What is the Torah?
The "Law" or "Teachings" is a biblical term for the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They are also called the "Books of Moses" because Moses wrote them. In the Hebrew language (the language in which the Old Testament was written) the first five books are collectively called the Torah. Torah is a word that means "instruction." God's intention for giving the Torah is to instruct his people in holiness:
The LORD said to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction." (Exodus 24:12, emphasis added)
The Torah contains the record of creation, the story of the fall of man, the plight of humanity, the call of Abraham, the exodus from Egypt, the stories of the wilderness wanderings, the covenants with Israel, and a lot of rules and instructions from God. These rules and instructions include well-known passages like the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). They also include ritual laws about sacrifices, holy days, dietary restrictions, and various ceremonies. For all of the 1,400 years from the days of Moses to the days of Jesus, the Torah was the rule of life and standard of godliness for God's chosen people Israel.
When we see reference to the "Scriptures" in the New Testament the author is referring to what we call today the Old Testament. They never understood or considered it the Old Testament; they referred to is as the Torah. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul's states that the Torah "trains in righteousness" and then summarizes it in the following manner.
- The Torah is good for—Teaching (showing the believer about God and His ways)
- The Torah is good for—Rebuking (showing how we have walked off the path)
- The Torah is good for—Correcting (showing how to get back on the path)
- The Torah is good for—Instructing in Righteousness (showing us how to be consistent)
Using the ancient Torah reading schedule is a great way to study the entire Word of God.
What is a Torah Portion?
When God brought restoration and returned the Israelites from captivity, Ezra and Nehemiah and the men of their generation set to work creating a system to encourage Torah study. They wanted to ensure that the people would not slip into idolatry again. They created a system for the synagogue to ensure that the people heard the Torah read every week.
To this day, the Jewish world studies a portion of the Torah every Sabbath. Jews read the Torah aloud in synagogues on Sabbaths, Mondays and Thursdays. Monday and Thursday were the ancient market days when rural people came into town. At this time, they also had the opportunity to hear the Word of God. On Sabbath days, the people assembled according to the commandment.
Since the days of the Apostles, the Torah continues to be read every week in the same manner. An annual lectionary, the Torah reading cycle, allows all Israel to study the same passages of Scripture simultaneously as they work through the Torah from week to week. The lectionary divides the Torah into 2-6 chapter readings for each week. Corresponding readings from the Prophets are tacked onto the weekly Torah readings. The reading cycle begins in the fall, after the Feast of Tabernacles, with Genesis 1:1. Approximately twelve months later, it concludes with the last verses of the book of Deuteronomy.
Reading along with the weekly Torah readings is a great way to study through the Torah every year. When you do, you are studying in synchronization with all Israel. Synagogues, study halls, and Messianic congregations all over the world will be examining the same passages of Scripture along with you.
In each of the weekly readings, the portions (Hebrew: parashot) are named after the first word or distinctive phrase in the passage. In the days of the Apostles, the Bible was not divided into chapters and verses. People indicated different scripture passages by referring to the first Hebrew word or phrase of the passage. If a rabbi said, "In the place where it says, 'After the death of Aaron's two sons...'" he would be referring to parashat Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30. Acharei Mot means "after the death of." In the same way, each portion (parasha) of Torah is named after its opening words, and each book of the Torah is named after its opening parasha.
Should Christians Study Torah?
Our goal isn't to create another religious system or tradition, but to engage God through His word. The torah portions tied into the New Testament provide an excellent structure for engaging the Lord and discussing the deeper things of God.
Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law (TORAH) of the Lord.
Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart.
Often Christians think that the "Old Testament" is virtually irrelevant today, since the doctrines of the Church are made explicit in the New Testament writings. However, this is a serious mistake, as the following facts will demonstrate:
- Yeshua (Jesus) and all his disciples were Torah-observant Jews. The Scriptures which they studied, loved, and quoted were the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings (i.e., the Jewish Tanakh). Indeed, Yeshua quoted from the book of Deuteronomy (from the Torah) more than any other book in the Scriptures. As a child, Yeshua would have studied the Torah and memorized it with other Jewish children. He would also have been familiar with the teaching of the earlier Jewish sages of Israel.
When asked what was the greatest commandment of the LORD, Yeshua quoted "And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength" (Deut. 6:5), and then He added the commandment, v'ahavta l're'akha kamokha - ani Adonai , "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). Both of these commandments come directly from the Torah.
Indeed, Yeshua said that He did not come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17-19). He later told a prospective follower of His, "If you would enter life, keep the commandments" (Matt. 19:17). When He was further asked which ones, Yeshua replied by citing the Ten Commandments and appealed to the man to follow Him (Matt. 19:18-21).
- Yeshua said that the Jewish Scriptures plainly testify of Him (John 5:39). As His followers, we should understand what this means and how they indeed bear witness of Him as the King of the Jews (Matt 2:2; 27:11). In addition, by studying Torah, we can more fully appreciate the glory and grace as revealed in the Person and Work of our beloved Mashiach. For example, we can more fully savor the role of the sacrificial system and how Yeshua fulfilled all of God's holy requirements on our behalf as the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) of the new covenant.
- When two disciples were on their way to the town of Emmaus discussing the implications of the crucifixion of Yeshua three days earlier, who but the Master Himself appeared alongside of them and taught them from the Jewish Scriptures? "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24: 13-36). Again, as His followers, we should likewise be able to recount how Yeshua is revealed in the Jewish Scriptures.
- The "Church" was born on a Jewish holiday of Shauvot (Pentecost) among the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Peter's sermon during that festival (Acts 2:1-41) was entirely Jewish, copiously quoting from the prophets and David, which would have meant little to any Gentiles in earshot (if there were any). It is likely, therefore, that the 3,000 people who were saved that day would have been all Jewish. The earliest members of the new church met regularly in the Temple, where Gentiles were explicitly excluded (Acts 2:46). Note that the apostles Peter and John are recorded to have gone to the Temple for prayer during the time of the minchah (afternoon) sacrifices (Acts 3:1), and their ministry continued exclusively among the Jewish people, "among whom were thousands who believed and were zealous for the Torah" (Acts 21:20). Even after they were imprisoned but miraculously escaped, an angel told them to "Go, stand and speak in the Temple to the people all the words of this life" (Acts 5:20).
- Later, when the Jerusalem Council wrote their letter to the Gentiles regarding their relationship to the Torah, they advised them to at first abstain from those things that would make them abhorrent to the Jews, with the assumption that they would later go on to study the Torah of Moses and the other Jewish Scriptures (Acts 15:19-21).
- The Apostle Paul was raised a Torah observant Jew who studied under Rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3)- the grandson of the famous Rabbi Hillel. Rabbi Sha'ul (as he
would have been called) was well-established in the Jewish leadership of his day, and even had a relationship with the Sanhedrin and High Priest of Israel (Acts 9:1-2). But even after his conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-21), he still identified himself a Jew. In Acts 23:6 he confessed, "I am (not "was") a Pharisee." He even declared that concerning the observance of the Torah he was "blameless," which indicates that he observed a Jewish lifestyle to his dying day (Phil. 3:6). Paul testified he kept the Torah all his life (Acts 25:7-8, see also Acts 28:17). Paul took the Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18), lived "in observance of the Torah" (Acts 21:23- 24), and even offered sacrifices in the Jewish Temple (Acts 21:26). Notice that Paul not only paid for his own sacrifices in order to be released from his Nazarite vow, but also paid for the sacrifices for four other Jewish believers! Notice also that this was performed at the explicit request of James, the head of the Jerusalem Church (and half-brother of Yeshua). Paul regularly attended synagogue. "He came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three Sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures" (Acts 17:1-2). When Paul wrote to the Gentile churches, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17), he was of course referring to the Jewish Scriptures, since the New Testament had not yet been compiled for the church. Indeed, in order to understand Paul's writings, we need to remember his training as a Rabbi when he quotes the Scriptures in his writings. For example, when he wrote, "And all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4), he was quoting from a story later written in the Talmud (i.e., that from the time that Moses struck the rock at Horeb and brought forth water until the death of Miriam (Ex. 20:1), this water-giving rock "followed the children of Israel through the desert and provided water for them each day".
- Many Christian denominations profess to believe in the authority of both the "Old Testament" and the New Testament Scriptures while functionally relegating the study of the Torah to the dustheap of history. If the Jewish Scriptures are taken seriously at all, these denominational traditions attempt to explain away their clear reading (for example, the covenantal promises made to ethnic Israel) and arrogate the intent of the text as being applicable solely to the Church.
This is both shortsighted and inconsistent, since it is impossible to understand the New Testament writings (including the very Church itself) while ignoring the cultural and theological context of which it is a part. Moreover, it must be remembered that the Greek text of the New Testament derives its authority and veracity from the Jewish Scriptures, and not the other way around. Too many Christian theologians go at this backwards, reading the New Testament (and particularly certain ideas ascribed to the Apostle Paul) as the interpretative filter for the study of the Hebrew text. Theologians of the Western traditions must consciously remember the dictum, "a text without a context is a pretext" and be open to the Jewish context of their faith.