Why Is the Torah Divided into Five Books?
A Book in Five Parts
The Torah is often thought of and treated as one book, nevertheless, it is comprised of five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This division is marked in the Torah scroll itself, which is written as one long document, on pieces of parchment sewn together, and includes a 4-line break between each book (see Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah273).
It is attested in all text traditions, MT, SP, and LXX, and is taken for granted by the religious groups that canonize the Torah, such as the Jews, Samaritans, and Christians. Nevertheless, the division of the Torah into five books is not mentioned explicitly anywhere in the Bible. What is the earliest evidence we have for the fivefold division of the Torah?
Five-Part Division in Second Temple Literature
The 2nd century B.C.E. Letter of Aristeas (which tells the origins of the Septuagint Pentateuch translation), refers to the books and “rolls” (τὰ τεύχη) of the Jews, i.e., treating the Torah as plural. Nevertheless, it does not specify the number five.
The earliest reference to the five-fold division of the Torah (for him, the Greek LXX,) is made by the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus (ca. 25 B.C.E.- 50 C.E.), in the opening of his On Abraham, in which he notes that the Torah has five books (πέντε βίβλοις).Surprisingly, Philo, who writes extensively about the symbolic nature of many elements in Jewish law, never ventures to explore the meaning for the number five in this context.
Several decades later, Josephus, who died in 100 C.E., speaks of the devotion of Jews to their sacred books and explains,
For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us . . . but only twenty‑two books… and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death.
The first time the Greek word “Pentateuch” is used in reference to the Torah is the middle of the second century C.E., in a Greek epistle written by the Gnostic Christian philosopher Ptolemy to a female believer named Flora:
First, you must learn that the entire Law contained in the Pentateuch of Moses was not ordained by one legislator—I mean, not by God alone, some commandments are Moses’, and some were given by other men.
Ironically, the first reference to the Pentateuch of Moses is in a letter denying that he wrote it!
Five-part Structures in Tanakh
Another early indication of the five-part division of the Torah is the five-part structure of other biblical works such as Psalms, whose five-part structure is best explained as mimicking the Torah.
The Five Books of Psalms
This five-fold division is especially clear in Psalms, since each of the five sections ends with a liturgical doxology (41, 72, 89, 106, 150), with similar formulations of praise for God.
Ending of Book 1 (Ps 41:14)
בָּרוּךְ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵהָעוֹלָם וְעַד הָעוֹלָם אָמֵן וְאָמֵן.
Blessed is YHWH, God of Israel, from eternity to eternity. Amen and Amen.
Ending of Book 2 (Ps 72:19)
וּבָרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹדוֹ לְעוֹלָם וְיִמָּלֵא כְבוֹדוֹ אֶת כֹּל הָאָרֶץ אָמֵן וְאָמֵן.
Blessed is His glorious name forever; His glory fills the whole world. Amen and Amen.
Ending of Book 3 (Ps 89:53)
בָּרוּךְ יְ-הוָה לְעוֹלָם אָמֵן וְאָמֵן.
Blessed is YHWH forever; Amen and Amen.
Ending of Book 4 (Ps 106:48)
בָּרוּךְ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן הָעוֹלָם וְעַד הָעוֹלָם וְאָמַר כָּל הָעָם אָמֵן הַלְלוּ יָהּ.
Blessed is YHWH, God of Israel, From eternity to eternity. Let all the people say, “Amen.” Hallelujah.
Psalm 150, which does not precisely repeat the formulae found in these passages, serves as the book’s closing doxology, with its call to voices both in heaven and earth to praise God to the accompaniment of the Temple orchestra. The final passages of Books 1-4 are the only verses in Psalms in which the word “Amen” (a liturgical response) occurs and so appear to be additions, probably intended to break up the canonical Psalter in five books. These additions are very ancient, as they were already present in the Hebrew before its translation into Greek in the third century B.C.E.
The rabbis of the Roman period interpreted the five-part arrangement as corresponding to that of the Torah, as is evident from Midrash Tehillim, (also known, as Midrash Shocher Tov):
משה נתן חמשה חומשי תורה לישראל, ודוד נתן חמשה ספרים שבתהלים לישראל
Moses gave Israel five books of the Torah, and David gave Israel five books of the Psalms.
Other Five Part Books
The book of Proverbs can be divided into five parts based on its superscripts. A later work, the Gospel of Matthew (dated to the first century C.E.), also has a five-part structure that some attribute to the influence of the Pentateuch.
The Mishnaic tractate Avot had five sections in its original core. Martin S. Cohen, a pulpit rabbi and Bible scholar, finds five-fold elements in additional biblical books. The book of Job has speeches by five persons in addition to God. Further, a section of the Writings (Ketuvim) is classified as the “Five Scrolls,” but this designation is medieval.
Thus we see that the Torah was divided into five books already in Second Temple times, and that other books copied this division. But what is the reason for this division?
Maximal Scroll Length
Some have suggested that the technology available to the ancients made a full-length Torah scroll impossible, with Genesis (the longest book of the Torah) representative of maximum scroll length. But this seems to be incorrect. As Menachem Haran has noted, Chronicles, which was considered a single book in antiquity, is 25% longer than Genesis, and it would have been written on one scroll.
Emanuel Tov writes that the maximum length of scrolls for the period of the Qumran scribes is unclear. He lists seven scrolls found in the Judean Desert which seem to combine two or more books of the Torah, but admits that the joins between these pairs of books have not been preserved, so the inclusion of two or more books on one scroll is only hypothetical. Thus, scroll length is a possible explanation for why the Torah is divided into more than one book, but it does not explain why five.
Convenience of Reading
Others have suggested that having the Torah on several scrolls was more convenient for reading and reference than assigning it to one long scroll. While this may be the case, such an explanation seems insufficient to explain the five-fold division, which was not made based on size, considering the large disparity between the lengths of the five books:
If scroll length was the rationale for the division, then we would expect that the five units would be of similar length, which is not the case.
The division of the Pentateuch into five books was likely “from the outset, an act of premeditated partition… which possesses thematic significance,” as Haran has already argued. In other words, the Pentateuch was designed to be a project of five books from the outset. Such an explanation better accounts for the dissimilar lengths of the books, as well as for other stylistic features of the books that we will explore shortly. But why this division in particular? An obvious starting point for the division of the Torah into books is the uniqueness of both Genesis and Deuteronomy.
Genesis offers a pre-history of the people of Israel, starting with a universalist outlook, but then narrowly focuses on the family and clan which constitute the ancestors of Israel. This justifies its distinction as its own “book.” Israel as a people (Hebrew ‘am) only appears for the first time in Exodus 1:9, and this represents the fulfillment of the many promises made to the ancestors in Genesis.
Deuteronomy, the other bookend, presents itself as Moses’ valedictory address to the Israelite nation beginning with, “These are the words that Moses spoke” (אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה). Scholars have long emphasized its unique origin and style as compared to the other four books.
The Middle Three Books?
Thus, the reasons for the division of Genesis and Deuteronomy from the other books are apparent, but why three books from Exodus to Numbers? Admittedly, their literary integrity should not be overstated as the books have significant thematic overlap. All three books have cultic themes and laws, and all three books take place, at least partially, in the Sinai Wilderness. Baruch Schwartz notes that the chapters from Exodus 25 to Numbers 10 constitute a “long narrative that may be called, ‘When the Tabernacle Stood at Sinai.’”
Nevertheless, within this literary continuity, demarcations suggest that these three central books constitute three quasi-independent works with introductions and conclusions.
Jacob Milgrom has argued that each of these books possesses different core themes:
Exodus – describes the construction of the cultic implements,
Leviticus – converts this “static picture into scenes from a living cult,”
Numbers – “follows with the cultic laws of the camp in motion.”
Theme of Exodus: From Egypt to Tabernacle
The book of Exodus opens with the story of the next generation after the death of Joseph, when Israel grows from a family into a people, and ends with the building of the Tabernacle, ready for the initiation of cultic worship. The recapitulation of the names of the “sons of Israel” in Exodus 1:1-5 (echoing Genesis 46:8-27) is a fitting introduction. To William Propp, “it seems composed for the purpose it now serves: to introduce the second book of the Torah and summarize the essentials for readers unfamiliar with Genesis.”
Exodus ends when the construction of the Tabernacle is complete, on the first day of the new year after the Exodus, when God’s glory fills the Sanctuary (Exodus 40:2). Since the last word of Exodus is “journeys,” Hebrew mas’eyhem, it anticipates the trek which follows, from Mount Sinai to the borders of Canaan.
Theme of Leviticus: Rules
The book of Leviticus offers rules for the Sanctuary cult just established. While Exodus ends with a lengthy narrative description of the Tabernacle’s construction by Betzalel and his select cadre of craftsmen (Exodus 35:20-40:34), Leviticus opens with an address to all Israelites regarding the sacrificial system (Leviticus 1:2).
Leviticus 1:1 marks the first time YHWH addresses Moses from the Tent of Meeting, and so he must summon him (vayyiqra’) there, to speak with him. Dennis Olson remarks that,
[T]he elevated and stationary site of God’s revelation on the mountain has been transferred… to a moveable site of revelation in the midst of the people in the wilderness.
Holiness Collection – Second Half of Leviticus
Leviticus 26 with its rewards for compliance and graphic threats for noncompliance with the covenant, represents the conclusion of a subdivision of Leviticus, called the “Holiness Collection” by modern scholars. The chapter is analogous to the endings of other legal collections in the Torah, Exodus 23:20-33 and Deuteronomy 28. Leviticus 26 has its own conclusion for the book as a whole (v. 46):
אֵלֶּה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְהַתּוֹרֹת אֲשֶׁר נָתַן יְ-הוָה בֵּינוֹ וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהַר סִינַי בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה.
These are the laws, rules, and instructions that YHWH established, though Moses on Mount Sinai, between Himself and the Israelite people.
Leviticus then includes one more chapter, an appendix on the funding of the Sanctuary through vows, consecrations, and tithes, and scholars offer various justifications for its role as the book’s conclusion: its presence emphasizes “a matter of central importance,” the funding of the Sanctuary; it shares content with chapter 1 thus forming an envelope; it allows Leviticus to end on a positive note, after the extensive and dire maledictions of chapter 26.Leviticus 27 has its own ending, which serves as the conclusion of the entire book (v. 34):
אֵלֶּה הַמִּצְוֹת אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ-הוָה אֶת מֹשֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהַר סִינָי.
These are the commandments which the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.
Theme of Numbers: The Camp
The Book of Numbers begins with a different locus, not “Mount Sinai” but “the Wilderness of Sinai,” and with a specific focus on the camp and its sanctity, the subject of Numbers 1-6. There is no continuity of theme from Leviticus 27, which centers on the individual’s contributions to the Tabernacle.
The narratives in Numbers are assigned to various sites, with Numbers 1-10:11 localized in the Wilderness of Sinai, and Numbers 11:12 through chapter 20 situated in several locations in the Wilderness of Paran, the Wilderness of Zin, and Kadesh, among other sites. Numbers 21-36 describes the movement of the Israelites through the Transjordan and thus the book’s concluding statement serves as the conclusion for the last section of the book (chapter 21-36), and not the book as a whole (36:13):
אֵלֶּה הַמִּצְוֹת וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ-הוָה בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעַרְבֹת מוֹאָב עַל יַרְדֵּן יְרֵחוֹ.
These are the commandments and regulations that YHWH enjoined upon the Israelites, through Moses, on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho.
Other Possible Divisions
In theory, the three middle works could have been divided into two – the first dedicated to Israel’s stay at Mount Sinai, and the second to its movement from Mount Sinai to the Transjordan, or perhaps even four, according to Israel’s residence in Egypt, at Mount Sinai, in the Wilderness of Sinai, and in the Transjordan. Other thematic divisions are also possible. Thus, we still are left with the question of why this division? Is it possible that the Redactor specifically wanted to have five books? If so, why?
Highlighting Leviticus (Blenkinsopp)
In The Pentateuch, Joseph Blenkinsopp suggests that the five-book arrangement “highlights Leviticus as the central panel of the pentad,” and thus the number five was chosen specifically, “rather than, say, four or six.” The choice of five, then, is based on its status as an odd number, so that attention is drawn to a central panel, which is therefore deserving of special emphasis.
The focus on Leviticus emphasizes the ritual and legal prescriptions which ideally assist Israel in becoming a “holy community.” Thus, Leviticus was (and still is in some circles) the first subject studied by Jewish children in a traditional curriculum.
The Centrality of Loving One’s Neighbor
Jacob Milgrom and Yehuda Radday sharpen the focus of Blenkinsopp’s observation by observing that Leviticus 19:18, with its demand that the Israelite “love his neighbor as himself,” constitutes the central verse of the Torah. How so? Leviticus 19, which demands that Israel aspire for holiness by following an assortment of ritual and ethical demands, is flanked on two sides by similar chapters (Leviticus 18 and 20) which focus on sexual ethics, and which, notes Milgrom, “set off and highlight the centrality of chap. 19.”
While one may argue that formal chapter and verse divisions are both later innovations (whether rabbinic or medieval), divisions into sedarim and parashot reflect more ancient ways of differentiating the various subject divisions in the text, and according to both, Leviticus 19 starts a new subsection.
Leviticus 19’s distinctiveness vis-à-vis the passages which precede and follow is marked by God’s instructions to Moses to “speak to the whole Israelite community” (kol-adat-benay-yisra’el), the only time this most inclusive phrase is used in Leviticus. Further, it is the only passage in Leviticus (and the Holiness Code) where God’s demand that Israel strive for holiness heads a chapter and appears in the context of ethical behavior; elsewhere it concludes a chapter and its context is more specific and ritual (11:44-45, 20:7, 21:7-8).
Further, its wide range of laws and echoing of the Decalogue suggests that it was intended to have paramount significance, which is reflected in Leviticus Rabbah (24:5, Margoliot ed.):
תני ר’ חייא מלמד שפרשה זו נאמרה בהקהל. ומפני מה נאמרה בהקהל, מפני שרוב גופי תורה תלויין בה. ר’ לוי אמ’ מפני שעשרת הדיברות כלולין בתוכה.
Rabbi Hiyya taught: “This section was read in an assembly.” Why was it read in an assembly? Because most of the Torah’s essential principles can be derived from it. Rabbi Levi said, “Because the Ten Commandments are included in it.”
Regarding the structure of Leviticus 19, this chapter contains 37 verses, and v.18b falls in the middle, serving as the climax in its series of ethical commandments (vs.11-18), before the huqot or “statutes” (v.19):
וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יְ-הוָה.
Love your fellow as yourself, I am YHWH.
This verse calls upon Israel to achieve holiness through love, that is, performing acts of kindness and generosity. Thus, the uniqueness of this chapter in the book of Leviticus, its enclosure by two chapters of similar content, along with its ethical core culminating in the command to love, support the view of Milgrom and Radday that Leviticus 19 constitutes the central chapter of the five-part Torah.
The Symbolism of the Letter Heh (Cohen)
Martin Cohen, responding to Blenkinsopp’s reasoning, asks why five in particular was chosen when any odd number would have sufficed to highlight a central panel. Why not three or seven?
Cohen suggests that one possible reason for the choice of five is because it represents the fifth letter of the alphabet, heh, which is the number five in gematria, the practice of representing numbers with letters and vice versa. Cohen notes that heh was added or infixed in the names of biblical persons to indicate their new relationship with the biblical God: certainly this is the case regarding Sarah and Abraham.
That the letter heh was thought to be representative of the Divine may be based on the inclusion in the Tetragrammaton (the four letter name of God) of two hehs or because it is the first letter of HaShem, literally, “the Name” – a circumlocution for the Tetragrammaton that appears twice in the Hebrew Bible and is common in Mishnaic Hebrew.
The practice of ascribing a numerical value to letters according to their placement in the alphabet is well-known from later Jewish texts, and many scholars believe it was introduced into Hebrew exegesis from Greek exegesis in the Hellenistic Period. Nevertheless, there are certain indications in the Hebrew Bible and cuneiform texts that it was already in use in a much earlier period.
Gershon Scholem notes that,
The first use of Gematria occurs in an inscription of Sargon II (727-707 B.C.E.) which states that the king built the wall of Khorsabad 16,283 cubits long to correspond with the numerical value of his name.
Israel Knohl builds the case for gematria in the Hebrew Bible. For example, he writes that it is not coincidental that Moses lives in the twenty-sixth generation from Adam, and to Moses was revealed the divine name YHWH, the numerical value of which is 26. Knohl (among others) finds the number 26 as providing an organizing principle in several poetic passages in the Bible. More instances of Gematria are not difficult to adduce. For example,
- The number of servants/warriors in Abraham’s fighting force is 318, which the Sages point out is the numerical value of Abraham’s servant’s name, Eliezer.
- The Sabbath commandment in Exodus’ Decalogue begins with zakor, and thus the Hebrew letter zayin, the seventh letter of the alphabet.
- The name “Gad,” which has no obvious meaning, is composed of the letters gimel anddalet (3 + 4 = 7). Gad is the seventh son of Jacob and himself has seven sons (Genesis 29:31-30:11, 46:16, Numbers 26:15-17).
Of course, all of these may be the result of coincidence, but it seems at least possible, if not likely, that the Bible already reflects the use of gematria. Thus, Cohen’s attempt to explain the five-fold division of the Torah as an expression of the letter heh, linked with the Tetragram, may indeed have a basis in biblical usage.
The Gematria of Five: Further Support
We can further strengthen the association of heh/five with YHWH, by noting the following:
- Psalm 19:8-10, which deals specifically with torah, has six clauses with the Tetragrammaton as the second word, but with five-word intervals between the appearance of the Tetragrammaton five times.
- The Tetragrammaton is the fifth word in both Leviticus 1:1 and 27:34, the first and last verses of Leviticus. The syntax of Leviticus 1:1 is difficult (“And He called to Moses, and spoke YHWH to him”), but perhaps this was occasioned by the desire to make the Tetragrammaton the fifth word.
- It is also the fifth word in the third commandment, the subject of which is the misuse of God’s name (Exodus 20:7).
- The Tetragrammaton is the fifth word in Lev 19:18b — וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יְהוָ-ה (“love your fellow as yourself, I am YHWH”).
Five Fingers and God’s Hand
Another idea invoked by the number five is the number of fingers on the human hand, the organ that most distinguishes the human species from all other known forms of life. The hand is the organ of authority, blessing, prayer, ritual, salutation, oath-taking, custody, warfare, and handiworks; these are uniquely human activities.
Symbolism involving the human hand is found throughout religious art, from the Hamsa to the Benedictio Latina in Catholic iconography to the mudras (symbolic gestures) of Buddhist and Hindu art. W. Gunther Plaut suggests that the age of Moses at his death, 120 years, was “the perfect age because it was built into the structure of the human body. Our hands have five fingers; multiply them and you get 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 = 120.” The five-fold division of the Torah may be an expression of this “perfection,” no less than Moses’ age.
Martin Cohen goes further, linking the number five with the fingers of God’s hand, which is mentioned in a variety of biblical contexts:
The Fifth plague – In describing the plague of cattle disease, the 5th plague, the text states that “God’s hand is about to be” (הִנֵּה יַד יְ-הוָה הוֹיָה) on the Egyptian livestock (Exodus 9:3). Here we have the association of five and the hand of God, not to mention the very unusual verb hoya with a double heh. There are also five objects in v.3 after the general “livestock in the field”: “horses, donkeys, camels, large cattle, and small cattle.” The association of five-ness with hand and the letter heh is evident. Other plagues are similarly depicted as the result of God’s hand.
Prophecy – The spirit of prophecy is viewed as the work of God’s hand especially in the book of Ezekiel.
יחזקאל א:ג הָיֹה הָיָה דְבַר יְ-הוָה אֶל יְחֶזְקֵאל בֶּן בּוּזִי הַכֹּהֵן בְּאֶרֶץ כַּשְׂדִּים עַל נְהַר כְּבָר וַתְּהִי עָלָיו שָׁם יַד יְ-הוָה.
Ezek 1:3 The word of YHWH came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, by the Chebar Canal, in the land of the Chaldeans. And the hand of YHWH came upon him there. 
God’s Benevolence – In the post-exilic period, God’s benevolent care for an individual is expressed in terms of God’s hand upon him:
עזרא ח:כב כִּי בֹשְׁתִּי לִשְׁאוֹל מִן הַמֶּלֶךְ חַיִל וּפָרָשִׁים לְעָזְרֵנוּ מֵאוֹיֵב בַּדָּרֶךְ כִּי אָמַרְנוּ לַמֶּלֶךְ לֵאמֹר יַד אֱלֹהֵינוּ עַל כָּל מְבַקְשָׁיו לְטוֹבָה וְעֻזּוֹ וְאַפּוֹ עַל כָּל עֹזְבָיו.
Ezra 8:22 For I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us against any enemy on the way, since we had told the king, “The benevolent hand of our God is for all who seek Him, while His fierce anger is against all who forsake Him.” 
The imagery of the Torah as representing the divine hand goes together with the description of two tablets of the Decalogue as “written with the finger of God.” Perhaps the imagery of two tablets with five units each is symbolic of God’s two hands.
The “Hand of God” appeared as a motif in later Jewish and Christian art when depiction of YHWH or the Father God as a full human figure was considered unacceptable; the image of God’s Hand implies both that God is present and is exercising power and authority.
In a religious system in which no image of the Deity was permitted, could the five-ness of the Torah function as a subtle image for God’s hand and thus, represent God’s presence? If so, then the Torah’s five-ness may have suggested that the divine hand – conveyer of revelation and benevolence – rests not only upon prophets and priests, but upon the entire nation who received the Torah.
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May 13, 2018
June 10, 2020
Dr. Elaine Goodfriend is a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and the Jewish Studies Program at California State University, Northridge. She has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from U.C. Berkeley. Among her publications are “Food in the Hebrew Bible,” in Food and Jewish Traditions (forthcoming) and “Leviticus 22:24: A Prohibition of Gelding for the Land of Israel?”
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