Making Blessings over Reading from the Torah
The Mishnah mentions blessings before and after the Torah reading (Megillah 4:2). As is typical of the Jewish liturgy, no single text was prescribed, but the nussach (formulation) became standardized over time. The final blessing reads:
אשר נתן לנו תורת אמת וחיי עולם נטע בתוכנו.
Who gave us torat emet, and implanted eternal life within us.
Being Transparent about What Is and What Is Not in the Torah
The Talmud debates whether the Torah scroll should be open or closed when reciting these blessings (b. Megillah 32a). In explaining Rabbi Meir’s position, that the scroll should be closed, the Talmud suggests:
כדי שלא יאמרו ברכות כתובין בתורה.
So that onlookers would not assume that the blessings are written in the Torah itself.
This is why the practice is to close the Torah when we say the ending blessing, and why the Ashkenazi custom is to look away when saying the opening blessing, which is recited over an open Torah scroll (following the position of Rabbi Yehudah). The emphasis here is on our responsibility to be as transparent as possible about what is or is not in the Torah.Just as these blessings are not found in the Torah, so too nowhere in the Torah itself do we find the phrase “torat emet.” It does, however, appear in various forms in late biblical texts.
The Phrase “Torat Emet” in the Bible
Malachi 2:6 attributes torat emet to the levites (see v. 4) or the priests (see v. 7). The referent of torah in Malachi 2:6 is uncertain, though it likely refers to an oracular ruling deriving from God, and thus, NJPS translates the phrase:
תּוֹרַת אֱמֶת הָיְתָה בְּפִיהוּ, וְעַוְלָה לֹא נִמְצָא בִשְׂפָתָיו.
Proper rulings were in his mouth, and nothing perverse was on his lips.
But for the rabbis (and some suggest that this is the peshat as well), torah here refers to the Torah, and with this understanding, this phrase became part of the blessing that followed the Torah reading.
Nehemiah 9:13 notes that at Sinai, God spoke torot emet, “true teachings;” the noun is in the plural.
וְעַל הַר סִינַי יָרַדְתָּ וְדַבֵּר עִמָּהֶם מִשָּׁמָיִם וַתִּתֵּן לָהֶם מִשְׁפָּטִים יְשָׁרִים וְתוֹרוֹת אֱמֶת חֻקִּים וּמִצְוֹת טוֹבִים.
You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke to them from heaven; You gave them right rules and true teachings, good laws and commandments.
Psalm 119 is a long song of praise to torah, and includes in v. 142 the phrase “your torah is true.”
צִדְקָתְךָ צֶדֶק לְעוֹלָם וְתוֹרָתְךָ אֱמֶת.
Your righteousness is eternal; Your teaching (torah) is true.
In context, this is probably a reference to legal teachings; in the psalm, the word parallels terms for law like מצוה , פקודה , חק, and  משפט. Nevertheless, for the rabbis, Psalm 119 was about the Torah, and this is certainly what the rabbis meant in the blessing.
The Contemporary Challenge of Torat Emet
Biblical scholarship has deepened our understanding of the Torah and at the same time challenges us to consider the implications of our declaring the Torah to be emet. What is emet and what does it mean to say that the Torah is emet? One thing seems certain, despite the myriad issues such scholarship has raised, the Torah is “emet” in the sense of “constant,” i.e., it remains Judaism’s foundational text for all denominations and Jews continue to be steadfast in their allegiance to it both as a symbol and as the source of Jewish wisdom and practice.
Keeping in mind this apparent conflict between the Torah’s centrality and the possible destabilizing nature of modern biblical interpretation, TheTorah.com has asked a broad group of rabbis and scholars how they understand the phrase torat emet. Specifically, we asked them to reflect on one or more of the following issues:
- Do you believe the Torah is “true”? In what ways?
- How do you understand the words torat emet? How should Torah be studied to uncover torat emet?
- What are the ways you use to reconcile your traditional beliefs and your modern outlooks? Is there an example that you can share?
We know that each of these issues is complex, and deserves a much longer response—and we may in the future offer longer reflections on these issues at TheTorah.com. Nevertheless, we hope that the brief essays offered here will give our readers some sense of the variety of views in Judaism of what torat emet might mean, and will help foster both traditional and newer methods of Torah study.