Torah Study

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What is Torah study?

Torah study can refer to all religious Jewish thought – the Written Torah (תורה שבכתב, Torah she-bi-khtav) and the Oral Torah ( תורה שבעל פה, Torah she-be-`al peh) The written law is the Hebrew Bible, and the Oral Torah includes the classical rabbinic works:

* Mishnah
* Tosefta
* Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud)
* Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud)
* classical Midrash collections

Torah study may also refer to perushim (rabbinic commentaries) on these works, the responsa literature, the Jewish liturgical works (siddur, machzor, haggadah), the ethical literature – and for those who accept it, Kabbalah (esoteric mysticism.)

A Brief History of Torah Study, Eliezer Diamond, Adapted from The Observant Life
https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/story/brief-history-torah-study?tp=376

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 Jews study the Bible?

Jews study the Bible on multiple levels: some levels focus on the basic storyline, or rules, while other levels draw out deeper lessons and connections, some of which may be implicit within the text, and many of which are new lessons, in which a Bible 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 strongly forbid women from learning Torah (including the Bible, as well as all rabbinic literature.)  Yet other statements in classical rabbinic literature are egalitarian, and allow women and men to study Torah. Today, it is understood by practically all Jewish denominations that the restrictions on Torah study by women were the results of sociology, not theology. As such, women today study Torah, in its widest sense, as men do.  The sole exception is the world of Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox Jews) who maintain significant bans on woman studying Torah, and indeed, on women’s rights in general.  For details see Women and Torah study

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Where noted, some text comes from Wikipedia. Wikipedia allows anyone to edit any article without academic credentials. As such, articles are often the subject of editing wars between religious fundamentalists, and well-intentioned but not well-trained students. Below you will text adapted from Wikipedia articles, edited with an eye towards academic honesty and linguistic clarity.

Forms of Jewish Bible study

Chavruta (Aramaic: חַבְרוּתָא, lit. “friendship”), is a traditional rabbinic approach to Talmudic study in which a pair of students discuss, and debate a text. It is a primary learning method in yeshivas and kollels, but also is done informally at homes, and indeed is a form of socializing. One is said to learn b’chavrusa (בְחַבְרוּתָא, “in chavrusa”; i.e., in partnership). By metonymy, 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, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chavrusa }

Additional reading: http://synagoguestudies.org/files/one.pdf

Perushim: Bible commentaries

Meforshim is a Hebrew word meaning “(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.

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Rishonic era: Jewish religious leaders, 11th to 15th centuries.
There are many Bible commentaries still studied from this era:

{ adapted, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_commentaries_on_the_Bible }

Many of these meforshim (commentators) wrote perushim (commentaries) not only on the Tanakh (Bible), but also on either the Mishnah, Talmud, responsa literature, or even the siddur (Jewish prayerbook)

Kabbalistic Study

Soon after the Zohar, a classical work of Jewish mysticism, was published (13th century), Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) had become widespread. The Zohar it teaches that one reads the Torah on four levels:

      • Peshat, the surface meaning of the text;
      • Remez, allusions or allegories in the text
      • Derash, a rabbinic or midrashic way of reading new lessons into the text
      • Sod, the hidden mystical Kabbalistic reading of the Torah.

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. Those who did not hold by Kabbalah 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

In Yeshivas (schools of higher Jewish education), rabbinical schools and Kollels (schools or study circles of higher Jewish education) the primary ways of studying Torah include study of:

      • The weekly Torah portion with its Meforshim (Biblical commentators)
      • Talmud
      • Ethical works

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.

Today, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist Rabbis draw on the lessons of modern critical Bible scholarship as well as the traditional forms of Biblical exegesis.

Modern Torah commentaries

Modern Torah commentaries which have received wide acclaim in the Jewish community include:

Modern Siddur commentaries

Modern Siddur commentaries have been written by:

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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
http://www.pitts.emory.edu/dia/booklist.cfm?ID=3595

Tinkering With the Word of God, Avi Steinberg, The New Yorker, May 8, 2015, on the Bible translations of Edward Fox
http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/tinkering-with-the-word-of-god

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