The Torah in Ancient Judaism

The Torah in Judaism is often thought to be strictly the Law, or a set of legal codes given to the Hebrew people by God to Moses shortly after the Exodus fromEgypt.  Such an understanding is severely handicapped, as the Torah in Judaism is much more than a set of laws.

“It must first be stated that the term Law or Nomos is not a correct rendering of the Hebrew word Torah. The legalistic element, which might rightly be called the Law, represents only one side of the Torah. To the Jew the word Torah means a teaching or an instruction of any kind. It may be either a general principle or a specific injunction, whether it be found in the Pentateuch or in other parts of the Scriptures, or even outside of the canon. The juxtaposition in which Torah and Mizwoth, Teaching and Commandments, are to be found in the Rabbinic literature, implies already that the former means something more than merely the Law (e.g b. Ber 31a; b. Makk 23a; m. Abot 3.11). Torah and Mitzvoth are a complement to each other, or, as a Rabbi expressed it, “they borrow from each other, as wisdom and understanding – charity and lovingkindness–the moon and the stars,” but they are not identical. To use the modern phraseology, to the Rabbinic Jew, Torah was both an institution and a faith.  (Solomon Schecter in [ART, p.117f])

We can therefore see that the Torah, far from being a simple set of legislation becomes the revelation of God to the people ofIsrael. It included but was not limited to the Law that is so commonly thought to be the whole of the Torah.

This is not to negate the legal aspect of the Torah, however, because the laws governing various aspects of Hebrew life were numerous and detailed, as can be seen by simply glancing through either the books of Exodus, Leviticus or Deuteronomy, where over 600 laws are set down for everything from dietary habits, war, criminal prosecution, land disputes and monetary issues. These of course would later be used by the Pharisees and Sadducees to gain greater political clout inJerusalem; thousands of extra laws dictating every possible action would be set down by these two groups and would be one of the main contention points for Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul after the birth of Christianity.

It is clear to see that the Torah represented not just legalities but the entire Judaist faith, and its significance cannot be underestimated; the prosperity of ancient Israel seems to wax and wane with how high regard the Torah was held. Jehoshaphat’s plan of restoringIsraelafter Asa’s failing reign was to instructIsraelin these matters:


2nd Chronicles 17:7-9

“7 In the third year of his reign he sent his officials Ben-Hail, Obadiah, Zechariah, Nethanel and Micaiah to teach in the towns ofJudah. 8 With them were certain Levites—Shemaiah, Nethaniah, Zebadiah, Asahel, Shemiramoth, Jehonathan, Adonijah, Tobijah and Tob-Adonijah—and the priests Elishama and Jehoram. 9 They taught throughoutJudah, taking with them the Book of the Law of the LORD; they went around to all the towns ofJudahand taught the people.”

The recovery of the Book of the Law of Moses during the reign of Josiah sparked a series of reforms that lasted through the rest of his reign:

2nd Chronicles 34:21“21 “Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the remnant inIsrael andJudah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the LORD’s anger that is poured out on us because those who have gone before us have not kept the word of the LORD; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written in this book.”

2nd Chronicles 34:10, 33

“10 He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the LORD… 33 Josiah removed all the detestable idols from all the territory belonging to the Israelites, and he had all who were present inIsraelserve the LORD their God. As long as he lived, they did not fail to follow the LORD, the God of their ancestors.”

It can be seen then that not only was the Torah the foundation of the faith of Israel but it was literally the soul of the nation, and it was on the basis of Israel’s devotion to the Torah that Israel’s prosperity was built. It was an essential part of the fiber of the being of the Hebrew people, moreso than the Constitution is the America or any other founding document to any other nation; it is unique in the aspect that it is not the product of long philosophical thought or logical means to an end or the result of poetic mythologies to explain natural phenomenon, but rather the direct revelation of God to His chosen people.  With that in mind it is easy to see why the Torah holds such an important place in the minds of the ancient Hebrews as well as in modern times.




Schechter, Solomon. Aspects of Rabbinic Theology. Jewish Lights 1909/1993. Print.


Apologetics Study Bible. HCSB.Nashville, Tenessee.  Holman Bible Publishing.  2003. Print.





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