A Brief History of Torah Study

By Eliezer Diamond
Adapted from The Observant Life

Without question, life-long devotion to talmud torah (Torah study) has been the hallmark of the Jewish people. Of the five books of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy in particular stresses the importance of studying and reviewing the commandments. In the passages that we recite as the first paragraph of the Sh’ma, we are told to “recite [God’s teachings] when at home and when away, when lying down and when rising up” (Deuteronomy 6:7). The monarch of Israel is obligated to have God’s teachings (called here simply torah) written for him on a scroll, which is “to remain with him [so that he may] read it all the days of his life” (Deuteronomy 17:19).

At the end of his life, Moses wrote down the divine teachings and gave the scroll to the priests—or, according to another tradition, the Levites—and commanded them to place it beside the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 31:24–26). Moreover, this scroll is not to remain a mere relic. Every seven years during Sukkot the scroll is to be read in the presence of the men, women, and children of Israel and the strangers in their midst (Deuteronomy 31:10–13).

While this reading may have been ceremonial rather than pedagogical, it implies that all Israelites, and those who have chosen to join them, have an obligation to familiarize themselves with God’s teachings.

Torah Study Through the Ages

The scholarly consensus is that the period in which the various strands of tradition were woven together to create the Pentateuch—the moment at which the various torot became Torah—was sometime after the return to Judea from the Babylonian exile, probably around the time of Ezra (who came to Judea c. 458 B.C.E.). Indeed, some scholars have suggested that Ezra himself was responsible for the final editing of the Torah. The Book of Nehemiah describes a ceremony in which Ezra, who was both priest and scribe, and the Levites read “from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense, so they understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8). Moreover, this was done in public, in the presence of the people. From that moment on, the Torah became a sacred book that embodied God’s word and will; from then on Jews were enjoined to study and observe its commandments.

Two important changes occurred during the Second Temple period. Although initially, as was the case during the period of the First Temple, the Torah was studied and taught mainly by the priests—see, for example, Malachi 2:7—the circle of scholars began to widen to include sages who were not of priestly descent. Additionally, during this period the public reading of the Torah became a regular practice among many Jews. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus boasts that the Jews actually read their sacred book, the Torah, in public every Sabbath, in contrast to other peoples who reserved their sacred texts only for their priesthoods (Josephus, Against Apion 2.175). In fact, the scholarly consensus is that, at least in the Land of Israel, synagogues were used for public reading of the Torah even before they were used for communal prayer.

There was also a second, equally important shift. Once the Five Books of Moses had been widely accepted as the unalterable word of God, study generally took the form of commenting upon these books. During most of the Second Temple period, this commentary generally took the form of what Bible scholar James Kugel calls “rewritten Bible.” Rather than commenting on the Torah directly, authors wrote alternate versions of the biblical narratives in which they freely recast the story line of the Torah’s narrative and sometimes even the content of its legislation. Thus, for example, the author of the Book of Jubilees, who probably wrote in the second century B.C.E., explains the origin of Yom Kippur as commemorating the day on which Joseph was sold into slavery, an idea that apparently appeared nowhere in Scripture as the author found it (Jubilees 34:18).

The importance of Torah study only increased as Judaism developed under the influence of the sages of the rabbinic era, scholars who many believe were the successors to the Pharisees. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., in fact, a group of sages arose who argued that Torah study had replaced sacrifice as the central sustaining act of Jewish life. For these sages, the biblical text was canonical and unalterable; their commentaries, known as midrashim, were clearly distinguishable from the Bible itself. The Mishnah, believed to be the earliest extant work composed by these sages, contains an assertion that the study of Torah is by itself equal in importance to all the other mitzvot combined (M Peiah 1:1). Later, the sages of the talmudic era saw themselves as living in a time when God’s will could no longer be known through prophecy. In their view, prophecy had ended with the deaths of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi at the beginning of the Second Temple period (the early fifth century B.C.E.) and so the will of God, therefore, could now be known only through the study of Scripture. The rabbis saw themselves as the inheritors of the prophets’ mandate to bring God’s word to the world. Indeed, when the rabbis asserted that “a sage is greater than a prophet,” they clearly meant it as a pointed comment about the worth of their own work. (This remark is preserved in the Talmud at BT Bava Batra 12a.)

Eventually this ideal was accepted by the larger Jewish community and the Torah scholar became a revered and influential figure. The ideal of study and the valuing of knowledge are characteristic of the Jewish people to this very day, although for many Jews this ideal has taken on a more secular character.

At this moment, there are more Jews enrolled in schools of Jewish learning than at any other time in Jewish history. The Conservative movement, like the Orthodox and—to a lesser degree—the Reform movements, sponsors numerous Jewish day schools and high schools as well as a wide variety of college-level and post-college programs intended to provide intensive Jewish education for both men and women. Furthermore, synagogues everywhere have afternoon Hebrew schools and a variety of adult education programs that feature weekly study of the Torah portion, lectures in Jewish history, and book discussion groups. Clearly these developments help Jewish life flourish worldwide.