In the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth. (Beresheit 1:1)
1. Two models for the cycle of Torah readings
This week we once again begin the annual cycle of Torah readings. Each Shabbat one or sometimes two parshiyot – sections – of the Torah are read in synagogue. Over the course of the year the entire Torah is reviewed. Maimonides notes this practice and also acknowledges a competing practice. This alternative practice was to divide the Torah into smaller portions and to complete the reading of the entire Torah over a three year period. This practice is noted in the Talmud. Maimonides rejects the three-year cycle. However, this practice was observed in some communities in ancient times. It was observed even by some congregations in Egypt during Maimonides’ era.
The three-year cycle is also discussed in Mesechet Sofrim and in the Jerusalem Talmud. It seems from these sources that the “three-year” cycle was based upon division of the Torah into 175 sections. Each Shabbat one of these sections was read. According to this presentation of the practice, the “three-year” cycle was actually a three and one half year cycle. In other words, the entire Torah was read over a period of 3 ½ years.
For a period of time the two practices competed. Most communities read the entire Torah each year. A few communities completed the Torah over a 3 ½ year period. We take for granted that the Torah should be read in its entirety every year. However, the existence of an alternative practice – the 3 ½ year cycle – suggests that we should consider the reason for our practice and the reason for the alternative practice the – 3 ½ year cycle.
2. The unusual case of the missed Torah reading
Two hints make it easier to understand the reasoning behind these competing practices. Rabbaynu Yitzchak ben Moshe, in his work Ohr Zaruah, discusses an unusual but revealing issue. A community was unable to read the weekly portion on Shabbat. The following Shabbat the community was able to resume the weekly Torah readings. However, the community was uncertain of the appropriate Torah reading. Should the community read the missed portion from the previous Shabbat or should the community read the portion it would normally read and skip the missed portion? Ohr Zaruah responds that the missed portion cannot be skipped. On the Shabbat that Torah reading is resumed, the missed Torah portion and the normal portion for that week should be read.
Ohr Zaruah explains that this response is based upon a fundamental issue regarding our practice of reading the Torah on Shabbat. Each Shabbat does not have an assigned Torah portion that can only be read on the appropriate Shabbat. Instead, each weekly portion is assigned to its Shabbat merely as a scheme for apportioning the reading of the entire Torah among the weeks of the year. In other words, our practice is to read the entire Torah every year. We execute this annual review by apportioning the sections of the Torah to the weeks of the year. Therefore, when a parasha – a section – is missed on its Shabbat, it may not be skipped. It must be read the following week along with that week’s own portion.
3. The annual cycle of the reading of the Torah and its connection to Succot
The second hint that provides insight into these two practices – the completing of the Torah on an annual cycle or on a 3 ½ year cycle – is provided by Maimonides. In discussing the standard practice – to complete the cycle each year – Maimonides explains that the custom is to begin the cycle on the Shabbat following Succot and to complete it on the following Succot.
Maimonides could have simplified his comment by stating that the custom is to renew the cycle each year on the Shabbat following Succot. However, he makes the point that the practice not only includes a starting date for each year’s cycle – the Shabbat following Succot but also the ending point – on Succot. In other words, the annual cycle does not end on Succot merely because it must begin again on the following Shabbat. Completing the cycle on Succot is important in its own right.
Maimonides’ comments explain an interesting detail of our practice. All of the parshiyot – the sections – of the Torah are assigned a Shabbat. One or sometimes two parshiyot are read each Shabbat. However, there is one exception. This is the final section of the Torah. This section is not read on Shabbat. Instead, it is read on Succot – specifically, on Simchat Torah. Why is the final section of the Torah not assigned its own week? Maimonides’ comments explain this odd detail. As he explains, our practice is to complete the annual cycle on Succot – specifically on the last day of the festival. Therefore, this final section is read on the last day of the festival and not assigned its own Shabbat.
4. The compelling rationale of the 3 ½ year cycle
Using these two hints, we can now better understand the two customs regarding the Torah reading cycle. Ohr Zaruah has explained that the purpose of the custom is to complete the entire Torah. In other words, the objective is to read the entire Torah, section by section, to its completion and then to begin the process anew. For the purposes of meeting this objective, which practice is best – the annual reading cycle or the 3 ½ year cycle? The Jerusalem Talmud and Mesechet Sofrim suggest that the Torah is naturally composed of 175 sections. In other words the 3 ½ year cycle conforms to the actual number of sections that compose the Torah.
The annual cycle ignores the actual sections into which the Torah is divided. Instead, it merges sections in order to create a number of readings that conforms to the number of weeks of the year.
Indeed this is a major practical difference between these two practices. The 3 ½ year cycle is based upon the division of the Torah into its 175 sections. Sections are never merged or further divided. The starting date for each cycle is flexible and determined solely by the completion of the previous cycle. No attempt is made to manage the cycle so that it will end or begin at a specific date.
The annual cycle places primary emphasis upon the dates on which the cycle ends and begins. Sections are sometimes merged or read separately as needed. When a festival occurs on a Shabbat, the festival reading replaces the assigned Shabbat reading. In order to compensate for the loss of a Shabbat, two sections are merged. In the Torah calendar, a leap year is created by adding a full month to the year. Each Shabbat of this leap month is assigned a Torah reading. These readings are created by dividing sections that would otherwise be read on a single Shabbat. In other words, various parshiyot are sometimes read individually – each on its own Shabbat – or merged to create a “double-parasha”. The 3 ½ year cycle places a premium on preserving the number of sections into which the Torah is actually divided. The annual cycle emphasizes the ending and starting dates of the cycle and places much less emphasis on preserving the identity of the Torah’s actual sections.
5. The narrative of the Torah and the progression of the festivals
This distinction between the two practices raises a new question. Why does the prevalent practice – the annual cycle – sacrifice preservation of the Torah’s actual section divisions in order to accommodate specific annual beginning and ending dates for Torah readings?
Let’s begin with a more specific question. Why not begin the annual Torah reading cycle with the new year and end it with the ending of the year? Why does our custom select the festival of Succot as the date for the ending of the annual cycle and the Shabbat following Succot for the initiation of the new cycle? Apparently, Succot is a specifically appropriate time for the completion of the Torah reading cycle. Succot is the culmination of our intimate encounter with Hashem that begins in the month of Elul, intensifies with Rosh HaShannah and rises to a crescendo on Yom Kippur. Succot celebrates the intimacy of this encounter with Hashem. It expresses both our recognition of our reliance upon Hashem and our joy in the intimacy of our relationship with Him.
The Torah’s narrative is also an unrelenting progression toward a climax. It begins with creation. It briefly outlines the early history of humanity. Then, the Torah describes the emergence of Avraham. He represents the highest expression of Hashem’s design in creation. His son Yitzchak continues Avraham’s mission as does Yaakov, Avraham’s grandson. Together, these patriarchs form the seed of a nation, Bnai Yisrael. This nation is chosen to be the teachers of humanity and to receive the sacred Torah. The Torah describes the development of this nation – its terrible trials and its triumphs. Revelation is described and the journey through the wilderness to the Land of Israel. The Torah narrative ends with the nation poised to enter the Land of Israel. In the Torah’s final chapters, the nation enters into a new covenant with Hashem. The essence of this covenant is the establishment of a permanent and intimate relationship between Bnai Yisrael and Hashem. In short, the Torah’s narrative describes a progression from creation, through the development of Bnai Yisrael, and culminating with the establishment of a permanent bond of providence and intimacy between Hashem and His nation.
6. Succot and the final chapters of the Torah – a common theme
The final chapters of the Torah share a common theme with the season’s festivals. The season and the Torah narrative focus upon a progression toward encounter and intimacy with Hashem. The Torah deals with this theme on a mega-level. It frames the history of the universe and of humanity as the drama of the progression from void and emptiness to the encounter with and embrasure of the Divine. The High Holiday season and Succot are an annual reenactment of the drama on the micro-scale. Each individual, community, and Bnai Yisrael end the year with a process of seeking Hashem. We reach out for Him as both the awesome king sitting in judgment of humanity and as the benevolent redeemer who invites us to enter into a loving relationship with Him. Therefore, Succot is the ideal time to celebrate the completion of our annual reading of the Torah.
With the passing of Succot and Shemini Atzeret our inspiring encounter with Hashem comes to an end. The wonder and awe that we experienced during the past weeks are replaced with the more pedestrian and mundane. However, immediately, with the passing of Succot and Shemini Atzeret, we renew our annual study of the Torah. Week by week we study its precepts and contemplate its messages. Its narrative describes to us the progression of the universe and humanity toward intimacy with Hashem. As the year progresses, the Torah’s narrative slowly but relentlessly proceeds to its crescendo. We are inspired to emulate the process described on the mega-scale through the Torah’s narrative on a micro and personal scale. As we renew our study of the unfolding revelation of the Divine plan, we are urged and inspired to emulate its drama on a personal and individual level through creating our own narrative of continued spiritual growth and development.
1. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tefilah 13:1.
2. Mesechet Megilah 29b.
3. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tefilah 13:1.
4. Rav Yisachar Jacobson, Netiv Binah, volume 2, pp. 211-212.
5. Mesechet Sofrim 16:10.
6. Talmud Yerushalmi, Mesechet Shabbat 79b (16:1).
7. Rav Yaakov ben Baruch Nuemburg, Nachalat Yaakov Commentary on Mesechet Sofrim 16:10.
8. Rabbaynu Yitzchak ben Moshe of Vienna, Ohr Zaruah, volume 2, chapter 45.
9. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tefilah 13:1.
10. The criterion for the creation of 175 sections is not clear from these sources. For discussion of the issue, see Nachalat Yaakov on Mesechet Sofrim.