The Torah being read with the aid of a 'yad' which often referred to as a Torah pointer

The Torah

The Torah has central importance in Jewish life, ritual and belief. Maryanne Saunders describes what the Torah is, what it includes and how it is used in worship and ritual.

Torah (תורה) in Hebrew can mean teaching, direction, guidance and law. The most prominent meaning for Jews is that the Torah constitutes the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (also called the Pentateuch, ‘five books’ in Greek), traditionally thought to have been composed by Moses. These sacred texts are written on a scroll and kept in a synagogue. Sometimes the word Torah is used to refer to the whole Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) which additionally contains Nevi'im (נביאים), which means Prophets, and Ketuvim (כתובים) meaning Writings. Torah can also refer to wider scriptural commentaries (Talmud) and even all Jewish religious knowledge. It is in this sense that Jews will often speak of the importance of living a life guided by Torah. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the first definition of Torah.

Pentateuch scroll with silk mantle

Unrolled Torah scroll

A 14th-century Torah Scroll from the Iberian Peninsula, complete with mantle. The Torah Scroll is the holiest object in Judaism.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

What is included in the Torah?

The five books of Moses are Genesis (Bereshit), Exodus (Shemot), Leviticus (Va-yikra), Numbers (Bamidbar) and Deuteronomy (Devarim). These are the same five books that make up the start of the Christian Bible. The Torah text can be written out by a scribe in Hebrew onto a scroll and used in public prayer services or printed in books for individuals and congregations to study. The Torah has central importance in Jewish life, ritual and belief. Some Jews believe that Moses received the Torah from God at Mount Sinai, whilst others believe that the text was written over a long period of time by multiple authors.

The Torah scroll

A Torah scroll is a ritual object made for worship in a synagogue. It must contain all five books of Moses or it is invalid.[1]

Sefer Torah Or 1462

Unrolled Torah scroll

A Torah scroll dating from the 15th century. The scroll is incomplete, lacking sections from the Book of Genesis, and thus would not be suitable for use in a synagogue.

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The scroll must also be written entirely in Hebrew with no vowels or indication of how the words are pronounced. This means that readers must have existing knowledge of the Torah to identify what each word means, emulating the texts and scholars as they were millennia ago. The text within is divided up into fifty-four portions, so that one (or sometimes two) can be read per week for a year, before starting again on a holiday called Simchat Torah ('Rejoicing with the Torah'). Scrolls are generally required to be made out of animal skins and can take up to two years to produce, mainly due to the rules against erasing any of the words – which means that the scribe cannot make a single mistake without starting again.[2] The strict rules concerning how a Torah scroll is written, and the prohibition of any material apart from the five books of Moses means that a scroll written a thousand years ago in a different country will only have superficial differences to a scroll produced in the UK today. For example the Kaifeng Torah, which was produced by Chinese Jews between 1643 and 1663, and the 17th-century Torah from the Ashkenaz are remarkably similar to contemporary Torahs produced in London. This fact can make Torah scrolls very difficult to date although the shape of the handwriting or types of materials used can give us helpful clues.

Chinese Torah – Kaifeng Torah

Torah Scroll, Kaifeng, China, 17th century. Genesis 35:1

A 17th-century Chinese Torah Scroll made for the Jews of Kaifeng.

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Held by© British Library

A 17th-century Ashkenaz Torah Scroll

Unrolled Torah scroll

A 17th-century Ashkenaz Torah Scroll, of Germanic origin.

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Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

It was not until the 4th century BCE that the Torah became a holy object reserved for public readings. The text of the Torah would have originally been written down on papyrus scrolls to be studied and discussed by scholars. It is only after the Babylonian Exile in 444 BCE as the Jews returned to Israel, that Ezra the scribe is recorded as having read aloud from the five books of Moses (Nehemiah 8).

What is the Oral Torah?

The Oral Torah consists of interpretations, instructions and elaborations that are not included in the written Torah as they were passed down orally from generation to generation. Whilst some of the Oral Torah was recorded by scholars in the Mishnah in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, it is still considered separate from the scripture inscribed in Torah scrolls.[3] Following a long tradition, some Jews believe that the Oral Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai at the same time as he received the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. Disagreements on the nature and inspiration of the Oral Torah were responsible for huge rifts in early Jewish communities, resulting in different sects of Judaism being formed.[4] The first and by far the most prevalent sect of Judaism is rabbinic Judaism (within which distinct denominations would emerge much later, such as Orthodox and Liberal). Rabbinic tradition maintains that the Oral Torah is just as holy as the written Torah, with the Oral Torah containing extra interpretations of biblical themes and passages, called Midrash. The Samaritans (named after the ancient land of Samaria), meanwhile, were a group who did not believe that the Oral Torah had divine origins and maintained that the Pentateuch names them as the true people of the land of Israel and not the Rabbinic sect.[5] The Samaritans continue to live in very small communities in modern-day Israel.

Samaritan Pentateuch

Manuscript page from  the Samaritan Pentateuch

Dating from the 14th century, this is a copy of a Samaritan Pentateuch, the principal canonical text of the Samaritans.

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Another sect, the Karaite Jews, also maintain that only the written Torah should be studied and obeyed; there are a number of Karaite communities around the world to this day.

Karaite Book of Exodus

Karaite Book of Exodus (incomplete), f12v.

A 10th-century Karaite Book of Exodus. The Karaites broke away from conventional Judaism and rabbinic tradition, accepting instead the Hebrew Bible as their only form of religious authority.

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Other sects from early biblical times have long since disappeared. One famous example is the Essenes, a monastic community of male scholars responsible for writing the Dead Sea Scrolls which were discovered in 1946 in the Judaean Desert.

How is the Torah used in worship?

Traditionally, the Torah is read four times a week in the synagogue: at the Sabbath (Saturday) morning and afternoon services and in the morning service on Mondays and Thursdays. Additional readings may occur on high holy days such as Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) or Rosh Hashana (New Year). Many synagogues are in possession of more than one scroll, but all are housed in the Ark, a large cabinet positioned to face Jerusalem. As a sign of the sacred status of the Torah, the scroll is often covered with a decorative mantle.

Pentateuch scroll with silk mantle

Mantle for a Torah scroll, red and gold patterned fabric

A 14th-century Torah Scroll from the Iberian Peninsula, complete with red silk brocade Torah mantle, used to protect the holy object when not in use.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

When the scroll is taken out of or put back into the Ark, congregants may touch it with their hands or a tallit (prayer shawl) as a sign of love and respect. When the scroll is unrolled on the bimah (reading desk) a blessing is said and the scroll is held above the speaker’s head by the handles so that everybody in the congregation can see it. Worshippers will all have a sidur (prayer-book) with prayers and the biblical texts in it written in Hebrew and often with a vernacular translation such as English so that they can keep track of the service. The Torah is chanted in the synagogue by the rabbi, the cantor (singing leader) or a person who has been called up to the bimah (an honour called Aliyah). Whether there is any musical accompaniment depends on the denomination of the synagogue: for example, in Orthodox congregations the singing is in classical Hebrew, unaccompanied and without a microphone; on the other hand, in Reform synagogues there may be a choir, musical instruments and vernacular language used.

Another way in which the denomination of a synagogue may affect services is the degree to which women are included. In Orthodox and some conservative congregations, women are seated separately from men, in a gallery or behind a screen. In these congregations it is less likely that a woman would be permitted to go up to the bimah, read from or even touch the Torah scroll. On the other hand, Liberal, Reform and other synagogues allow women to be ordained as rabbis, lead prayer services and sit with whomever they please.


Despite the contents of the Torah not changing in millennia, the reception of the text and the way that people have interpreted it has never stopped shifting and evolving. Whilst it is not possible to alter the contents of the Pentateuch, commentaries and debates on the Torah (such as the Talmud) are still focal points in Jewish study. Throughout history, Jews have continued to produce different readings and interpretations of the texts. The earliest commentary on the Torah, the Mishnah, was written as early as the 3rd century BCE; it is now made up of the original Mishnah and further commentaries added over the centuries that followed.[6] Famous commentaries range from the work of Rashi (d. 1105) and Maimonides (d. 1204) to more contemporary progressive commentaries and feminist critiques of scripture.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Although this coming-of-age ceremony – which literally means ‘Son/Daughter of the blessing’ – is one of the most well-known traditions involving the Torah, it is, in fact, a relatively new one. The first evidence of a formal ceremony being held to mark a boy turning thirteen dates from around the 16th century, although it was by then an established tradition that boys were obligated to obey commandments (mitzvot) at this age.[7] For girls, a formal ceremony was introduced for the twelfth birthday, but this was much later, with no documented evidence appearing until the 19th century and Bat Mitzvahs not becoming widespread until the 20th century. Some Orthodox denominations do not celebrate Bat Mitzvahs in a synagogue, preferring a reading by the girl’s father, a short speech in the ‘women’s section’ or a separate party.

In a traditional Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony, the child is called up to the bimah for the first time and they read a portion of the Torah in Hebrew. The preparation for this moment can take a year or more as the Torah scroll has no vocalisation marks or vowels to help with chanting the words, and the child must know their portion and the Hebrew pronunciation very well. Depending on the denomination and established tradition at their synagogue, the individual may be eligible to wear new prayer garments such as a talit (prayer shawl) or tefillin (small leather boxes containing prayers) after their ceremony.

Barcelona Haggadah

Illustration is in the top half of the page, text on the lower half

Barcelona Haggadah. The upper left section of the miniature showing the cantor/reader wearing a white Tallit lifting a Torah Scroll in front of the congregation.

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The coming-of-age ceremony is extremely important for the whole family, who may also be invited to do readings and will normally host one (or more!) parties to celebrate the occasion. It is also becoming increasingly common for adults who did not have a Bar/Bat Mitszvah to have one later in life to formally mark their full passage into Judaism as an adult.


[1] Vanessa L Ochs, Inventing Jewish Ritual (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2007), p. 132.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jacob Neusner, Oral Tradition in Judaism: The Case of the Mishnah (New York: Garland, 1987), p. 17.

[4] Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman,The Bible Unearthed: Archaelogy's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts (New York and London: Free Press, 2001), p.10.

[5] James D Purvis, The Samaritan Pentateuch and the Origin of the Samaritan Sect (Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 11.

[6] Neusner, Oral Tradition in Judaism, p. 17.

[7] Ivan G Marcus, The Jewish Life Cycle: Rites of Passage from Biblical to Modern Times (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2005), p. 82.

  • Maryanne Saunders
  • Maryanne Saunders is a PhD candidate in the Theology and Religious Studies Department, King’s College London. Her research interest is religious modern and contemporary art with a particular focus on gender and sexuality.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.