Moses Maimonides and the Torah Portions

June 12, 2015

Every week, Jody Hirsh, the JCC's Judaic Education Director, provides a Judaic message that is featured at the top of the JCC's weekly email newsletter. Below is the Shabbat message for Friday, June 12, 2015.

Moses Maimonides and the Torah Portions

It was most probably Physician and Philosopher Rabbi Moses Maimonides in the Twelfth Century who standardized the tradition of Torah Portions based on Aleppo Codex created by the Ben Asher family (See last week’s Shabbat message).  According to this plan, which is the plan that was adopted by all Jewish communities, the Torah is divided into 54 sections. Basically, one section is read every week starting on the first Sabbath after the autumn holiday of Simchat Torah.  The Jewish calendar is a complicated affair – there are special Torah readings on holidays, and on special Shabbatot. In a leap year, an entire month is added in to the calendar. So... each year could have a variable number of weeks, and therefore a variable number of weekly portions. Consequently, in years that have fewer than 54 weeks (most years, actually), there are some weeks with doubled up Torah portions.

In addition to the calendar functions of the Parashot, each Parshah or Portion has a name: The first important word in the Parshah. Hence, the very first Shabbat after Simchat Torah is Breishit, “In the beginning”  – the first word of the first chapter of the Torah. Therefore, the first Shabbat is called “Shabbat Breishit” – the Shabbat of “In the Beginning,” the Ten Commandments are read on “Shabbat Yitro” the Shabbat of Jethro (Moses’ father-in-law is described in the beginning of that Parshah), “Shabbat Bo (Come)” starts with the phrase “Come to Pharaoh” and describes the concluding plagues which are visited upon the Egyptians.

This system of dividing the Torah into weekly portions is virtually used in all Jewish communities throughout the world. It means that within a year – from the Shabbat after Simchat Torah in the fall, to the Shabbat before Simchat Torah in the next year – the entire Torah is read from start to finish in time to start all over the following year from the beginning. One year, fifty four portions. But it’s not only the Torah that’s read in the synagogue each Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom