proper firstfruit “bikkurim” offering is, yet here HaShem approaches Cain concerning doing what is right, versus doing what is wrong – and calls it sin – kawtawt. In fact, actually this is the first mention of the word “kawtawt” in the Torah (and the context therefore teaches us that “sin” leads to the killing of Abel, of which in Gen 4:29 Abel was called by Eve as the “Seed” to replaced by Seth “another Seed” – reference to the Messiah, therefore teaching us that other’s sin leads to the death of the Messiah).

To understand what Cain did wrong, we have to examine what “bikkurim” is as later defined by the Torah in its more appropriate context:

Deuteronomy 12:6-7
and thither ye shall bring your burnt-offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and the offering of your hand, and your vows, and your freewill-offerings, and the firstlings of your herd and of your flock; and there ye shall eat before the LORD your G-d, and ye shall rejoice in all that ye put your hand unto, ye and your households, wherein the LORD thy G-d hath blessed thee.

Deuteronomy 12:28
Observe and hear all these words which I command thee, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee for ever, when thou doest that which is good and right in the eyes of the LORD thy G-d.

We find that Cain’s sin was to not offer the firstfruits (using the Hebrew for firstfruits only in Abels case), he did not fear HaShem (and thus engaged in idolatry like the nations), and he did not rejoice (he did not have eternal life). We find also from other subjects that he had something against his brother when he came to the altar, and that he did not perform the responsibility of a firstborn, which was a responsibility later given to the priests. Of course, my limited exegesis here does not do justice to even just a hint of what was going on with Cain, as the Torah, being divine in origin, continues to show us its truth the more we inquire of it.

I hope to write an article concerning Cain’s wrongdoing in more detail, but this example should suffice to explain that there is more to the Cain and Abel narrative than just what is given in the immediate text, and that to find out the details of what is happening, one must inquire of the rest of the Torah concerning those details. It serves as just one example that the whole of Torah is meant to be taken as one package. To use a computer term, it’s almost as if the Torah is a divinely constructed self-extracting archive of the divine “commandment for their instruction” wherein it’s very conservative in its use of words – whereby if you leave out just one letter, you don’t have a working program or proper understanding at all. The proper way to fully understand Torah, from this perspective, is to inquire of the fullness of the contexts found within it.

We therefore see that the Torah, though it contains narrative as its primary tool of structure, is contextual in nature, and thus is very deep on multiple levels of context. It teaches us to inquire of it deeply, so as to arrive at the singular “mitzvah” contained therein, this mitzvah – too was given to Moses, and according to Jewish tradition, gave it to the elders, and to Yehoshua, and they to Prophets, and they to the Men of the Great Assembly, of whose disciples passed down to their disciples their understanding which was written down in 200 CE in the Mishneh and Gemarrah so as to preserve the national dialogue on the mitvah contained within the Torah itself as understood from the ancient Sages and the Men of the Great Assembly.

The narrative of the Torah seeks to give us the very structure, and thus the very context, by which we may begin to unravel the totality of the divine instruction contained within this divinely authored book. We find this taught from the structure of Torah itself, one of my favorites being the exact middle point of the Torah, Leviticus 10:16, at the middle point of two words saying “darosh darash” meaning “diligently inquired” – meaning that one can only get to the central understanding of the Torah after they have diligently inquired of it.

In fact, the first question that one usually has when after they unroll the Torah scroll for the first time and begins reading Genesis 1:1, practically screams at us:

Genesis 1:1
בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ

Why is the Bet oversized? And from here, the diligent inquiry begins. Why does it begin with a Bet, and not an Aleph (why does it begin with the second letter of the alephbet and not the first letter)? Where is the Aleph-resheit? Bet means, “in” or “house,” or “tent.” What is reisheit (the word after the first letter)? Why did G-d have the Torah start with “B’reisheit?” And we begin to decompress the divine meaning in even the smallest detail.

We can see here then that the very first letter of the Torah, begs us to ask the question “why is it oversized” – a question by its very nature instructs us that we should be inquiring about everything of the Torah, starting with its structure (the size of the letters), and by implication that question teaches us that questions themselves are in fact teachings and instructions too – Torah!This leads us to conclude that the Torah is more than just what appears in the literal writing, but that the totality of Torah is meant to be derived from asking the written, questions!

In fact, one can derive the whole of biblical hermeneutics, from this process of inquiry, which begins with the first letter of the Torah. In time, I hope to present a more detailed understanding of the entirety of correct biblical hermeneutics as derived from the Torah in this manner. In short, I will refer you to the 7 Rules of Hillel, 13 Rules of Ishmael, 32 Rules of Ben Galil, and the 42 Rules of the Zohar, each one of them a codification of the literal to the increasingly midrashic and esoteric PaRDeS method of Jewish hermeneutics.

The first word, “B’reisheit” instructs us that we should be looking for the “reisheit” that is “in” the Torah. Of every jot, tittle, letter, word, phrase, sentence, verse, narrative, portion, and book, the Torah instructs us to inquiring of it, “what does this have to do with the “reisheit,” the first word of the Torah.

Yet if this is so of the first word, then what of the last word? When we look at the last word of the entire divine Torah, and find the words are “chol Israel.” We therefore conclude that the purpose of the Torah is to get us from B’reishet “In the firstfruit/firstling,” all the way to “chol Israel” – “all Israel.” The Torah then, is all about the “reisheit” contained within it, it’s result being “Israel.” Who, or what then, is the “reisheit?” that gets us to “Israel?”

We have a clue. It’s in the second question. “Why a Bet” and not an “Aleph”? The Sages, asked the same question. They agreed on the same answer: that G-d had the Ten Words on the tablets, begin with an aleph in the phrase “Ani Adonai” – I am HaShem. Interesting analysis, since the next related question is “where is the a’reisheit”?

The Torah, being a narrative, doesn’t give us anything before “B’reisheit.” But anyone who is familiar with Simchat Torah, the day after Sukkot where the Torah scroll is rolled back to the beginning, that one reads the last portion of the Torah, and the first portion of the Torah, together! It is understood that the entire Torah is continual document, that the Beginning is read from the end. We find then, that “a’reisheit” is already given to us, in Deuteronomy 33:21:

וַיַּרְא רֵאשִׁית לוֺ כִּי-שָׁם חֶלְקַת מְחֹקֵק סָפוּן וַיֵּתֵא רָאשֵׁי עָם צִדְקַת יְהוָה עָשָׂה וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו עִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל

Deuteronomy 33:21
And he chose the first portion for himself, for that is where the lawgiver’s plot is hidden; he came at the head of the nation, carrying out HaShem’s justice and His ordinances with Israel.

It is understood from ancient times, that the original Torah scrolls has no spacing, so this search for this construction in the Torah is valid. The last mention of “reisheit” in the Torah, comes immediately after the “aleph” as the last letter of the word before it, that word being the word for “to eye/choose.” Interesting, how the verse continues to says “for that is where the lawgiver’s plot is hidden.” Who is the lawgiver? Who gave the Torah? As we read above, it is HaShem. Other translations translate the word used for lawgiver as “ruler” – and who is the King of Israel? HaShem. But who then is the “head of the nation?” The Sages would agree, that it is King Messiah. Is this verse saying the Messiah will die, and all this before “B’reisheit?” And this verse ends on “Israel” – just as the Torah does, so then who is the “reisheit?” That which is where the lawgiver’s plot is hidden!

The “reisheit” then, by pure application, is the Torah (since it is “the beginning” of the Torah that leads to “Israel”) . The “b’reisheit,” then is Israel; and here we discover in Deuteronomy 33:21, that the “a’reisheit” is the Messiah, who is the “he” that  “chose the first portion” (Israel) and is called “the head of the nation!”

Thus we understand from this inquiry that the “reisheit” is the Torah, the Messiah the head of it, which came first, and Israel, the end of it, which is its destination, and that within the Torah, within Israel, and thus within the Messiah who is identified in both as both, is where the “aleph’s” (Messiah’s)”plot is hidden” – his identity, his death and burial, and his nature as the King who carries out HaShem’s justice, and His ordinances with Israel. On multiple levels then, we see the death of the Messiah before “beginning,” and thus receive from the Torah, an understanding that the Torah itself teaches us what the Torah is: that it is the hidden story of the death and resurrection of King Messiah; as well as his teaching, and his instruction as the King to his people; and is about King Messiah who is the one who carries out the justice and ordinances of HaShem for whom he has choosen, that is, “all Israel.” From this we then ask who is it that chooses Israel? The One who does the choosing can be none other than HaShem, for it is written:

Deuteronomy 10:15
Only the LORD had a delight in thy fathers to love them, and He chose their seed after them, even you, above all peoples, as it is this day.

We then understand that both Messiah, and Israel, are HaShem’s firstborn son. We learn the principle then that “if Israel, how much more so, Messiah” since he is our head. Yes, like him we will die. And like him, we will rise to rule and reign, and like him we will obey HaShem. This is the Torah. It truly is all about the “reisheit.”

The only other place in the Torah were “a’reisheit” is found, is in Deuteronomy 21:17.

Deuteronomy 21:17
but he shall acknowledge the first-born, the son of the hated, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath; for he is the first-fruits of his strength, the right of the first-born is his.

It understood that both Messiah, and Israel, will be hated, but HaShem ensures that in the end, we will receive that which is the inheritance of the first-born.

I have given you a brief exegesis of understanding what the Torah is. It is all about the “reisheit.” It is all about the “firstfruit.” It is all about the Messiah. It is all about Israel. It starts with the Messiah, and ends with Israel. Now go, and read the Torah, and inquire of it: “What does this have to do with the “reisheit?” The “reisheit” being Messiah, and the reisheit being Israel.


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3 Responses to “What is the Torah?”

  • Israel says:

    Yeshua describes the Torah as being derived from “love the LORD your G-d” and “love your neighbor as yourself” – which means the Torah then is the mark for which we aim to accomplish these things.

    Also another root found within Torah is “orah” which means “light,” as in “thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” So then the Torah is compared to light, illumination – as Yeshua said “I am the light of the world,” and we know that it he through the Torah the world was made. The Torah then, is how the world works, and one looking at it, sees the light of the world. Anything contrary to it is a corruption of the world, and is thus darkness, and death.

    Torah also means instruction, as it is said in Proverbs speaking of HaShem and the Torah:

    Proverbs 1:8
    Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s Torah.

  • Israel says:

    Email from reader:
    I tried to do a search for past threads regarding this topic, but didn’t come up with anything useful. If I simply missed where this has been discussed, please point me there.

    So, I’m kinda wondering what the Messianic Jewish perception of the Oral Torah is. Do you believe that it exists? If so, do you believe that it was given at Sinai along with the Written Torah?

    The Oral Torah is what G-d gave to Moses in written form, known as the Torah. Being of divine origin, its instructions are contained in a super-compressed presentation in written form, with even individual letters conveying meanings important to the full understanding of what HaShem intends to communicate to us. It is the duty of each generation to extract its contents according to the rules it teaches (almost like a self-extracting zip file), and those that withstand the power of the argument over time tend to be considered on the level of the written Torah since it is from the written Torah that those arguments are derived.

    It is said also very clearly:

    Exodus 24:12
    The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and commands I have written for their instruction.”

    What HaShem gave to Moshe was the Tablets, The Torah, and the Commandment for their instruction. The “Commandment” for their instruction refers to the understanding of each mitzvah of “The Torah” and the “Tablets.” This understanding was not written down.

    The Torah is clear that G-d gave Moses a divinely inspired document, and that the specific contents of that divinely inspired document, once fully extracted, can only be viewed one way – hence the “Commandment” for their instruction.

    This “commandment for their instruction” is what is discovered whenever anyone inquires of the Torah deeply, and within the rules of Torah hermeneutics taught from the Torah itself.

    So yes, there is an Oral Torah. It’s just that when HaShem gave it to Moses, he gave it in several forms: the tablets, the Torah, and the commandment for their instruction; teaching us that one is extracted from the other: the tablets from G-d, the Torah from the tablets, and the Commandment for their instruction from the Torah.

    So then this is why we find Yeshua presenting arguments against the arguments of some Pharisees promoting arguments that seemed Torahful but actually were not – he uses Torah to refute them. Thus Yeshua promotes the concept of Oral Torah, but when it is derived from the Torah in a truly right argument that places all the variables, all the Torah, into consideration and reflection. This is why no one could refute him (or dare ask any questions to implicate him) because he as “the Living Torah” certainly knows Torah!

    So then, when we read the written Torah, our argumentation and inquiry is meant to extract that Oral Torah from which the written Torah compresses – a discovery which is the glory of kings, as it is written in Proverbs:

    Proverbs 25:2
    It is the glory of G-d to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.