What is the literal meaning of the word “Torah”? Some I’ve asked have conjectured it means “The Book” or is Hebrew for the Greek “Bible.” Someone else thought it meant tradition. Are these correct?
Although the word “Torah” does refer to the Five Books of Moses, or the Bible — at times it refers to the combination of the written and oral laws — that is not the literal meaning of the word.
The accurate meaning of “Torah” is twofold. Firstly, it comes from the word hora’ah, which means teaching. More precisely, it means “teaching with direction,” meaning the type of teaching which enables and empowers one with the direction with which to proceed. The same word could be used in Hebrew for such instruction in both the spiritual and secular realms.
The second meaning is from the word orah, which means light. One example of this is reflected in the verse which states, “ki ner mitzvah v’Torah ohr,” or “for a mitzvah is a candle and the Torah the light” (Proverbs, ch. 6). This is to be understood on multiple levels.
One thought is that the Torah is the source of spiritual illumination in the world. Besides it being the source of Judaism, through it and its teachings we serve as a light unto the nations. That is how the Torah serves as the foundation of much of Christianity and Islam.
It also, more importantly, serves as the source of illumination for our own lives. Like the Clouds of Glory which guided the Jews for 40 years in the desert, providing illumination and direction at night, the Torah lights our paths and provides the Jewish people with direction throughout our long period of exile even through the darkest of times.
The Torah also provides direction for each Jew in their personal lives. In business, family life or interaction with others, the Torah offers the light — the ethical and moral compass by which to navigate the most complicated and tempestuous, often thorny issues. Whether in guidance for the individual or for the Jewish people, the two meanings of Torah — teaching with direction and illumination — mesh together to form a broader meaning of the centrality of Torah to Jewish life.
In the deeper, Kabbalistic writings, we find a more profound meaning of Torah and its connection to light. Torah is not simply compared to light; in reality, it is a type of light. At its source, it is like a flaming spiritual fire. Its light actually provides the spiritual source of the physical light of the sun and all the constellations of the entire universe. All those luminous bodies will be dwarfed by the eventual unmasking of the hidden spiritual light to be revealed in the World to Come. This is the reason the Torah was transmitted on Mt. Sinai through fire. This was not only to create an effect; it revealed the essence of the Torah being given, that it is a spiritual fire, a brilliant light. Our souls and the Torah, both dazzling lights, were created from the same Source, and reconnect and ignite each other when a Jew deeply studies the Torah. When a Jew lights up his or her soul with the fire of Torah, they then truly become a “light unto the nations.”
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.