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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776
Bechol Levavcha


With all your heart



When and where did the custom of the reading of Torah originate? Why is the Torah divided into sections or weekly portions? What is ???????? (parashah)? These are some of the questions with which we wish to deal in this section.

In Deuteronomy 31, we are told that Moses wrote the Torah and then "delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi, that carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all of the elders of Israel." Moses commanded them to read the Torah to the people of Israel every seven years, on the Sabbatical year, during the festival of Sukot. Why did Moses want the people to hear the Torah?

The Book of Deuteronomy answers our question with these words of Moses:

Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones, and the stranger that is within your gates, that they may hear, and learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this Torah and that their children, who have not known, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God....

(Deuteronomy 31:12-13)

What, according to the above passage from Deuteronomy, is the purpose of hearing the Torah? How did the reading of Torah play a part in transmitting Jewish tradition from one generation to the next?

About the year 421 B.C.E., many Jews, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, returned from Babylonia to the Land of Israel. Their hope was to rebuild their land and to reestablish their nation. The Babylonians, who had taken them into exile in 586 B.C.E., had been defeated by the Persians who were led by Cyrus. The Jewish people, who had vowed never to forget Jerusalem, or "the Land," applied to Cyrus for the opportunity to return to their land. In response to their plea, the Persian leader issued the following declaration:

All the kingdoms of the earth, the Lord, the God of the heavens, has given to me, and He has charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people — may his God be with him — let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord, the God of Israel, He is the God who is in Jerusalem. And whoever is left, in any place where he lives, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.

(Ezra 1:2-4)

With those words, and that proclamation, Cyrus made it possible for Jews to return to the Land of Israel and to begin the long process of rebuilding the Temple. We are also told that the Persian leader gave the Jews all of the precious "vessels" which the Babylonians had removed from the Temple, so that they could restore them to their proper place. In all, the Book of Ezra reports that over 5,400 vessels were returned to the Jewish people.

Upon their return to the Land of Israel, the Jews prepared themselves for the celebration of Rosh Hashanah and the holidays which were to follow. We are informed that on Rosh Hashanah the people gathered and asked Ezra the Scribe to read the Torah to them. The Book of Nehemiah gives us the following description:

And Ezra the priest brought the Torah before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month....

Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, even the Levites caused the people to understand the Torah. And the people stood in their place. And they read in the book, in the Torah of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.

(Nehemiah 8:2, 7-8)

The Book of Nehemiah also tells us that the Torah was read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah and on each day of Sukot.

It is likely that, from the time of Ezra to the development of the synagogue, the Torah was read on festivals and celebrations. It was, however, with the birth of the synagogue, sometime after 300 B.C.E., that the reading of the Torah became a regular practice within Jewish life.

It was the rabbis and the people of the synagogue who made ???????? ????????? a part of their prayer experience on the Shabbat and other holidays. As a matter of fact, they believed that the study of Torah within the synagogue was so important that they introduced the reading of it at their services on Mondays and Thursdays as well as on the Shabbat.

Rabbi Meir, who lived in the second century C.E., told his students: "Take time off from your business and engage in Torah." (Avot 6:1) Moses Maimonides wrote that "every Jew, rich or poor, or even a beggar, healthy or not, young or old is obliged to study Torah." (Yad Hachazakah) A sage, who may have lived during the period in which the synagogue was developing and the Torah reading was being accepted as a regular part of its worship, once put forth the question: "Why is Israel called God's people"? He answered his own question by saying: "Because of the Torah." (Tanchuma Vaera 9a)

In light of these statements, why do you think the rabbis, and those who developed the synagogue, were anxious to make the reading of Torah as a regular part of their worship services?

We know that after Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East (in about 333 B.C.E.) he introduced the culture and way of life of Hellenism. Many Jews began to forsake their Judaism for the attractive Greek way of life. The rabbis and Jewish leaders of that period worried about the growing assimilation in their midst. Do you think that might explain why they introduced the tradition of reading and studying the Torah in the synagogue? How might such a custom have helped to prevent assimilation? Look at the quotation in "Different Because of Torah" on the previous page. Would you agree with the statement? How does the Torah still play a part in making us different "from the nations of the world"?

Where did the custom of reading a ???????? or weekly Torah portion, originate? We don't know!

We do know that by the time of Rabban Gamliel (80-120 C.E.), under whose leadership many of the prayers of the synagogue were arranged, the custom of reading the Torah was accepted practice. Rabban Gamliel lived in the first century C.E. Rabbi Meir, who lived in the century just after Gamliel, ruled that the Torah should be read consecutively so that ultimately those studying it would cover the entire text. (Megillah 31b) Sometime during the latter part of the second century C.E., assigned ??????????? (parashiyot), weekly Torah portions, were drawn up by the rabbis.

Those who were responsible for developing the Torah portions and order of readings in the Land of Israel divided the Torah into 154 sections. This meant that the Torah was read from the first chapter in Genesis to the last chapter in Deuteronomy once every three years. This triennial cycle became the accepted custom in the Land of Israel.

The Jews of Babylonia, however, developed another division of the Torah. They chose to divide it into 54 sections and to complete its reading and study once each year. On each Simchat Torah they would finish reading Deuteronomy and immediately begin reading Genesis. In this way the cycle of Torah readings and study never ended. As the Babylonian Jewish community grew in size and importance, and as the Jewish community of Israel dwindled in size, the Babylonian custom of reading the entire Torah in one year became the dominant practice of Jews throughout the world. If you look in your Bible at the Five Books of Moses, or the Torah, you will notice that it is divided into the 54 weekly sections suggested by the sages of Babylonian Jewry.

Why do you think that in the Land of Israel the rabbis thought it sufficient to read the entire Torah over a period of three years but in Babylonia they chose a yearly cycle? What might have been some of the factors that influenced their decision? Rabbi Israel Goldman, commenting in 1938 on Jewish survival told an audience: "The learned Jew is the complete Jew.... The Jew who knows Jewish culture is the Jew who knows himself. The know oneself is to have integrity." What does Rabbi Goldman's observation have to do with a regular reading of the Torah? How does a knowledge of Torah strengthen Jewish survival?

The Torah has been called "the map of the world" by devoted Jews. The talmudic rabbis taught that the study of Torah "promotes peace in heaven and on earth." (Sanhedrin 99b) In another place they suggest that "the existence of the world depends upon three things: upon Torah, upon worship, and upon deeds of loving kindness." (Avot 1:2) The great sage Hillel taught that "the more Torah, the more life." (Avot 2:8)

Why did Jewish tradition consider the study of Torah so important?

One answer may be found in the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi. He taught: "These are the things for which a person enjoys the fruits in this world and the principal in the world to come: the honoring of parents, the practice of charity, and making peace between neighbors. But the study of Torah is more important than all of them." (Peah 1:1) What do you think Rabbi Judah meant by the statement "the study of Torah is more important than all of them"? How could he consider the study of Torah more important than doing charity or making peace? Would you agree with him?

Another well-known teacher, Isaac ben Samuel, who lived in Babylonia during the fourth century C.E. taught that the "study of Torah is superior to honoring parents." (Megillah 16b) How could he teach such a lesson when one of the Ten Commandments is "Honor your father and mother"?

There are no simple answers to these questions. Perhaps, however, if we try to understand what the Torah has meant to the Jewish people throughout the ages, we will begin to comprehend its importance, not only to the past, but in our lives as well.

The chasidic leader known as the Gerer Rebbe once related the following parable. A man fell from a boat into the sea. The captain of the boat threw him a rope and shouted: "Take hold of this rope, and do not let go. If you do, you will lose your life."

"What is the meaning of the parable" his students asked. The Gerer replied: "When we return the Torah to the ark, we say: 'It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.' If you let the Torah go, you will lose your life."

What do you think the Gerer Rebbe meant by the explanation to his parable? How is the Torah a "life line"?

The rabbis of the Talmud comment: "If it were not for the Torah, Israel would not be different from the nations of the world." (Sifra 112c) What does this comment have to do with the Gerer Rebbe's parable? How is the Torah a "tree of life" for the Jewish people? Would you agree that without the Torah "Israel would not be different from the nations of the world"?

The Baal Shem Tov once said to his followers: "The object of the whole Torah is that a person should become a Torah!" How is that possible? What is a "Torah-person?"

In the Talmud, we find a fascinating definition of a Torah-person. We are told that he or she possesses 48 qualities. They are as follows:

1 a listening ear, 2 studying aloud, 3 developing an ability to grasp ideas, 4 developing an ability to understand issues, 5 respect for one's teachers, 6 reverence for God, 7 humility, 8 cheerfulness, 9 helping one's teachers, 10 associating with one's fellow students, 11 a disciplined approach to one's studies, 12 knowledgeable in Bible and Talmud, 13 fair in business practices, 14 courteous manners, 15 avoiding of extremes in pleasures, 16 avoiding of extremes in sleep, 17 avoiding of extremes in conversation, 18 avoiding of extremes in laughter, 19 patient, 20 sensitive, 21 faith in teachers, 22 knowing how to accept troubles and suffering, 23 knowing when to keep silent and when to speak, 24 appreciating one's self, 25 care with words, 26 not needing to claim credit for good deeds, 27 being beloved, 28 loving God, 29 loving one's fellow human beings, 30 loving justice, 31 loving righteousness, 32 appreciating criticism, 33 shunning honors, 34 not being boastful, 35 not delighting in giving decisions, 36 sharing burdens with other human beings, 37 judging others fairly, 38 leading others to truth, 39 leading others to peace, 40 calm in the midst of learning, 41 knowing how to ask questions, 42 knowing how to answer questions, 43 knowing how to add to what he or she hears, 44 learning in order to teach, 45 learning in order to practice, 46 adding to his or her teacher's knowledge, 47 knowing how to listen to the lessons of a teacher, 48 always repeating a matter honestly in the name of whoever said it. (Avot 6:6)

If you were to list all of those characteristics of a "good person," which of the 48 qualities, listed above, would you select? Which of them do you feel are the most important, and why?

Divide your study group into three groups. Have two groups draw up what they feel are the characteristics of a modern Torah-person. Each list ought to be rated with the most important qualities on the top and the less important toward the bottom. Have the third group make a list of the 48 qualities in the order they believe most important to least important. Then compare and contrast the lists. Each group should be ready to defend its presentation.

In Jewish tradition, Torah is more than just the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). By "Torah" is meant all of Jewish teaching throughout the ages. The rabbis taught that two Torahs had been given to Moses on Mount Sinai. One was the ??????? ?????????? (Torah shebichtav), the written Torah, or the Tanach (see page 124), and the other they called the ??????? ???????? ???? (Torah shebe'al peh), the oral Torah. The oral Torah contained, according to the sages, all of the interpretations of the written Torah to be discovered and taught throughout the ages.

The teachers of Judaism have always realized that changes in society require changes and adjustments in the application of Torah. One example will help us understand. The Torah tells us: "You may not make a fire on Shabbat." (Exodus 35:3) That law seems clear enough. But, what about our modern times and the use of electric lights? Is the use of an electric light the same as making a "fire"? In other words, with the invention of electricity, the Torah must be applied to a new situation. The Baal Shem Tov taught: "The Torah is eternal, but its explanation and interpretation are to be made by the leaders of Judaism in accordance with the age in which they are living."

It has often been observed that ideas which are written down or printed seem more permanent and more difficult to change than ideas or suggestions which are shared by word of mouth. Why do you think this is so? What might have been the reason the rabbis taught that an oral Torah had been given on Mount Sinai? In the United States we have a constitution. It might be considered as our "written Torah." Do we have an "oral Torah"?

Actually, in the course of history, the oral Torah also became a written document. After about two hundred years of teaching the interpretations by word of mouth from one generation to the next, it was decided to organize the laws. This was done first by Rabbi Akiva and then, finally, by Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi in about 200 C.E. Rabbi Yehudah's collection became known as the Mishnah. Then there was another three hundred-year period when the interpretations of the Mishnah were passed on orally. Finally, in about the sixth century C.E., that oral tradition, known as Gemara, was also put down in writing. Together the Mishnah and Gemara form what is known as the Talmud.

The vast books of the Talmud, however, were not considered to contain the whole oral Torah. Rabbis and students of Jewish tradition have continued the process of interpretation to this very day. Why? How does the process of continued interpretation help to keep Judaism alive and vital? What would happen if Jews stopped interpreting their tradition?

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was once asked by his students: "Why does each book of the Talmud begin with page two and not with page one?" He replied: "To remind us that no matter how much we study and learn, we have not yet come to the first page." What do you think Levi Yitzchak meant? How might his statement relate to the interpretation of Torah within Judaism?

Rabbi Yehudah bar Chiyya, who lived in the Land of Israel during the third century C.E., once observed: "A drug may be beneficial to one and not to another. The Torah, however, is a life-giving medicine for all Israel." (Eruvin 54a)

The sages of Jewish tradition believed that the Torah contained the knowledge and directions for the best possible way of life. For them, the Torah was a "map" or a "prescription" of the ethical ways in which a human being ought to live. Yosef Albo, a medieval Jewish philosopher, commented: "The purpose of the Torah is to guide human beings to obtain spiritual happiness." And other rabbis taught: Each  is a branch of the Torah, and the person who honors the Torah by performing  will receive honor." In another place we are taught: "Through Torah, man becomes God's partner in creation." (Maalot Hatorah)

Is it possible for the modern Jew to still consider the Torah "a life-giving medicine"? In what ways? How can the Torah, written and oral, help us obtain "spiritual happiness"?

Look at Exodus 21:33-37; 22:24-26; 23:1-9; Leviticus 19:9-18 and ask: How can these be applied to modern society? How can they help us achieve spiritual happiness? How in the doing of these  are we partners of God? You may wish to divide up into groups for this project and then report your findings. You may also wish to develop your own talmudic commentary on the meaning of these Torah quotations. If you do, remember that the Talmud records both majority and minority opinions.

Harvey J. Fields, "Section Four: The Reading of the Torah," in Bechol Levavcha: With All Your Heart (New York: UAHC Press)< 1979, pp. 106-111.

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