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Torah, Reading of



The practice of reading the Pentateuch (Torah) in public is undoubtedly ancient. The sources, however, do not permit the definite tracing of the historical development of the custom. The command to assemble the people at the end of every seven years to read the law "in their hearing" (Deut. 31:10–13) is the earliest reference to a public Torah reading. A second mention is made in the time of *Ezra when he read the Torah to all the people, both men and women, from early morning until midday, on the first day of the seventh month (Neh. 8:1–8). These two occasions are isolated instances, and do not help to establish when the custom of regular Torah readings arose.

Moses' command that the Israelites should read the Torah on the Sabbath, on festivals, and on new moons, and Ezra's that it should be read on Mondays, on Thursdays, and on Sabbath afternoons (tj, Meg. 4:1, 75a; bk 82a) are not historical statements in themselves; they point, however, to an early date for the introduction of regular readings. It may be assumed that the custom dates from about the first half of the third century b.c.e., since the Septuagint was apparently compiled for the purpose of public reading in the synagogue. Josephus (Apion, 2:175) and Philo (ii Som. 127) refer to public Torah readings as an ancient practice. This contention is supported by evidence in the New Testament: "For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogue every Sabbath day" (Acts 15:21). Elbogen is of the opinion that originally the Torah was read only on the festivals and on certain Sabbath days before the festivals; the reading was to instruct the people as to the significance of these days. If this is correct, the original Torah reading was didactic rather than liturgical.

The Mishnah shows that by the end of the second century c.e. there were regular Torah readings on Mondays, on Thursdays, and on Sabbaths; special readings for the Sabbaths during the period from before the month of Adar to before Passover; and special readings for the festivals, including those of Ḥanukkah and Purim, and for fast days (Meg. 3, 4–6). The length of the reading, however, seems not to have been fixed by that time. R. *Meir states, for instance, that the practice was to read a short portion on Sabbath mornings, the portion that followed on Sabbath afternoon, and further portions on Monday and Thursday, beginning on the following Sabbath morning from the end of the Thursday portion. According to R. Judah, the procedure was to begin the reading each Sabbath morning service where it had ended on the morning of the previous Sabbath (Meg. 31b).

The passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Meg. 29b) is the earliest reference to a fixed cycle of consecutive readings. It states that "in the West" (Palestine), they completed the reading of the Torah in three years. The old division of the Pentateuch into 153, 155, or 167 sedarim ("divisions") is based on this triennial cycle. Buechler, with great ingenuity, attempted to reconstruct the weekly portions of the *triennial cycle, assuming the cycle to have begun on the first day of Nisan. On the basis of his reconstruction, he proceeds to explain various traditions regarding events of the past (e.g., that Moses died on the seventh day of Adar and that Sarah was "remembered" on the first day of Tishri). Buechler contends that since the portions describing these events were read once every three years at these times, the tradition grew that the events themselves had taken place then.

In Babylon and other communities outside Palestine, an annual cycle was followed according to which the Pentateuch was divided into 54 sedarim (sing. sidrah, i.e., parashah). This became the universal Jewish practice, except for certain isolated instances. In Palestine, the triennial cycle was also superseded by the annual, possibly under the influence of Babylonian immigrants. However, the eminent traveler *Benjamin of Tudela writes about the community of Cairo (c. 1170): "Two large synagogues are there, one belonging to the land of Israel and one belonging to the men of the land of Babylon… Their usage with regard to the portions and sections of the law is not alike; for the men of Babylon are accustomed to read a portion every week, as is done in Spain, and is our custom, and to finish the law each year; while the men of Palestine do not do so but divide each portion into three sections and finish the law at the end of three years. The two communities, however, have an established custom to unite and pray together on the day of the Rejoicing of the Law, and on the day of the Giving of the Law" (M.N. Adler (ed.), The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (1907), 70). Similarly, in the 12th century Maimonides (Yad, Tefillah 13:1) writes that the universal custom was to follow the annual cycle; he states, however, that the triennial cycle was nevertheless followed in some places.

The Mishnah rules that three persons read the Torah on Sabbath afternoons, on Mondays, and on Thursdays; four on ḥol ha-mo'ed of the festivals and on the new moon; five on a festival; six on the Day of Atonement; and seven on a Sabbath morning (Meg. 4:1–2). The privilege of reading the first portion of the day was given to a priest, the second to a levite, and the others to Israelites (Git. 5:8). Originally, each person read his own portion. In time, with the deterioration of Torah learning among the lay people, a special official of the synagogue read the portion while the person called to the reading recited the benedictions. At an early period, it was customary to translate the Hebrew text into the vernacular at the time of the reading (e.g., in Palestine and Babylon the translation was into Aramaic). The *targum ("translation") was done by a special synagogue official, called the meturgeman (Meg. 4:4–10). Eventually, the practice of translating into the vernacular was discontinued.

1 Parentheses indicate Sephardi ritual.
2 Brackets indicate portions that are sometimes combined.
3 This portion is not read on Sabbath but on Simḥat Torah.
Bereshit1:1–6:8Isa. 42:5–43:11 (42:5–21)1
No'aḥ6:9–11:32Isa. 54:1–55:5 (54:1–10)
Lekh Lekha12:1–17:27Isa. 40:27–41:16
Va-Yera18:1–22:24II Kings 4:1–37 (4:1–23)
Ḥayyei Sarah23:1–25:18I Kings 1:1–31
Toledot25:19–28:9Mal. 1:1–2:7
Va-Yeẓe28:10–32:3Hos. 12:13–14:10 (11:7–12:12)
Va-Yishlaḥ32:4–36:43Hos. 11:7–12:12 (Obad. 1:1–21)
Va-Yeshev37:1–40:23Amos 2:6–3:8
Mi-Keẓ41:1–44:17I Kings 3:15–4:1
Va-Yiggash44:18–47:27Ezek. 37:15–28
Va-Yeḥi47:28–50:26I Kings 2:1–12
Shemot1:1–6:1Isa. 27:6–28:13; 29:22, 23 (Jer. 1:1–2:3)
Va-Era6:2–9:35Ezek. 28:25–29:21
Bo10:1–13:16Jer. 46:13–28
Be-Shallaḥ13:17–17:16Judg. 4:4–5:31 (5:1–31)
Yitro18:1–20:23Isa. 6:1–7:6; 9:5 (6:1–13)
Mishpatim21:1–24:18Jer. 34:8–22; 33:25, 26
2 Terumah25:1–27:19I Kings 5:26–6:13
Teẓavveh27:20–30:10Ezek. 43:10–27
Ki Tissa30:11–34:35I Kings 18:1–39 (18:20–39)
Va-Yakhel35:1–38:20I Kings 7:40–50 (7:13–26)
Pekudei38:21–40:38I Kings 7:51–8:21 (7:40–50)
Va-Yikra1:1–5:26Isa. 43:21–44:23
Ẓav6:1–8:36Jer. 7:21–8:3; 9:22, 23
Shemini9:1–11:47II Sam. 6:1–7:17 (6:1–19)
2 Tazri'a12:1–13:59II Kings 4:42–5:19
Meẓora14:1–15:33II Kings 7:3–20
Aḥarei Mot16:1–18:30Ezek. 22:1–19 (22:1–16)
Kedoshim19:1–20:27Amos 9:7–15 (Ezek. 20:2–20)
Emor21:1–24:23Ezek. 44:15–31
Be-Har25:1–26:2Jer. 32:6–27
Be-Ḥukkotai26:3–27:34Jer. 16:19–17:14
Be-Midbar1:1–4:20Hos. 2:1–22
Naso4:21–7:89Judg. 13:2–25
Be-Ha'alotkha8:1–12:16Zech. 2:14–4:7
Shelaḥ Lekha13:1–15:41Josh. 2:1–24
Koraḥ16:1–18:32I Sam. 11:14–12:22
Ḥukkat19:1–22:1Judg. 11:1–33
Balak22:2–25:9Micah 5:6–6:8
Pinḥas25:10–30:1I Kings 18:46–19:21
Mattot30:2–32:42Jer. 1:1–2:3
Masei33:1–36:13Jer. 2:4–28; 3:4 (2:4–28; 4:1, 2)
Devarim1:1–3:22Isa. 1:1–27
Va-Ethannan3:23–7:11Isa. 40:1–26
Ekev7:12–11:25Isa. 49:14–51:3
Re'eh11:26–16:17Isa. 54:11–55:5
Shofetim16:18–21:9Isa. 51:12–52:12
Ki Teẓe21:10–25:19Isa. 54:1–10
Ki Tavo26:1–29:8Isa. 60:1–22
Niẓẓavim29:9–30:20Isa. 61:10–63:9
Va-Yelekh31:1–30Isa. 55:6–56:8
Ha'azinu32:1–52II Sam. 22:1–51
Ve-Zot ha-Berakhah333:1–34:12Josh. 1:1–18 (1:1–9)
1 Parenthesis indicate Sephardi custom.
2 Square brackets indicate Ereẓ Israel custom.
3 On Shabbat, 14:22–16:17.
4 Ereẓ Israel portion read four times.
5 Ereẓ Israel portion read three times.
Rosh Ha-Shanah
1st DayGen. 21:1–34; Num. 29:1–6I Sam. 1:1–2:10
2nd DayGen. 22:1–24; Num. 29–1–6Jer. 31:2–20
Shabbat ShuvahWeekly portionHos. 14:2–10; Micah 7:18–20 or Hos. 14:2–10; Joel 2:15–17 (Hos. 14:2–10; Micah 7:18–201)
Day of Atonement
MorningLev. 16:1–34; num. 29:7–11Isa. 57:14–58:14
AfternoonLev. 18:1–30The Book of Jonah; Micah 7:18–20
1st DayLev. 22:26–23:44; Num. 29:12–16Zech. 14:1–21
2nd DayLev. 22:26–23:44; Num. 29:12–16 [Num. 29:17–19]2,4I Kings 8:2–21 [none]
3rd DayNum. 29:17–22 [29:20–22]2,4
4th DayNum. 29:20–28 [29:23–25]2,4
5th DayNum. 29:23–31 [29:26–28]2,4
6th DayNum. 29:26–34 [29:29–31]2,4
7th DayNum. 29:26–34 [29:32–34]2,4
Shabbat during the Intermediate DaysEx. 33:12–34:26; Daily portion from Num. 29Ezek. 38:18–39:16
Shemini Aẓeret 8th DayDeut. 14:22–16:17; Num. 29:35–30:1 [as for Simḥat Torah]I Kings 8:54–66 [as for Simḥat Torah]
Simḥat Torah 9th dayDeut. 33:1–34:12; Gen. 1:1–2:3; Num. 29:35–30:1 [none]Josh. 1:1–18 (1:1–9) [none]
1st DayNum. 7:1–17
2nd DayNum. 7:18–29 [7:18–23]5
3rd DayNum. 7:24–35 [7:24–29]5
4th DayNum. 7:30–41 [7:30–35]5
5th DayNum. 7:36–47 [7:36–41]5
6th DayNum. 7:42–53 [7:42–47]5
7th DayNum. 7:48–59 [7:48–53]5
8th DayNum. 7:54–8:4
First Shabbat ḤanukkahWeekly Ḥanukkah portions as for Ereẓ IsraelZech. 2:14–4:4:7
Second Shabbat ḤanukkahWeekly Ḥanukkah portions as for Ereẓ IsraelI Kings 7:40–50
Rosh Ḥodesh during ḤanukkahWeekly Ḥanukkah portions as for Ereẓ Israel and Num. 28:1–15
Rosh Ḥodesh and Shabbat ḤanukkahWeekly Rosh Ḥodesh, and Ḥanukkah portions as for Ereẓ IsraelIsa. 66:1–24
ShekalimWeekly portion; Ex. 30:11–16II Kings 12:1–17
ZakhorWeekly portion; Deut. 25:17–19I Sam. 15:2–34 (15:1–34)
Purim Ex. 17:8–16
ParahWeekly portion; Num. 19:1–22Ezek. 36:16–38 (36:16–36)
Ha-ḤodeshWeekly portion; Ex. 12:1–20Ezek. 45:16–46:18 (45:18–46:5)
Shabbat Ha-GadolWeekly portionMal. 3:4–24
1st DayEx. 12:21–51; Num. 28:19–25Josh. 5:2–6:1
2nd DayLev. 22:26–23:44; Num. 28–19:25II Kings 23:1–9; 21–25 [none]
3rd DayEx. 13:1–16; Num. 28:19–25
4th DayEx. 22:24–23:19; Num. 28:19–25
5th DayEx. 33:12–34:26; Num. 28:19–25
6th DayNum. 9:1–14; 28:19–25
Intermediate ShabbatThe order to allow for the reading as on the 5th day aboveEzek. 36:37–37:14 (37:1–14)
7th DayEx. 13:17–15:26; Num. 28:19–25II Sam. 22:1–51
8th DayDeut. 15:19–16:173; Num. 28:19–25 [none]Isa. 10:32–12:6 [none]
1st DayEx. 19:1–20:23; Num. 28:26–31Ezek. 1:1–28; 3:12
2nd DayDeut. 15:19–16:173; Num. 28:26–31 [none]Num. 3:1–19 (2:20–3:19)
Ninth of Av
MorningDeut. 4:25–40Jer. 8:13–9:23
AfternoonEx. 32:11–14; 34:1–10Isa. 55:6–56:8 (Hos. 14:2–10; Micah [7:18–20]
Other Fasts
Morning and afternoonEx. 32:11–14; 34:1–10Isa. 55:6–56:8
Rosh ḤodeshNum. 28:1–15
Shabbat and Rosh ḤodeshWeekly portion; Num. 28:9–15Isa. 66:1–24
Shabbat immediately preceding RoshWeekly portionI Sam. 20:18–12

The practice of "completing" the Torah reading with a passage from one of the prophetic books, the *haftarah ("completion"), is mentioned in the Mishnah (Meg. 4:1–2); the origins of the custom, however, are obscure. The custom is referred to as early as the New Testament period (Luke 4:17; Acts 13:15). The particular chosen prophetic passage accorded in theme with the day's Torah reading (see Meg. 29b). There is evidence that in some communities, selections from the Hagiographa were also read. This explains the frequent quotations from this part of the Bible found in the various midrashic passages which comment on Pentateuchal themes. The saying of R. *Akiva (Sanh. 10:1) that one who reads the external books has no share in the world to come refers, in all probability, to the public readings of such books as those of the Apocrypha.

The Reading of the Torah Today

The Pentateuch is divided into 54 portions; one is to be read each Sabbath. Two such portions are sometimes read on a single Sabbath; otherwise the cycle could not be completed in one year. (See Table: Scriptural Readings on Sabbaths.) On festivals, a special portion dealing with the theme of that festival is read from one scroll and the relevant portion of Numbers 28:16–29:39 from the second scroll. (See Table: Holiday Scriptural Readings.) The regular portion is not read on a Sabbath coinciding with a festival. Each weekly portion is divided into seven smaller ones; the actual point of division, however, varies in the different rites. The Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews do not read the same haftarot on certain Sabbaths. There are also occasions when different portions are read in Israel and the Diaspora (as a consequence of the observance of second days of festivals outside Israel). The cycle of readings begins on the Sabbath after *Sukkot and is completed on the last day of this festival (Simḥat Torah). Since the early part of the 19th century, various attempts have been made to reintroduce the triennial cycle; Buechler, in reply to a query by an Anglo-Jewish congregation, observed: "If you ask me about the din ("law"), I have to answer that it is against our codified law from the 12th century onward, and even much earlier in Babylon whence our law proceeded. If you introduce the triennial cycle, you separate yourself from the main body of Judaism" (London, New West End Synagogue, Report on the Sabbath Reading of the Scriptures in a Triennial Cycle (1913), 9). Many contemporary Reform and Conservative congregations follow the practice of reading about a third of the portion for the week from the portions of the annual cycle. In some of these congregations, women are called to the reading of the Torah; the practice is substantiated by some traditional sources (see A.B. Blumenthal in Rabbinical Assembly America, Proceedings, 19 (1956), 168–81). In a few synagogues, it is customary to read the haftarah from a handwritten scroll of the prophets but in most communities, the haftarah is read from a printed book. The haftarah reading, therefore, requires less expertise and it is customary that it is read by a member of the congregation, and not a special official. In modern communities, the old practice of selling the aliyyot (from a root meaning "to ascend" i.e., the platform from which the Torah is read) has been discontinued.

The Laws and Customs of Reading the Torah

The Torah scroll is taken from the ark and carried in procession around the synagogue before and after the reading; the congregation stands during the procession. According to rabbinic authorities, Leviticus 19:32 "Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head and honor the face of the old man, and thou shalt fear thy God: l am the Lord," means that one must rise when a Torah scholar, as well as an old man, passes by. The argument is developed that if one must rise before those who study the Torah, how much more before the Torah itself (Kid. 33b). It has become customary for the congregation to gather around the scroll and kiss it as it passes.

The reader must prepare himself well by rehearsing the portion he is to read. He must stand erect while reading and must enunciate the words clearly but not excessively. If he reads a word incorrectly, so that its meaning is changed, he must repeat it. The Torah can only be read if at least a minyan ("ten adult males") are present. Although it is permitted to add to the number of persons called to the reading on the Sabbath, no less than three verses are to be read for each person. The portions are frequently subdivided for this purpose, but care must be taken not to end a passage with an unfavorable topic. A person is called to the reading by his Hebrew name and that of his father. If he is a rabbi, he is called by this title (morenu ha-rav). He ascends the bimah (raised platform from which the Torah is read) by the shortest route and descends by the longest, thus demonstrating his eagerness to be called and his reluctance to leave. If he is seated in the middle of the synagogue, so that both routes are equidistant, he should ascend to the right and descend to the left. Both before and after the reading, he recites special benedictions (see *Birkat ha-Torah).

The kabbalists consider the reading of the Torah a dramatic re-enactment of the theophany at Sinai; the reader is in place of the Almighty, the person called to the reading represents the people to whom the Torah was given, and the segan ("the congregational leader who apportions the aliyyot and stands at the side of the reader") has the role of Moses. Others, for whom the Torah reading is also this dramatic re-enactment, consider the segan in place of the Almighty and the reader in place of Moses. R. Simeon said: "When the scroll of the Torah is taken out in public to be read there from the heavenly gates of mercy are opened and the love from above is awakened. A man should then say: 'Blessed be the name…'" (Zohar Ex. 206a). This mystical prayer, Berikh Shemei, is found in most prayer books and is recited in many congregations.

There are seven aliyyot on a Sabbath, of which the first goes to a kohen, the second to a levite, and five to Israelites. If no levite is present, the kohen is called again to the regular levite portion. If no kohen is present, either a levite or an Israelite is called to the kohen portion and a levite is not then called to the second portion, but an Israelite. A kohen or levite may not be called to any of the five Israelite portions. However, since it is permitted to add to these he may be called to the last additional portion. A father and son, or two brothers, may not be called consecutively to the Torah reading, for fear of the "evil eye" or to prevent near relatives from testifying together which is forbidden by Jewish law. (The calling up to the Torah is to attest its truth.) The following persons take precedence in being called to the Torah:

(1) a bridegroom who is to be married during the following week or was married that week;

(2) a boy who has reached his religious majority (bar mitzvah);

(3) a man whose wife has borne him a child;

(4) a man commemorating the death of a parent (yahrzeit);

(5) a man rising from mourning (shivah).

On the Sabbath it is considered an honor to receive the highly valued third and sixth aliyyot. It is customary to allot them to men of special learning or piety. The same applies to the last aliyah, particularly when the reading is from one of the concluding portions of the five books. Other valued portions are the Song of Moses (Ex. 15:1–21) and the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1–14 and Deut. 5:6–18). The congregation stands while these portions are being read. The portions Exodus 32:1–33:6; Leviticus 26:14–43; Numbers 11; and Deuteronomy 28:15–68 are read softly because they deal with Israel's backsliding. The last few verses of the maftir ("final portion") of the sidrah are repeated for the person called to read the haftarah. This can be given to a kohen or a levite and, unlike the others, also to a minor.

The Torah reading is cantillated in a specific way which is distinct from that of the haftarah. The Ashkenazi and the Sephardi rites have different cantillations for the reading. There are also special cantillations for the Book of Esther, the Book of Lamentations, and for the Books of Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. It is considered wrong to substitute one cantillation for another. The verse: "You shall not move your neighbor's landmarks, set up by previous generations" (Deut. 19:14) is cited when such a change is attempted. The reader does not have to repeat words read with an incorrect cantillation (for the musical aspects see *Masoretic Accents, Musical Rendition). In Sephardi congregations, the open scroll is lifted (hagbahah) and shown to the congregation before the reading; in Ashkenazi congregations this ceremony is performed after the reading. When the scroll is raised, the congregation chants: "This is the law which Moses set before the children of Israel" (Deut. 4:44). After the reading, the scroll is rolled together again (gelilah) and its ornaments are replaced.

The Torah may only be read from a scroll that is kasher ("fit for use"), and not from one rendered pasul ("unfit") because it had been incorrectly written or its words or letters have been obliterated. A scroll is unfit for use, even if only one letter has been omitted. The scroll must be unpointed; it should have no other signs than the consonants. If the vowel signs or the notes for cantillation have been written in the scroll, it is unfit for use. If during the reading it is discovered that the scroll is unfit, it should be returned to the ark and another scroll taken out. The reading from the second scroll is continued from the place where the mistake was discovered. Should this occur on a Sabbath, the required number of seven persons must be called up to the reading of the second scroll, even if some have already been called up to the reading of the first.

Most Reform temples in the United States have shortened or abandoned the traditional Torah readings and a number of Conservative temples have substituted the old triennial cycle of readings. In non-Orthodox congregations where women are counted as part of the minyan, they may also receive an aliyah and girls may celebrate their bat mitzvah like boys with a reading from their portion.


Sh. Ar., oḤ 135–49; D.B.D. Reifmann, Shulḥan ha-Keri'ah (1882); Zunz-Albeck, Derashot, index, s.v.Keri'at ha-Torah; Buechler, in: jqr, 5 (1892/93), 420–68; 6 (1893/94), 1–73; Elbogen, Gottesdienst, index, s.v.Tora Vorlesung; J. Mann, The Bible as Read and Preached in the Old Synagogue, 1 (1940); idem and I. Sonne, ibid., 2 (1966).

[Louis Jacobs]

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