Monday, 10 January 2022

The Torah Reading


The formal reading of the Torah in public is a rabbinic institution, but one of the oldest we have. Chazal tell us that after the Jewish People travelled three days from Yam Suf into the desert without Torah, they became weary.[1] The prophets among them stepped in and instituted public reading of the Torah[2] every Monday, Thursday and Shabbos, in order to prevent such a situation re-occurring.[3]

In this post, I would like to examine some aspects of the format of this mitzvah. My perception is that significant misunderstanding exists in relation to the responsibilities of the individuals who read from the Torah, are 'called up' to the Torah, and those who just listen. This in turn sometimes leads to incorrect application of some of the halachos of the Torah reading, and I will attempt to provide some clarity.

One preliminary point that I will be assuming is that the institution of the Torah reading was made as a mitzvah for the community as a whole, rather than as a private obligation on the individual. Although there is some discussion of this question among later commentaries, I believe that the plural language used by Chazal "the prophets among them stood up and instituted for them" clearly indicates that the institution is a communal one, and I have not seen any evidence for an individual obligation.[4]

The Annual Cycle

Before discussing the various roles of individuals during the Torah reading, I would like to start by explaining several sources in relation to the amount that we are required to read, and the progression throughout the year. There are many such sources in Chazal, some of which appear contradictory and require resolution.

1)    The gemara tells us that the original institution was for just three pesukim (verses) to be read at each public Torah reading, either by one person or by three different people. Much later, Ezra increased this to three people reading a total of ten pesukim, as well as instituting a fourth weekly Torah reading on Shabbos afternoon.3

2)    Elsewhere, there is a dispute regarding the continuity of the four weekly Torah readings. All agree that the Shabbos afternoon reading starts where the Shabbos morning reading finishes. R' Meir says that similarly, on Monday we should start where the Shabbos afternoon reading left off, on Thursday we should start where we left off on Monday, and on Shabbos morning we start where we finished on Thursday. Our practice follows R' Yehuda, who says that on Monday, Thursday and Shabbos morning we should start at the same place that we started on the previous Shabbos afternoon.[5] 

3)    The Mishna tells us explicitly that on Shabbos morning, seven different people read from the Torah.[6] As each person must read a minimum of three pesukim,[7] this gives a minimum of 21 pesukim in total. 

4)    The gemara tells us that in contrast to the accepted practice in Bavel (Babylon), where each Torah section is read at the same time of year each year, in Eretz Yisrael the practice was to complete the Torah only every three years.[8] 

5)   The gemara tells us that Ezra instituted that the curses at the end of Sefer Vayikra should be read before Shevuos, and those at the end of Sefer Devarim should be read before Rosh Hashana.[9] 

The last two sources provide evidence that the annual cycle of the Torah reading already existed at the time of Chazal, [10] and possibly also at the time of Ezra. No special Torah reading is required in order to fulfil the institution of Ezra in the last source, as the scheduling of our weekly Torah reading is designed to ensure that the correct sections are read before Shevuos and before Rosh Hashana. 

However, if the annual Torah reading cycle were really part of the institution of Ezra, the practice in Eretz Yisrael of completing the Torah only every three years would be in violation of this institution. Yet the omission of any criticism of this 'deviant' practice implies that this is not the case. R' Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman[11] observes that either in Eretz Yisrael the institution of Ezra was fulfilled by special extra Torah readings, or this institution was not universally accepted.[12] 

Nowadays, the ancient Babylonian practice has become globally accepted and should not be altered.[13] However, it would seem that if for whatever reason a community was not able to read from the Torah one week (or several weeks, as we experienced recently due to the global pandemic), there is no obligation to make this up. 

Nevertheless, the Ohr Zarua (R' Yitzchak of Vienna, 1180-1250) writes that when the Torah reading was missed one week in Cologne, R' Eliezer ben R' Shimon zt"l (an otherwise unknown rabbi, not to be confused with R' Elazar ben R' Shimon the Tana) ruled that the community must make up the reading the next week. Astonishingly, the claim made is that the annual completion of the Torah is an institution from the days of Moshe Rabbeinu![14] 

If this claim is to be taken literally, I do not see how it can be reconciled with the sources above. I have seen a suggestion that the Ohr Zarua only meant that there was an ancient institution from the days of Moshe Rabbeinu for the weekly Torah readings to be continuous, taking over where we left off the previous week (as in source 2 above). Exactly how much is read, and how often we complete the Torah, is subject to different customs.[15] 

The truth is that even this watered-down version of the ruling of the Ohr Zarua is questionable. It is far from clear from the sources above that continuity was part of the original institution. It is also not obvious that each community has its own independent obligation to 'make up lost ground' where a Torah reading was missed due to exceptional circumstances.[16] 

Either way, the basic point to learn from all of the above is that the fundamental obligation of reading from the Torah four times a week precedes any rules about what exactly should be read. If a community was cut off from the rest of the world, and did not remember what was read the week before, they would still be obligated to read from the Torah. Where to read from would be a secondary, relatively minor question. 

Who should read? 

As mentioned above, Ezra instituted the obligation of three separate readers reading from the Torah each Monday, Thursday and Shabbos afternoon. This number is increased to four, five or six readers for the readings on various special days, and on Shabbos morning, at least seven different people must read.[17] 

Today, the almost universal practice is that by default, just one person reads from the Torah (unless it is difficult to find one person who is able to learn the entire reading). The required three to seven 'readers' just say the brachos before and after each section, relying on the "ba'al koreh" to do the actual reading. The rishonim dispute the reason for this change. 

Tosfos quote the explanation of Rabbeinu Tam, that having one fixed reader is in order to avoid embarrassing those who don't know how to read. The precedent for such an idea is found in a Mishna regarding the declaration said when bringing Bikurim (first fruits), where it was instituted that all those bringing Bikurim, whatever their level of literacy, should repeat the words after a designated reader. Before this institution, those who were able to read themselves did so, and others avoided bringing Bikurim altogether because of the embarrassment.[18] 

The Rosh rejects this reasoning, arguing that on the contrary, embarrassment would have a net positive effect of encouraging people to learn to read for themselves. Regarding Bikurim, this gain is not worth the loss of the entire mitzvah by those who would suffer the embarrassment, but this is not relevant when it comes to reading from the Torah. 

Rather, the Rosh argues that having a designated Torah reader is to solve an opposite problem. Some people are not proficient at reading but overestimate their own ability, and were we to allow them to read they would make mistakes and the community would not fulfil their obligation. Allowing only the proficient to read would lead to arguments, so the best solution is to have just one designated reader. 

The Rosh continues that despite the institution of a designated reader, those who are called to the Torah must read along quietly. One who does not know how to read should not be called to the Torah, as making a bracha without reading would be an unnecessary bracha (ברכה לבטלה), a serious violation.[19] 

According to either view, it would seem that even if the person called to the Torah knows how to read himself, he should not ask to do so. According to Rabbeinu Tam this could lead to embarrassment for those who do not know how to read; according to the Rosh this should not be allowed out of concern that those who cannot read accurately enough will also want to read. 

In many shuls, this question rarely comes up due to the rarity of finding a person who can read without preparation. The reader may also have put in time into his preparation, and be upset if this preparation was 'wasted.' However, in certain congregations it is quite accepted for some of those called to the Torah to read on their own. This may be based on a third view, that no 'institution' of a designated reader was ever made. It is far from ideal to have someone else read on behalf of the person called, and this should be avoided where possible.[20] 

Is listening good enough? 

Our practice, apparently based on the view of Rabbeinu Tam, is to allow those who are unable to read, or even the blind, to be called to the Torah.[21] The rationale given for this is that we can apply the principle commonly used in the fulfilment of many other mitzvos – listening to another person reading is equivalent to reading in person (שומע כעונה).[22] 

Evidently, the Rosh felt that this principle does not apply to the Torah reading. Some have given somewhat convoluted explanations for this,[23] but I believe that the reason is simple. Ezra did not institute the requirement for three separate readers for nothing (and Chazal did not extend this to seven readers on Shabbos morning for nothing). Having a variety of different readers gives the Torah reading a more public nature, increasing the likelihood that people will stay interested and feel a part in what is going on.[24] Although technically everyone might be part of the reading just by listening, in this case Ezra (and Chazal) explicitly did not want to make use of this technicality.[25] 

The truth is that even our practice of having one designated reader does not allow for a limitless application of the שומע כעונה principle. Were this to be the case, one reader could make all of the brachos on behalf of the individuals called to the Torah. Although we may not be acting fully in accordance with the intention of the original institution of reading from the Torah, we do go some way towards connecting people to this mitzvah. 

It should be obvious that the best way to improve this is to teach people how to read from the Torah from a young age. I have no idea why many schools teach Chumash and Tanach without the cantillation notes (trop), but this is clearly the major cause of the continued need for designated readers even in the most religious of shuls.

[1] It is possible that the weariness referred to is a spiritual weariness.

[2] Although the Torah had not even been given yet, R' Soloveitchik explains that the original institution was to proclaim the word of Hashem in public. Once the Torah was given, or possibly even at a later date, this institution took on a more formal nature of the Torah reading as we know it. This explains why the gemara stresses that it was the prophets who enacted this practice – prior to the giving of the Torah, only prophets could proclaim the word of Hashem.

[3] Bava Kamma 82a

[4] Of course, under normal circumstances individuals may not absolve themselves from the communal reading (see Collective Obligations and Responsibility regarding the nature of communal mitzvos). A possible exception may exist for a person studying Torah, although there is much dispute as to the circumstances in which this exception applies (see Brachos 8a and commentaries thereon). However, if for whatever reason an individual misses the public Torah reading, he is under no obligation to attend a later reading to 'catch up.'

[5] Megila 31b

[6] Megila 21a

[7] Megila 22a

[8] Megila 29b

[9] Megila 31b

[10] There are additional hints elsewhere, but these are less clear. Megila 31a says that on the second day of Shmini Atzeres (outside of Israel) we read Vesos Habracha (the last parsha in the Torah), but it is far from clear there that this represents the completion of the whole Torah.

Berachos 8b, in reference to the obligation on the individual of completing the private reading of שנים מקרא ואחד תרגום (the Torah twice, together with one reading of Targum Onkelos), rejects the suggestion of fulfilling this obligation all on one day on Erev Yom Kippur. Here again, it is not clear that the whole Torah would need to be read each year.

[11] R' Hillman was born in 1868 in Lithuania and served as a rav and dayan in Berazino, Glasgow and London before retiring and moving to Yerushalayim. He was the father-in-law of R' Yitzchak Herzog.

[12] Ohr Hayashar, Megila 31b. He brings additional evidence to this institution not being universally accepted from the fact that it does not appear on the list of Ezra's institutions in Bava Kama 82b. See also Kiryat Sefer (of the Meiri) 1:5:1, who brings various proofs that the annual cycle was an ancient custom that existed in the times of Chazal and even in the times of the Nevi'im, but refrains from calling it an obligation.

[13] See Brachos on Mitzvos in relation to the halachic significance of accepted practices.

[14] Or Zarua part 2, Hilchos Shabbos siman 45. This ruling is also quoted by the Rema in Orach Chaim 135:2.

[16] Historically, when travel was less common, it is likely that communities in different parts of the world followed different cycles. Under these circumstances, if one community missed a Torah reading it would be less difficult to make up lost ground, as there would be no rush to get back in synchrony with communities elsewhere. Nowadays, when people often daven in different places from week to week and there is a significant advantage to having each community reading the same section on the same day, it seems more prudent to ensure that all shuls are holding in the same place, even if this comes at the cost of missing a parsha when necessary.

[17] In relation to the institution of Ezra, there is no mention in the gemara of any distinction between the four weekly readings. It is quite possible that the requirement of seven readers on Shabbos morning, as well as the different numbers on other special occasions, were later institutions.

[18] Tosfos Bava Basra 15a (ד"ה שמונה פסוקים), based on Bikurim 3:7.

[19] Rosh, Megila 3:1. Elsewhere, the Rosh clarifies that it is ok to call someone to the Torah who is able to read along quietly with the help of hearing the designated reader (T'shuvas HaRosh 3:12).

[20] The Rambam in chapter 12 of Hilchos Tefila brings the laws of the Torah reading and does not make any mention of the possibility of one designated reader. It is quite possible that according to the Rambam, even reading along quietly together with the designated reader is not sufficient.

[21] See Rema, Orach Chaim 139:3 (see also Biur Halacha 141:2, who claims that the Rema agrees that one who is able to read quietly together with the designated reader, should certainly do so). The Sefardim also follow this lenient view, despite the Shulchan Aruch ruling that a blind person may not read from the Torah, and that the one called to the Torah must read at least quietly (ibid. and 141:2). R' Ovadya is quoted as ruling leniently so as not to cause stress to the blind (see this link in Hebrew).

[22] Taz 141:3

[23] See this piece (in Hebrew) in the name of R' Soloveitchik.

[24] The requirement of calling a Kohen, a Levi and a Yisrael, representing a cross-section of the Jewish People (see Shabbos 88a), to read, is also part of this idea.

[25] The Biur Halacha (141:1) may be alluding to this when he observes that Chazal did not institute a bracha for those who merely hear the reading of the Torah.

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