Hamishah Humshe'i Torah (i.e. The Five Books of Moses) are most commonly referred to by the first word(s) in each (e.g. "Bereshit bara", "We'eleh HaDevarim"), though I'm aware of commentators (e.g. RaSh"I, RaMBa"N) who periodically refer to these Humashim by their content (e.g Genesis for Creation, Exodus for leaving Egypt).

Nevertheless, I'm aware of very few examples where Masekhtot (i.e. tractates) of either Talmud (Bavli or Yerushalmi) are referred to by their first word(s) (e.g. what many call Masekhet Be'itzah, many Sepharadim call Masekhet "Yom Tov"). Instead, in my (limited) experience, the Masekhtot are largely referred to by content (e.g. Berakhot, Shabbat).

Why the discrepancy? Would it not have been more consistent for everyone to refer to the Humashim by their content or to the Masekhtot by their first word(s) (e.g. Masekhet Me'emata'i for Berakhot)?

  • 1
    What about Masechet Beitza? Or Masechet Mashkin? Or Masechet Sukkah? Or Masechet Maaser Sheni? Or Masechet Megillah? Or Masechet Shevuot? Or Masechet Horayot? Or Masechet Kereitot?
    – Double AA
    May 6, 2015 at 15:27
  • Perhaps with only 5 Chumashim, with each one covering varied ground it is easier to refer to them by one of the first words. With the Mesechtas where they usually cover a specific topic, the first word would be confusing in most instances. May 6, 2015 at 15:29
  • Worth noting that probably a quarter of Masechtot start with "ה)כל)".
    – Double AA
    May 6, 2015 at 15:33
  • @DoubleAA Worded the question more neutrally. Also, Humash Devarim starts with "We'eleh" but that word is traditionally omitted. So, too, can be done with the Masekhtot.
    – Lee
    May 6, 2015 at 15:36
  • The more Masekhtot I flip through on HebrewBooks.org, the more I realize this question should be better pointed at the tradition of Humash names than Masekhet names. Thanks, @DoubleAA for the examples and counterexamples. Would you recommend simply deleting this question and creating another or flipping the question on its head?
    – Lee
    May 6, 2015 at 15:47

1 Answer 1


I'm having trouble locating a single source that explains when the names of the books of the Torah occurred, as that would strengthen and shorten my answer. But, I'll provide some sources that I believe support my theory that the style of referring to the 5 books by their 1st name is a carry over from naming parshiot this way.

First, there's this article. It's very long, but on p. 71, it says:

In fact, nowhere in the Gemara is it even mentioned that the Torah is partitioned into 54 parshiyos. The only requirement in the Gemara concerning Shabbos Torah readings is limited to the need to read certain portions of the Torah prior to Shevuos and Rosh Hashanah, :מגילה לא׃

So, there's an implication that there was some other way to refer to the names of the 5 books, which I shall explain, later. Refer to footnotes 6 & 7 - they're important!

Further, on p. 71 going into p. 72, he cites Ramba"m תפילה יג׃ב where Ramba"m uses the opening words of a section of the Torah, a different pattern than what we call the parshiot, today.

Next, there is this source which shows the original names used for the 5 Books. Unfortunately, the author does not cite a source for these names. However, 2 of the names, Torat Kohanim and Mishnah Torah, IIRC, are mentioned in the Gemarah, and I assume that the others are, as well.

Lastly, keep in mind, that the Torah itself was written on a continuous scroll, so, obviously, there originally was no concept of "weekly" readings, initially. Nonetheless, from the way it is written, we certainly can determine that there were 5 "Books", though, the Torah itself, makes no mention of any divisions. I assume that this division was Masorah, then. (Worthy of a separate question on this, alone.) At any rate, this lends support to the notion that historically, there were different names for the 5 books of the Torah that DID refer to its content, similar to what is done for most of the Talmud. It seems that only years later, when a parsha system was developed, that the usage of the opening significant word was used for parshiot, and, thus it most likely carried over to the names for the 5 books, as well.

  • Why did it carry over?
    – Double AA
    May 6, 2015 at 17:20
  • @DoubleAA - I must admit, that as I mentioned, my answer is not 100% proof that it did, and I think I made that clear, now. I assume that it did carry over to naming the entire sefer, perhaps, because it became "protocol" for some reason. If you think about it, with, perhaps, the exception of "Vayikra" and "Shemot", the current names DO have much to do with the sefer's contents, anyway. Offhand, the 2 I mentioned, I admit, I don't quite understand.
    – DanF
    May 6, 2015 at 17:27
  • Your argument is this: 1) parsha names are late. 2) there were old sefer names. Thus 3) our new sefer names came from the parsha names for unspecified reasons. <-- that isn't all that convincing or enlightening.
    – Double AA
    May 6, 2015 at 17:32
  • The Rambam is quoting Rav Sadia Gaon, who is the early source for the names. The vast majority are the same as we commonly use them now. See the source in likkutei Sichos referenced here: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/37832/…
    – Yishai
    May 6, 2015 at 18:18
  • @Yishai Actually, the vast majority include our names, but are longer.
    – Double AA
    May 6, 2015 at 18:53

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