Torah

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Thanks to AskMoses for the concise answer that I adapted :)

Torah means "instruction". In the Torah itself there are two statements about it: that "G-d looked into the Torah and created the world", so that the Torah is a blueprint for creation; and that Moses received the Torah at Sinai, taught it to the Jewish people, and wrote it down before his death. The kernel of the Torah is the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) that Moses wrote down. They have special status because Moses was the greatest prophet that ever lived. The rest of the Jewish Bible is also considered to be subsidiary Torah. The Oral Law (Mishna and Talmud) is said to also have been given at Sinai and transmitted orally until after the Roman destruction of the Temple some urgency was felt to write it down. The Oral Law is transmitted in the names of the rabbis of the first few centuries C.E. who made the legal statements therein. Aryeh Kaplan in the "Handbook of Jewish Thought" compared the Oral Law to the Written Law in the analogy of a lecture and the notes on the lecture. If you have the notes(the Written Torah) you can remember the details of the lecture(the Oral Torah, which has many legal rulings that explain the circumstances of the statements in the Written Torah). All commentaries on these above primary sources are also considered Torah if they have the proper reverence for G-d.

Jews read the entire Torah, defined as the Five Books of Moses, in a cycle of fixed portions on Shabbat every year from Simchas Torah to Simchas Torah. The portion of that week is called the parsha. Sometimes there will be a double parsha if the year is too short or many holidays occurred on Shabbat, requiring that the special portion for that day be read.

Torah literature has subdivisions including:

  • Halacha--purely legal. Examples: "Shulchan Aruch" (Joseph Caro); "Mishneh Torah" (Maimonides); "Mishna Brura" (Chofetz Chaim).
  • Mussar--ethical. Examples: "Michtav m'Eliyahu" (Rabbi Eliyahu Elazar Dessler); "Path of the Just"(Mesilas Yesharim)(Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto); "Duties of the Heart" (Bachya ibn Pakuda??) Rabbi Yisrael Salanter was the founder of the mussar movement we have today.
  • Philosophy. Example: "Guide of the Perplexed" (Maimondides).
  • Kabbala/mystic. Example: the Zohar; Tanya (the "Written Torah") (Chabad Lubavitch). See "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism" (Gershom Scholem) for more info.
  • Midrash--extensions of the biblical stories by rabbinic authors. The midrashim in the volumes "The Midrash Says" seem to be designed to smooth out a lot of the ethical ambiguity in the text itself.
  • Dvar Torah--small pieces on a Torah topic. They can be given in the synagogue or collected in their own volumes, often tied to the parsha of the week.
  • Biographies of Torah scholars.
  • Hasidic tales about their founding rebbe etc.
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