What Do We Mean by the Term “Torah?”

The Hebrew word, torah (תורה), is derived from a three-letter combination that was often used in the realm of archery, yareh (ירה). Yareh means to shoot an arrow in order to hit a mark. The mark or target, of course, was the object at which the archer was aiming. Consequently, torah, one of the nouns derived from this root, means to hit the target, or hit the mark. In time, the word torah evolved into referring to teaching or instruction, which hits the mark concerning truth. Biblically speaking, the truth is truth about God and how one relates to Him. The Torah is, therefore, in the strict sense, instruction designed to teach us The Truth about God.

Torah is frequently translated “law” in English Bibles. However, this rendering is not accurate. It should be translated “instruction” or “teaching.” When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek about 250 years before Yeshua (called the Septuagint or abbreviated lxx), the Jewish scholars mostly used the Greek word nomos, nomoß to render the Hebrew word torah. The Greek word nomos, however, has a variety of uses, among which is “law,” but there are other uses of nomos, depending on the context.  In each context, the word nomos needs to be translated accurately according to its legitimate options of meaning. Hence, depending on the context, nomos can also be rendered “principle,” “standard,” “legalism,” or “Jewish Religious Law,” as well as the basic definition: teaching and instruction.

Nomos is used frequently in the Newer Covenant Scriptures to speak of God’s sacred Scriptures, the Bible.  When nomos is used in that way, it is not appropriate to render it as “law”, as is usually done. Here are two examples why we assert this: In at least one occasion Yeshua quoted from the Book of Psalms as part of His argument against a group of religious people who were questioning Him. We read John 10:34 in English, “Yeshua answered them, ‘Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’?” Yeshua was quoting from Psalm 82:6. The word “law” is a common translation of the Greek word “nomos” in this verse. Yet, who would say that the Psalms was/is The Law? So, why would we render nomos “law” in this case? We can find a second example from Paul’s writings. In the English of 1 Corinthians 14:21 Paul writes, “In the Law it is written, ‘by men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,” says the Lord’.” Once again, “law” is a translation of the word nomos. However, Paul is quoting from the Prophets, from Isaiah 28:11, to be specific. We ask the same question again: how many believers consider the Prophets to be “The Law?” In both of the examples now sited, the translation should be:

John 10:34, “Yeshua answered them, ‘Has it not been written in your Torah, ‘I said, you are gods’?”

1 Corinthians 14:21 Paul writes, “In the Torah it is written, ‘by men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,” says the Lord’.”

It seems clear that in the Newer Covenant Scriptures, when nomos is used in reference to the Bible, it should be translated Torah or Scripture, perhaps even “God’s Book of Instruction.” Of course, nomos should always be translated according to the context. When nomos is used in reference to Scripture, rarely would the context require that it be translated as “law.” Most often the context would demand the translation “Torah” or “Scripture.” Again, the context of the word is always the final determiner of its meaning. If Torah or Scripture is a legitimate rendition of nomos, then why would translators choose the term “law?”

What do the linguists say about the matter? Louw and Nida in their lexicon write, “the first five books of the Old Testament called the Torah [is] often better rendered as ‘instruction’.” Moreover, The Dictionary of New Testament Theology indicates it is

important to note that torah frequently does not mean law in the modern sense of the term…the predominant use of the latter word [nomos in the LXX] must have produced a striking translation [i.e. to the Jews]… Originally torah meant an instruction from God.

Because Jewish scholars know that torah means instruction or teaching and not law, they use the term in a variety of ways to speak of educational material. In traditional Jewish thinking, the word “torah” refers in a rather broad sense to all the teachings of the rabbis, even including their students’ note-taking!. In addition, torah is used to refer to:

  • The Talmud (the compendium of Jewish law and practical applications of the Scriptures — instructions about how to live
  • The Tanakh (the complete Old Testament)
  • The first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy (also called the Pentateuch)
  • The Covenant God gave to Moshe (Moses) on Mount Sinai (because it contains individual teachings, or torahs)
  • Any teaching of the first five books of the Bible

For our purposes here, we will use the word “torah” in two ways: firstly, to refer to the first five books of the Bible — all of which, we assert, are from the mouth of God and written with perfect accuracy by the hand of Moshe — and secondly, in reference to the specific teachings within the Five Books of Moshe. Having stated that, however, it should be acknowledged that, in reality, all of the Scripture is Torah. Since the word “torah” means “teaching,” and “instruction,” then it would follow that the entire Bible is God’s Torah.

If that is true (and it is) then it is also true to say that every believer in Yeshua is “torah observant.”  Any believer who is living out any part of the Word of God is, therefore, also living out that portion of the Torah. For instance, the Book of Proverbs is Torah, the Psalms are Torah. Furthermore, by the same definition, the whole Newer Covenant Scriptures are also Torah. The problem is that too many believers in Yeshua do not think that they may live the teachings in the first five books of the Bible.

According to the Jewish sages, a body of instruction called “the Oral Torah” was communicated to Moses on Mount Sinai along with the written Torah (the Scriptures). The tradition continues to assert that this oral communication was transmitted verbally through the generations until Rabbinic tradition asserts that Rabbi Yehudah haNasi was granted authority to inscribe it. His edition of Oral Torah is called The Mishnah. Moreover, the rabbis tell us that the written Mishnah was completed roughly around 200 in the Common Era. In the following two to three hundred years, rabbinic sages in Israel and Babylonia wrote commentaries on Rabbi Yehudah haNasi’s Mishnah. These commentaries are called The Gemara. The Gemara was combined with the Mishnah into one work called The Talmud. The Gemara produced in Israel is different from that produced in Babylonia. Consequently, there are two talmuds: the Jerusalem Talmud, finished about the year 400 (not written in Jerusalem!) and the Babylonian Talmud, completed roughly around 500. Today, most Orthodox Jewish people consider the Babylonian Talmud to be the more authoritative of the two talmuds. Whatever the case, the Talmud is considered to be the Oral Torah, the same Oral Torah that was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai and, therefore, carries great authority. All of this is a reflection of Orthodox rabbinic tradition.

We at Torah Resources International believe that studying the Mishnah/Talmud has great educational value. Moreover, learning it might help to interpret some passages in the Scriptures, as well as to enlighten the Bible student concerning the life and times of the people of the Newer Covenant Scriptures. However, even those assertions are up for debate! Our main point here is that, unlike Orthodox Jews, we attach no special spiritual authority to the Talmud. For us, the only spiritual authority is the written Word of God. We fervently adhere to what we think Paul means when he exhorts us to learn not to exceed what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6).

In summary, when we use the word torah throughout our website, unless we specify otherwise, we are referring, first and foremost, to the five books of Moses, but sometimes we will also use it to speak of the entirety of Scripture. This means, among other things, that since all believers in Yeshua claim that Genesis to Revelation is their sole spiritual authority, then all believers in Yeshua are “Torah observant.” The only question is to what degree are they Torah observant. One of the hopes of TRI is that we can help all believers in Yeshua to let the entire Word of God be applied to their lives.

Let us state the issue differently, with more accurate terms: One of the goals of Torah Resources International is to help encourage every believer in Yeshua to yield his/her members to Yeshua who lives in them. When they do that, Yeshua, The Living Torah, will live His life in them and through them to others. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  John 1:1 and 14

The Torah became flesh and dwelt among us.

When we yield our members to The Living Torah in us, we are living that Torah. There is no greater wisdom, than to live The Word of God as it is written.

We hope that these comments about the nature of the word “torah” are helpful for all.

1. A commonly accepted resource for the information concerning the meaning of torah is Brown, Driver, and Briggs English-Hebrew Lexicon. Pages 434 – 436 will help.

2. no/moß – Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Editors, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains.

3. “Law” – Brown, Colin, ed., The Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 2.

4. We thank Hebraic roots scholar, Dwight Pryor, for calling this thought to our attention. This was discussed during an informal lunch engagement in a Jerusalem restaurant in the fall of 2002.