A Question of Jewish Law

May 18, 2016

Keeping in Sync

Filed under: Festivals,Jewish Law,Prayers and Blessings,Shabbat — chaimweiner @ 7:54 am

Question: This year the 8th day of Pesach in the Diaspora landed on Shabbat. This caused the reading of the Torah in Israel (which doesn’t have an 8th day) and the Diaspora to go out of sync. Why didn’t Diaspora Jews catch up with the reading in Israel on the following week by combining the readings of ‘Achrei-Mot’ and ‘Kedoshim’, which are frequently read together? Why do we wait almost 2 months, when we combine the readings of ‘Matot’ and ‘Masay’, before coming back together?

 

Answer: Keeping the reading in Israel and the Diaspora in sync was not a priority for the Rabbis. Over much of history most Jews would not have been aware that the Torah readings in Israel and in the diaspora are sometimes different. In both Israel and the Diaspora we follow the same set of rules for deciding when to combine readings, but because the festival calendars are not the same, the readings are sometimes different.

The Torah is divided into 54 different sections known as Parashot. Each week we read a different section from the Torah. Only one Parasha, VeZot HaBracha, is not read on a Shabbat, rather it is reserved as the reading for the festival of Simchat Torah.

The number of Shabbat readings that are required in any given year varies according to the calendar from a minimum of 46 to a maximum of 53. The number of readings that are needed depends on 2 factors; whether it is a leap year (which adds an extra 4 weeks to the year) and on how many festivals during the year land on Shabbat (thus displacing the normal Torah reading and reducing the number of readings that are needed). Altogether there are 14 readings that can potentially be combined, resulting in a maximum of 7 double parashot.

The division of the Torah into weekly readings and the system for combining them to match the calendar is not mentioned in the Talmud. It emerged over time. At the time of the Mishna the weekly reading of the Torah was fluid. There weren’t set readings for each week but rather, there were rules that were followed to make sure that the reading was finished at the appropriate time. For example:

‘Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar says: Ezra established that the curses in the Book of Leviticus should be read before the festival of Shavuot and the curses in the book of Deuteronomy before Rosh Hashanah.’ [BT, Megillah 31b]

Over time these rules became more complicated. Maimonides writes in his code:

“The common custom is that the portion ‘Bamidbar’ is read before Shavuot, ‘Va’etchanan’ after Tisha b’Av, ‘Niztavim’ before Rosh Hashanah. In a regular year (i.e. not a leap year) ‘Tzav’ is read before Pesach. [MT Laws of Prayer 13:2]

The system we now follow for deciding when to combine the readings follows the guidelines set out by Maimonides. The general rule is that we read one portion each week until we come to one of the signposts for correcting the reading. If at that point we are too far ahead in our reading, we double the nearest pair of potential parashot that come before that signpost in order to keep on schedule.

This is how it works. The first 4 double portions [‘Vayakhel’ – ‘Pekuday’ / ‘Tazria’ – ‘Metzora’ / ‘Acharei-Mot’ – ‘Kedoshim’ / ‘Behar’ – ‘Behukotai’] are reserved to adjust the reading for a leap year. They are doubled in a regular year and read separately in a leap year. The remaining 3 potential doubles [‘Hukkat’ – ‘Balak’ / ‘Matot’ – ‘Masay’ / ‘Nitzavim’ – ‘Vayelech’] are reserved for years where a festival lands on Shabbat and the reading gets out of sync with the calendar. There are corrections before Shavuot, before Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashanah to keep everything on track.

Diaspora communities celebrate an extra day of Yom Tov for each festival. Therefore, in the diaspora it is more common for a Yom Tov to land on Shabbat and more doubles are required.  As a matter of fact, in Israel it never happens that all 53 parashot are read separately over the course of a year. Also, the portions of ‘Hukkat’ and ‘Balak’ are never combined in Israel.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Iyar 5776

[Note: there are some unique years when, for a variety of factors, the reading is slightly different from that stated above. These are very rare and there isn’t room to address all of the possible variations in this post.]

 

Based on: Parsha Management, – Doubling, Halving Accuracy, Shekldon Epstein, Bernard Dickman and Yonah Wilamowsky

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