How to Learn the Torah


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Learning Torah and Sh'mot

By Avi Lazerson

Learning the Torah is serious business, yet it is not the exclusive domain of Talmudic scholars. The Torah was given to every Jew and each Jew has an obligation to study it, but what is the best way to study the Torah?

Since the Torah is divided into weekly portions which are read in the synagogue on the Shabbat, each person should spend time learning each day from the weekly portion of the Five Books of Moses. In this way he is together with the great body of Jews who study each week the weekly portion and he can always find someone with whom to discuss difficulties and interesting ideas.

There is a specific manner in which this study should be done. The sages of the Talmud said that each person should complete the Torah portion twice and the targum (the Aramaic translation) once together with the congregation. The targum was written by Unkelus who lived during the period of the mishna, approximately 2,500 years ago. During this period, the majority of the Jews spoke Aramaic, the language of Babylonia and of the Talmud. Unkelus in his translation explains very subtlety many difficult passages in the Torah. The concept of reading the Torah twice with Unkelus's translation once became known by its Hebrew acronym as Sh'mot, which means "twice the Torah and once the translation" and is also the Hebrew word for the Book of Exodus, "Sh'mot".

The precise reason for reading the Torah twice is not known. It is thought that when Moses gave us the Torah and commanded us to learn it that this rule was given also. In reality we have two obligations in regard to the Torah; one is to hear it read which we fulfill in the synagogue on Shabbat, and the other to understand the Torah. It is the understanding that gives the depth and meaning to the hearing.

One explanation for the three fold rule which is mentioned in the Talmud is that the general concepts were first heard at Mount Sinai. Afterwards, they were repeated together with their pertinent details during the forty years that the Jewish nation spent in the desert. The third time the Torah was repeated to them just before they entered the Land of Israel.

In view of the above, the requisite should have been that the Torah be read three times. However, in order that not just familiarity with the text is important but also with the concepts that underlie the text, it was decreed that the translation of Unkelus should be included in the study. The first reason is that Aramaic is very close to Hebrew, it is a Semitic language, and two, as mentioned above, and it explains various difficult passages. It addition, when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, it was given in seventy languages, Aramaic being one of the seventy languages current at that time.

Today many people chose to learn the commentary of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki) in place of Unkelos. The reason is that Rashi is written mostly in Hebrew is that most people are not experts in the nuances of Aramaic. The second reason is that Rashi did not write his personal commentary developed with his own intellect, but rather he wrote a compilation of the teachings of the Sages as recorded in the Talmud and Midrash. It is known that the commentary of Rashi was written with divine help from Heaven and is given in very succinct and clear manner. Today, the commentary of Rashi has been translated into English in many different books and readily available from all Jewish bookstores.

Many laws and occurrences that are written about in the Torah are not clear. It is only through the tradition of the Oral Torah, meaning the traditional explanations that Moses gave the Jews during the forty years that they wandered throughout the desert that we can truly understand the meaning of the Torah. As an example, in Exodus 20, G-d commands that the sacrifice be slaughters as was stated. Now when we examine the written Torah we do not find where this was stated. The answer is that it was not written down; it was part of the Torah we call the Oral Torah, that portion of explanation which was spoken orally and passed on from generation to generation orally. It is only from the Oral Torah that we know the correct laws concerning the ritual slaughter of animals. Rashi's commentary is based on this very written Torah and that is why it is more important than all of the other Torah commentaries.

* * * *

Exactly how this learning should take place is very much open. Some suggest that each sentence should be read twice and then the explanation. Others say since the Torah is divided into sub-portions, each sub-portion should be read twice and then the explanation. Others suggest that since the weekly Torah reading is divided into seven sections corresponding to the seven aliyas (people called up to make the blessings on the Shabbat), the weekly portion is further sub-divided into seven portions, therefore each day we should read from the "daily" portion corresponding to that aliya.

In any case, what is important is staying with the Torah portion of that particular week since all synagogues read that particular portion and the majority of people study during that week the same portion. It is customary for the Rabbi to explain that portion in the synagogue.

Following this learning guide, especially with Rashi, will insure that you will develop skills and understandings in the text that will enhance your appreciation of the depth of the Torah.


from the May 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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