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From Moshe to Maimonides

The Evolution of Public Torah Reading

With Shavuos arriving soon, it’s worthwhile for us to explore the origins of the public Torah reading as we know it.  The subject matter is especially apropos now that as of this writing, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, it has been more than a month since public Torah reading has taken place in most communities.

It’s interesting that a practice that is so much a part of normal Jewish life is barely even mentioned in the Torah. The only mention in the Chumash of a public reading of the Torah is the Mitzvah of Hakhel whereby at the end of the seven-year Sabbatical cycle, during Succos, there was a mitzvah to”read this Torah before all of Israel.”1Devorim 31:10-11.

Nevertheless, a Braysa2Bava Kama 82a. informs us that Moshe instituted the concept of public Torah reading during his lifetime.  The Torah tells us that “Moshe led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water.”3Shemos 15:22. Chazal explains that the water mentioned in that verse is a metaphor for Torah, and that the people became weary in their travels because they had not heard the words of the Torah in three days.

To prevent this from ever happening again, Moshe decreed that we should read the Torah three times a week: On Shabbos, Monday and Thursday.  He further instituted readings on Yom Tov, Chol HaMoed and Rosh Chodesh.4Yerushalmi Megillah 4:1, Maseches Sofrim 10:1.   Moshe’s Torah reading was quite shorter than what we are used to today on the average Shabbos.  It was just three pesukim (verses) long in total, corresponding to Kohen, Levi, and Yisroel, read by, anywhere from one to three readers.  This was the thrice-weekly reading.

There is much discussion as to how this came about considering there was no complete Torah scroll until after Moshe’s passing and reading from an incomplete Torah scroll is problematic.  It may be that the other contemporary neviem established the reading after Moshe passed away with the completed Torah,5Toras Chaim, Bava Kama 82a. or that since there was no complete Torah in existence until after the passing of Moshe, reading from an incomplete Torah was permitted at that time.6Kovah Yeshuos, ibid.   Neither Chazal nor the Rishonim provide more details about the mandated Torah readings at that time.

Ezra Reading the Torah

Ezra Reading the Torah

When Ezra HaSofer returned to Eretz Yisrael from the Babylonian exile with a contingent of fellow Jews, he made two further adjustments to Moshe’s Torah reading system.  First, he added a reading at Mincha on Shabbos afternoon.  The Gemara tells us that this was for the benefit of the yoshvei karanos, which, Rashi explains,7Bava Kama 82a. is a reference to the storekeepers who could not be present in shul on Mondays and Thursdays due to their busy work schedules and thus were given, by Ezra, an opportunity to hear the Torah on Shabbos.  The Me’iri, however, writes that these were the ignoramuses who could not study Torah on Shabbos afternoons, and that Ezra instituted the Shabbos afternoon reading to enable them to use their time in a productive way.

The second adjustment made by Ezra was that a minimum of ten verses in total should be read by three readers at each session, with each aliyah consisting of not less than three verses.  The Ritva8Megillah 2a. states that the main reason for this increase in pesukim was because otherwise people would not bother coming to the city from the villages to hear just three verses being read.  The one exception to the ten-verse minimum set by Ezra is the Torah reading from Purim day, which is only nine pesukim.  This exception is made because the thematic, Purim-related story of Amalek, read on Purim day, is only nine pesukim in total.

Title: The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, Italy Artist: Solomon Hart (1806–1881) Date: 1850 Collection: Jewish Museum, Manhattan

Originally, there was no concept of a ba’al koreh, as each aliyah was read by the person who received the aliyah to the Torah.  As fewer and fewer people possessed the ability to read from the Torah properly, the role of the ba’al koreh was instituted to save people from public embarrassment.

The Mishna teaches that we may not add to this number of three readers (on a weekday) as it would be burdensome for the community.9Ibid. 21a Rashi.  The Gemara goes on to tell us that the more sanctified the day, the more aliyos it must include in its readings.10Ibid. 22b.  Thus, Rosh Chodesh and Chol HaMoed, which have Musaf, require four aliyos. Yom Tov has the prohibition of work, so we read five aliyos.  Yom Kippur, which has the punishment of Kares (spiritual excommunication) for those transgressing its sanctity, features six aliyos, and on Shabbos, with the punishment of Skila (stoning) for violations of its laws, we read at least seven aliyos.  We are permitted to add aliyos on Shabbos beyond the required minimum number of seven because doing so will not result in its sanctity becoming confused with that of any other day.

At the time of Ezra, it would seem that the average Shabbos Torah reading was approximately twenty-one pesukim.  Today, however, even the shortest parsha we read, Vayelech, contains thirty pesukim, and most parshios average around one hundred pesukim.

From the time of Ezra until the Babylonian community became the central Diaspora community, most Sedarim, as they were known, looked more like Vayelech than the average parsha of today.  Chazal11Megillah 29b, Esther Rabbah 3, Maseches Sofrim 16:8. tells us, that while the Jews in Bavel completed the Torah every year, the community that was still in Eretz Yisrael after the destruction of the Second Temple finished the Torah every three or three and a half years.

This system was based on dividing the Torah into Sedarim based on two considerations.  First, the requirement of a minimum of twenty-one pesukim (seven aliyos of at least three pesukim), and second, the requirement of not concluding or starting an aliyah within three verses of the end of a section (pesucha or stuma).12Ibid. 22a.  This consideration is the motivation for the strange repetition of pesukim on Rosh Chodesh in order to accommodate the two- pasuk-long parsha.13Bamidbar 18:1-5.

The accounts that we have of these Sedarim systems, range anywhere from, 14114Keser, Joel, Issachar. to 154,15Halichos Kedem, Rapoport, p. 11. to 167,16 to 17517 Maseches Sofrim 16:8. sections in total, hence the variance in their duration, which ranged from a minimum of a three-year cycle, to one of three and a half years.  The lack of uniformity in this system is not a scholarly debate, but rather a reflection of the reality.  The Maharshal teaches that there was no uniformity to the system of Eretz Yisrael,18Yam Shel Shlomo Bava Kama 48. and that every community kept to their own schedule and completed the Torah at different times.

The stone lectern in Ben Ezra Synagogue

While the Rambam makes it clear that the custom throughout the Jewish world is to complete the Torah in one year,19Mishna Torah Hil. Tefilah 13:1. His son writes that this was an ongoing battle that the Rambam himself fought in Cairo with congregations that still held onto the triennial system.20Rav Avraham ben HaRambam, Hamanhig, p. 11. Indeed, there are accounts of that system being used in Egypt as late as 1672.21Neubauer, Medieval Jewish Chronicles, p. 118.

It is unclear how and why exactly the 3-3.5 year system used in Eretz Yisrael transitioned to the 54 week/one year system that was used in Babylon (and that we still use today).  Some scholars posit that it was the Amora Rav, who lived in Eretz Yisrael after the destruction of the Second Temple and then became the leader of Babylonian Jewry, who brought the system from Eretz Yisrael to Babylon, and then built on it.22The Reading of the Law and Prophets in a Triennial Cycle Author(s): Adolf Büchler Source: The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Apr. 1893) p. 466. The aforementioned reality of the lack of uniformity likely played a role, as did, perhaps, the desire to have one system for the entire Jewish people.  Additionally, since the whole Torah is applicable every year, it is logical to have in place a system whereby the entire Torah is reviewed on an annual basis.  It is a matter of only logic.

There are a number of considerations that figured into how the 54 parshios were divided.  54 is the maximum number of Shabbosos in a 384-day, Jewish leap year.  Since, when Yom Tov falls on Shabbos, the weekly parsha is pushed off, it’s possible, even in a leap year, for less than 54 weekly parshios to be read.  In order to complete all 54 parshios in such a year or in a 354-day non-leap year, several parshios need to be doubled.

Maimonides marble bas-relief, one of 23 reliefs of great historical lawgivers in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives in the United States Capitol.

The parshios that are potentially doubled are Vayakhel-Pekudei, Tazria-Metzora, Acharei-Kedoshim, Behar-Bechukosai, Chukas-Balak, Matos-Masai, and Nitzavim-Vayelech.  One factor to be considered regarding which parshios are doubled, involves another one of Ezra’s enactments: That the curses appearing in Bechukosai, in Sefer Vayikra, should be read before Shavuos and the curses appearing in Ki Savo, in Sefer Devarim, should be read prior to Rosh Hashana.23Megillah 31b. Additionally, the Rambam mentions that the custom is to read Bamidbar before Shavuos, Veschanan after Tisha B’Av, Nitzavim before Rosh Hashana, and, in a year with only one Adar, Tzav before Pesach.24Mishneh Torah Hil. Tefila 13:2.

From this, we can understand why so much of Sefer Vayikra is doubled, since taking the above-mentioned considerations of both Ezra and the Rambam into account, does not leave us a lot of time.  The management of length is also a consideration as to which parshios are doubled.25Epstein, Sheldon, Dickman, Bernard, and Wilamowsky, Yona, Parsha Management – Doubling, Halving, Accuracy, Hakirah 2 © 2005 p. 65-113.  There are several other considerations, including combining similar subject matters.  It is also important to note that since only one day of Yom Tov is observed in Eretz Yisrael, while two days are observed in the Diaspora, if a second day of Yom Tov is to fall on Shabbos, this will lead to Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora being out of sync until the next double parsha brings them back in tandem.

While for the past millennia, the annual reading and completion of the Torah has been as much a part of Jewish life as the institution of synagogues and public prayer, we see that it was an evolutionary process of many generations that brought about the custom that is now, so much a part of our lives.  May we merit to see the pandemic of COVID-19 end soon, bringing about the reopening of our synagogues and the public reading of our holy Torah once again.

Pinchas Landis

Rabbi Pinchas Landis grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating from a performing arts high school, he traveled the country for a year as International B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO) President. Throughout this time he became more interested and aware of traditional Judaism. Rabbi Landis has since spent a total of nine years learning at Yeshiva University, Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum College, and the Ner Israel Rabbinical College. He has also done postgraduate work towards a Masters in Community Counseling at Johns Hopkins University. Rabbi Landis was a congregational Rabbi in Cincinnati, and now serves as the Director of Partners In Torah of Cleveland. He is also an owner of Bettering People Inc., a company focusing on helping people in both their personal and businesses lives. Rabbi Landis is a featured speaker on and the host of several podcasts featured on Rabbi Pinchas Landis is a dynamic and fascinating speaker and teacher, specializing in the areas of Inspiration, Personal Growth and History. He has inspired crowds from Los Angeles to Jerusalem; from Montreal to Miami. Rabbi Landis and his wife Naomi have five beautiful children.

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