The Torah

Traditionally, the Torah has been seen either as a document that was entirely revealed to Moses by God on Mount Sinai (along with the whole of the Oral Torah, i.e. the Mishnah and other works of Rabbinic literature which build upon the written Torah) or that Moses completed the Torah during the trek through the wilderness (including what was revealed on Mount Sinai). Historians and literary critics, noting historical inaccuracies and duplications that indicate a composite text have suggested that the Torah includes sources from the period of King David and King Solomon (around 1000 BCE), from the seventh century BCE during the reign of King Josiah, and from the sixth century BCE during the Babylonian exile.

For Jews, the concept of “Torah ” is much broader than the books themselves, the delimited concept of the Torah. “Torah” can refer to all of traditional Jewish learning, but “the Torah” usually refers to the Torah she’bi’ktav, the written Torah, also known as the chumash (the five volumes or Pentateuch, sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses).

The Torah, Prophets (Nevi’im) and the Writings (Ketuvim) collectively make up The Hebrew Bible (what Christians refer to as the Old Testament). The Bible is often referred to by the Hebrew acronym TaNaKh (usually spelled Tanakh, or Tanach ). Numerous editions and translations of the Bible and the Chumash (the text of the Torah) can be purchased online. However, you can also read (and search) the entire Bible (along with many other major Jewish texts) in Hebrew and English translation free of charge on Sefaria.

Readings from the Torah, which are divided into 54 weekly Torah portions are the centerpiece of the Sabbath morning service. During the Torah service, the Torah scroll is taken out and the weekly portion chanted or read aloud. The Torah scroll, also known as a sefer Torah, is hand-written on parchment according to numerous specifications by a sofer (scribe), a specially trained individual.

The Torah’s stories, laws and poetry stand at the center of Jewish culture. They chronicle God’s creation of the world, the selection and growth of the family of Abraham and Sarah in relationship to God in the land of Canaan, the exile and redemption from Egypt of that “family-become-nation” known as Israel, and their travels through the desert until they return to the land of Canaan. Along the way, Israel enters into a covenanted relationship with God, and God reveals many of the rules for governing a just society and for establishing appropriate worship.

The English names for each of the Torah’s five book are actually Greek, and like the Rabbinic names for the books, they describe the contents. The common names for the books come from a significant word in the beginning verses of the book. The following are the names of the five books and a brief summary of each:

Genesis (“Origins”)/Bereishit (“In the Beginning”)

Genesis tells the story of creation, Noah and the flood, and the selection of Abraham and Sarah and their family as the bearers of God’s covenant. Stories of sibling conflict and the long narratives of Jacob and his favorite son Joseph conclude with the family dwelling in Egypt.

Exodus (“The Road Out”)/Shemot (“Names”)

Exodus tells of how the family of Jacob grew and then was enslaved in Egypt. The baby Moses, born of Israelites but adopted by Pharaoh, becomes God’s prophet who, after bringing 10 plagues down upon Egypt, leads the Israelites through the Red Sea to freedom and to the revelation at Mount Sinai. The story of the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, which follows soon after the revelation at Mount Sinai, is almost obscured by lengthy materials on the building of a sanctuary (tabernacle) in the wilderness.

Leviticus (“Laws of the Levites”)/Vayikra (“And God Called”)

Leviticus deals mostly with laws of Israelite sacrificial worship. Related rules include the basis for Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) and issues of purity and impurity. The holiness code, which describes a sanctified communal life, is a highlight of the book.

Numbers (“The Census”)/Bamidbar (“In the Wilderness”)

Numbers begins with a census of the Israelites and the tribe of Levi. A group of Israelites spy out the land of Canaan; their discouraging report sends them back into the desert for an additional 38 years, during which the Israelites continue to behave badly, rebelling against the authority of Moses and his brother Aaron, and having illicit relations with Moabite women.

Deuteronomy (“Second Law”)/Devarim (“Words”)

Deuteronomy is Moses’ final message to the people of Israel before they cross over the Jordan River into Israel. Moses reminds the people of how God has redeemed the people from Egypt and of the details of the covenant between Israel and God. In stark language, Moses describes the rewards for observance of the laws of the covenant and the punishment for disobedience. Finally, Moses passes along his authority to Joshua who will lead the people into the land.

Sources: Essential Judaism, Unearthing the Bible,,

Torah & Science: Genesis as Allegory

“In Jewish religious thought Genesis is not regarded as meant for a literal reading, and Jewish tradition has not usually read it so.”

~ Steven Katz, founding director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies

In the Middle Ages, Saadia Gaon argued that a biblical passage should not be interpreted literally if that made a passage mean something contrary to the senses or reason (or, as we would say, science; Emunot ve-Deot, chapter 7). Maimonides applied this principle to theories about creation. He held that if the eternity of the universe (what we would call the Steady State theory) could be proven by logic (science) then the biblical passages speaking about creation at a point in time could and should be interpreted figuratively in a way that is compatible with the eternity of the universe.

It is only because the eternity of the universe has not been proven that he interpreted the verses about creation at a point in time literally, but he still insisted that the creation story as a whole was written metaphorically.

To Saadia and Maimonides, belief in the truth of the Torah does not require a denial of science (“reason,” “logic”) when the two seem to conflict. These philosophers imply that questions of science should be left to scientists and scientific method. In fact, Maimonides quotes a passage in the Talmud in which Jewish scholars abandoned an astronomical theory of their own in favor of a theory of gentile scholars (Pesahim 94b).

Maimonides approved of their action, saying that “speculative matters everyone treats according to the results of his own study, and everyone accepts that which appears to him established by proof.”  To him, clearly, Science is a matter of speculation and is not the field in which the Torah seeks to be decisive.

In more recent times Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook held that scientific ideas which seem to conflict with the Torah need not necessarily be opposed, but can serve as stimuli to delve more deeply into the Torah and discover more profound meaning in it.

The approach of these thinkers is one that Fritz Rothschild has described as a guiding principle of Jewish biblical exegesis:

“The view that the Torah contains God’s message to man has led to ever new interpretations, since it constantly forced believing readers of the Torah to reconcile the words of the sacred text with whatever they held to be true on the basis of their own experience, the canons of logic, contemporary science, and their moral insights…. The traditionalist will always feel called upon to interpret the text so that it reflects not ancient error but the highest standards of trustworthy knowledge and insight of his own time.” (Rothschild, “Truth and Metaphor in the Torah”)

This approach urges us to probe more deeply into the biblical accounts of creation and to search for the intention of the Torah’s compilers in presenting these accounts. By compilers I mean those who gathered all the sources and books together and produced the Torah in the form in which it was canonized in classical Judaism. In critical terms these are the redactors of the Torah; in Franz Rosenzweig’s terms, rabboteinu (our rabbis).

Whatever the intention of the individual accounts of creation may have been, it is clear from the Torah as a whole that its compilers were not overly concerned with the details of the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. They incorporated several accounts of creation in the Torah even though no two accounts agree in detail with Genesis 1 or with each other. Genesis 1 describes the creation of the world in six days. The second account of creation is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2).

Several other accounts are found in poetic form in Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. Genesis 1 says that man was the last living creature created; Genesis 2 says that he was the first. Genesis 1 speaks of the prehistoric waters in purely naturalistic terms and says that God merely commanded them to gather in a single spot so that dry land could appear.

But in poetic passages the ancient waters are personified as rebellious sea monsters which threatened to swamp the dry land, until God subdued them and created the seashore as a boundary which they were prohibited from crossing.

The most notable difference between Genesis and all the other accounts is that none of the others mentions the idea that the world was created in six days. This idea–which is the centerpiece of the whole creationist movement–was apparently not considered important enough in the Torah to be repeated in other accounts of creation. 

The fact that so many differing accounts were all accepted in the Torah shows that its compilers were not concerned about these details. They undoubtedly assumed that the differences could be reconciled, but they left this task to the ingenuity of exegetes. This virtually assured that different reconciliations would be proposed and some of the passages would have to be interpreted non-literally.

What the Torah as a whole insists on is not these details, but only what the stories have in common. In other words, these stories are regarded as poetic statements of certain basic truths, not as literally scientific accounts of how the universe developed.

What matters in Judaism are the concepts shared by all these stories: that the world was created by God, that He planned it carefully and designed it to be hospitable to man. These are the very conclusions to which astronomy now points. The other details of the biblical accounts should not be taken literally, but metaphorically or poetically.

To give just one example: the six days of creation culminating in the Sabbath on the seventh day symbolize how God guided the development of the world stage by stage according to a well-thought-out plan. The process is described as taking place over a period of seven days because seven was regarded in the ancient world as the number of perfection and seven days were regarded as the ideal length of a process. The unit of “seven days” is more a statement about the perfection of the process than a chronological statistic.

Thus a literal reading of the Torah, on which “creation science” implicitly insists, misses the point of the Torah itself, which seems uninterested in literal interpretation. Like poetry and certain kinds of prose, which sometimes speak in metaphors and symbols, the Torah as a whole does not intend these stories to be taken literally.

Literalism is not only misleading but is also a disservice to the cause of the Torah itself. It forces the Torah to compete as science, and in such a competition it cannot win. In a scientific age such as ours the Torah will never be accepted as science by educated people.

What is more, attempting to secure acceptance for it as science is hardly worthwhile, for this would divert attention away from the Torah’s religious message to details which from a religious point of view are trivial.

The religious message is precisely the realm in which science cannot compete, and those devoted to the cause of the Torah would do far better service to their cause by stressing its unique religious message. To the religious person it makes little difference whether the world was created in six days or several billion years.

What counts is the deeper message of the biblical account of creation: The world was made by a wise Creator who seeks man’s welfare, who created the world carefully with man’s benefit in mind, who created man with Godlike qualities and commanded him to administer the world wisely.

Though we observe the Sabbath every seven days, it is this deeper message which we celebrate each week. The current views of modern science deepen our understanding of this message and renew our confidence in it.

Sources: Essential Judaism, Conservative Judaism Journal,,

The Pharaoh of Exodus: Evidence or No Evidence

Date: 1440 BC

Discovered: Elephantine, Egypt

Period: Exodus

Torah Passages: Exodus 2:11–5:1; 12:37-41; 14:4-30; Acts 7:20-30

Pharaoh and his servants had a change of heart toward the people… So he made his chariot ready and took his people with him… and he chased after the sons of Israel (Exodus 14:5-8).

Pharaoh Amenhotep II reigned over Egypt beginning in about 1450 BC during the powerful 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom. His monuments and inscriptions indicate that he was one of the most boastful pharaohs of ancient Egypt, claiming such feats as being able to shoot arrows through a copper target a palm thick, rowing a ship by himself faster and farther than 200 Egyptian sailors, singlehandedly killing 7 prince warriors of Kadesh, having the kings of Babylon, the Hittites, and Mitanni all come to pay tribute to him, and supposedly conducting the largest slave raid in Egyptian history.

According to a match of chronological information from Egyptian king lists and the Bible, Amenhotep II was probably also the pharaoh of the Exodus, which occurred in approximately 1446 BC. One of the most significant artifacts relating to the circumstantial evidence for Amenhotep II being the pharaoh of the Exodus is a stele that he commissioned to commemorate one of his campaigns.

While earlier in the 18th Dynasty the Egyptians had a powerful military, especially during the reign of Thutmose III, who conducted 17 known military campaigns, after the beginning of the reign of Amenhotep II there is a steep decline.  In fact, Amenhotep II had only two confirmed campaigns during his reign—the first took place prior to the Exodus, while the second was primarily a slave raid that occurred soon after the Exodus and was recorded on the Elephantine Stele.

This monumental stone inscription with its accompanying artwork was originally erected at the southern city of Elephantine, and it records the campaign of Amenhotep II to Canaan in which he claims to have brought back over 101,128 captives to be used as slaves.31 In comparison, other Egyptian military campaigns of the period brought back nowhere near the amount of captives, with the largest total being only 5,903, and as a result most scholars consider the number of slaves captured by Amenhotep II in this text to be a massive exaggeration. Because this happened right after the Exodus, perhaps it is indicative of an urgent need to replace the lost slave population in Egypt, or purely as propaganda making it appear that the pharaoh had recovered or replenished the slaves lost during the Hebrew Exodus.

Additional indicators include that the pharaoh preceding the Exodus must have had a reign of over 40 years, since Moses killed an Egyptian and fled to Midian for 40 years until the pharaoh who knew him had died. Thutmose III, the father and predecessor of Amenhotep II, reigned for 54 years and is the only pharaoh in the dynasty with a reign of 40 or more years. The Exodus pharaoh must also have recently begun his reign, since Moses returned and confronted the Exodus pharaoh soon after the previous pharaoh died, and Amenhotep II took the throne only about four years or less prior to the Exodus.

The first campaign of Amenhotep II was launched in his third year, or approximately 1448 BC. The second campaign, to Canaan, occurred in his seventh year, approximately 1444 BC, which seems to have been only one or two years after the Exodus.

Sources: Essential Judaism, Unearthing the Bible,,

The Plagues: Evidence or No Evidence

Date: 13th century BCE

Discovered: Saqqara, Egypt

Period: Exodus

Torah Passage: Exodus 7:14–12:36

I will strike the water that is in the Nile with the staff that is in my hand, and it will be turned to blood…and the blood was through all the land of Egypt (Exodus 7:17,21).

An ancient Egyptian text, written by a man named Ipuwer and referred to as the Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage, was a poetic lamentation addressed to the “All Lord,” who is typically understood to be the sun god Ra. The poem describes a time in which the natural order in Egypt was severely disrupted by death, destruction, and plagues.

The only surviving copy of the papyrus dates to the 13th century BCE, perhaps as early as 1300 BCE. While most scholars suggest it was originally written in the Second Intermediate Period due to content, the linguistics of the text and the date of the copy indicate that it was composed during the 18th Dynasty around the 16th–14th centuries BCE.

The name Ipuwer is also know from inscriptions of the 18th Dynasty, and in particular one from the time of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III just prior to the Exodus. Any historical events mentioned in the text must have occurred prior to the 13th century BCE and possibly in the 18th Dynasty. If the Admonitions describes events similar to the plagues recorded in Exodus, and the Egyptian account was composed in the same general time period as the events of the Exodus, then it is plausible that the two documents contain independent accounts of the identical episode in history but from different perspectives.

Passages in the poem, such as the river being blood, blood everywhere, plague and pestilence throughout the land, the grain being destroyed, disease causing physical disfigurement, the prevalence of death, mourning throughout the land, rebellion against Ra the sun god, the death of children, the authority of the pharaoh being lost, the gods of Egypt being ineffective and losing a battle, and jewelry now being in the possession of the slaves, are all occurrences in common with the Exodus story.

Thematic and even linguistic links between the Admonitions and the plagues of Exodus have been recognized by scholars, but typically these connections are discounted on the presupposition that neither the book of Exodus nor the Admonitions of Ipuwer describe historical events, and that even if they did, the two texts would be too far separated in time from one another.

However, since the chronology may overlap, and the match in specificity of many of the events suggests the possibility that the documents are describing the same general events and period of hardship in Egypt, the Admonitions could be an Egyptian remembrance and near contemporary account of the time of the Exodus plagues.

Sources: Essential Judaism, Unearthing the Bible,,

Shulkhan Arukh

The legal code known as the Shulkhan Arukh, compiled by the great Sephardic rabbi Joseph Caro in the mid­1500s, is still the standard legal code of Judaism. When rabbis, particularly if they are Orthodox, are asked to rule on a question of Jewish law, the first volume they consult generally is the Shulkhan Arukh. A major reason for its universal acceptance is that it was the first code to list the differing customs and laws of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry. (Maimonides’s earlier Mishneh Torah, for example, contained only the legal rulings of Sephardic Jewry, which differed in certain areas from European Jewry’s practices.)

This unique feature was not intended by Joseph Caro, but came about through a happy coincidence. At the very time that Caro was compiling his code, a similar undertaking was being planned by Rabbi Moses Isserles of Poland. Isserles, known in Jewish life as the Rama, was thrown into some despair when he first heard about Caro’s work, for he knew Caro to be a greater scholar than himself. Nonetheless, he soon realized that both Caro’s legal code and his own would not by themselves meet the needs of all Jews. Thus, the Shulkhan Arukh was published with Caro’s rulings listed first, and Isserles’s dissents and addenda included in italics.

The Shulkhan Arukh is divided into four volumes:

1. Orakh Hayyim-laws of prayer and of holidays. 

2. Yoreh Deah-diverse laws, including those governing charity (tzedaka), Torah study and the Jewish dietary laws. 

3. Even ha­Ezer-laws concerning Jewish marriage and divorce. 

4. Khoshen Mishpat-Jewish civil law.

To this day, rabbinic ordination (semikha) usually is given to a student only after he has been examined on the Shulkhan Arukh, particularly on those sections that deal with kashrut (dietary laws). More than rote knowledge of the Shulkhan Arukh’s rulings, however, is expected. A popular Jewish folktale tells of a young student who came to a prominent rabbi to be tested for ordination. The rabbi’s first question was “Name the five volumes of the Shulkhan Arukh.”

The student, thinking that the rabbi had made a slip of the tongue, named the four volumes, but the rabbi asked him to name the fifth. 

“There is no fifth volume,” the student said.

“There is indeed,” the rabbi said. “Common sense is the fifth volume, and if you don’t have it, all your rulings will be of no use, even if you know the other four volumes by heart.”

The Shulkhan Arukh’s exhaustive presentation of the details of Jewish law is suggested by the following, taken from the section listing the laws of Torah study, in which Caro gives directives to both teachers and pupils: 

“The rabbi should not be angry with his pupils if they do not understand but he should repeat the matter over and over again until they grasp the proper depth of the law. The pupil should not say that he understands when he does not but should ask over and over again. And if the rabbi is angry with him he should say, ‘Rabbi, it is the Torah and I want to know it, but my mind is inadequate”‘ (Yoreh Deah 246:10).

Source: Jewish Literacy