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Citation for Reading from the Torah

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Shinan, Avigdor . "The Bible in the Synagogue." In The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Jan 26, 2022. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195297515/obso-9780195297515-div1-1092>.


Shinan, Avigdor . "The Bible in the Synagogue." In The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195297515/obso-9780195297515-div1-1092 (accessed Jan 26, 2022).

Reading from the Torah

According to a tradition recorded in the Talmud (b. B. K. 82a), a custom had already been established during the time of Moses—and later re‐affirmed by Ezra the Scribe—to read from the Torah every Monday, Thursday, and Sabbath, so that the Jewish people would not remain without Torah for three consecutive days. This tradition, even if it cannot be substantiated, confers great antiquity and considerable importance on the custom of reading from the Torah. It seems likely that initially people gathered for the reading and study of selected sections of the Torah on festivals or other special days, but that during the Second Temple period the custom of a weekly reading from the Torah, in order, from beginning to end, was gradually established.

The reading of the Torah in most Jewish communities (at least until the 19th century, when some modern movements introduced changes) follows the custom consolidated by Babylonian Jewry during the period of the Sages and the geonim. There is some indication that this custom originated in the land of Israel, but even if this is so, it was the Babylonian Jewry that granted it pivotal status. According to this custom, the Torah is read in an annual cycle, divided into 54 fixed sections, called “parashiyot” (singular: “parashah”). The full parashah is read in the synagogue on Sabbath morning, between the Shaπarit and Musaf prayer services. On Sabbath afternoon (during the Minπah service) and during Shaπarit on Monday and Thursday mornings, the beginning verses from the parashah that will be read in full on the following Sabbath are read. Designated sections of the Torah whose themes are appropriate are also read on special days such as festivals, Rosh Ḥodesh (the new moon), and public fast days, as well as other special occasions. For example, the passage describing the religious precept of blotting out the remembrance of Amalek (Deut. 25.17–19 ) is read on the Sabbath preceeding Purim, due to the connection between Haman and the Amalekites (Esth. 3.1 ). Most of these special excerpts were already selected for this purpose during the rabbinic period (b. Meg. 31a–b, etc.).

The division of the Torah into 54 parashiyot (instead of the expected 52) stems from the fact that in certain years there are 54 Sabbath days. This is possible only in a leap year, which contains 13 lunar months, and even then provided that hardly any festivals occur on Sabbath. (When a festival does occur on Sabbath, the passage which is read from the Torah is one associated with that festival rather than the weekly parashah.) In a year that has fewer Sabbath days, as is the case in most years, two consecutive parashiyot are joined in accordance with predetermined rules (e.g., Mattot and Mas‘ei from the book of Numbers [ 30.2–32.42 and 33.1–36.13 ], or Nitsavim and Va‐yelekh from Deuteronomy [ 29.9–30.20 and 31.1–30 ]), so that the entire reading will be concluded within one year and by a fixed date in the calendar. This date is the day after the Sukkot festival, which is called Simπat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah); on the following Sabbath, referred to as Shabbat Bereshit (the sabbath of the parashah of Bereshit, the first parashah), the Torah reading recommences with Genesis. The division of the Torah into parashiyot and the assignment of each parashah to a given week are essentially identical in all Jewish communities throughout the world. They are predictable and follow a fixed routine.

The Torah is read in the synagogue from a parchment scroll and seven (or more) people are called up to the Torah for the reading, one after the other. The parchment scroll contains the unvocalized text of the Torah without the diacritical marks (for chanting), so that the reading requires skill and preparation. In antiquity, each person called to the Torah would read his own passage (b. Kid. 49a), but as time passed, it became customary for each person called up to the Torah (who had an ‘aliyah) to recite only the blessings before and after the reading, while another individual designated for this task, and who had prepared himself for it, would read the parashah. The regulations for reading from the Torah were fashioned by halakhah and custom into clear rules: the order of those called to the Torah, their number, the passages apportioned to each of them, the blessings recited by those called up, the manner in which the congregation congratulates them, etc. The blessings recited by each honoree before and after the reading are noteworthy (b. Ber. 11b). Their main emphasis is on the choosing of the Jewish People, expressed among other things, in the giving of the Torah, the “Torah of truth” with its promise of “everlasting life.”

It becomes apparent that in the land of Israel during the period of the Rabbis or Sages and that of the geonim (as well as in some communities outside the land of Israel that assumed its custom), a different mode of reading from the Torah was widespread, referred to inaccurately as the “triennial cycle” (cf. b. Meg. 29b). Here, too, the Torah was read in sequence, but it was divided into a greater number of readings (called “sedarim” [singular: “seder”]). The length of each seder and the overall number of sedarim in the Torah varied from one synagogue to another. That which was read in one synagogue on Sabbath was not necessarily identical to that read on the same Sabbath in another synagogue. Moreover, even the seder read in a particular synagogue on a certain Sabbath did not have to be identical in length with what would be read in later years in the same synagogue when the same Torah portion was reached.

Each synagogue and community on each Sabbath would determine for itself the length of the Torah reading, according to its cus‐ tom or requirements: the desire to honor more people with the Torah reading, the presence of a groom in the synagogue, the time available, and so forth. The earliest halakhah (m. Ber. 4:4) requires that each reader recite at least three verses from the Torah, but it does not specify the maximum number permitted. The Mishnah (ibid., 4:1) further requires that at least seven people should read from the Torah every Sabbath, but it allows additional participants. In other words, at least twenty‐one verses were read on each occasion, but apparently the reading would often be extended, in accordance with the desires of the readers and their number, or in order to conclude the reading at an appropriate point, rather than in the middle of a subject. If we assume that eight or nine peo‐ple read from the Torah each Sabbath, and that each of them would read about four or five verses, we can conclude that at this pace each synagogue completed its Torah reading in approximately three years. The evidence we possess (mostly from discoveries over the past century, primarily from the Cairo Genizah) indicates numerous Torah reading cycles that extended over 141–175 Sabbaths. Thus, it is also clear that it would have been impossible to set any fixed date in the annual calendar at which the Torah reading would either conclude or recommence. The festival we now call Simπat Torah was celebrated in the land of Israel at the very most on the Sabbath on which the Torah reading was concluded, approximately once in three years, and at a different time in each synagogue because in the land of Israel there was no fixed date to conclude the Torah reading in the annual calendar.

A person attending a synagogue in the land of Israel in ancient times, who had not been present there on the previous Sabbath, could not know beforehand which seder he was about to hear. Reading over a cycle of three years resulted in a particular story in the Torah being read at one time in winter and at another in the summer; or in a legal portion such as our parashah of Mishpatim (Exod. chs 21–24 ) being subdivided in different ways in different years. A preacher who came to the synagogue to give a sermon on a subject arising from the Torah reading and who had not previously enquired as to where the congregation stood in their Torah reading cycle would likely find himself more than surprised or even totally unprepared—a situation not entirely unknown (see Lev. Rab. 3:6). A person who wandered from one synagogue to the next would read about the birth of Moses on one Sabbath, mourn his death with another congregation on the following Sabbath, and then hear of Moses walking upon the face of the earth if he came the next Sabbath to a synagogue in the process of reading from Leviticus or Numbers. Flexible reading systems like these may possibly fit the customs of smaller congregations permanently located in one place, but it would be most difficult to utilize them to construct a national religious system extending over distant locations. This, then, would seem to be the reason why the Babylonian custom eventually won out, replacing the customs of the land of Israel in a process which reached its final stages around the 12th century. From then on, all those attending synagogue would hear the entire Torah every year, and this undoubtedly was sufficient to forcefully instill the Torah into the cultural agenda.

The Haftarah

The last of those called up to the Torah on Sabbath and festivals remains on the podium after the reading has concluded, and then reads (usually from a printed vocalized text, not a scroll) an additional portion from Scripture, taken from the Prophets. This reading is termed “haftarah” (a word that means conclusion), as it brings the readings from Scripture on Sabbath and festivals to their end.

The haftarah section is often connected either linguistically or in content with the weekly parashah, e.g., the haftarah which begins with the verse “King David was now old and advanced in years” (1 Kings 1.1 ) is read on the Sabbath when the passage “Abraham was old and advanced in years” is read (Gen. ch 24 ); or the Prophet Isaiah’s mention of the flood (ch 54 ) is read on the Sabbath when the story of the flood is read from the Torah. At other times, however, the haftarah has a particular connection with the occasion upon which it is read, such as the haftarah beginning with the words “Comfort, oh comfort my people” (Isa. ch 40 ), which is always recited on the Sabbath after Tish‘ah be’av (a day of national mourning), or the haftarah which begins “Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God“ (Hos. 14.2ff .), which is read in the Sabbath preceding Yom Kippur.

It is most likely that the institution of the haftarah was created at the close of the Second Temple era, during the great dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans, the latter deeming the Torah to be holy, but not accepting the sanctity of the prophetic books. The decision to read something from the Prophets every Sabbath was apparently part of the polemic against the Samaritans, as though the Jews wished to state: The books of the Proph‐ets are also holy, and are also the word of God, so it is appropriate to read them publicly and to recite a blessing upon their reading. The blessings recited before and after the haftarah (“.‐.‐.‐Who has chosen good prophets, and desires their words, which are spoken in truth‐.‐.‐.‐,” “.‐.‐.‐Who has chosen the Torah and His prophet Moses and His people Israel and prophets of truth and righteousness”) clearly emphasize this point. Evidence for the reading of the haftarah may already be found in the Apocrypha (2 Macc. 15.9 ) and in the New Testament (Luke 4.16–30 ). The subject is also discussed extensively in various contexts in the literature of the Sages (e.g., m. Meg. 4:1–3; 3:5–6).

It seems that initially the choice of passage to be read from the Prophets and its precise length was made by the the reader of the haftarah himself (called the maftir), or according to the custom of his congregation. As time passed, however, these readings also became formalized, attaining permanent status. Here, too, halakhah and custom brought about orderly, fixed lists of haftarot. But certain differences are notable even today among the various communities of the Jewish people—Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Yemenite, and Italian Jews—being the heritage of those flexible and dynamic times in antiquity. Needless to say, in ancient times in the land of Israel, where the extent of the Torah readings was irregular and flexible, there were numerous alternative customs for the haftarot. (A modern commentary on the haftarot is Haftarot: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation, commentary by Michael Fishbane [Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002].)

Thus, with regard to the manner in which reading from the Torah and the haftarah were consolidated, the land of Israel and Bab‐ ylonia reveal two opposite conceptions concerning uniformity and permanence, the quantity of Torah and prophetic readings to which the synagogue congretation was exposed on Sabbath and festivals, and the total annual extent.

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