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Torah study is the study by Jewish people of the Torah, Hebrew Bible, Talmud, responsa, rabbinic literature and similar works, all of which are Judaism's religious texts. Ideally within Judaism it is done for the purpose of the mitzvah ("commandment") of Torah study itself.
This practice is present to an extent in all branches of Judaism and is considered of paramount importance among traditional Jews. Torah study has evolved over the generations, as lifestyles changed and also as new texts were written.
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.
Traditional view of Torah study
In rabbinic literature, the highest ideal of all Jews is 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. According to many historians, this carried over into the general characteristics of Jewish society, both religious and non-religious, down to the present. Some examples of traditional 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.
- 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, 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).
- According to R. Yehudah, God Himself studies the Torah for the first three hours of every day. (Tractate Avodah Zarah 3b).
Forms of traditional Jewish Torah study
The Talmud (Tractate Kiddushin 30a) comments: "The words of Torah shall be sharp in your mouth so that if someone asks you something, you shall not fumble 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:
Most Orthodox Jews study the text of the Torah on 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.
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.
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.
- The Daf Yomi programme, founded in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro: one page of the Talmud is studied each day, on a rota to ensure that Jews round the world are studying the same passage at the same time (more recently, there have been similar programmes for the Jerusalem Talmud, Maimonides' Mishneh Torah and other works).
- Ḥoq le-Yisrael, a programme founded by Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai in which, every week, one studies extracts from the Mishnah, the Zohar and other works in addition to the portion for that week: the relevant passages are often printed in book form in a multivolume set.
- The Seder ha-Mishmarah, used by some Jews of Near and Middle Eastern origin, in which each weekly Torah portion is studied together with sections from Neviim and Ketuvim and the Mishnah so that all these works are read in full in the course of the year: this too has been published in book form under the title Ḥoq le-Ya'akob. In some countries it was customary for groups to gather in the synagogue each Shabbat afternoon and read out the mishmarah passages for the following Shabbat.
A D'var Torah (Heb: דבר תורה) (Plural: Divrei Torah) 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 also known as a Drasha in Ashkenazic communities.
There are many Torah sites on the web that contain Divrei Torah to help people learn Torah. One of these sites provides users the ability to post their own Dvar Torah help others who are learning Torah.
Torah study by other Jewish denominations
Like Orthodox Jews, other Jewish denominations may use any or all of the traditional areas and modes of Torah study. They study the weekly Torah portion, 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 Tanakh was written by the prophets who heard it from God, and that it directly reflected God's intentions in human language. They also believed that as both divine intentions and human language are complex, the Torah required interpretation. After the Enlightenment, many Jews began to participate in wider European society, where they learned critical methods of textual study, the modern historical method, hermeneutics, and fields relevant to Bible study such as near-Eastern archaeology and linguistics. Many Jews found the findings of these disciplines compelling and considered them relevant to Torah study. According to this view, the Bible was written by different people who may have been "divinely inspired", but who lived at different times and in different societies; and these factors should be taken into account when studying their works. Consequently, one way to add more to Torah study would be to learn more about 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. See the entries on Biblical Higher criticism and the Documentary hypothesis.
Today, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist rabbis draw on the lessons of modern critical Bible scholarship as well as the traditional forms of Biblical exegesis. Orthodox rabbis reject most or all critical Bible scholarship considering it highly speculative or simply false.
Religious Jews of all denominations hold as a belief that one must constantly strive to engage in Torah study.
Torah study in the Land of Israel
Devoting a year to Torah study in the modern Land of Israel is a common practice among American, and, to a lesser extent, European and South African 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 Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Nishmat, Bnos Chava. 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.
- Torah reading
- Weekly Torah portion and links to articles on individual Torah portions found there
- in the Mishneh Torah
- Video Torah Study
- in Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah
- in Shulkhan Arukh haRav
- Online Torah Study
- in the Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh
- The importance of Torah Study
- in Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, (site follows the Kitzur Yomi schedule; fully searchable)
- A Practical Guide to Torah Learning, D. Landesman, Jason Aronson 1995. ISBN 1-56821-320-4
Wikimedia Torah study projects
Text study projects at Wikisource. Please note that in many instances, these projects proceed much faster in Hebrew than in English!
- Mikraot Gedolot (Rabbinic Bible) in Hebrew (sample) and English (sample).
- Cantillation at the "Vayavinu Bamikra" Project in Hebrew (lists nearly 200 recordings!) and English.
- Mishnah in Hebrew (sample) and English (sample).
- Shulchan Aruch in Hebrew and English (Hebrew text with English translation).