From Moshe to Maimonides:
The Evolution of Public Torah Reading

This article was printed in the Kankan Journal Vol 2. Issue 11 Iyar 5780

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.”[1] 

Nevertheless, a Braysa[2] 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.”[3] 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.[4] 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,[5] 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.[6] Neither Chazal nor the Rishonim provide more details about the mandated Torah readings at that time.

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,[7] 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 extra 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 Ritva[8] 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.[9]

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. The Gemara goes on to tell us that the more sanctified the day, the more aliyos it must include in its readings.[10] 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. Chazal[11] tell 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 to three and a half years.

This system was based on dividing the Torah into Sedarim two considerations in mind. 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).[12] This consideration is the motivation for the strange repetition of pesukim on Rosh Chodesh in order to accommodate the two-pasuk-long parsha.[13]

The accounts that we have of these Sedarim systems, range anywhere from, 141[14] to 154[15] to 16[16]to 175 weekly 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.[17] The lack of uniformity in this system is not a scholarly debate, but rather a reflection of reality. The Maharshal teaches that there was no uniformity to the system of Eretz Yisrael,[18] and that every community kept to their own schedule and customs and therefore completed the Torah at different times.

While the Rambam makes it clear that the custom throughout the Jewish world is to complete the Torah in one year,[19] 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.[20]  Indeed, there are accounts of that system being used in Egypt as late as 1672.[21]

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.[22]  The aforementioned reality of the lack of uniformity and the desire to have one system for the entire Jewish people likely played a role. 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.

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.

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.[23] 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.[24] 

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.[25] 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.

[1] Devorim 31:10-11

[2] Bava Kama 82a

[3] Shemos 15:22

[4] Yerushalmi Megilla 4:1, Meseches Sofrim 10:1

[5] Toras Chaim Bava Kama 82a

[6] Koveh Yehoshua Ibid.

[7] Bava Kama 82a

[8] Megillah 2a

[9] Rif Megillah 12a

[10] Ibid. 21a Rashi

[11] Megillah 29b, Esther Rabbah 3, Meseches Sofrim 16:8

[12] Ibid. 22a

[13] Bamidbar 18:1-5

[14] Keser, Joel, Issachar

[15] Halichos Kedem, Rapoport, p. 11

[16] C.D. Ginsburg’s Masoreticocritical Edition of the Hebrew Bible (London, 1894)

[17] Meseches Sofrim 16:8

[18] Yam Shel Shlomo Bava Kama 48

[19] Mishna Torah Hil.Tefilah 13:1

[20] Avraham Ben HaRambam, Hammanhig, p.11

[21] Neubauer, Medieval Jewishl Chronicles, p. 118

[22]  The 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

[23] Megillah 31b

[24] Mishna Torah Hil. Tefila 13:2

[25] Epstein, Sheldon, Dickman, Bernard, and Wilamowsky, Yona, Parsha Management – Doubling, Halving, Accuracy, Ḥakirah 2 © 2005 p. 65-113