Reading and Interpreting the Scriptures
The Jewish sacred texts are the Torah – the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.
Both the Written and Oral Torah were given to Moses on Mount Sinai and were taught to the Jews during their forty years wandering in the desert. The Oral and Written Torah have existed for nearly three and a half thousand years and both are necessary to understand Jewish teaching and thought.
The handwritten Torah Scrolls are called the Sefer Torah. The Torah is treated with great respect by all Jews. It is handwritten on large pages of animal skin and placed on large rollers. The scrolls are carefully copied by hand by a specially trained scribe using a turkey or goose feather.
The scrolls are decorated with covers, bells, breastplates and other decorations. When not in use they are kept in a cupboard in the synagogue called the Aaron Hakodesh (the ark). The ner tamid (eternal light) burns constantly in front of the ark.
When they are being read they are not touched by hand but a yad (pointer) is used so that the reader can follow the text.
The respect given to the Torah and the mitzvot (laws) which it contains show its great importance to Jews as a document which contains the truth about G-d and about their relationship with him.
The Sefer Torah contains only consonants, there are no vowels, punctuation or musical notation. Hebrew is written from right to left across the page.
Portions of the Torah are read during worship on Sabbaths, festivals, new moons, fast days and every Monday and Thursday. Readings are at the end of morning worship and during the afternoon service. The lectionary (pattern of readings) means that the whole of the Torah is read during the course of the year, beginning and ending on Simchat Torah.
The texts of the Jewish Scriptures are enlarged upon by the Talmud but as the Torah is the revealed word of G-d it is not open to critical comment.
Torah reading is an essential part of synagogue worship. The teamim or signs which show how the Torah should be read and chanted were developed in the period 400-1000CE by Masorete scholars and are found in printed versions.
There are parts of the Torah where the text is unclear and difficult to understand but
tradition has provided an explanation of these in the Oral Torah. When a piece of text is unintelligible but can be understood if one word is corrected a rule called keri (read) and k’tiv (written) is used. The ‘correct’ word is read in place of the one which is actually written.