Reading the Torah
By Shira Schoenberg
The tradition of reading the Torah out loud dates back to the time of Moses
while the practice of "completing" the Torah reading with a passage from the Navi,
called the, is mentioned in the Mishnah. Today, the Torah is divided into 54 portions,
one to be read each Sabbath with two portions read together twice during the year,
and the entire reading is completed every calendar year.
The tradition of reading the Torah out loud dates back to the time of Moses, who would read the Torah publicly on Shabbat, festivals, and Rosh Chodesh. According to the Talmud, it was Ezra the Scribe who established the practice, which continues today, of reading the Torah also on Monday and Thursday mornings and Shabbat afternoons. These days were picked because Monday and Thursday were traditionally days that the Jews would go to the nearest towns to shop and trade. Also, this way the people would never go for more than three days without getting spiritual sustenance from the Torah. There were breaks in the practice, but since the Maccabean period in the 2nd century BCE, public Torah reading has been maintained continuously. It was also in the Maccabean period that the Jews started reading from the Torah consecutively, reading on Shabbat afternoon, Monday, and Thursday from the point at which they left off the previous Shabbat morning.
In the early times, there were two traditions as to how the reading on Shabbat mornings should proceed. In Israel, the Torah was divided into 155 portions and took three years to read. Today, Reform and some Conservative congregations follow this triennial cycle. In Babylonia, the Torah was split in 54 sections and took one year to read (some portions were read together in non-leap years). The size of the sections vary, containing anywhere between 30 and more than 150 verses. This latter custom became accepted for Orthodox and most Conservative Jews. The only break from the weekly cycle is when Shabbat is a holiday with a special Torah portion. The Torah is read on Shabbat and festivals between the shacharit (morning) and mussaf (additional) services and on weekdays at the end of shacharit.
There are always at least three people on the bimah (raised platform from where the Torah is read). According to the Talmud, one should not stand alone to emphasize that God gave the Torah through an intermediary. The person on the bimah is also there to correct the reader's pronunciation and "trop" (also called ta'amei hamikra, meaning a series of musical notations that dictate the tune of how the Torah is read), since the Torah scroll has no punctuation or vowels. A gabbai (synagogue official) is also there to call people up to the Torah.
The reader uses a yad (literally, "a hand"), usually a six to eight inch piece of silver fashioned in the shape of a finger, to point to the words of the Torah as he reads them. This is done so the reader does not obstruct the vision of the person honored with the aliyah and does not mar the dignity of the Torah by touching it. In Sephardi congregations, the Torah is carried inside a large wooden cylinder that stands erect when open, and the Torah parchment is in an upright position when it is read. In Ashkenazi congregations, the Torah lies flat.
There are a few passages in the Torah read quickly and in a low voice. These passages, from the sections of B'chukotai and Ki Tavo, list the curses that befall those who do not observe the law.
Removing and returning the Torah to and from the Ark are among the most ceremonial parts of the service. The honors of opening the Ark (called peticha) and taking out the Torah (hotza'ah) are given to worshipers; in some congregations, these two honors are combined and given to one person. When the Ark is open, the congregation rises out of respect. When the Torah is taken from the Ark, there is a procession in which the Torah is carried around the synagogue and people reach out to kiss it. On Shabbat and holidays, the ritual starts with several biblical and talmudic verses recited out loud in unison. In Ashkenazi custom, these verses begin with the phrase "ein kamocha baelohim adonai v'ain k'maasecha" (There is none like Thee among the gods, O Lord, and there are no works like Thine). Sephardic and Hasidic congregations begin with the words "ata haraita lada'at, ki hashem hu ha'elohim, ain od milvado" (You have been made to recognize that the Lord is God; there is none besides him) and continuing "Av harachamim" (Father of mercy).
At this point, whoever is chosen to take out the Torah approaches the Ark. When the chazzan (prayer leader) begins "Vayehi binsoa" (When the ark would travel), this person opens the Ark doors. If it is a weekday, he immediately takes out the Torah. If it is Shabbat, he waits until after the prayer "Brikh shmei" (Blessed is the Name), a personal prayer in Aramaic asking God to bless the Jewish people. On festivals, a Biblical verse listing the Thirteen Attributes of God and a prayer for personal welfare are inserted before Brikh shemei. The man who removes the Torah scroll hands it to the chazzan and closes the Ark. The chazzan takes the Torah in his arms and says the phrase beginning "gadlu lahashem iti" (Exalt the Lord together with me). On Shabbat and holidays, he faces the congregation and this is prefaced with the verse of Shema and the verse beginning "echad eloheinu, gadol adonenu" (One is our God, great is our Lord). As the congregation responds with verses from Chronicles and Psalms praising God's greatness, the chazzan carries the Torah from the Ark to the bimah. Often, the synagogue leaders follow the Torah in a procession. The Torah is held with the right hand, resting on the right shoulder.
When the Torah is returned to the Ark, the chazzan again holds the Torah and recites a verse from Psalms to which the congregation responds. As the Torah is carried back to the Ark, the congregation recites Psalm 24 (on weekdays) or 29 (on Shabbat). At the words "uvnucho yomar" (and when it rested), whoever is putting back the Torah (called hakhnasah) opens the Ark. He takes the Torah from the chazzan and replaces it in the Ark. As the Torah is being returned, the congregation recites the continuation of a Biblical passage that is recited when the Torah is taken from the ark and concludes with a passage from Lamentations.
The Torah portions are divided into sections, called aliyot (literally, "ascent"). Originally, two blessings were said during the Torah reading: one by the first person before he began to read and one by the last person after he finished. The first blessing emphasized that God chose Israel to receive his Torah and referred to the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The second blessing referred to the Oral Torah. The Borkhu prayer, which is a call to prayer and an invitation to bless God, preceded the first blessing because it marked the beginning of a new section of the service.
During the Talmudic period, the rabbis established that everyone who read a section from the Torah would recite both blessings so all the members of the congregation could hear them even those who had to leave early or come late. In the post-Talmudic period, when the number of people capable of reading the Torah declined, it became customary for one person to read on behalf of everyone That way, one called for an aliyah only had to recite the blessings, although those capable of reading from the Torah would still do so in a quiet voice along with the reader.
There are certain times that it is traditional for a person to receive an aliyah: a bar mitzvah, aufruf (before a man gets married), the naming of a daughter, or before a yahrzeit (anniversary of a parent's death). One can also request an aliyah for special occasions. It is the custom not to give consecutive aliyot to close relatives. In Orthodox congregations, women do not receive aliyot. In Reform and many Conservative congregations, women do.
The first aliyah is always reserved for a kohen (descendent of the priestly tribe that used to serve in the Temple) and the second for a Levite (descendent of the tribe that used to assist the priests in the Temple). The rest go only to Israelites (descendents of any other tribe). If no kohen is present, a Levite or Israelite can be called up with a special phrase of introduction. Reform congregations have abolished this distinction between tribes.
On Monday and Thursday mornings, Shabbat and Yom Kippur afternoons, Hanukkah, Purim, and fast day mornings and afternoons, the Torah is divided into three aliyot. On Rosh Chodesh and chol hamoed (the intermediate days of festivals), there are four aliyot, and on festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, and Rosh Hashanah), there are five. On Yom Kippur morning, there are six, and on Shabbat morning, seven. The number of aliyot was decided by Ezra. It is forbidden to call up fewer than that number and, except for Shabbat and Simchat Torah (the last day of Sukkot), one can also not add aliyot. On Shabbat, some synagogues increase the number of aliyot, particularly if there is an occasion with many guests in attendance, in order to honor more people.
The procedure of each aliyah is the same. The oleh (one who gets an aliyah) is called up by his Hebrew name and the name of his father. The reader will point to the word that he is up to. The oleh will touch the margin area closest to that point with his tallit or the Torah mantle and will touch the tallit or mantle lightly to his lips. He should stand directly in front of the scroll with both hands on the handles (each is called an eitz hayim) projecting from the bottom. With the Torah scroll open, he recites the borkhu and the first Torah blessing. He the releases the left eitz hayim and moves slightly to the right. When the reader completes that portion, the oleh again holds both eitz hayims, rolls the two sides of the scroll together and recites the second blessing. The next oleh is called to the Torah and gabbai recites a personalized blessing (mi she'beirakh) inserting the Hebrew name of the first oleh. Sometimes a blessing will be recited for one who is sick as well. The oleh should remain on the bimah until the following oleh completes the second blessing. There is a custom to ascend the bimah from the right side and descend from the left. It is also traditional to take the shortest route from one's seat to the bimah and a longer route going back, in order to show respect for the Torah by demonstrating excitement at approaching the Torah and hesitation at leaving it.
After the Torah is read, one person is honored with lifting up the Torah (hagbah) and another with rolling and dressing it (glilah). The custom of hagbah dates back to the seventh century. Whoever gets hagbah opens the scroll so that at least three columns are visible. With one hand on each eitz hayim, he slides the Torah down until it is halfway off the table, bends his knees for leverage and lifts the scroll upwards in an upright position as he straightens up. While holding the Torah aloft, he should turn to the right and left so that everyone can see the writing, which is the point of the ritual. When the congregation sees the writing, they recite "v'zot haTorah " (this is the Torah that Moses set before the Children of Israel by the hand of Moses according to the command of God). He then sits down on a chair. In Sephardi congregations, hagbah takes place before the Torah reading.
The one who does glilah takes the handles and rolls the scroll together. He then takes a sash (called a gartl) and wraps it around the scroll, about two-thirds of the way up. He places the mantle on the Torah, and then the breastplate, if there is one. Finally, he will put the yad over one handle, and then a crown or any other decorations that the synagogue uses.
The only aliyah that is different is the maftir, the last aliyah at shacharit on Shabbat and holidays, and at mincha on fast days. This aliyah is not counted as part of the official number of aliyot. The maftir is usually the last few verses of that week's Torah portion. On festivals and certain special Shabbatot, the maftir is a different reading from another part of the Torah. Unlike the other aliyot, a boy under thirteen years old can be called to read the maftir. However, it is generally considered a significant honor to receive this aliyah, and it is often given to someone important in the synagogue or one who is celebrating a special event. The person who receives the maftir generally also recites the haftorah (literally "concluding portion", meaning a reading from the Prophets said on Shabbat and holidays) and the blessings that go with it. The haftorah and maftir are connected to show that the books of the Prophets are rooted in the Torah and cannot be learned independently from the Torah.
The custom of reading the haftorah predates the Talmudic period. Some date it back to the time of King Antiochus, a 2nd century BCE Syrian-Greek who forbade the Jews to read from the Torah but did not extend this ban to the Prophets. The haftorah is selected because of a thematic relationship to the weekly Torah reading or to that day or time period. A boy often reads the haftorah at his bar mitzvah. In non-Orthodox synagogues, a girl reads the haftorah at her bat mitzvah.
There is a single blessing before the haftorah that praises the prophets of Israel and affirms the truth of their message. There are four blessings after the haftorah. The first emphasizes God's truthfulness and his faithfulness in fulfilling His prophecies. The second is a prayer for the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, a message that all the later prophets conveyed. The third is a prayer for the fulfillment of the prophecy that Elijah should bring us the news of the Messiah and the restoration of the House of David. The final blessing is one of thanksgiving for the Torah, for the privilege of worshiping God, for the prophets, and for the Sabbath. It mentions the hope that all of humanity will one day bless God's name. One theory for the reason behind these blessings is that they were instituted in reaction to the Samaritans, a sect that rejected the sanctity of the Books of the Prophets, and the blessings affirm that our beliefs are different from those of the Samaritans.
There are additions made to the Torah service at various times. When one completes the reading of one of the five books of Moses, the congregation stands and says the phrase "Hazak, hazak, v'nithazek" (Be strong, be strong and let us be strengthened). This is encouragement to continue with the reading of the next book and to return again to the previous one. When a boy has a bar mitzvah, after he recites the second Torah blessing of his aliyah, his father says a special blessing. If a person undergoes a dangerous situation such as a serious illness, an accident, time in prison, or a journey, he or she recites "birkhat ha'gomel," a blessing of thanksgiving to God.
Just as a Mi she'beirakh is said after a person is called to an aliyah or for a sick person, a variation of the Mi she'beirakh is also said the Shabbat before a couple is married, when a child is born, and after a bar mitzvah boy is called to the Torah. Often, other Mi she'beirakh prayers, for the welfare of the community, are said after the Torah reading on Shabbat and festivals. Many synagogues say a prayer for the government of their home country. This custom of praying for the welfare of the government started around the 14th century, but is based on ancient traditions written about in the prophets. Today, many synagogues also insert a prayer composed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for the welfare of the State of Israel and another for the soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces as part of a series of prayers immediately following the Torah reading.
Finally, a prayer for the dead called "Kel malei rachamim" (God, who is full of mercy...) is recited on Shabbat afternoons on behalf of anyone in the synagogue who will be commemorating a yahrzeit in the coming week. The prayer asks God to protect and exalt the soul of the relative who has passed on.
1 Parentheses indicate Sephardi ritual.
Donin, Hayim. To
Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer Book and the Synagogue Service.
NY: Basic Books, 1991.