In the narrowest sense, the Hebrew word Torah refers to the first five books of the Bible. They are also called the Five Books of Moses (and from the Greek, the Pentateuch), because historically Judaism accepted that not just the Ten Commandments, but the entire Torah was revealed to Moses and to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. The Torah contains the laws of Judaism (including 603 mitzvot or commandments) and provides an ethical framework for the Jewish people. It also contains the history of the Jewish people from the creation of the world until their arrival at Canaan after the exodus from Egypt. The Torah is of central influence to the religious and spiritual development of Jews around the world.
The Pentateuch is made up of five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Genesis (or "In the beginning") tells the story of the creation of the world, and Adam and Eve's exile from the Garden of Eden, as well as the story of Noah and the great flood that destroyed the world. It also tells the story of the fathers (or Patriarchs) of Judaism, and of great importance, it tells of the covenant between God and Abraham, in which God selects Abraham and his descendents as the "chosen" people. Exodus (or "Going out") tells the story of Moses and of the Jews' delivery from slavery in Egypt. It also tells the story of Moses receiving the Torah from God on Mount Sinai. Leviticus (or "Then he called") is a book of laws and instructions, specifically relating to rituals and practices associated with worshiping God. Numbers (or "In the wilderness") tells the story of the Jews wandering in the desert for 40 years after the Jews left Egypt. Finally, Deuteronomy (or "Words") consists of the last teachings of Moses before his death. It is a summary of the laws by which the Jews are to live. Its purpose is to promote purity and unity among the Jews.
The Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which occurs in the spring, celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. On the eve of Shavuot, it is traditional to stay up all night to study Torah. Many synagogues hold study sessions so that congregates can learn together as a community.
In a broader sense, Torah can refer to the entire Jewish Bible (or Tanakh), which in addition to the Five Books of Moses, includes the Prophets (Nevi'im) and the Writings (Kethuvim). The Prophets consists of 21 books. The first 9 are Joshua, Judges, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, II Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. There are an additional 12 books of Minor Prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Michah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The Writings consist of 13 books: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and I Chronicles, and II Chronicles.
Beyond the Bible is the Oral Torah, which came to be the Talmud. Traditionally, Judaism asserts that the Oral Torah is the oral instructions God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai along with the Written Torah. These instructions involved how to interpret the written scriptures. In the 2nd century C.E., owing to fears that the Oral Torah would be forgotten, a basic outline called the Mishnah was written. This outline did not include in-depth explanations of the laws (or Gemara) of Judaism. In 5th century C.E. (about 300 years after the Mishnah was completed), the Mishnah and the Gemara were compiled into a complete work called the Talmud. The Talmud thus contains all of the oral instructions and laws of Judaism. (There are actually two Talmuds, one written in Jerusalem and one in Babylonia. The Babylonian Talmud became the authoritative version.) The Talmud is made up of six sections called sedarim (or "orders"), which are further divided into 63 masekhot (or "tractates"). The six Seders are Seeds, Season,Women, Damages, Holy Things, and Purities. Seeds deals with the laws of agriculture, prayer, and blessings. Season deals with the laws of the Sabbath and holidays. Women deals with the laws of marriage, divorce, and contracts. Damages deals with civil law, financial law, and ethics. Holy Things deals with sacrifices and the Temple. Purities deals with the laws of ritual purity.
The Torah used for services in Judaism is written on a parchment scroll. The scrolls are handwritten in Hebrew calligraphy by a sofer or ritual scribe and are scrolled from right to left, just as the words are written right to left. One is never supposed to touch the parchment of the Torah, and thus when reading from it, a pointer is used. The scrolls are covered with fabric, often ornamented with crowns on the handles and a breastplate on the front. These scrolls are kept in a cabinet in the Temple called an "ark."
Each week in synagogue, a passage of the Torah, called a parshah, is chanted. In addition, a passage from one of the Prophets, called a Haftorah is chanted. (A specific Haftorah is assigned to each parshah.) In addition, on holy days and holidays, special readings from the Torah and Haftorah are chanted. The Torah is divided into 54 passages, and the entire Torah (from Genesis to Deuteronomy) is read in 1 year. The final portion of the Torah is read on a holiday called Simchat Torah (or "Rejoicing the Law"), which occurs in the autumn a few weeks after Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). On Simchat Torah, the final passage of the Torah is read and then immediately, the first few paragraphs of Genesis are read in order to demonstrate the wholeness of the Torah-it is a never-ending circle. Before chanting from the Torah, the Torah is paraded around the synagogue. The chanting is divided into portions and members of the congregation are given the honor of having an aliyah (or "ascension"), which is reciting a blessing over the portion of the reading about to be chanted. In many synagogues, either before or after services, members of the congregation gather to study and discuss that week's portion in more depth. In the broadest sense, Torah is a Hebrew word that can mean teaching, instruction, or law. Thus, any Jewish study, whether history, philosophy, law, or tradition, can be referred to as Torah study, because ultimately it is derived from what is contained in the Five Books of Moses. Whether defined narrowly or broadly, Torah (both its study and the living out of its precepts) is central to the faith and practice of Judaism.