The Torah

There is an essential difference between the words 'The Torah' and 'Torah'.

When one speaks of The Torah, one refers to the Scroll of Torah, called in Hebrew, the 'Sefer Torah', and is written in Hebew, which is found in the Holy Ark in all synagogues, or Jewish houses of worship. This scroll is handwritten on parchment or leather by a scribe, known as a Sofer.

When, however, Jews speak of Torah, Jews refer to the whole concept of Jewish teachings. Thus when we say that Moses received 'Torah' at Mt Sinai, we do not mean that Moses received the scroll of Torah as we have it today. Rather, as some people believe, Moses was instructed at Sinai with the idea or concept of Torah which he then passed on to the Israelites. This idea was later expanded upon and was later written down and transcribed into the form in which we have it today, in the Scroll of Torah.

The Torah, that which is written on the scroll and is found in the Holy Ark, consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, known as the TaNaKH, and is known as the Five books of Moses. This, of course, is not an entirely accurate description of them because Moses is not mentioned in all five books (not in the Book of Genesis). In Hebrew the Five Books are known as Khamishah Khoomshei Torah. When they appear in printed form, the book is known as a Khumash from the Hebrew word for 'five' (Khamesh). In English, we refer to such a printed book as a khumash or as a Pentateuch, which is originally Greek, from the word 'penta' meaning 'five'.

The Torah is the most sacred part of the Bible, known as TaNakh. It contains the commandments and laws on which the Jewish religion is based, and thus can be described as being the foundation of the Jewish religion.

A Torah scroll is written entirely by hand in Hebrew characters. It is interesting to note that there are no vowels under the letters. Vowels were only added many centuries after the original text. The dedicated student should learn some basic Hebrew vocabulary in order to fully comprehend what is written.

Learn to read the Hebrew texts that relate to Torah. Learn to read Hebrew at your own pace online, when and where it suits you.

The Jewish Commandments

The life of a Jewish person is guided by the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 15: "I have set God always before me".

The meaning of this verse is that whatever we do, and at any time of the day or night, we should feel that God is right before us. We are never alone.

Every day of Jewish life should therefore be filled with Jewish living, filled with blessings and prayers, filled with the actions that Jews perform, and the religious laws and customs that Jews observe. These actions are called Mitzvot, meaning 'Commandments' - and not 'good deeds' as some mistakenly call them.

Jewish tradition identifies 613 Mitzvot or Commandments, and these 613 are known as Taryag Mitzvot. The Hebrew letters T R Y G have the numerical value of 613 and are therefore used to designate the number of Commandments.

The Mitzvot are fundamental to Judaism. They serve as signposts indicating the direction of the way along which Jews should travel, the correct way of going - in Hebrew called Halakhah. (The Hebrew word holekh means 'walk' or 'go').

This path, the halakhah, will lead to the state of K'DUSHAH - of Holiness ('holy' means 'special', or 'set apart'). By planning the Jewish path through life by consulting our 'map', the Torah, and by setting out along the road, along the Halakhah, and following the 'signposts', the Mitzvot, we will eventually be led to a state of K'dushah, and we will thereby bring about the concept of these words, in Hebrew language TIKOON OLAM B'MALKHOOT SHADDAI - Improvement or Perfection of the World Under the Unchallenged Rule of God.

Learn to read the Hebrew texts that relate to the Jewish Commandments. Learn to read Hebrew at your own pace online, when and where it suits you.

The Ten Commandments

Jewish belief is that at Mt Sinai, God revealed Torah to the people Israel.

It is erroneous to think that the Torah was revealed at that time. The Torah, or the 5 Books of Moses, was only compiled later.

What was revealed at Mt Sinai was the concept of Torah, meaning 'teaching'. What was revealed was God's will, understood by us eventually through the Torah, through the Talmud and the Codes, and through the interpretations, both ancient and modern, of these great works of Judaism.

All of these, including the interpretations, are understood to be 'Torah'. The Book of Exodus indicates that God spoke the words of the Ten Commandments at Mt Sinai. Therefore it is popularly held that the Ten Commandments were all that God revealed on the mountain at that time.

This is not so. It is obvious that not just the Ten Commandments, not just the Five Books of Moses, but rather the whole concept of Torah, that which makes the Jewish people the Jewish people, was the underlying basis of the Revelation of God's will at Sinai.

Judaism identifies 613 commandments in the Torah. To refer to The Ten Commandments has led some to believe that there are only ten. For this reason, it is better to speak, not of The Ten Commandments but rather of Ten of the Commandments, they being the basis of moral behaviour.

These ten commandments given at Mt Sinai form the foundation of Judaism. They are also one of Judaism's greatest gifts to civilisation. In a few verses, they outline some of our duties towards God and towards our fellow human beings.

Learn to read the Hebrew texts that relate to the Commandments. Learn to read Hebrew at your own pace online, when and where it suits you.

The Jewish Calendar

Our everyday (or secular) calendar is based on the solar year, that is, the time it takes for the earth to complete a revolution around the sun, 365¼ days.

The secular or everyday year is thus 365 days long, and 366 days long in every fourth year - called a leap year, to make up for the four quarters which have been missed out. Months therefore consist of either 30 days or 31 days, except, of course, for February, which usually has 28 days and 29 in a leap year, making a total in normal years of 365 days, and 366 days in a leap year.

The Jewish or Hebrew calendar is based mainly on the lunar month, that is, the time it takes for the moon to complete a revolution around the earth, just over 29 ½ days. In the Jewish calendar there are usually 12 months, each month consisting of 30 days or 29 days alternately, making a total of 354 days.

This means that the Jewish year is 11¼ days shorter than the solar year of the secular calendar. If this shortfall were allowed to continue over a period of many years, it would mean that instead of celebrating the festival of Passover or Pesach in March/April, as is usually done, after about 9 years, it would fall in December, and then, after nine more years, it would fall in September, and so on, falling earlier and earlier every year.

This would not be a problem except for one very important factor: we are told in the Torah that the Jewish three Pilgrim Festivals of Pesach, Shavu'ot and Sukkot are each bound up with the land of Israel, and in particular with the agricultural activity that goes on in Israel at certain seasons of the year. For example, Passover or Pesach, also known as the Festival of Spring, should be observed at the time of the year when it is spring in the Northern Hemisphere and in Israel. If we continued to observe a calendar in which the year was 354 days long instead of 365¼, Passover would occur earlier and earlier every year, sometimes even in winter or autumn or summer! Obviously, this situation could not be permitted to occur, as Pesach must fall in spring, and so an ingenious solution was developed: a combination of both the lunar and the solar calendar systems!

Thus the Jewish year usually consists of 12 months of either 29 or 30 days, but every so often an extra month is added to the Jewish year. This is known as a Jewish leap year. There are 7 leap years in every cycle of 19 years.

Learn to read the Hebrew texts that relate to the Jewish Calendar. Learn to read Hebrew at your own pace online, when and where it suits you.

Birth and Brit

Life is filled with both joy and sorrow. The beginning of life is, of course, a joyous occasion.

The Torah tells that If the Jewish baby is a boy, he must be ritually circumcised on the eighth day of his life. The ceremony of circumcision is called B'rit Milah. The Hebrew word Milah means circumcision, and the word B'rit means "covenant" - a solemn agreement. The purpose of ritual circumcision is to bring the child into the covenant entered into some 4000 years ago between God and Abraham and, through Abraham, the whole Jewish people. Frequently the word used for the ceremony is B'ris, from the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the word 'b'rit'.

If a baby is born on, say, a Wednesday, the circumcision must take place on the following Wednesday, remembering that the day of birth counts as the child's first day. So important is B'rit Milah Bi'z'mano - or circumcision in its appropriate time - that even if the eighth day is the Sabbath (Shabbat) or even Yom Kippur, the baby must be circumcised on that day. However, if the child is ill, perhaps showing symptoms of jaundice, as is sometimes the case, or any other symptom, the circumcision must be postponed until all is well and the doctor gives approval. Should the circumcision be delayed for medical reasons, it may not then take place on Shabbat or other holy day.

The mark of circumcision is therefore called Ot B'rit - the sign of the covenant. The person who performs the ritual circumcision is called a Mohel. It is important to remember that the reason for the circumcision has nothing whatsoever to do with health or any reason other than as a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. It is a statement of faith..

Learn to read the Hebrew texts that relate to Birth and Brit. Learn to read Hebrew at your own pace online, when and where it suits you.

Death and Mourning

Sad occasions are as much a part of life as are happy times, and Jewish practice has developed traditions based on a philosophy intended to enable us to cope with these sad times.

One of the greatest Mitzvot in Judaism is the Mitzvah of ensuring that a person has a dignified and properly-conducted funeral. In the event of a death, the organisation that takes care of burial arrangements is a community-based organisation known as the Chevra Kadisha - the Holy Society, so named because they engage in holy work.

Jewish tradition maintains that a body should never be left unattended from the moment of death until the funeral. The Chevra Kadisha undertakes the collection and supervision of the body as well as Taharah, the ritual washing of the body for burial and dressing of the body in Takhrikhin - shrouds, and the supervision of the funeral itself. A very important principle is observed in Jewish tradition concerning the funeral: 'In death, everyone is equal'. Therefore Jewish tradition maintains that the coffin be the same for everyone, irrespective of financial status. In most communities, the tradition is to use a plain, unpolished, pine-board coffin, with rope handles.

The placing of flowers on the coffin is not part of Jewish tradition, although it is noted that some rabbis do permit the placing of flowers on the coffin. Donations to the needy or to medical research is more usual.

At the funeral, the status of the bereaved changes, from being onanim (which status they enter immediately after the death of a close relative), they now become aveilim, which means mourners. Their first religious duty on attaining that status is to recite Kaddish, an Aramaic prayer in praise of God.

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Shabbat (the Sabbath)

One of the major Jewish festivals is Shabbat (the Sabbath). The Torah commands us to remember and observe the Shabbat. We are commanded to set the Shabbat apart as a special day, a day different from the other days of the week, to remember, firstly, God's creation of the universe, and secondly, to remember the Exodus from Egypt.

Shabbat has no inherent holiness in and of itself. Rather, we human beings are regarded by the Almighty as partners with God in the ongoing work of creation. It is therefore our role and responsibility as partners to ensure the holiness (or specialness) of Shabbat. We therefore make the Shabbat holy by rest, by recreation (or re-creation), by enjoyment and delight, and by holiness, separating it, making it special from the other days of the week by the very different nature of our activities.

Shabbat is a day on which we should not be concerning ourselves with the worries of our daily occupations. On Shabbat we should purposefully seek to avoid all activity which we could do on other days of the week. For example, we should purposefully avoid shopping, visits to the hairdresser, housework and homework.

However, it is not enough to merely refrain from engaging in these activities, we should endeavour to make Shabbat a positive experience, a special day. We should go out of our way to make the entire 24 hours of the day something that we look forward to the entire week. That is what is meant by 'remember the Sabbath day' (Exodus, Chapter 20). Therefore, on Shabbat, each member of the household in which we live should be helping to prepare the home for Shabbat.

Learn to read the Hebrew texts that relate to Shabbat. Learn to read Hebrew at your own pace online, when and where it suits you.

Rosh Hashanah

The High Holy Days comprise of two festivals, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Together they are called the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which falls on the 1st of Tishri (and also on the 2nd Tishri for Orthodox Jews and for some Progressive Jews), is, according to an old rabbinic legend, the day on which God remembers and judges the deeds of all human beings. Therefore the day is also known by other names:

Yom Hadin The Day of Judgement (according to the Talmud)

Yom Hazikaron The Day of Remembrance (as it is called in the Torah).

This reminds us that we will be judged on this day and that we should strive to improve our way of life and to seek to raise our moral standards. The Shofar (Ram's Horn), is sounded on Rosh Hashanah. Therefore the day has yet another name, Yom T'roo'ah, the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar.

An ancient legend tells us that on Rosh Hashanah, God checks the record of what each one of us has done during the past year.

On Yom Kippur, God finally decides what will happen to each person during the next twelve months. The legend tells us that God opens three books: the Book of Life, The Book of Death and the Intermediate Book, and records our fate. On Yom Kippur our fates are sealed in whichever Book we deserve. We are given ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to improve our standing (the 10 days of Penetance), hopefully to the Book of Life. Because of this legend, the customary greeting on Rosh Hashanah is 'May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year'.

Learn to read the Hebrew texts that relate to Rosh Hashanah. Learn to read Hebrew at your own pace online, when and where it suits you.

Yom Kippur

The holiest day in the Jewish year is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which falls on the 10th of Tishri, 10 days after Rosh Hashanah. It is observed by a 25 hour fast, from sunset to sunset, when at least three stars are visible.

The purpose of the fast is to assist the Jew to focus spiritually to try to become 'at one' with God on this Day of Atonement, and thereby seek forgiveness for wrongdoings committed, especially against one's fellow human beings. Some people mistakenly believe that the purpose of the fast is to 'punish' oneself and thereby to ensure that one's sins are forgiven. This is a complete misunderstanding of what the fast is all about.

There are five prohibitions connected with the fast on Yom Kippur. They are abstention from food and drink, bathing, anointing oneself with soothing oils, sexual contact and wearing or use of leather (ie shoes, watch straps etc..).

The custom is to spend the entire day in synagogue, excluding from one's mind all thoughts of worldly, mundane matters, including food and drink, and endeavouring to raise oneself spiritually, to establish some form of contact, communication with God.

The high point of the Yom Kippur service is the Viddui, confession of sins, during which each individual is given the opportunity, during silent meditation, to confront his or her own failings. After the silent prayer, the entire congregation joins together in reading a list of communal sins, confessing those sins of which Jews have been guilty of committing.

Yom Kippur ends with N'ilah which means 'locking' (of the gates). The fast ends with a long blast of the Shofar (ram's horn).

Learn to read the Hebrew texts that relate to Yom Kippur. Learn to read Hebrew at your own pace online, when and where it suits you.

Pesach (Passover)

Pesach falls on 15th Nissan, which is the first month of the Jewish calendar, and in Israel lasts for seven days.

The main observance of Pesach is the eating of Matzah - unleavened bread, and the complete prohibition from eating any kind of leaven, khametz - usually defined as yeast products, including, of course, bread.

It is customary to hold a special home service called a Seder on the first (and some people hold it additionally on the second) night of Pesach during which the Haggadah or the story of the Exodus is read. Passover services are held in the synagogue on the first and last days of the festival, and each of these days is as important as the other.

The intervening days are also part of the Pesach festival or Passover festival, but are less important. They are known as Khol HaMo'ed Pesach meaning "the ordinary days of Pesach", and although they are not as important as the first and the seventh days, nevertheless the prohibition against the eating of leaven applies to them as well.

The religious or historical reason for Passover is that it commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and the liberation from Egyptian slavery. Because the Israelites left Egypt in a hurry, they had no time to bake proper bread, so they prepared and took with them unleavened bread or Matzah.

Therefore, Jews do not eat normal bread or any food with leaven Khametz (yeast) in it on Pesach. In fact, no Khametz should be found in the Jewish home during Passover. Before the festival starts, Jews make sure that their homes are free of Khametz, that is, they are Kasher L'Pesach which means Kosher (fit or suitable) for Pesach. This term also applies to the food which is permissible during Pesach.

To ensure that Jewish homes are in fact free from Khametz, a search is conducted on the night before Passover begins. This search is called B'dikat Khametz and the next morning all the khametz that were found are thrown away. This is called Bi'oor khametz meaning 'burning the khametz'.

Learn to read the Hebrew texts that relate to Pesach. Learn to read Hebrew at your own pace online, when and where it suits you.

Shavu'ot

The festival of Shavu'ot, or Weeks, is the only festival which is not given a fixed date in the Torah. We are told to count off 50 days from the day after the first day of Passover, a total of seven weeks, and we are told to celebrate a festival to God on that 50th day. The Hebrew word for 'week' is Shavu'a, and because the festival falls 'a week of weeks' (that is, 7 weeks) after Passover, the festival is therefore known as the Feast of Weeks. It falls on the 6th day of Sivan of the Jewish calendar.

Of all three Pilgrim Festivals (Pesach, Shavu'ot and Sukkot), the festival of Shavu'ot is arguably the most important. Pesach or Passover commemorates the freedom of former slaves from Egyptian slavery, emphasising the concept of personal freedom from oppression. Sukkot commemorates God's protection we enjoyed during the wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. But Shavu'ot commemorates the uniting of the Hebrew slaves into one people, with a mission to spread the concept of God and of Torah.

It was at Mt Sinai that the former Hebrew slaves became the people Israel and, later, the Jewish people. Shavu'ot commemorates the giving of Torah at Mt Sinai. It is therefore called by another name: Z'man Matan Torateinoo - the Time (or Season) of the giving of our Torah.

Shavu'ot also commemorates the agricultural season when the first fruits ripen in Israel. The ancient Hebrews expressed their thanks to God by offering their First Fruit thanksgiving offerings in the Temple in Jerusalem through a special ceremony called Bikkoorim. Shavu'ot is also known therefore as Khag HaBikkoorim - the Festival of First Fruits.

Some congregations commemorate this aspect of Shavu'ot by holding a special ceremony on the festival, called Bikkoorim or First Fruits Ceremony, during which the Sheva Minim - seven species of produce that ripen in Israel at this time of the year, are brought to the synagogue and used in a special ceremony. The Seven Species are wheat, barley, grapes, dates, pomegranates, figs and olives.

Because God told Moses to prepare the Israelites for three days before their encounter with God at Mt Sinai, a tradition has developed that we should also prepare ourselves spiritually for the commemoration of the event. We do this by studying holy texts. This is held either a few days before Shavu'ot or on the eve of the Festival itself and is known as Tikoon Leil Shavu'ot.

Because Shavu'ot concludes the 50-day period from Pesach, it has another name, Atzeret, meaning 'Conclusion' (not to be confused with the festival called Sh'mini Atzeret). Because it coincides with the harvest of winter-growing grains (wheat, barley) it has also another name Khag HaKatzir - the Festival of the Harvest. It is customary to eat dairy products on Shavu'ot.

Learn to read the Hebrew texts that relate to Shavu'ot. Learn to read Hebrew at your own pace online, when and where it suits you.

Sukkot

The festival of Sukkot, which means 'booths' or 'tabernacles', falls on 15th Tishri, and lasts for 8 days.

The main symbol of Sukkot is the Sukkah, a temporary dwelling with an impermanent roof made of branches and leaves called s'khakh.

We are told in the Torah that Jews must dwell in Sukkot - booths or tabernacles for seven days. The Torah does not tell us what a sukkah is, we read about it in other Hebrew texts.

The Sukkah must be at least one metre in height and at least a square metre in area. It must have at least 2½ sides and can be a permanent structure, but the roof must be temporary.

The leafy branches on the roof must be arranged so that at noon there is more shade than sunshine in the sukkah, but not so thick as to prevent one from seeing the stars at night.

Jews are commanded to take their meals, sit, entertain, and sleep (if the weather permits) in the sukkah.

The sukkah reminds us of the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years, and of God's protection that they enjoyed. Jews dwell in the sukkah today in order to remind themselves of the transient nature of life, of how flimsy are our material lives, and to remind ourselves how dependent we are on God's favours and blessings.

Each household is expected to have its own sukkah, decorated with pictures, furnishings, and fruit to commemorate the harvest of summer fruits in Israel. According to an old legend, when a family joyfully performs the mitzvah of sukkah, they are said to be visited in the sukkah by the seven special guests of the festival - Ushpizin. Each day it is customary to 'invite' and to 'welcome' into our own Sukkah one of seven guests - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, David and Solomon.

Like the other Jewish Pilgrim Festivals, Sukkot is connected to agricultural activities associated with the seasons of the year. On Sukkot Jews commemorate the harvest of the summer fruits in Israel.

Jews are therefore commanded to 'take hold' of the Arba Minim - 4 species of vegetation: Etrog - citron (a type of lemon) - fruit of the hadar tree; loolav - palm branch, which also includes hadassah - myrtle (boughs of thick trees), aravot - willow (of the brook) These four species are held together and shaken ceremonially on the Sukkot festival. The loolav consists of a large palm branch to which is bound, usually in a little reed holder, the myrtle and the willow.

Learn to read the Hebrew texts that relate to Sukkot. Learn to read Hebrew at your own pace online, when and where it suits you.

Sh'mini Atzeret/Simchat Torah

Sh'mini Atzeret - the eighth day of conclusion of sukkot
Simchat Torah - Rejoicing of the Torah (or the law)

On Sh'mini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, the last chapter of the Torah, Chapters 33 and 34 of the Book of D'varim (Deuteronomy) are read, and this is followed immediately by the reading of the first chapter of B'reisheet (Genesis). This symbolises the never-ending process of reading and studying the Torah.

Just before the reading from the two scrolls, all the scrolls are removed from the Ark and are carried joyfully around the synagogue for seven hakafot or circuits. It is regarded as a very great honour to be called to the Torah to recite the benedictions over the last verses of Deuteronomy or the first verses of Genesis.

The person called up to recite the blessing over the very last few verses of Deuteronomy is known as Chatan Torah (bridegroom of the Torah) and the person called to the recite the blessing over the opening verses of Genesis is Chatan B'reisheet (bridegroom of B'reisheet).

Learn to read the Hebrew texts that relate to Sh'mini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. Learn to read Hebrew at your own pace online, when and where it suits you.

Chanukkah

The festival of Chanukkah is one of the only Jewish festivals not mentioned in the Torah. The other festival not found in the Torah is Purim, although the story of Purim is found in the TaNakh, the Jewish Bible.

The events of Chanukkah occurred long after the Torah was completed.

The word 'Chanukkah' is a Hebrew word meaning 'Rededication' – commemorating the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem which had been defiled by the Syrian Greeks and which was then rededicated by Judah the Maccabee after a three-year-long war with the Syrian-Greeks.

An old tradition tells us that when the victorious Jewish soldiers entered the Temple and wished to light the Menorah, (the original seven-branched candlestick that the Israelites had made during the Exodus) it was found that there was only enough oil to burn for one day and that it would take a week for new 'holy' oil to be prepared.

The argument raged whether the Menorah should be lit immediately and be allowed burn out after the one day, or whether the rekindling should be delayed. The decision was taken to light the Menorah - and the oil lasted for 8 days until the fresh oil was ready.

The main ceremony associated with the festival is the lighting of the Chanukkah Menorah, the 9-branched candelabra. It is used for eight days, with two candles being lit on the first night (the second candle is known in Hebrew as the Shamash, meaning the servant candle). It is always lit first and then used to light each of the candles on each of the eight nights of Chanukkah. On the first night, one candle is lit by the shamash and allowed to burn down; on the second night, two candles plus the shamash is lit, and so on for the eight nights of Chanukkah.

Traditionally, food that is prepared with oil has become the food associated with the festival (jam doughnuts - soofganiyot - and latkes, potato cakes cooked in oil), and children are encouraged to play with a small spinning top, called in Hebrew a s'vivon and in Yiddish, a dreidel.

Learn to read the Hebrew texts that relate to Chanukkah. Learn to read Hebrew at your own pace online, when and where it suits you.

Purim

Purim, falls on the 14th Adar, or in a leap year, 14th Adar Sheni. Purim commemorates the escape of the Jews of Persia from extermination at the hands of Haman, Prime Minister to King Ahasuerus.

The story in the Tanakh tells of the steadfastness of the Jew Mordechai, and of his beautiful cousin Esther who eventually became queen to King Ahasuerus. She used her position to thwart the evil plans of Haman, who was finally hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordechai, his enemy, and who thereafter, took Haman's place.

The word Purim means 'lots' and is called this because Haman drew lots to determine on which day he would bring about the destruction of the Jewish community in Persia. The story is told in the Tanakh in M'gillat Esther - The scroll of Esther, which is read on Purim in synagogues. The name of Haman is drowned out every time it is mentioned in the story by the use of graggers (noisemaking rattles).

On Purim it is customary to eat Hamantashen, or Oznei Haman (Haman's ears) - 3 cornered cakes filled with poppy seed or jam. It is also traditional to send gifts of food to friends and to the needy. This custom is called mishloach manot.

Learn to read the Hebrew texts that relate to Purim. Learn to read Hebrew at your own pace online, when and where it suits you.

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