The Triennial Cycle
May 11, 2018
Originally, in ancient Israel, the Torah was read aloud to the people once a year by the King – at least parts of the final book of the Five Books of Moses, Deuteronomy, was read! In the Babylonian Exile, it came to be read regularly with translation and limited commentary (The Jews in Babylon began speaking Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language, and didn’t necessarily understand the Hebrew of the Torah). Ezra the Scribe, who returned to Zion with the exiles from Babylon instituted reading Torah not just on the Shabbat, but on market days as well (Mondays and Thursdays). Although from the Middle ages and onward, the custom of reading through a one year cycle of the entire Torah was standardized throughout the diaspora. However, there are references in Medieval writings to a three year cycle that was practiced in Erez Yisrael (the Land of Israel), and in some individual communities, or by individual rabbis. During that cycle, a smaller portion is read of the Torah every year, until the entire Torah is concluded at the end of three years. Although no one knows for sure how that triennial cycle was structured – some theorized that the years contained 141, 150, 154, or 160 sections. My favorite theory is that the divisions were into 150 sections. Not only did each section conclude with a reading from the Prophets, but it also concluded with a Psalm from the Book of Psalms! According to this theory, the Biblical Book of Psalms contains 150 chapters precisely because of the selection of Psalms to accompany each of the 150 Torah portions. Although the great medieval scholar and religion expert Maimonides tried to standardize the Torah readings into a single year, he even wrote about the existence of the three-year cycle. There is something to be said for preserving the one-year cycle throughout the whole Jewish world: It means that on any given Shabbat, the exact same Torah portion is read worldwide.
There are some synagogues, notably some Reform and Conservative congregations, today that have a modified “Triennial Cycle.” Although their Torah portions conform to the normal one year cycle, they only read one third of the portion: The first year of the cycle -- the first third of the portion is read, the second year – the middle third, and the third year, the last third. That way, the material read will always be in sync with the synagogues that do the single year cycle, and it will be a three year cycle in which the entirety of the Torah is read.