Torah study

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Torah scroll
Reading of the Torah

Torah study is the study of the Torah, Hebrew Bible, Talmud, responsa, rabbinic literature and similar works, all of which are Judaism's religious texts. According to Rabbinic beliefs the study is ideally done for the purpose of the mitzvah ("commandment") of Torah study itself.

This practice is present to an extent in all religious branches of Judaism and is considered of paramount importance among religious Jews. Torah study has evolved over the generations, as lifestyles changed and also as new texts were written.

Traditional view of Torah study[edit]

In rabbinic literature, the highest ideal of all Jewish men is Torah study, women being exempt from Torah study. This literature teaches an eagerness for such study and a thirst for knowledge that expands beyond the text of the Tanakh to the entire Oral Torah. Some examples of traditional religious teachings:

  • The study of Torah is considered to outweigh a number of mitzvot, such as visiting the sick, honouring one's parents, and bringing peace between people (Shabbat 127a). This paragraph was incorporated in the daily prayer service.
  • A number of Talmudic rabbis consider Torah study as being greater than the rescue of human life, than the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, and than the honor of father and mother (Megilah 16b), provided that the individual's life will be saved by someone else.[citation needed]
  • According to R. Meir, when one studies Torah for its own sake (Torah Lishma - תורה לשמה) the [the creation of] entire world is worthwhile for him alone, and he brings joy to G-d (Avot 6:1).
  • As the child must satisfy its hunger day by day, so must the grown man busy himself with the Torah each hour (Yerushalmi, Berakhot ch. 9).
  • Torah study is of more value than the offering of daily sacrifice (Eruvin 63b).
  • A single day devoted to the Torah outweighs 1,000 sacrifices (Tractate Shabbat 30a; comp. Tractate Menachot 100a).
  • The fable of the Fish and the Fox [2], in which the latter seeks to entice the former to dry land, declares Israel can live only in the Law as fish can live only in the ocean (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 61b).
  • Whoever learns Torah at night is granted grace during the day and whoever neglects it will be fed burning coals in the World to Come. (Avodah Zarah 3b).
  • God weeps over one who might have occupied himself with Torah study but neglected to do so (Tractate Hagigah 5b).
  • The study must be unselfish: one should study the Torah with self-denial, even at the sacrifice of one's life; and in the very hour before death one should devote himself to this duty (Tractate Shabbat 83b).
  • All, even lepers and the ritually unclean, are required to study the Torah (Tractate Berakhot 22a).
  • It is the duty of everyone to read the entire weekly portion twice (the law of shnayim mikra ve-echad targum, Tractate Berakhot 8a).
  • According to R. Meir, a Gentile who studies the Torah (for the purpose of finding out about the Noachide Laws) is as great as the High Priest (Tractate Avodah Zarah 3a). An even stronger statement is found in the Mishnah where it discusses the social hierarchy of ancient Israel. The High Priest was close to the top of the social pyramid, and a man born out of wedlock was near the bottom. However, 'the learned bastard takes precedence over the ignorant high priest.'[1]
  • According to R. Yehudah, God Himself studies the Torah for the first three hours of every day. (Tractate Avodah Zarah 3b).

Origins[edit]

Torah study is counted amongst the 613 mitzvot ("[Biblical] commandments"), finding its source in the verse (Deuteronomy 6:7): "And you shall teach it to your children," upon which the Talmud comments that "Study is necessary in order to teach." The importance of study is attested to in another Talmudic discussion (Kiddushin 40b) about which is preferred: study or action. The answer there, a seeming compromise, is "study that leads to action." Although the word "Torah" refers specifically to the Five Books of Moses, in Judaism the word also refers to the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), the Talmud and other religious works, even including the study of Kabbalah, Hasidism, Mussar and much more.

Forms of traditional Jewish Torah study[edit]

The Talmud (Tractate Kiddushin 30a) defines the objective of Torah study: "That the words of Torah shall be clear in your mouth so that if someone asks you something, you shall need not hesitate and then tell it to him, rather you shall tell it to him immediately." In yeshivas ("Talmudical schools"), rabbinical schools and kollels ("[post-graduate] Talmudical schools") the primary ways of studying Torah include study of:

Other less universally studied texts include the Nevi'im and Ketuvim, other rabbinic literature (such as midrash) and works of religious Jewish philosophy.

Orthodox Jews can study the text of the Torah on any of four levels as described in the Zohar:

  • Peshat, the plain (simple) or literal reading;
  • Remez, the allegorical reading through text's hint or allusion
  • Derash, the metaphorical reading through a (rabbinic sermon's) comparison/illustration (midrash)
  • Sod, the hidden meaning reading through text's secret or mystery (Kabbalah).

The initial letters of the words Peshat, Remez, Derash, Sod, forming together the Hebrew word PaRDeS (also meaning "orchard"), became the designation for the four-way method of studying Torah, in which the mystical sense given in the Kabbalah was the highest point.

In some traditional circles, most notably the Orthodox and Haredi, Torah study is a way of life for males. Women do not study Torah, but gain merit for facilitating Torah study for the men. In some communities, men forgo other occupations and study Torah full-time.

Haredi Israelis often choose to devote many years to Torah study, often studying at a Kollel. National Religious Israelis often choose to devote time after high school to Torah study, either during their army service at a Hesder yeshiva, or before their service at a Mechina.

Study cycles[edit]

Apart from full-time Torah study as engaged in at schools and yeshivot or for the purpose of rabbinic training, there is also held to be an obligation on individuals to set aside a regular study period to review their knowledge. Examples of programmes of study are as follows.

D'var Torah[edit]

A D'var Torah (Heb: דבר תורה) (Plural: Divrei Torah), also known as a Drasha in Ashkenazic communities, is a talk on topics relating to a section (parashah) of the Torah – typically the weekly Torah portion. In respect to its place in synagogues, rabbis will often give their D'var Torah after the Torah service. Divrei Torah can range in length, depending on the rabbi and the depth of the talk. In most congregations, it will not last much longer than fifteen minutes, but in the case of Rebbes or special occasions, a Dvar Torah can last all afternoon. It is extremely likely that a D'var Torah will carry a life lesson, backed up by passages from certain Jewish texts like the Talmud or Mishnah.

It bears many similarities to the homily in Christian liturgical traditions.

Torah study by Jewish denominations[edit]

Like Orthodox Jews, other Jewish denominations may use any or all of the traditional areas and modes of Torah study. They study the Parsha, the Talmud, ethical works, and more. They may study simply the peshat of the text, or they may also study, to a limited extent, the remez, derash and sod, which is found in Etz Hayyim: A Torah Commentary (Rabbinical Assembly), used in many Conservative congregations. It is common in Torah study among Jews involved in Jewish Renewal. Some level of PaRDeS study can even be found in forms of Judaism that otherwise are strictly rationalist, such as Reconstructionist Judaism. However, non-Orthodox Jews generally spend less time in detailed study of the classical Torah commentators, and spend more time studying modern Torah commentaries that draw on and include the classical commentators, but which are written from more modern perspectives. Furthermore, works of rabbinic literature (such as the Talmud) typically receive less attention than the Tanakh.

Before the Enlightenment, virtually all Jews believed that the Torah was dictated to Moses by God.[2][better source needed] They also believed that as many parts of the Torah, specifically the laws and commandments, are written in unspecific terms, Moses also received an interpretation of the Torah that was transmitted through the generations in oral form till it was finally put in writing in the Mishnah and later, in greater detail, the Talmud.[3] After the Enlightenment, many Jews began to participate in wider European society, where they engaged in study related to critical methods of textual analysis, including both lower and higher criticism, the modern historical method, hermeneutics, and fields relevant to Bible study such as near-Eastern archaeology and linguistics. In time the documentary hypothesis emerged from these studies. Formulated primarily by non Jews,[citation needed] the documentary hypothesis holds that the Torah was not written by Moses, but was simply written by different people who lived during different periods of Israelite history. Some Jews adapted the findings of these disciplines. Consequently, biblical study primarily focused on the intentions of these people, and the circumstances in which they lived. This type of study depends on evidence external to the text, especially archeological evidence and comparative literature.

Today, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis draw on the lessons of modern critical Bible scholarship as well as the traditional forms of Biblical exegesis. Orthodox, Sephardim, a majority of Israeli Jews[4] and other Jews, including many whom are not observant, reject critical Bible scholarship and the documentary hypothesis, holding to the opinion that it is contradicted by the Torah in Deuteronomy 31:24,25 and 26, and the Talmud (Gittin 60a, Bava Basra 15b), which state that Moses wrote the Torah, as well as by the Mishnah,[5] which asserts the divine origin of the Torah as one of the essential tenets of Judaism.

Humanistic Jews value the Torah as a historical, political, and sociological text written by their ancestors. They do not believe 'that every word of the Torah is true, or even morally correct, just because the Torah is old.' The Torah is both disagreed with and questioned. Humanistic Jews believe that the entire Jewish experience, and not only the Torah, should be studied as a source for Jewish behavior and ethical values.[6]

Non-religious Torah study[edit]

According to Ruth Calderon, there are currently almost one hundred non-halakhic Torah study centers in Israel. Whilst influenced by methods used in the yeshiva and in the university, non religious Torah study includes the use of new tools that are not part of the accepted hermeneutic tradition of the exegetic literature. These include Feminist, and post-modernist criticism, historic, sociological and psychological analyses, and literary analysis.[7] Among these institutions is the Alma Centre for Hebrew Studies in Tel Aviv.[8]

Torah study in Israel[edit]

Devoting a year to Torah study in the modern Land of Israel is a common practice among American, and, to a lesser extent, European, South African, South American, and Australian Modern Orthodox Jews. Young adults spend a year studying Torah in the Land of Israel. It is common both among males and females, with the boys normally going to a yeshiva and the girls to a midrasha (often called seminary or seminaria). Common Yeshivot with year-in-Israel programs include: Yeshivat Har Etzion, Yeshivat HaMivtar, Machon Meir, Aish HaTorah. Common seminaries or midrashot include: Midreshet HaRova Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Nishmat, Bnos Chava, Michlalah [3], and many many others. Chasidic and Charedi boys from abroad often spend many years studying in the Land of Israel. Bnei Akiva offers a number of options to spend a year of study in Israel, as part of their Hachshara programs.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Babylonian Talmud in English. Tractate Horayoth 13a. I. Epstein, Editor. London UK: the Soncino Press, 1935.
  2. ^ Mishnah, Sanhedrin 11:1
  3. ^ Maimonides, Introduction to Commentary on Mishnah, also, Maimonides, Commentary on Mishnah, Sanhedrin 11:1
  4. ^ Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Daniel Elazar Papers Index, Israel: Religion and Society [1]
  5. ^ Sanhedrin 11:1
  6. ^ http://oradam.org/OAC/FAQ
  7. ^ http://www.culturaljudaism.org/ccj/articles/26
  8. ^ http://www.alma.org.il/content.asp?pageid=8&lang=en

External links[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

  • A Practical Guide to Torah Learning, D. Landesman, Jason Aronson 1995. ISBN 1-56821-320-4

Wikimedia Torah study projects[edit]

Text study projects at Wikisource. Please note that in many instances, these projects proceed much faster in Hebrew than in English!