Thursday, 29 November 2018

The Division of the Torah into Five Books

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First  

The Division of the Torah into Five Books
I came across an interesting article recently. The article is by a scholar named Elaine Goodfriend, and it discusses the division of the Torah into Five Books. We are so used to this division take we take it for granted. But the article inquires: 1) when did this division start? and 2) what was its purpose?
The earliest references to the division of the Torah into five books are found in statements by Philo. He was a Jewish philosopher who lived in Egypt in the early first century C.E. In two different works (On Abraham, and On the Eternity of the World), he notes that the Torah has five books, but he does not give any reason. (His lack of explanation for this is somewhat surprising. He loved to explain the symbolic meanings of numbers in Jewish traditions.)
Josephus (Against Apion, I, 8) also refers to the division of the Torah into five books. Josephus was writing towards the end of the first century C.E.
Do we have evidence for the division into five books any earlier than Philo and Josephus? Scholars have observed that the Greek translations of the different books of the Pentateuch have different styles. This suggests that they had different translators. This implies that the books of the Torah were already separate books before their translation into Greek in the mid-third century B.C.E.
There is other evidence that suggests the antiquity of the division of the Torah into five books: the fact that the book of Tehillim is divided into five books. Very likely that division was meant as a parallel to the five-book division of the Torah.
How early is the division of Tehillim into five books? I admit that when I first saw this division years ago in the back of the ArtScroll siddur, I thought it was something they had invented! How wrong I was! This division is already implicit in Tanach!
Here are the verses that close the first four books of Tehillim:
- Book 1/Chapter 41: Barukh Hashem Elokey Yisrael me-ha-olam ve-ad ha-olam amen ve-amen.
- Book 2/Chapter 72: U-Varuch shem kevodo le-olam ve-yimale khevodo et kol ha-aretz amen ve-amen. Kalu tefilot David ben Yishai.
- Book 3/Chapter 89: Barukh Hashem le-olam amen ve-amen.
- Book 4/Chapter 106: Barukh Hashem Elokey Yisrael me-ha-olam ve-ad ha-olam, ve-amar kol ha-am amen hallelluyah.
As you can see the above verses are all very similar. Moreover, the above verses are the only verses in Tehillim in which the word “amen,” a liturgical response, appears. Accordingly, most scholars see these as special verses marking the end of each book of Tehillim. (As to chapter 72, it is easily seen that this verse marks the end of a book.)
Since these verses appear in the Greek translation of Tehillim as well, they must have been present in the Hebrew before its translation into Greek. The translation of the book of Tehillim into Greek took place in the 2nd century B.C.E., although a third century B.C.E. date has also been suggested.
(Very likely, most of the books of Tehillim originated as independent collections. This is seen, for example, by the fact that chapter 53 (in book 2) is an almost identical repetition of chapter 14, and chapter 70 (a superscription plus 5 verses) is an almost identical repetition of chapter 40:14-18. Note also the end of book 2: “Kalu tefilot David ben Yishai” =the tefillot of David ben Yishai are finished. This sounds like it was once the end of an independent collection. With regard to books 4 and 5, a widespread view is that these were originally one book and then artificially divided so that there would be a total of five books.)
OK, so we have established the relative antiquity of the five-part division of the Torah. But for what purpose was this division made? Was the Torah perhaps designed as a book to be organized in five parts?
A simple explanation for five books might be that in ancient times it was difficult to write a work as long as the Torah on one scroll. However, there is a large disparity between the lengths of the five books. Here are the number of words in each: 1) Genesis: 20,512, 2) Exodus 16,723, 3) Leviticus 11,950, 4) Numbers 16,368, and 5) Deuteronomy, 14,294. If size was the sole factor, we would have expected a much more even distribution.
Therefore Goodfriend suggests that a division into 5 may have been the original plan. She also observes that is easy to see why Genesis is a book into itself. It focuses on a family that constitutes the ancestors of Israel. Israel as a people (“am”) only appears for the first time in Exodus 1:9. Goodfriend also observes that Deuteronomy is fittingly its own book. It has a major theme: an address by Moses that begins the book and runs through most of it.
The issue, as Goodfriend sees it, is why Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers were divided into a total of three separate books, given that there was much overlap between them.
One approach Goodfriend mentions is that the five-book arrangement highlights Leviticus as the central panel. This may have been done to emphasize the importance of the sacrificial services described there. Or, taking an entirely different approach, when Leviticus is made central, the holiness section at chapter 19 (“kedoshim tihiyu”), and the command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self (19:18), end up being roughly at the center of the center of the Torah, emphasizing their importance.
Of course, neither 19:2 (“kedoshim tihiyu”) nor 19:18 are at the exact middle of Leviticus. Moreover, Goodfriend observes that a seven-book Torah could also have accomplished the goal of having Leviticus and chapter 19 roughly in the middle. Goodfriend decides instead that we should look for symbolism in the number “five” or its equivalent, the letter “heh.”
With regard to the letter “heh,” this was the letter added to the names of Sarah and Abraham to indicate their new relationship with God. “Heh” is also two of the letters of the four-letter name of God. Of course, “heh” may not have been viewed as connected with the number “five” in this ancient era, pre-1000 B.C.E. (Exactly when letter-number equivalencies came into use is a bit of a question. ---This deserves its own column!) So instead of focusing on the symbolism of the letter “heh,” we should focus on the possible symbolism of the number “five.”
The number five may symbolize the fingers of God’s hand. God is described in Tanach as having both an “etzba” and a “yad.”
The “yad” of God is connected with prophecy in the book of Yechezkel. See, e.g., verse 1:3: “va-tehi alav sham yad Hashem.” See also I Kings 18:46 and 2 Kings 3:15.
An image of a benevolent God with a “yad” is found at Ezra 8:22. Ezra writes: “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 hand of our God is for all who seek him le-tovah...’ .”
Goodfriend also reminds us that the luchot were “written with the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18.)
Accordingly, Goodfriend suggests that the five-ness of the Torah functions as “a subtle image for God’s hand and thus represents God’s presence,” and “the Torah’s five-ness may have suggested that the divine hand- conveyor of revelation and benevolence- rests not only upon prophets and priests, but upon the entire nation who received the Torah.”
Of course, this is speculative. But it is at least thought-provoking and we have learned much along the way!
The article I summarized above is: Dr. Elaine Goodfriend, “Why is the Torah Divided into Five Books?” It can be found online.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at He has authored two books already, his third is forthcoming. He now aspires to write five!

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