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SHULĤAN ARUKH, ORAĤ ĤAYYIM: The rules of Torah Reading

135:2


מקום שמפסיקים בשבת בשחרית שם קורין במנחה ובשני ובחמישי ובשבת הבאה: ההגה אם בטלו שבת אחת קריאת הפרשה בצבור לשבת הבאה קורין אותה פרשה עם פרשה השייכה לאותה שבת [אור זרוע] (ועיין לקמן סי' רפ"ב):

The place where the reading ends on Shabbat morning is the place where the reading begins at Minchah, on Monday and Thursday and on the following Shabbat. Note: If there was no reading on one Shabbat at the reading of the portion on the following Shabbat the reading is that portion together with the portion that belongs to that Shabbat (Or Zaru'a) (and see section 282).

EXPLANATIONS:

1:
After having stated in paragraph 1 the requirement to read the Torah publicly on certain weekdays and on Shabbat, the purpose of the present paragraph is to state how that reading is to be arranged.

2:
The great researcher of the Jewish liturgy, Ismar Elbogen [1874-1943], has stated that it is quite likely that the origin of the synagogue is to be found in the requirement to regularly read the Torah publicly, and not the other way round. In other words, the synagogue was created as a place where the people could assemble to hear the Torah read and the reading of the Torah did not originate as a possible activity in an already existent proto-synagogue. This means that the synagogue as a place for prayer was a development from the synagogue as a place to hear the Torah read. In all probability the Torah was first read publicly on the festivals, so that the people could learn the biblical origins of the festival they were celebrating - Pesaĥ, Sukkot etc. The next stage in the development of the custom of public reading of the Torah was (again, in all probability) on the four special sabbaths that are associated with the month of Adar - now known as Shekalim, Zakhor, Parah and ha-Ĥodesh. It was these readings on these special sabbaths that gradually developed into the custom of reading the Torah every Shabbat. The next stage in this development was the addition of the reading of the Torah publicly on the market days, Monday and Thursday, when, in Eretz-Israel in the time of the sages, the people from the countryside came to the towns to buy and sell produce. Finally, the reading of the Torah on the minor days of festivity and sorrow was added - Ĥanukah, Purim and the fast days.

3:
It seems reasonable to assume that once the custom of reading the Torah publicly every Shabbat had been accepted, it became customary to read an ad hoc selection. However, later on it was enacted that the Torah must be read in a consecutive fashion, verse after verse, section after section, and not haphazardly. The Mishnah [Megillah 4:4] codifies:

It is permitted to read selectively from the prophets but it is not permitted to read selectively from the Torah.

Indeed, when the reading from the prophets was added to the reading from the Torah it was this that was the main liturgical difference: the reading from the prophets (Haftarah) was a short selection, unconnected with the previous or the succeeding Haftarah. Furthermore, within the same prophetic book it was permitted to skip from place to place in order to create a coherent narrative that was not too long. But the reading from the Torah was always absolutely consecutive.

In its discussion on the Mishnah that we quoted above, the Talmud of Eretz-Israel [Megillah 31b] explains why this enactment was introduced:

It is not permitted to read selectively from the Torah: Rabbi Yirmiyyah quotes Rabbi Shim'on ben-Lakish as saying that this was ... so that Israel may be taught the Torah in the proper order.

It is clear from this Gemara that certainly by the middle of the 3rd century CE, the time of Resh Lakish, the accepted rationale for reading from the Torah was educational: 'so that Israel may be taught Torah'. This reason was so pervasive that the sages present in the synagogues when the Torah was read would expound the text, explain it, elaborate on it; and in this we find the remotest origins of what is now called a sermon. If the purpose of reading the Torah publicly is educational rather than liturgical it makes sense that the readings should be consecutive, so that the listener could appreciate the development of the narrative and the associations of the laws.

4:
It could well be that once the principle of consecutiveness had been accepted the original pattern was absolutely consecutive. There is a very informative baraita in the Gemara. (A baraita contains teachings of the sages of the period of the Mishnah which were not included by Rabbi Yehudah the President of the Sanhedrin, in the Mishnah which he compiled at the beginning of the 3rd century CE.) The baraita [Megillah 31b] reads:

Rabbi Me'ir is of the opinion that the place where the reading ends on Shabbat morning is where the reading starts in the afternoon; [where the reading ends] in the afternoon is where the reading starts on Monday; [where the reading ends] on Monday is where the reading starts on Thursday; and [where the reading ends] on Thursday is where the reading starts on Shabbat morning. Rabbi Yehudah is of the opinion that the place where the reading ends on Shabbat morning is where the reading starts in the afternoon and on Monday and Thursday and the following Shabbat.

It seems reasonable to assume that the tradition reflected in the opinion of Rabbi Me'ir is older than the tradition which Rabbi Yehudah ben-Ilai teaches. If this is the case it would seem that there developed a preference for concentrating the consecutive reading on Shabbat morning, presumably because that was when the most people were to be found in the synagogue and also had the time to listen not only to the reading but also to the exposition of the sages. Be that as it may, the Gemara immediately clarifies the practical aspect:

Rabbi Zeira says that this is the rule: the place where the reading ends on Shabbat morning is where the reading starts in the afternoon and on Monday and Thursday and the following Shabbat.

The Amora of Eretz-Israel, Rabbi Zeira [mid 4th century CE], here states the halakhah: the rule follows the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah. This means that 'the place where the reading ends on Shabbat morning is the place where the reading begins ... the following Shabbat' and this is what is codified in the rule of the Shulĥan Arukh that is the subject of our present study.

5:
The essential principle of contiguous continuity is made even clearer by the note that Isserles adds to Karo's rule:

If there was no reading on one Shabbat, at the reading of the portion on the following Shabbat the reading is that portion together with the portion that belongs to that Shabbat.

This means that if the congregation for some reason did not read from the Torah on one Shabbat, on the following Shabbat, when they do read, they should start the reading with the section that they missed the previous week. Only in this way can the public teaching of the Torah to Israel be absolutely consecutive.

6:
The Gemara [Megillah 29b] tells us that

The Jews of the west complete the Torah in three years.

The Gemara is here referring to the differing customs in the manner in which the above rule was executed in the two major Jewish centres in the time of the Tanna'im and the Amora'im (the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud). In Babylon it was the custom to complete the cycle of reading the Torah from beginning to end in one year; in Eretz-Israel they took three years to complete the cycle. In Babylon the whole Torah was divided up into 53 sections (with one final section added), one of which was read each Shabbat of the year that was not a YomTov or Ĥol ha-Mo'ed, so that the reading of the Torah was completed in one year. (In a year when there were less than 53 Shabbatot available it was sometimes necessary to read two sections on a Shabbat.) In Eretz-Israel it seems that the whole Torah was divided up into about 150 sections, one of which was read on each Shabbat so that the whole cycle was completed once every three years. In a responsum that I wrote for the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel I offered a reconstruction of the triennial system of ancient Israel. I understand that one congregation in the suburbs of Washington DC in the USA has adopted this system with considerable success. However, as far as I know, all the other Conservative congregations that have adopted the so-called triennial system use the system devised by Rabbi Richard Eisenberg. This system divides most of the weekly sections of the annual Babylonian cycle into three subsections; each year of this 'triennial' cycle one third of the annual section is read. This system obviously violates the rule that is the subject of our present study and no one has ever been able to give me the halakhic justification by which the American Committee for Jewish Law and Standards permitted itself to authorize this system.

DISCUSSION:

Michael Lewyn writes:

A big picture question: after Alfasi wrote the first halakhic code, why was there a need for still more codes (including, of course, the Shulhan Arukh)? At what point does codification pass the point of diminishing returns?

I respond:

Michael here, in fact, poses two questions. The first question is why Alfasi had successors. Among the Rishonim each of Alfasi's successors was also an innovator. (The publication of the Shulĥan Arukh in the 16th century CE is generally considered to be the watershed that separates the Rishonim from the Aĥaronim.) The Rif (Rabbi Yitzĥak Alfasi) did not really write a code in the sense that we understand the term today. What he did would perhaps be better described as producing a kind of "expurgated" version of the Talmud. His basic methodology was to remove all the discussions from the Talmud and to emphasise and annotate the halakhic conclusions. The order of the material is that of the Talmud.

Rambam's major innovations are the encyclopedic arrangement of the material and the use of the Hebrew language in all its purity - as he himself explains in his preface to Mishneh Torah. (The legal style that Rambam developed for Mishneh Torah today serves as the model for modern Israeli legislation and jurisprudential writing.)

The major innovations of the Tur are the reduction of the scope of the material and the introduction of Ashkenazi influences. Rambam's magnum opus had been comprehensive, including laws that are only applicable when there is a functioning Bet Mikdash and laws that are only applicable in the messianic age. Furthermore, like the Rif before him, he naturally reflects the Sefardi bias of his own history and geography. While the Tur lived in Spain he had been invited to serve there and came there from Ashkenaz. Omitting all matters that he considered as irrelevant to his own time and place he reorganized all the material into four volumes (Rambam's work had consisted of fourteen volumes).

Karo's work was originally just a commentary on the Tur - a comprehensive and dialectic commentary called Bet Yosef. As I wrote in the previous shiur, his Shulĥan Arukh is, in fact, a digest of that commentary.

Now to Michael's second question: at what point does continuing codification pass the point of diminishing returns? I don't think it ever does. Despite what orthodoxy teaches, halakhah is what Conservative Judaism teaches: it is an 'evolving religious civilization' (to use the glorious phrase coined by the late Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan). Halakhah evolves to accomodate new situations and from time to time it is necessary to update a code with the new insights. Throughout the 400 years since the publication of the Shulĥan Arukh this was done mainly by way of commentary and supercommentary. Towards the end of the 19th century and during the 20th century several new codes were published: most noteworthy were the Kitzur [abbreviated] Shulĥan Arukh of Rabbi Shelomo Ganzfried, Arukh ha-Shulĥan of Rabbi Yeĥi'el Epstein, and, in modern Israel, Mekor Ĥayyim of the late Rabbi Ĥayyim David ha-Levi. (The Mishnah Berurah of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan is not a code but a commentary.) And the most obvious example of a needed accomodating code is that compiled by the late Rabbi Isaac Klein for the Conservative Movement in the USA.

As long as the halakhic system persists it is inevitable that there will be new codes from time to time.