Public Reading of the Torah

December 18, 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, December 18, 2015.

Public Reading of the Torah

Every Shabbat, a portion of the Torah is read in the Synagogue. It is such an age-old custom, that we never stop to think, “now wait a minute... wasn’t it always that way? Perhaps even in the time of Moses and the Children of Israel wandering in the desert!” But... nope. Although, the Children of Israel may have heard the Torah read on holidays, the practice of reading the Torah regularly in public didn’t really start happening until the Babylonian Exile in the Sixth Century BCE!

How? Why? When? Probably the system wasn’t codified like it is today, but in Babylon, they started public Torah readings precisely because the Jews were forgetting the Torah! Not everyone had one, of course. And in Judea, before the Exile, there were no synagogues! Therefore, people didn’t regularly go to a synagogue to hear the Torah. Therefore, the Torah was read in public to remind them of their heritage and of the commandments. Often, because the Jews of Babylon no longer understood the Hebrew of the Torah, a translator, or Turgeman, would be standing next to the scribe reading the Torah who would translate the Hebrew into Aramaic – the common language of Babylon. (There are still some occasions when Aramaic is read today in the synagogue, such as during the Kaddish prayer which is in Aramaic rather than Hebrew). Later on, when the Jews returned to The Land of Israel in the Fifth Century BCE under the leadership of Ezra the Scribe, the Torah was read publicly three times a week: On Mondays and Thursdays in the market places, because those days were market days. Probably the readings weren’t standardized in those days. Each day that there was a reading, they would simply start where they left off. The system we have now wasn’t invented until the middle ages.

To learn more more about how the Torah is divided into weekly portions, and how it developed, click here.

Shabbat Shalom