Torah study is the study of the Torah, Hebrew Bible, Talmud, responsa, rabbinic literature and similar works, all of which are Judaism's religious texts. According to Rabbinic Judaism, the study is ideally done for the purpose of the mitzvah ("commandment") of Torah study itself.
This practice is present to an extent in all religious branches of Judaism and is considered of paramount importance among religious Jews. Torah study has evolved over the generations, as lifestyles changed and also as new texts were written.
In rabbinic literature, the highest ideal of all Jewish men is Torah study, with women being exempt. 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. Some examples of traditional religious teachings:
- The study of Torah outweighs a number of mitzvot, such as visiting the sick, honouring one's parents, and bringing peace between people.
- 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, provided that the individual's life will be saved by someone else.
- According to Rabbi Meir, when one studies Torah Lishma (Torah for its own sake - תורה לשמה) the creation of the entire world is worthwhile for him alone, and he brings joy to God.
- As the child must satisfy its hunger day by day, so must the grown man busy himself with the Torah each hour.
- Torah study is of more value than the offering of the daily sacrifice.
- A single day devoted to the Torah outweighs 1,000 korbanot (sacrifices).
- The fable of the Fish and the Fox, in which the latter seeks to entice the former to dry land, declares that [the People of] Israel can live only in the Law as fish can live only in the ocean.
- 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.
- God weeps over one who might have occupied himself with Torah study but neglected to do so.
- 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.
- All, even lepers and the ritually unclean, are required to study the Torah.
- It is the duty of everyone to read the entire weekly portion twice (the law of shnayim mikra ve-echad targum).
- According to R. Yehudah, God Himself studies the Torah for the first three hours of every day.
- According to Rabbi Meir, a gentile who studies the Torah (for the limited purpose of finding out about the Seven Laws of Noah) is as great as the High Priest. An even stronger statement is found in the Mishnah where it discusses the social hierarchy of ancient Israel. The High Priest was close to the top of the social pyramid, and a man born from an illicit sexual relationship was near the bottom. However, 'the learned bastard takes precedence over the ignorant High Priest.'
- Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes contended that the prohibition of teaching torah to Gentiles only applies to parts of the Oral Law, but not to the written Scriptures.
- Rabbi Samuel Eidels said the prohibition only included the “reasons and secrets” of the Torah, but not the basic texts or laws.
- Maimonides said that Christians, who believe in the divinity of Scriptures, would at best come to believe in the Jewish interpretation and at worse cause no harm, so the prohibition does not apply to them.
- Rabbi Yisrael Salanter advocated for the translation of the Talmud and its introduction into the university curriculum, in order to raise the reputation of Jewish study in the broader world.
Torah study is counted among the 613 mitzvot (commandments), from the verse in Deuteronomy: "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 regarding 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.
Forms of traditional Jewish Torah study
The Talmud defines the objective of Torah study: "That the words of Torah shall be clear in your mouth so that if someone asks you something, you shall need not hesitate 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:
The text of the Torah can be studied on any of 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. The distinction is similar to the medieval Christian classification into literal, typological, tropological (moral) and anagogical senses of scripture (see Allegory in the Middle Ages): it is not certain whether this fourfold division first appeared in a Jewish or a Christian context.
In Haredi Judaism and much of Orthodox Judaism, Torah study is a way of life for males. In these communities, men forgo other occupations and study Torah full-time. Women do not study Torah, but instead gain merit for facilitating the Torah study of the men. A 2017 survey of Modern Orthodox Jews found support for women studying Torah."
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.
In addition to full-time Torah study, Jews around the world often attend Torah classes in a contemporary academic framework. The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute offers classes on Parenting, Marriage, Medical Ethics, and Business Ethics.
The Brisker method consists of a methodical search for precise definitions of each concept involved in the discussion. Once the mechanism by which a law works is rigidly and correctly defined, it can become clear that one aspect of the definition applies in one situation but not another. Therefore, the final halacha will differ in the two situations, even if they superficially appear to be very similar.
Often an entire series of disagreements among the Rishonim (Talmudic commentaries from roughly the period 1000–1500) may stem back to a subtle difference in how these Rishonim understand a line from the Talmud. The Brisker method can provide a precise formulation of how each Rishon understood the topic, and thus account for their differences in opinion. This approach is most spectacular when a whole series of debates between two Rishonim can be shown to revolve around a single chakira, or difference in the understanding of a Talmudic concept.
The Brisker method is not a total break from the past. Rabbis before Brisk sometimes made "conceptual" distinctions, and Brisker rabbis can still resolve issues without recourse to the terminology they invented. The difference is one of focus and degree. Non-Brisk analysis tends to formulate "conceptual" definitions only when necessary, while for Briskers, these definitions are the first and most common tool to be used when approaching a Talmudic issue.
One example of the emphasis on the value of precise definition can be found in a quote attributed to Chaim Soloveitchik: "One approach which answers three different problems is better than three different approaches to individually solve the three problems." (a corollary of Occam's razor).
Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was the only one to set down the sages' thought process in an organized, systematic, and complete program that can be taught and reproduced. This method makes Gemara (Talmud) learning accessible to everyone by exploring key logical concepts of Talmudic analysis. Based on precision and clarity of thinking, one's inherent intellectual powers are studied, cultivated and nurtured. Conscious awareness of one's thinking and thoughts is the key to understanding Torah.
The Zilberman Method, pioneered in the mid 20th-century by Yitzhak Shlomo Zilberman, draws upon traditional teaching methods as outlined by Chazal and championed by the Judah Loew ben Bezalel and Vilna Gaon. The Mishnah and the Talmud set forth halakhic guidelines for teaching Torah to children. These guidelines include the ages at which texts should be studied ("Five years old is the age to begin studying Scripture; ten for Mishnah; thirteen for the obligation of the commandments; fifteen for the study of Talmud…") the times of study (including Shabbat for children; Hachazan roeh heichan tinokot korin – the chazzan observes [on Shabbat] where [in the text] the children are reading) and the manner of teaching (safi lei k’tura –stuffing the children like oxen; ligmar inish v’hadar lisbor –read the text and then explain it.
The Zilberman method has children focus exclusively on Tanakh and Mishnah in their younger years, ensuring that they know large portions of both areas by heart before they begin learning Gemara. Indeed, graduates of such schools tend to have impressive fluency in these areas. Two key elements in Zilberman's methodology, however, must be singled out: chazarah (review) and student participation.
In the Zilberman-styled school, a new text of Chumash is introduced in the following manner (obviously adjustments are made for each grade level). On Monday and Tuesday, the teacher chants the text with the tropp (ta’amei ha’mikra) and the students immediately imitate him. This is repeated several times until the students are able to read the text independently. Then the teacher introduces the translation/explanation of the text and invites students to participate in the process. New words typically need to be translated only once; subsequently, students are encouraged to call out the translation on their own. All translations are strictly literal. If the translation does not automatically yield a comprehensible meaning, the students are invited to try to find one. The class spends the rest of the week reviewing the material. Each pasuk is reviewed with the tropp at least twenty-four times.
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.
- Shnayim mikra ve-echad targum: study of the weekly Torah portion together with the Aramaic Targum
- Ḥoq le-Yisrael, a programme founded by rabbis Hayyim ben Joseph Vital and 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 Mizrahi Jews, 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.
- The Daf Yomi programme, founded in 1923 by 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 and other works).
- The Amud Yomi, similar to Daf Yomi, but only one side of a page per day.
- Mishneh Torah - daily study (1 or 3-year cycle): see Daily Rambam Study
- Mishnah Berurah Yomit - daily study (2.5 or 5-year cycle)
- Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Yomi - daily study (1 year cycle)
- Halacha Yomit (Shulchan Aruch) - daily study (4 year cycle)
- Tanya - daily study (1 year cycle)
A D'var Torah (Heb: דבר תורה) (Plural: Divrei Torah), also known as a Drasha in Ashkenazic communities, is a talk on topics relating to a parashah (section) 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 reading. 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 extremely likely that a D'var Torah will carry a life lesson, backed up by passages from certain Jewish texts like the Talmud or Mishnah.
Torah study by various Jewish movements
The recommended way to study the Torah is by reading the original text written in Hebrew. This allows the reader to understand language-specific information. For example, the Hebrew word for earth is 'adama' and the name of the first man is 'Adam' meaning 'of the earth'. Jewish denominations vary in the importance placed on the usage of the original Hebrew text. Most denominations strongly recommend it, but also allow studying the Torah in other languages, and using Rashi and other commentary to learn language-specific information.
Like Orthodox Jews, other Jewish denominations may use any or all of the traditional areas and modes of Torah study. They study the Parsha, 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 Torah was dictated to Moses by God. Since many parts of the Torah, specifically the laws and commandments, are written in unspecific terms, they also believed that Moses received an interpretation of the Torah that was transmitted through the generations in oral form till it was finally put in writing in the Mishnah and later, in greater detail, the Talmud. After the Enlightenment, many Jews began to participate in wider European society, where they engaged in study related to critical methods of textual analysis, including both lower and higher criticism, the modern historical method, hermeneutics, and fields relevant to Bible study such as Near Eastern archaeology and linguistics. In time the documentary hypothesis emerged from these studies. The documentary hypothesis holds that the Torah was not written by Moses, but was simply written by different people who lived during different periods of Israelite history. Some Jews adapted the findings of these disciplines. Consequently, biblical study primarily focused on 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.
Today, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis draw on the lessons of modern critical Bible scholarship as well as the traditional forms of Biblical exegesis. Orthodox, Sephardim, a majority of Israeli Jews and other Jews, including many whom are not observant, reject critical Bible scholarship and the documentary hypothesis, holding to the opinion that it is contradicted by the Torah and the Talmud, which state that Moses wrote the Torah, as well as by the Mishnah, which asserts the divine origin of the Torah as one of the essential Jewish principles of faith.
Humanistic Jews value the Torah as a historical, political, and sociological text written by their ancestors. They do not believe 'that every word of the Torah is true, or even morally correct, just because the Torah is old.' The Torah is both disagreed with and questioned. Humanistic Jews believe that the entire Jewish experience, and not only the Torah, should be studied as a source for Jewish behavior and ethical values.
According to Ruth Calderon, there are currently almost one hundred non-halakhic Torah study centers in Israel. While influenced by methods used in the yeshiva and in the university, non–religious Torah study includes the use of new tools that are not part of the accepted hermeneutic tradition of the exegetic literature. These include Feminist, and post-modernist criticism, historic, sociological and psychological analyses, and literary analysis. Among these institutions is the Alma Centre for Hebrew Studies in Tel Aviv.
Torah study abroad in 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, South African, South American, and Australian 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). Yeshivot with year-in-Israel programs include: Mir yeshiva (Jerusalem), Yeshivat Sha'alvim, Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh, Yeshivat Har Etzion, Yeshivat HaMivtar, Machon Meir, Dvar Yerushalayim, Aish HaTorah and Ohr Somayach. Seminaries or midrashot include: Midreshet HaRova, Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Nishmat, Bnos Chava, Michlalah, Neve Yerushalayim.
Multi-year programs also exist: Hasidic and Haredi 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.