Parshas Matos-Masei (5772)
Disclaimer: This week’s “TORCH Torah email” will not be funny, entertaining, or even inspiring – but will hopefully be informative – and that’s also good.
I would like to discuss the time-honored Jewish religious ritual of Kerias HaTorah, the public reading in the synagogue of a set of Biblical passages in Hebrew from a Torah scroll.
As a part of the morning or afternoon prayer services on certain days of the week or holidays, a section of the Five Books of Moses is read from a Torah scroll. On Shabbos (Saturday) mornings, a weekly section (known in Hebrew as a Sedra or Parshah) is read, selected so that the entire Torah is read consecutively and completed each year. On Saturday afternoons, Mondays, and Thursdays, the beginning of the following Saturday's portion is read. On Jewish festivals such as Passover, Shavuos and Sukkos etc., as well as on Rosh Chodesh (the New Month) and fast days, special sections connected to the day are read.
This Shabbos just so happens to have the longest public Torah reading of the year. This is because this weekend - for reasons which have to do with the setup of the Jewish calendar and which are beyond the scope of this article - we read the combined Torah portions of Mattos, which has 112 verses, and Masei, which has 132 verses, for a whopping total of 244 (!) verses!!! [For all you “trivia buffs” out there, the longest single Torah portion in the Torah is Parshas Naso with 176 verses!]
Which begs the question …. why exactly are we sitting in shul on the weekend listening to some guy chanting 244 verses in a foreign language that most of us don’t understand? I mean, is the best use of our time? Could this possibly be what inspired those infamous “Kiddush Clubs”, where the guys sneak away from the services during the Torah Reading for an early helping of scotch and schmaltz herring? What’s the point of this public Torah Reading anyway??
Maimonides writes in his Mishneh Torah, in the Laws of Prayer (Chapter 12, Law 1):
Moses, our teacher, ordained that the Jews should read the Torah publicly on the Sabbath and on Monday and Thursday mornings, so the [people] would never have three days pass without hearing the Torah. Ezra [the Scribe] ordained that [the Torah] should be read during the Minchah service on the Sabbath, because of the shopkeepers. He also ordained that on Mondays and Thursdays, three people should read [from the Torah], and that they should read no fewer than ten verses.
This idea that the Jewish people should never go three days without hearing Torah is explained in the Talmud in Bava Kama 82b where it quotes Exodus 15:22: "And they travelled three days without finding water," and explains: Water refers to the Torah, as [implied by Isaiah 55:1]: "May all the thirsty go to the water." Since they travelled three days without Torah, they complained. The prophets among them arose and ordained that they read Torah on the Sabbath, refrain from reading on Sunday, read on Monday, refrain from reading on Tuesday and Wednesday, read on Thursday, and refrain from reading on Friday, so that they will not spend three days without reading from the Torah.
As mentioned above, Ezra ordained that the Torah should additionally be read during the Minchah (afternoon) service on the Sabbath, because of the “shopkeepers”. Rash”i (in Bava Kama ibid.) explains that during the week, these people were involved with their businesses and could not attend the Torah reading. Therefore, Ezra instituted a special Torah reading for them on the Sabbath, when work is prohibited. Others explain that on Shabbos, since work is prohibited, people would gather in the afternoon in the marketplace, and spend their time in idle conversation. Therefore, Ezra instituted the public Torah reading to draw them into the synagogue.
The Sefer HaChinuch, in the introduction to his classic work, writes that the essential idea behind the institution of public Torah Reading is Limmud HaTorah, the study of Torah. The Torah is our lifeblood and contains within it all the mitzvos (commandments) that a Jew needs to know about and to fulfill. It is therefore imperative that we hear a small part of the weekly Torah portion read during the week so that we don’t go three days without some Torah study, and that we hear the entire weekly Torah portion read each Shabbos as well so that we will have heard the entire Torah read at least once a year.
This puts a whole different spin on this often misunderstood and seemingly ‘tedious’ religious ritual. What we are actually supposed to be doing as we sit in the synagogue listening to the chanting of the Torah is to hear and study the stories and the laws contained in each Torah portion.
In fact, in Talmudic times when most Jews in Babylon (modern-day Iraq) read and understood Aramaic better than Hebrew, the Rabbis actually set up a meturgamon, or interpreter, who would stand at the Bimah (podium) next to the Baal Korei (the person chanting the Torah) and who would translate each verse from the original Hebrew into Aramaic, so that the people would be able to understand the Torah reading and learn from it.
Today, we no longer follow the ancient practice of setting up a meturgamon to translate the Torah into the vernacular for the benefit of the masses who don’t speak or understand Hebrew (see Chasam Sofer in his Responsa 6:86 who discusses this) – but that doesn’t mean that today a person can’t follow along with the Baal Korei during the public Torah Reading while looking into a Chumash (Bible) with a good running translation and commentary in order to make the time spent listening to the Torah Reading worthwhile. [I personally recommend the Artscroll “Stone Edition” Chumash, by Mesorah Publications, which has a fantastic and highly readable commentary that will greatly enhance your Torah Reading experience.]
But wait, there’s more. The Kabbalists teach us that the public Torah Reading was not instituted just a means by which a Jew can hear and study the Torah and learn about the commandments each week. It is also meant to replicate for us each week the actual giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai which took place 3324 years ago.
The Bimah upon which the Torah is read is meant to represent Mount Sinai, and the Baal Korei who reads the Torah publicly is like Moses giving G-d’s Torah to the Jewish people. In fact, many Jews have a custom to stand during the public reading of the Torah, just as the Jews stood in awe and trepidation when they received the Torah at Sinai.
The Sefer HaZohar (the main text of the Kabbalah) writes about the public Torah Reading as follows (in Parshas Vayakhel 206:1):
“When the Torah reaches the Bimah, the people should prepare themselves with the proper awe and trembling, as if they were standing at Mount Sinai and about to receive the Torah. They should listen to each and every word [of the Torah Reading] and they have no permission to speak even words of Torah and especially not mundane conversation [during the entire Torah Reading]. Rather they should stand there with trepidation and silence, as if they have no mouth to speak”.
So we see here the dual function of the ancient, time-honored institution of Kerias HaTorah, the public Torah Reading ordained by Moses and Ezra thousands of years ago. It is first and foremost a form of Torah study, which a serious Jew can’t go three days without. But it is also a constant, thrice-weekly reminder of where and from Whom we received this Torah that we so cherish and study from throughout our lives.
I hope this article was indeed informative – thanks for reading it all the way through!