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Yearly Parsha (Torah Reading) Cycle

As we come to the end of the cycle of reading the Torah. I am curious as to when and who divided up the Torah into its different weekly sections, and who gave them their names?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for raising the interesting issue. I’ll address it by giving a brief history of the practice of reading the Torah.

There is no Biblical obligation to publicly read the Torah – other than a few very specialized obligations, such as the king reading parts of Deuteronomy on Sukkot every seven years (see Deut. 31:10-13 and Mishna Sotah 7:8), as well as possibly reading the section about remembering the attack of Amalek (Deut. 25:17-19), which we do today on the Shabbat before Purim.

However, there is an ancient decree to publicly read the Torah on a regular basis – almost as ancient as the Jewish people themselves. The Talmud (Baba Kama 82a) records as follows: Immediately after the Exodus, the Torah states: “They went for three days in the desert and they did not find water” (Exodus 15:22). The Talmud explains that water is an allusion to the Torah. Thus, the hinted meaning is that the Children of Israel went three days without publicly studying the Torah – and as a result they were not granted physical water either. The prophets of that time therefore decreed that there should be a public reading of the Torah every Shabbat, Monday and Thursday, so that the Jewish people never go three days without Torah study.

The Talmud there continues that the prophet Ezra extended this decree – that on Monday and Thursday three separate people should be called to the Torah and a minimum of ten verses should be read. He also instituted that an additional reading be held on Shabbat afternoon (in addition to the morning).

In addition, the Talmud (Megillah 32a) writes that Moses himself established the custom to read the Torah portion about each holiday on its holiday (based on Leviticus 23:44).

It is not known when the practice arose to read a portion of the Torah every Shabbat in order to complete the Torah every year. It is clear, though, that that was also an ancient practice. The Talmud (Megillah 29b) mentions the custom in the Land of Israel to complete the Torah in a three-year cycle – in contrast to the Babylonian custom to complete it every year. (Some understand that Israel actually observed a 3½ year cycle.) Thus, the practice most likely predates the period of the Mishna – the earliest time in which Jewish law and custom is extensively recorded.

Interestingly, although the universal practice today is to complete the Torah every year, finishing it on the holiday of Simchat Torah, the three-year cycle custom of the Land of Israel held out until quite late, well into the Middle Ages. Maimonides himself (late 12th century) makes mention of its existence as late as his time – though he disapproves of it (Yad, Hil’ Tefillah 13:1). I’ve also seen cited from Binyamin of Tudela (also late 12th century), the famous medieval traveler (sometimes called the Jewish Marco Polo), that he records that he saw communities in Egypt still observing the triennial cycle.

In terms of the divisions, the Torah is divided into 54 sections altogether. Each is called a parsha (division) or sidra (ordering). The weekly reading is read on every Shabbat of the year – unless it coincides with a major holiday, in which case a special reading is read. On most years, some of the shorter parshas are doubled up in order to complete the Torah in a year. (The Jewish calendar we use today has a set schedule for this.) This is true in particular on non-leap years, in which a 13th month is not added to the Jewish year in order to compensate for the discrepancy between the solar and lunar years. (See this response regarding how the Jewish calendar works, and how it adjusts itself to align its lunar months with the solar year.)

The exact designation of the 54 parshas into which the Torah is divided (i.e., the exact chapters and verses of each parsha) is presumably very old as well. I write this because there is virtually no difference in these divisions between different Jewish communities throughout the world. This implies that such divisions were established very far back, before the Jewish people was scattered throughout the world and into separate communities with rather distinct local customs. (By contrast, the exact tunes different communities worldwide use to chant the reading is quite different.)

Lastly, in terms of the names of the parshas, there is little significance to the names we have. Each parsha is basically just named after a significant word (or two) near the start of it. In fact, it is known that medieval scholars used to name some of the parshas differently from how they’re called today – such as that what we call “Noah” used to be called “Toldot” (after the second word of the parsha rather than the third). However, some do like to find deeper connections between the names we use today and the subject of the parsha.

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