The Torah is Better than Any Merchandise

The Importance of the Torah for Us

The Torah is the foundation of Jewish culture and Jewish life. We read from it every week, there is a commandment to study it, and it forms the center of two holidays – Simchat Torah and Shavuot. In this unit we will discuss why the Torah has such an important status in Jewish tradition and what it means for us.

Resource Ages: 6-8, 9-11


The Torah is Better than Any Merchandise / Legend

Once upon a time a ship was sailing on the sea, carrying merchants with their various kinds of merchandise they hoped to sell when they arrived in port. There was also a Talmid Chacham – a Jewish religious scholar – on the ship.

The merchants took an interest in the scholar. “What is your merchandise? What are you planning to sell when we arrive?”

The scholar answered: “You can’t see my merchandise. It’s hidden.”

The curious merchants searched the whole ship but couldn’t find any hidden merchandise. They decided the scholar must be lying and was ashamed to admit that he didn’t have anything to sell. They laughed at him mockingly.

Eventually the ship reached its destination. As soon as the merchants got off, customs officials came up and confiscated all their merchandise. The merchants were left without anything to sell, without any money, food, or clothes.

In the meantime the scholar who had been on the ship with them went to a nearby synagogue. He sat down, opened a book, and began to teach Torah to the congregants. People saw that he was a great scholar, respected him, and offered him a job in their community.

The merchants heard about what happened to the scholar and came to see him. They begged him to ask the local residents to help them.

Why was the scholar saved? Because his “merchandise” – the Torah – was stored in his head and could not be taken from him.

(Adapted from Buber’s version of the legend in Tanchuma, Torah portion Terumah, 1)

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How is the Torah story my story?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What is our connection to the Torah and the other Jewish texts?
  • What makes the Torah precious and beloved in Jewish tradition and for me personally? 
  • What do we get / learn from the Torah?
  • What impact do non-material things (such as ideas, beliefs, and knowledge) have on our lives?

Background for Teacher

The Torah is the main sacred text of Judaism. The word Torah refers to the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses that open the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Torah includes central myths in Jewish tradition, such as the creation of...

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The Torah is the main sacred text of Judaism. The word Torah refers to the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses that open the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Torah includes central myths in Jewish tradition, such as the creation of the world, the Giving of the Torah, stories about the forefathers and foremothers of the Jewish people, and early Jewish history, along with values, commandments, theology, worldviews, and so on. The other founding Jewish texts are all based on the Torah – Mishnah, Talmud, Midrashim, and exegesis (biblical commentary). In Jewish tradition, the Torah is considered the word of God; the Sages say that it was created alongside the world itself (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 39b). Because of its unique status, every word in the Torah is regarded as important and worthy of interpretation.

Torah study is a central Jewish value. In the wider sense, Torah study means the study of the Jewish library in general, and not only the Pentateuch. The commandment to study Torah appears in Deuteronomy (6:7): “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them…” During the times of the Sages (the first centuries CE), Batei Midrash (houses of study) and schools were established and boys were taught to read and write so that they could study Torah. At the same time, only a tiny elite were literate among the other nations. 

The story presented above expands on the verse from Proverbs (4:2): “For I give you good doctrine: Do not forsake my law.” The Hebrew word for “doctrine” in this verse (lekach) can mean a teaching or lesson, but also something we buy or acquire. The legend extends this idea that Torah is the most valuable merchandise we can acquire.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study

Hold a guided imagery session with the students. Tell them that they are in an amazing land now, wandering for a long time as they search for treasure. Describe the surroundings and lead them to a cave or palace with many rooms. Deep inside, the students will find their treasure. Don’t describe the treasure to them. Ask them to open their eyes and then describe what they saw in pictures or words. Then ask the students to share their work with the whole class. What was their treasure – was it money, games, books…? Was it material or non-material? Discuss what makes something a “treasure” – what qualities in something lead us to consider it a “treasure”? What things in life are dear to us, and why?

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

Stories based on the legend:

  1. What are the main differences between the Torah scholar’s merchandise and the merchandise of the other people on the ship? Which kind of merchandise would most people prefer, and why?
  2. Apart from those mentioned in the story, what other advantages do knowledge and study offer to those who hold them?
  3. In the legend, the scholar carries the Torah with him in his head thanks to his studies. In what other ways can we “carry” the Torah and its values with us?
  4. What are the treasures of the Torah? What does the Torah give us?

General questions:

  1. In what ways is the Torah beneficial for those who study it?
  2. The Torah includes stories, ideas, commandments, key characters, values and outlooks on life… Which parts of all this are most typical of the Torah as you see it? What comes to your mind when you think about the Torah?
  3. Are there things in the Torah that you like? What are they?
  4. Do you think the Torah influences your life? If so, give examples.
  5.  What things do you know that you considered very valuable or important? In what ways can they contribute to your life? From what person or place did you learn these things?
  • Read the legend up this point: “The curious merchants searched the whole ship but couldn’t find any hidden merchandise.” Now ask the students to write the continuation of the story and guess what the man’s “merchandise” was.
  • Write a play based on the story. Ask the students to add dialogue between the merchants while they are searching for the hidden merchandise on the ship. What does each merchant imagine he might find?
  • This activity could be suitable as a final project ahead of Simchat Torah or Shavuot: Hand out to the students (in pairs or groups) Torah stories they are familiar with, such as the creation of the world, the flood, the exodus from Egypt, etc. Remind them of the main points of each story. The students make a drawing showing the story they were given. Then collect all the drawings and bind them together like a cartoon booklet, so that you can flick through the drawings and create a kind of “Torah scroll” for the class. Ask the students to discuss their personal connection with the Torah, what it means to them, and what they learn from it.

For older students:

  • Divide the Torah into its various treasures. In different corners of the classroom place boxes that will serve as treasure chests. On one box write “stories,” on another “values and ideas,” on the third “role models.”
    Give the students one example for each category to make sure they understand the division. The students write or draw on sheets of paper: a Torah story they find meaningful, a character from the Torah they consider a role model (someone they can learn from), a value or idea in the Torah they believe is important – and then put it in the appropriate treasure chest. You could choose one chest and present all the treasures inside. Ask each student to explain what they chose and why. Alternatively, pick a few examples at random from each box.
  •  Alternatively, hand out this template and fill it in for one of the Torah stories.
  • Study the parable comparing the Torah and water, using the illustrated presentation (in Hebrew and English; you can translate for the students). The parable presents different aspects of Torah and Torah study and can serve as a basis for discussion of what the Torah means in our lives. After studying the presentation, ask the students to suggest other metaphors for the Torah, and if possible to draw them.
  • Study the unit From Generation to Generation, which presents a Mishnah from the Ethics of the Fathers discussing the chain of transmission of the Torah. In the context of the lesson, discuss the way we transfer something valuable from one person to another, and what feelings and anxieties this process.
  • Study the unit Torah Study, which includes verses from Deuteronomy commanding us to study the Torah.