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TORAH: The Center of Jewish Learning

September 30, 2013

by: Joanne Gosselin, BFP Staff Writer

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In their book, Judaism for Dummies, Rabbi Ted Falcon and David Blatner write: “Judaism has survived for almost 4,000 years, including 2,000 years without a homeland, without the Temple in Jerusalem, without any common geographical location, without support from the outside. Judaism and Jews survived because of Torah—no matter where they lived, no matter what historical horrors or joys they experienced, the heart of their faith was carried and communicated through the way, the path, and the teachings of Torah.” The following questions and answers show the significance of Torah to Jewish life.

Torah Study Q & A

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Q:  What is Torah?
A:   In its narrowest sense, Torah is the first five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, sometimes called the Pentateuch. In its broadest sense, Torah is the entire body of Jewish teachings.

Q:  What is the weekly Torah reading schedule in the synagogue?
A:  Each week, a different portion (parsha in Hebrew) of the Torah and the Prophets is read in synagogue. The entire Torah is completed on an annual cycle.

Q:  What is the goal of Torah study in Judaism?
A:  Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David (Greg Killian) tells us that “It is only through Torah that one can fulfill the one commandment that is the end goal of the entire Torah: The love of HaShem.”

Q:  What does the Torah say about the importance of teaching children?
A Deuteronomy 6:6–7 is part of the Shema [central prayer of Judaism] and says to teach the Torah continually: “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.”

Q:  What are yeshivas?

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A:  Yeshivas ( ישיבה‎ in Hebrew means”sitting”) are religious schools that focus on the study of religious texts, primarily Torah and the Talmud (rabbinic texts). Daily study is usually done in class with a study partner (chavruta, Hebrew for friendship or companionship).

Q:  What does the word midrash mean?
A:  Midrash comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to study,” “to seek out” or “to investigate.” A midrash involves stories elaborating on incidents in the Scripture in order to derive a principle of Jewish law or provide a moral lesson.

Q:  What is a Beit Midrash?
A:  Literally a Beit Midrash is a house of study, a place set aside for the study of sacred texts such as the Torah and the Talmud, and is generally part of the synagogue or attached to it.

Q:  What is the purpose of Torah study?
A:  Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs, in The Rewards for Torah Study, writes, “Torah study was encouraged not only to sharpen one’s mind, but also to serve as a guide for living a moral life. The logic goes this way: One who takes Torah study seriously will most likely choose the right path in life. For this reason, the mitzvah of Torah study outweighs all other commandments.”

Q:  Why were set times established to study Torah?
A:  Set times to study Torah are derived from Joshua 1:8. “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it.”

Q:  Is there a minimum and maximum requirement for the Jewish person to study Torah daily?
A:  The minimum amount of Torah study required for men and women—even when in mourning—is to recite the morning and evening Shema. Originally, the Shema consisted of only one verse: Deuteronomy 6:4. The recitation of the Shema in the liturgy, however, consists of three portions: Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13–21, and Numbers 15:37–41. There is no maximum requirement for daily study.

Q:  What is the oral Torah?
A:  Jewish teachings explaining and elaborating on the written Torah, handed down orally until the second century AD.

Q:  What is considered the most important level of Torah study?
A:  The Mishna [first written recording of Jewish tradition] says the most exalted level of Torah study is “lishma”, literally, “for its sake.”

Q:  What are other Scriptures from the Tanach (Gen.–Mal.) on Torah study and wisdom?
A:  In addition to the Shema (Deut. 6:5–7); two other references are Psalm 1:1 and Proverbs 4:5–7.

Of Vital Importance

(Photo by Kathy DeGagné)

Torah study is of vital importance in the education of Jewish children. Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk wrote: “If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself in their presence. They will follow your example. Otherwise they will not themselves study Torah but will simply instruct their children to do so.”

The dedication and love for Torah has helped preserve the Jewish faith as it is passed on from generation to generation. The rabbis of the Talmud wrote: “These are the things for which a person enjoys the dividends in this world while the principal remains for the person to enjoy in the world to come. They are: honoring parents, loving deeds of kindness, and making peace between one person and another, but the study of the Torah is equal to them all” (Talmud Shabbat 127a).

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