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Jacob L. Wright





The Origins of Torah Study





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Jacob L. Wright





The Origins of Torah Study








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The Origins of Torah Study

A Post-Destruction model of Jewish Identity: Reading and studying Torah as if our life depended on it.


The Origins of Torah Study

Study of the talmud,  Kolel Galicia, Old city of Jerusalem. Wikimedia.

Reading Torah to Survive

From Yehuda Amichai, Open, Close, Open, p 42:

הָעָם הַיְּהוּדִי קוֹרֵא בְּאָזְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים
אֶת סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה.
בְּמֶשֶׁךְ כָּל הַשָּׁנָה, כָּל שָׁבוּעַ פָּרָשָׁה,
כְּמוֹ שֶׁחְרֶזָדָה שֶׁסִּפְּרָה סִפּוּרִים
כְּדֵי לְהַצִּיל אֶת חַיֶּיהָּ.
וְעַד שֶׁמַּגִּיעִים לְשִׂמְחַת תּוֹרָה
הוּא שׁוֹכֵחַ.
וְאֶפְשָׁר לְהַתְחִיל מֵחָדָשׁ.
The Jewish people read in the ears of God
that book, the Torah.
All year long; every week, another portion
Like Scheherzade who told stories
To save her life.
And by the time we get to Simchat Torah,
He forgets.
And it is thus possible to begin anew!

Scheherezade is the Persian princess from the collection of tales The Arabian Nights. She tells stories for “1001 nights” in order to spare her life from the fate of death at the hands of her lover, the king. Just as she spends each night telling stories to the king in order to see the light of a new day, so do we, the Jewish people, spend each week reading Torah in the ears of God in order to live another year.

We tell our endless stories, like Sheherzade, to survive. Our existence is inconceivable without it.

“By the time we get to Simchat Torah, he forgets” is reminiscent of the discussion in the Talmud (b. Berachot 32b) of the divine capacity to forget.[1] Because God can and does forget, life can go on. Indeed, it is possible to begin anew (אֶפְשָׁר לְהַתְחִיל מֵחָדָשׁ). And so we commence another year of living through the activity of reading.

The Origin of the Torah Reading Cycle

The importance of reading in general, and specifically the cycle that structures the Jewish calendar, are already to be found in the Torah, albeit not as a weekly or yearly cycle. The command of Hakhel enjoins Israel to gather together at the end of every seventh year at the time of Sukkot for the purpose of reading “this Torah,” likely some form or section of Deuteronomy:[2]

דברים לא:י וַיְצַ֥ו מֹשֶׁ֖ה אוֹתָ֣ם לֵאמֹ֑ר מִקֵּ֣ץ׀ שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֗ים בְּמֹעֵ֛ד שְׁנַ֥ת הַשְּׁמִטָּ֖ה בְּחַ֥ג הַסֻּכּֽוֹת: לא:יא בְּב֣וֹא כָל יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל לֵרָאוֹת֙ אֶת פְּנֵי֙ יְ־הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בַּמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִבְחָ֑ר תִּקְרָ֞א אֶת הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את נֶ֥גֶד כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּאָזְנֵיהֶֽם: לא:יב הַקְהֵ֣ל אֶת הָעָ֗ם הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֤ים וְהַנָּשִׁים֙ וְהַטַּ֔ף וְגֵרְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ לְמַ֨עַן יִשְׁמְע֜וּ וּלְמַ֣עַן יִלְמְד֗וּ וְיָֽרְאוּ֙ אֶת־יְ־הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם וְשָׁמְר֣וּ לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵ֖י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת:
Deut 31:10 And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, 31:11 when all Israel comes to appear before Yhwh your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. 31:12 Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere Yhwh your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.

The practice of weekly readings and the yearly cycle stems from a much later time. In rabbinic historiography, it takes its point of departure from the work of Ezra and the Knesset haGedolah, that later tradition has him founding.

The Reading of the Torah in Nehemiah

The book of Ezra-Nehemiah, a crucial work that has failed to receive the attention it deserves, hints at the origins of this tradition. The celebration on the first day Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah) in Nehemiah 8 marks the beginning of a new age in the life of the Jewish people.[3] The event is not only (mnemo)historically significant, but it illustrates a point made in Amichai’s poem; the Jewish people, like Shecharazada, reads as if our life depends upon it.

נחמיה ח:א וַיֵּאָסְפ֤וּ כָל הָעָם֙ כְּאִ֣ישׁ אֶחָ֔ד אֶל הָ֣רְח֔וֹב אֲשֶׁ֖ר לִפְנֵ֣י שַֽׁעַר הַמָּ֑יִם וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֙ לְעֶזְרָ֣א הַסֹּפֵ֔ר לְהָבִ֗יא אֶת סֵ֙פֶר֙ תּוֹרַ֣ת מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּ֥ה יְ־הֹוָ֖ה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ח:ב וַיָּבִ֣יא עֶזְרָ֣א הַ֠כֹּהֵן אֶֽת הַתּוֹרָ֞ה לִפְנֵ֤י הַקָּהָל֙ מֵאִ֣ישׁ וְעַד אִשָּׁ֔ה וְכֹ֖ל מֵבִ֣ין לִשְׁמֹ֑עַ בְּי֥וֹם אֶחָ֖ד לַחֹ֥דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִֽי:
Neh 8:1 The entire people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the scroll of the Torah of Moses with which Yhwh had charged Israel. 8:2 On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Torah before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding.
ח:ג וַיִּקְרָא בוֹ֩ לִפְנֵ֨י הָרְח֜וֹב אֲשֶׁ֣ר׀ לִפְנֵ֣י שַֽׁעַר הַמַּ֗יִם מִן הָאוֹר֙ עַד מַחֲצִ֣ית הַיּ֔וֹם נֶ֛גֶד הָאֲנָשִׁ֥ים וְהַנָּשִׁ֖ים וְהַמְּבִינִ֑ים וְאָזְנֵ֥י כָל־הָעָ֖ם אֶל סֵ֥פֶר הַתּוֹרָֽה:
8:3 He read from it, facing the square before the Water Gate, from the first light until midday, to the men and the women and those who could understand; the ears of all the people were given to the scroll of the Torah.

Ezra Shares the Podium

After brushing the scene in broad strokes (vv. 1-3), the author then begins in v. 4 to embellish it with what he considers to be important details. Ezra stands on a wooden tower constructed for the occasion. Yet he does not stand there alone: Flanking him on the right are six and on left seven men, who for all we know consisted mostly or entirely of laity, not priests:

נחמיה ח:ד וַֽיַּעֲמֹ֞ד עֶזְרָ֣א הַסֹּפֵ֗ר עַֽל־מִגְדַּל־עֵץ֘ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשׂ֣וּ לַדָּבָר֒ וַיַּֽעֲמֹ֣ד אֶצְל֡וֹ מַתִּתְיָ֡ה וְשֶׁ֡מַע וַ֠עֲנָיָה וְאוּרִיָּ֧ה וְחִלְקִיָּ֛ה וּמַעֲשֵׂיָ֖ה עַל־יְמִינ֑וֹ וּמִשְּׂמֹאל֗וֹ פְּ֠דָיָה וּמִֽישָׁאֵ֧ל וּמַלְכִּיָּ֛ה וְחָשֻׁ֥ם וְחַשְׁבַּדָּ֖נָה זְכַרְיָ֥ה מְשֻׁלָּֽם:
Neh 8:4 Ezra the scribe stood upon a wooden tower made for the purpose, and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah at his right, and at his left Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, Meshullam.

Ezra is apparently not comfortable to stand up there alone. Although the people call solely for him, we are told that when he takes the bima, high up on a tower in the middle of Jerusalem, he does so with a large number of other figures, figures who are identified and recorded for posterity.

Blessing, Reading, and Teaching

When Ezra opens the scroll, all the people stand up, demonstrating their reverence for Torah (v. 5), and they bow and say “amen” when Ezra blesses God (v. 6):

נחמיה ח:ה וַיִּפְתַּ֨ח עֶזְרָ֤א הַסֵּ֙פֶר֙ לְעֵינֵ֣י כָל הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי מֵעַ֥ל כָּל הָעָ֖ם הָיָ֑ה וּכְפִתְח֖וֹ עָֽמְד֥וּ כָל הָעָֽם: ח:ו וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ עֶזְרָ֔א אֶת י־הֹוָ֥ה הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים הַגָּד֑וֹל וַיַּֽעֲנ֨וּ כָל הָעָ֜ם אָמֵ֤ן׀ אָמֵן֙ בְּמֹ֣עַל יְדֵיהֶ֔ם וַיִּקְּד֧וּ וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲוֻ֛ לַי־הֹוָ֖ה אַפַּ֥יִם אָֽרְצָה:
Neh 8:5 Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; as he opened it, all the people stood up. 8:6 Ezra blessed Yhwh, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” with hands upraised. Then they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves before Yhwh with their faces to the ground.

Meanwhile, a group of 13 Levites help them understand what they hear (v. 7). The Torah is hence not simply read, but also explicated (v. 8). This likely means translated, as the community was now speaking Aramaic.

נחמיה ח:ז וְיֵשׁ֡וּעַ וּבָנִ֡י וְשֵׁרֵ֥בְיָ֣ה׀ יָמִ֡ין עַקּ֡וּב שַׁבְּתַ֣י׀ הֽוֹדִיָּ֡ה מַעֲשֵׂיָ֡ה קְלִיטָ֣א עֲזַרְיָה֩ יוֹזָבָ֨ד חָנָ֤ן פְּלָאיָה֙ וְהַלְוִיִּ֔ם מְבִינִ֥ים אֶת־הָעָ֖ם לַתּוֹרָ֑ה וְהָעָ֖ם עַל־עָמְדָֽם: ח:ח וַֽיִּקְרְא֥וּ בַסֵּ֛פֶר בְּתוֹרַ֥ת הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים מְפֹרָ֑שׁ וְשׂ֣וֹם שֶׂ֔כֶל וַיָּבִ֖ינוּ בַּמִּקְרָֽא:
Neh 8:7 Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites explained the Teaching to the people, while the people stood in their places. 8:8 They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading.

The account of the second day tells once again of an assembly, but instead of all the people, now it is a smaller group that gathers: the lay leaders, priests and Levites.

נחמיה ח:יג וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשֵּׁנִ֡י נֶאֶסְפוּ֩ רָאשֵׁ֨י הָאָב֜וֹת לְכָל־הָעָ֗ם הַכֹּֽהֲנִים֙ וְהַלְוִיִּ֔ם אֶל־עֶזְרָ֖א הַסֹּפֵ֑ר וּלְהַשְׂכִּ֖יל אֶל־דִּבְרֵ֥י הַתּוֹרָֽה:
Neh 8:13 On the second day, the heads of the clans of all the people and the priests and Levites gathered to Ezra the scribe to study the words of the Torah.

Whereas on the first day the people gather in front of the Water Gate in Jerusalem, this group assembles in front of Ezra alone. Again, no one assembled them. Why do they come? Because they want to study![4]

Finally, v. 18 narrates that Torah was read from the first day to the last day.

נחמיה ח:יח וַ֠יִּקְרָא בְּסֵ֨פֶר תּוֹרַ֤ת הָאֱלֹהִים֙ י֣וֹם׀ בְּי֔וֹם מִן־הַיּוֹם֙ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן עַ֖ד הַיּ֣וֹם הָאַחֲר֑וֹן…
Neh 8:18 He read from the scroll of the Teaching of God each day, from the first to the last day….

The verse lacks a subject, and hence is not clear who actually reads: it could be Ezra or it could be someone else. The ambiguity may be intended, especially when we consider verse 3 of the next chapter, in which all the people, in the plural, are reading Torah.

נחמיה ט:ג וַיָּק֙וּמוּ֙ עַל־עָמְדָ֔ם וַֽיִּקְרְא֗וּ בְּסֵ֨פֶר תּוֹרַ֧ת יְ־הֹוָ֛ה אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֖ם…
Neh 9:3 Standing in their places, they read from the scroll of the Teaching of Yhwh their God for one-fourth of the day…

Ezra is significantly not in sight. The people apparently no longer depend upon his assistance.

The author responsible for recording this scene keeps our attention steadily focused on one object: the Torah. Everything else that is narrated is directly connected to it: the people’s longing to hear it read, Ezra, whom they petition to read it, those who help him read it, how they go about reading and explaining it, the response of the people to the reading, the individual community members reading and studying on their own, etc.

The Emergence of the Torah Scholar

Closely related to the place assigned to textual study is the honor bestowed on performance. Priestly and Levitical authority, along with kingship, is by nature hereditary and genealogical. Yet in this society, the priests and Levites submit themselves to the authority of someone who has earned his credentials, by demonstrating his proficiency in the study of Torah.

It is true that Ezra himself possesses a prestigious priestly genealogy; to be sure this is the first thing we are told about him. Nevertheless, throughout the rest of the narrative, the author shifts our attention away from the rights Ezra inherited to those he merited. Ezra is called “a scribe, expert in the Torah” (הוּא סֹפֵר מָהִיר בְּתוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה; Ezra 7:6).” Only a few verses later, the text tells us,

עזרא ז:י כִּ֤י עֶזְרָא֙ הֵכִ֣ין לְבָב֔וֹ לִדְר֛וֹשׁ אֶת־תּוֹרַ֥ת יְ־הֹוָ֖ה וְלַעֲשֹׂ֑ת וּלְלַמֵּ֥ד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל חֹ֥ק וּמִשְׁפָּֽט:
Ezra 7:10 For Ezra dedicated himself to study the Torah of Yhwh, so as to observe it, and to teach laws and rules to Israel.

Speaking about the role of scribes like Ezra in the Second Temple period, the Princeton Jewish Studies professor Martha Himmelfarb notes:

The worthiness of priests is the subject of great anxiety in a wide range of literature from this period. …The conflation of the scribe with the priest… brings to the entirely hereditary, and thus unmeritocratic, role of the priest, a dimension in which individual virtue and skill are determinative.[5]

Significantly, it is this new form of scholar-leader that the people place at the center of their society.

Absence of the High Priest in Nehemiah 8

The role of behavior and performance, of earned credentials over against inherited rights, is underscored by the fact that the account of the public Torah reading never mentions the High Priest, Elyashiv.

Elyashiv’s absence is related to the book’s prioritizing of behavior over birth. The High Priest is privileged with the most exceptional lineage. But Elyashiv had proven himself unworthy of mention. Elsewhere in the book his name is linked to corruption: He had used his office to help out his friends (see Neh 13:4-9, 28-29). Hence, the tradition simply forgets his role and commemorates instead those who prove themselves worthy through their behavior and performance, thus Ezra and his cohorts.

The Novelty of a Torah Reading or Torah Study

The scene described in chapter 8 of public Torah reading and study may seem very normal to us—perhaps all too normal, since it resembles so closely contemporary Jewish practices. And thus we need to take a step back historically in order to appreciate just how radically new it really is.

We do not encounter depictions of Torah reading or Torah study like this either in the Torah or in descriptions of life during the First Temple period. Deuteronomy commands the reading of the Torah every seven years, but this was likely not practiced until after the exile. In many of its features, the account reflects and anticipates what we call Rabbinic Judaism. It would be perfectly conceivable if this text had been written after the destruction of the Second Temple, in the first centuries of the Common Era, yet it was composed hundreds of years earlier. As such, it constitutes the earliest source depicting the Torah being read and studied in a way that we take for granted today.

The reason why the account may seem so normal to us is that our ancestors have embraced and perpetuated the ideals and specific practices it presents. Many points of contact exist between contemporary Jewish life and the scene portrayed in Nehemiah 8.

  • Ezra is elevated on a bima above the people,
  • The congregation rises when the sefer is opened,
  • A kind of berachah is pronounced,
  • The people bow and prostrate themselves,
  • They cry out amen,
  • They lift their hands,
  • The text is interpreted,
  • They conclude with feasting,
  • A smaller group that gathers around Ezra participates in Talmud Torah.

The Place of the Larger Community in Torah Study

Throughout this account, the author repeatedly underscores the broad participation of the community in the event. Twice in the opening verses, we are told that both men and women and all who could understand were present. The phrase, “all the people (כל העם),” occurs no less than seven times. For this text’s author, Torah study is the prerogative of the entire community. All – not just a select, elite, few – should be involved.

The point is expressed most graphically by the juxtaposition of this account with a very long list of names in the preceding chapter (Neh 7). Lengthy lists of names are what stand out most to those who begin to study this book. Although they can be tedious and boring, they illustrate one of its main points: that after the destruction of the state, and in the absence of prominent kings and heroes and great miracles, the society which reemerges must involve the entire community. The survival of the nation corresponds in direct measure to the integration and participation of all its members. When we read through the book and mention one by one the names of each family and clan that constitute Israel, we internalize this ideal.

Accessibility of Torah as a Novelty

Aside from the command of Hakhel, which, as I noted, likely wasn’t practiced until post-exilic times, we find nothing like this public education in the literature depicting life in the period of the First Temple. When David, for example, wants guidance whether to go to war, he consults the deity through a method of priestly-prophetic divination (לשאל בי־הוה; I Sam 23:4). The method may have involved an Ephod or the Urim and Thumim, things we really do not understand, and probably very few understood in those days. That was indeed the point: The methods of divination were secret, relegated to an inspired few.

Contrast David with Ezra: A group of lay leaders, together with priests and Levites, gather around him, inquiring after the divine will through a method of seeking and finding in a text. This is a revolutionary moment. What we have here is the first description of Torah study as we now know it. The biblical scholar Michael Fishbane calls this “a new stage of legal rationality, when a text becomes an oraculum for rational-exegetical inquiry.”[6] This is a rational program, not a covert and mystical one. It is open and available to all who desire to read and study.

Creating Identity through Reading

Reading creates identity in many ways. This is true of private reading, something that used to be available only to a select few, but nowadays is open to many.

To be sure, reading has played a big role in my own identity formation. As a kid, during the long hot days of summer vacation, I would read every biography of a baseball star I could get my hands on. My favorites were the older generations: Ted Williams, Yogi Bera, Micky Mantle. I would escape to their worlds. Especially important for me was the descriptions of their youth. I wanted to know whether they too were not the best players on the team when they were just starting out. Why? Because I too wanted to become a professional baseball player. I looked to the stars as role models. I wanted to know how I compared to them and what I should be doing in order to get where they went. Later in life, as I shifted my goals and realized my limits, these biographies of baseball stars were exchanged for those of great scholars. But in both phases of my life, I found my identity and role models in books and long hours of reading.

During the First Temple period, did scribes read scrolls for pleasure or merely as part of the professional responsibilities? We do not know. Yet I am sure that their reading bonded them as a guild. They would have also internalized the values of the texts that they copied and promulgated throughout their careers.

In Ezra-Nehemiah, however, reading is a collective activity. It constructs a communal identity in the face of uncertainty and loss; the community affirms itself through reciting, rejoicing and remembering its history. The reading brings people together as one and also plants deep within them their particular heritage. In so doing, it creates a legacy that cannot be taken away.

Talmud Torah in the Second Temple Period: Why Now?

The institution of Talmud Torah, similar to what is described in Nehemiah 8, takes on the character of a public ritual and increases in value only in the Second Temple period. Why did this happen only then?

Exile, Diaspora, and Modest Rebuilding

In 586 BCE, Jews had witnessed the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians, and many were then carted off into exile. Jerusalem was left in ruins and all the long-standing institutions of Israelite society were demolished. Judah became a small and impoverished province in the extensive Babylonian empire, and Jewish communities scattered throughout the world were attempting to hold on for their dear lives, living amongst foreign peoples and lacking the native sovereignty they had long enjoyed back in their homeland.

After a half century, the Persian empire replaced the Babylonian, and granted the Jews permission to return to their homeland and rebuild. One might be tempted to think of this reconstruction in mythic proportions, of a phoenix rising from the ashes and returning to her former glory. Yet the story of Judah’s comeback is not so grand, and in telling it, the authors of Ezra-Nehemiah go to great lengths to ensure that their readers avoid the impulse to mythologize the events.

The conditions in Judah were in many ways no different than those in the Diaspora. The glory of former days had vanished, including the infrastructures that held the community together, not least the king, his court and his armies. In contrast to that age, the Jews who returned must now wait patiently upon foreign powers. Although returning to their land, they live there without real control of their destiny. It was up to the Persian imperial court to decide when and how the temple and Jerusalem would be built. When the Jewish community rebuilds its temple, it is a humble replica of its former glory.

Identity Formation: Monarchic vs. Second Temple Period

During the monarchic period, identity was formed through more conventional means: by the borders of a kingdom, by paying taxes to a king, and by serving in his armies. Some sacred texts, though not the Torah as we know it, circulated during this period, but these did not function as a broad identity marker, and access to them was probably limited to the elite classes of scribes, priests, and educated noblemen.

It was only during the post-destruction period that our ancestors, having forfeited autonomy and territorial sovereignty, needed to create for themselves a space in a foreign empire. The space they carved out is not so much territorial-political as it is social, one demarcated by practice and behavior. The tools they use for demarcating this social space are texts, the chief of which is the Torah. As this newly canonized Torah became the focal point for Jewish identity, it lefts its place of origins among scribes and priests and entered Jewish society at large.

In a time of radical change and upheaval, the Torah, and other ancient texts, gave the community a source for rebuilding their identity—as Jews, who could rally around a book, and not just Judeans, connected by a geographical territory. From that time until the present, Jews seek and find in this body of tradition a means for negotiating their way into an unknown future and use it as a wellspring for creating a resilient Jewish culture and society, lasting millennia.


October 2, 2015


Last Updated

February 7, 2024


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Prof. Jacob L. Wright is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and the Director of Graduate Studies in Emory’s Tam Institute of Jewish Studies. His doctorate is from Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen. He is the author of Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and its Earliest Readers (which won a Templeton prize) and David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory.