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For Jews, the term “Torah study” can refer to
studying the Torah (five books of Moses) itself
studying the Tanakh (entire Hebrew Bible)
studying all religious Jewish thought – the Written Torah (תורה שבכתב, Torah she-bi-khtav) and the Oral Torah (Torah she-be’al peh)
The written law is the Hebrew Bible, and the Oral Torah includes the classical rabbinic works:
* Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud)
* Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud)
* classical Midrash collections
See A Brief History of Torah Study by Eliezer Diamond, Adapted from The Observant Life
Traditional view of Torah study
“Without question, life-long devotion to talmud torah (Torah study) has been the hallmark of the Jewish people” (Diamond.)
- As the child must satisfy its hunger day by day, so must the grown person busy themself with Torah each hour (Yerushalmi Ber. ch. 9).
- Torah study is of more value than the offering of daily sacrifice (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 63b);
- A single day devoted to the Torah outweighs 1,000 sacrifices (Talmud Shabbat 30a; comp. Men. 100a);
- -“The world stands on three things: on Torah, worship, and loving deeds of kindness” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:2).
- God weeps over one who might have occupied himself with Torah study but neglected to do so (Talmud Hag. 5b).
- Study should 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” (Sotah 21b; Ber. 63b; Shab. 83b).
- Make your home a regular meeting place for scholars” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:4).
- -“If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself in their presence. They will follow your example. Otherwise, they will not themselves study Torah but will simply instruct their children to do so” (Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk).
- “A Gentile who studies the Torah is as great as the high priest” (Bavli, B. Ḳ. 38a)
- “God Himself sits and studies the Torah” (Talmud Avodah Zarah 3b).
How do we study the Bible?
Some types of study look at the stories, or rules. Other levels draw out deeper lessons, some of which may be implicit within the text, and many which are new lessons, in which commentator uses a verse as a springboard to take a lesson. The two most important levels of Torah study are termed peshat and derash.
The first level is the פְּשָׁט “peshat”, taking the story of the text at face value. It should not be translated as “taking the story literally”, as the peshat level of analysis takes into account idioms, metaphors, personification, etc. The peshat is the message that the original author intended to get across to the original audience.
The second level is the distinctively Jewish דְּרַשׁ “derash”, the way that Ḥazal (חז”ל) – the rabbis of the Mishnah, Midrash and Talmuds – interpreted the text: The derash method asks why the text is phrased the way that it is.
Derash uses rabbinical literary techniques to plumb the depths of the text to find new meaning, or bring out connections and lessons that may not have been intended by the original authors. Sometimes the results are imaginative and fanciful, and obviously not the meaning intended by the original author – and some parts of the midrash literature are clear that the authors knew this. They were teaching lessons and writing Biblical homilies.
In later generations, by the medieval era, a belief developed that the derash was literally and historically true. Confusing the derash with the peshat became a defining characteristic of more fundamentalist versions of rabbinic Judaism. Understanding that they are not identical became characteristic of non-fundamentalist versions of rabbinic Judaism.
Classical gender restrictions on Torah study
Some statements in classical rabbinic literature forbid women from learning Torah. Yet other statements are egalitarian, and allow women and men to study. Today, it is understood by practically all Jews that the restrictions were the results of sociology, not theology. As such, Jewish women today study Torah as men do. The exception is in Haredi communities, which may maintain restrictions. For details see Women and Torah study
For the text below, it has been adapted from Wikipedia articles, edited with an eye towards academic honesty and linguistic clarity.
Chavruta (חַבְרוּתָא, lit. “friendship”) study
In which a pair of students discuss and debate a text. It is a primary learning method. One is said to learn b’chavrusa (בְחַבְרוּתָא, “in chavrusa”; in partnership). This word now refers to the study partner as an individual (though it would more literally correct to describe the pair.)
Unlike a teacher-student relationship, chavrusa-style learning puts each student in the position of analyzing the text, making logical arguments, explaining their reasoning, hearing out their partner’s reasoning, and sharpening each other’s ideas.
- adapted, Chavrusa
Perushim: Bible commentaries
Meforshim means”(Bible) commentators“/Perushim means “(Bible) commentaries“.
One would say that the meforshim (commentators) wrote perushim (Bible commentaries).”
Geonic era: Jewish religious leaders sixth century CE to 11th century, in Babylon and Eretz Yisrael. There are very few extant Bible commentaries from this period. One of the few Geonic Bible commentaries still studied is the work of Saadiah Gaon (Babylon, 882-942 CE.) It includes commentaries on the Torah, Isaiah, Proverbs, Job, Lamentations, Esther, the Five Scrolls, and Psalms.
Rishonic era: Jewish religious leaders, 11th to 15th centuries. There are many Bible commentaries still studied from this era:
- Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki), 12th century France
- Abraham ibn Ezra
- Nahmanides (Moshe ben Nahman)
- Samuel ben Meir, the Rashbam, 12th century France
- Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (known as Ralbag or Gersonides)
- David ben Joseph Kimhi, the Radak, 13th century France
- Joseph ben Isaac, also known as the Bekhor Shor, 12th century France
- Nissim ben Reuben Gerondi, the RaN, 14th century Spain
- Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (1437–1508)
- Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, 16th century Italy
adapted from Jewish_commentaries_on_the_Bible
Soon after the Zohar, a classical work of Jewish mysticism, was published (13th century), Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) had become widespread. The Zohar teaches that one should read the Torah on four levels:
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.
This idea became one of the points of contention between those Jews who accepted Kabbalah, and those that did not. Kabbalists held that it was always a part of Judaism, and that this form of Torah study was used for many centuries previously. Other Jews saw this as a pseudographic innovation.
This form of Torah study is used by some Jews in all denominations of Judaism today. One can find examples of its use in The Chumash: The Stone Edition (Mesorah Publications), used in many Orthodox synagogues as well as in Etz Hayyim: A Torah Commentary (Rabbinical Assembly), used in many Conservative congregations. Some level of PaRDeS study can be found in all denominations.
Torah Study by Orthodox Jews
The Talmud (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.”
Most Orthodox Jews study the text of the Torah on the four levels noted above:
- Peshat, the surface meaning of the text;
- Remez, looking for allusions or allegories in the text
- Derash, a rabbinic way of reading new lessons into the text
- Sod, said by Kabbalists to be a hidden mystical reading of the Torah.
Torah Study by non-Orthodox Jews
Non-Orthodox Jews certainly use traditional modes of Torah study. They study the weekly Torah portion, Talmud, ethical works, etc. They may study simply the peshat of the text, or they may also study the remez, derash and sod. However, they generally spend less time studying classical Torah commentators, and more time studying modern Torah commentaries that draw on and include the classical commentators, but which are written from more modern perspectives.
Prior to The Enlightenment Jews believed that the Torah was authored by God, and that it directly reflected God’s intentions in human language. As both divine intentions and human language are complex, Scripture required interpretation. After the Enlightenment many Jews began to participate in the wider European society, where they learned critical methods of textual study, the modern historical method, and fields relevant to Bible study such as near-Eastern archaeology and linguistics.
In this view the Bible was written by different people (who may have been divinely inspired) living at different times and in different societies. Consequently, one way to add more to Torah study would be to learn more about the intentions of these people, and the circumstances under which they lived. This type of study depended on evidence external to the text, especially archeological evidence and comparative literature.
Modern Torah commentaries
Modern Torah commentaries which have received wide acclaim in the Jewish community include:
- The “Pentateuch and Haftaras” by Joseph H. Hertz
- Uebersetzung und Erklärung des Pentateuchs (“Translation and Commentary of the Pentateuch”) by Samson Raphael Hirsch
- Nechama Leibowitz, noted Israeli Bible scholar and commentator who rekindled interest in Bible study.
- HaTorah vehaMitzva (“The Torah and the Commandment”) by Meïr Leibush, the “Malbim“
- Ha-Ketav veha-Kabbalah by Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg
- The Soncino Books of the Bible
- JPS Tanakh Series
Modern Siddur commentaries
- Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan HaCohen, The Chofetz Chaim’s Siddur
- Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Siddur, Feldheim
- Abraham Isaac Kook, Olat Reyia
- The Authorised Daily Prayer Book with commentary by Joseph H. Hertz
- Elie Munk, The World of Prayer, Elie Munk
- Nosson Scherman, The Artscroll Siddur, Mesorah Publications
- Jonathan Sacks, in The Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the British Commonwealth (the new version of “Singer’s Prayer Book“) as well as the Koren Sacks Siddur.
- Reuven Hammer, Or Hadash, a siddur commentary built around the text of Siddur Sim Shalom, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
- My Peoples Prayer Book, Jewish Lights Publishing, written by a team of non-Orthodox rabbis and Talmud scholars.
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Some great Biblical artwork: Historie des Ouden en Nieuwen Testaments : verrykt met meer dan vierhonderd printverbeeldingen in koper gesneeden. Author: Martin, David, 1639-1721
Tinkering With the Word of God, Avi Steinberg, The New Yorker, May 8, 2015, on the Bible translations of Edward Fox