Torah (Hebrew, “teaching,” “law, docrine”) is designated as the teachings of the Jewish religion. In the Pentateuch the term “Torah” can mean all laws on a particular subject, Leviticus 7:2, or the summation of all laws, Deuteronomy 4:44.
The Torah is also used to refer to the Pentateuch in contrast to the Prophets and Hagiography, as in Tanach, and later a distinction was made between the written and oral law.
Although the rabbis taught that “Moses received the Torah from Sinai, ” they also taught it was in existence before the creation of the world, and Rabbi Akiva declared it to have been “the precious instrument by which the world was created.” Rav Hoshaiah equated it with Wisdom described in the Book of Proverbs, and Philo, in his discussion of logos (word of God), identified the logos with the Torah. Such conjectures led to much discussion among several later Jewish philosophers.
However, it is generally agreed that the purpose of the Torah was to make Israel a kingdom of priests, a holy nation (Deuteronomy 33:4), and much Hebrew poetry is concerned with the sweetness and joy entailed in keeping it (Psalms 19 and 119).
Nevertheless, the message of the Torah is claimed to be for all humanity, and “a pagan who studies the Torah is like a High Priest.” Hillel, in a famous exchange, summarized the Torah in the maximum, “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow” (B. Shab, 31a), and Akiva maintained its overriding principle was “Love you neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
Maimonides laid down in his thirteen principles of the Jewish faith that the Torah is immutable and that it was given in its entirety to Moses.
The belief in the divine origin of both the written and oral Torah remains the touchstone of Orthodox Judaism. The Karaites accepted the written but not the oral law, while the Progressive movements tend to distinguish between the moral and ritual law.
The Torah, by many, is considered the cornerstone of the Jewish religion and law, thus the scrolls are thought to be most holy and sacred by the pious. Every synagogue keeps several scrolls, frequently protected in a luxurious covering of rich fabric often decorated with silver ornaments. A.G.H.
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 984-985
Funk &Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, 1979, 23, 193