Starting Your Own Torah Study Group
There are quite a number of factors to consider. The Etz Chaim Torah Study Group has been at this for the past few years. The following opinions stem from what we have learned.
What is a "Torah Study" group?
By the strictest definition, "Torah study" is the examination and analysis of the first five books of the Bible; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These books are often referred to as the "Pentateuch," or the "Books of Moses." However, as the term "Torah" means revelation of/from God, Torah study should include the entire word of God. The Etz Chaim Torah Study Group has two Bible studies each week, covering books from Bereshit (Genesis) to Revelation.
We view the first five books of the Bible (Torah proper) as being the foundation to interpreting the rest of the Scriptures. The balance of the Tenakh is to be understood in light of the Torah's principles, and the "New Testament" is to be interpreted according to what has been established in the Torah/Tenakh.
In addition to this, a proper understanding of Scripture is based on correct interpretation of the texts. As all the books of the Bible are Hebrew documents, a basic understanding of "Hebrew thinking" and "rules of interpretation" are important. There are many resources available, some are free (articles available via the Internet), some inexpensive (books) and others that require a more substantial investment. It all depends on your resources, and how serious you want to be about your study.
When our group does Torah study, we have at least a half-dozen translations available at all times, however we strongly recommend a Stone Edition Chumash for the Torah portions, and the Jewish New Testament and Jewish New Testament Commentary, for the books of the "New Testament." A complete listing of our recommended resources will be published on this web site soon. For now, you may
How many people should you have?
A Torah study "group" can of course be as few as two people. Of course the more people you have the more opinions you have and, (hopefully) the more fun as well. Then again, too large a group can create a number of problems -- everything from accommodations to being hard for the person running the study to control. Our own group began as four people and has grown to ten, though not everyone can make every meeting. We find this to be a good number, although it's a "snug" fit when everyone shows up and we all sit around the same table.
Including new people later on.
Here is one of those areas where you have to "strike a balance." On the one hand, you don't want to turn someone away who is interested in learning more about G-d. On the other hand, if you're in the middle of studying a particular book or subject, it is both difficult for someone coming in "late" to catch up, and also can be frustrating for the group to have to "slow down." Our group has never excluded anyone, but have tried to make time before and after the actual "session" for someone to spend time with a new person to get them "up to speed" with everyone else.
Where to meet.
As small groups can't afford to rent places, this usually means meeting at someone's home or office. We are fortunate in our group as we have six separate locations that we can and do meet at. Rotating locations gives everyone a chance to play host, helps us all get to know one another better, and takes the pressure off one person (family) always having to be ready for a group to invade! We have found that sitting together at one large table is best, as being too far apart (i.e. in a living room without proper table space) frustrates the discussion. Being around one table not only adds to the intimacy of the conversation, but makes it easier to reach over and grab either a concordance or a slice of pizza from the person across from you. (See "Munchies" below!)
How often to meet.
Naturally, a true "Torah study" (for the purpose of following and studying the weekly parsha), should be held on Shabbat, either Friday evening or Saturday day. Our own group meets twice a week. On Saturdays we study the Torah portion for the week. We also meet Wednesday evenings to study one of the books of the "New Testament." (See "What to Study?" below.)
How long each meeting should last?
We "make a day" out of our Shabbat meetings, which typically go from about 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Most of the day is spent in study/discussion, with time allowed for lunch and snacks, prayer and friendly conversation. (See "Munchies" below)
Our Wednesday evening meetings go for 3 or more hours. Some people leave early for work/family reasons, others stick around later into the evening. There are some "Bible Studies" that meet for one hour -- that's barely enough time to get your coat off, never mind doing any serious research and discussion. We recommend two hours as a minimum block of time to set aside.
We plan our food for Shabbat ahead of time, making sure we don't end up with 5 deserts and no main course! Generally, the person/family hosting the study for that day makes the main dish. The others split up the side dish(es), snacks, desert and beverages. Of course, everyone knows to bring only Biblically kosher food.
Disposable dinnerware is a plus for quick clean up. A typical day might involve some bagels or fruit upon arrival (you can't study on an empty stomach!) with coffee/juice. While this is served, we begin our study (after a prayer) which goes for 2-3 hours before we break for lunch, (during which time discussions never stop!) Sometime during the latter part of the afternoon, some sweet stuff usually finds its way onto the table. No one leaves our Shabbat study hungry for food or the Word of God!
Our Wednesday meetings are conducted after everyone has already had dinner, so we don't usually plan anything, though someone always seems to show up with some type of snack for everyone!
What to Study?
The Shabbat Torah study should follow the established calendar of weekly readings, known as the parshat for the week. By following this program, you will cover the five books of the Torah in one year. (The cycle repeats annually.) Although it would be ideal to start at Genesis 1:1, you don't have to. Start when you are ready!
Our Wednesday study has followed the following path: Matthew-Romans-Hebrews-Revelation. With each study, we built upon what we was learned in the previous one(s). Click here for information on these online studies.
Leadership & Organization
There are several roles here. It may be that the person scheduling locations and times, coordinating the food, outlining the study, and doing most of the teaching may be the same person. Then again, perhaps not. We recommend splitting those duties up as much as possible, with one person making sure it all gets done.
Preparation for the study is critical and falls into two parts:
One last practical note -- don't be shy about asking folks to help pick up, do dishes etc., before leaving! You can have some great discussion while one washes and one dries!
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