Symbolism of the Torah Reading

Posted by Rahel Berkovits on May 28, 2014
Topics: Shavuot

On Shavuot Jews around the world will spend the night learning- remembering and reliving- the experience of receiving the Torah on Har Sinai. Interestingly there is a much more common occurrence in our lives, the public Torah reading, which happens each week on Mondays, Thursday and Shabbat which also serves to reenact that central national experience of revelation.

By examining some of the technical laws surrounding the Torah reading we can gain insight into the meta- ideas the Rabbis wanted to create with this fundamental ritual. The minimum required structure to perform a public Torah reading is that ten verses must be read in total and there should be three aliyot in which a minimum of three verse are read in each. The facts of these laws are very confusing at first glance. Did the Rabbis not know basic math? If one requires three aliyot of three verses why not rule that the minimum total required is nine verses and not ten? However, when one unpacks the reasons behind these laws a deeper idea emerges. The Jerusalem Talmud in Tractate Megillah 74c states: “Rav Huna said [each] of the three readers of the Torah should not read less than ten verses. Hizkiya said in correspondence to the Ten Commandments.” The Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Megillah 21b explains “What do these three [readers] represent? — R. Assi said: The Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Hagiographa.” Deuteronomy Rabbah Ki Tavo expounds “Why is it ordained that less than three verses should not be read? In order that [the number of the verses] should correspond to … Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, through whom the law was given.” These texts now present us with a clear picture- each Torah reading encompasses the entire Torah from the core kernel of the Ten Commandments to the entire twenty four books of the Bible, which was revealed to the Jewish people by Moshe, Ahron and Miriam.

That same passage from the Jerusalem Talmud also explains that one must stand when reading for “just as [the Torah] was given in awe and fear so too we must behave with it in awe and fear.” And that the reader must always have someone by their side as “just as [the Torah] was given by the hand of an intermediary [Moshe standing between God and the people (Deut. 5:5)] so too we must behave by the hand of an intermediary.”  This physical molding of the revelation experience is also mirrored in some of the most basic behaviors surrounding the Torah reading. The bimah (usually a raised platform) is placed in the middle of the synagogue with the congregation surrounding it, just as they stood at the bottom of Har Sinai. People are called up to the Torah just as God called Moshe up to the mountain in Exodus 29:20. Some people even have the custom to stand for all of Torah reading as they stood in awe at Sinai.

The blessing recited when one receives an aliyah reflect this idea that the Torah reading is a reenactment of the revelation for one does not recite the normative mitzvah blessing formula “that you have sanctified and command us on the reading of the Torah” but rather the blessing praises God that has “chosen us from among all the nations and given us His Torah. Blessed are You Lord, who gives the Torah.” In fact one could even claim that this direct encounter with the Divine experienced through the revelation of Torah is what moves the reader to recite the barkhu– “Bless the Lord who is blessed”.

Most interesting is whom the Rabbis cast in this biblio-drama to play the role of God and reveal the Torah by reading it to the congregation. Unlike with many mitzvot legally the Torah can be read by all- men, women and children alike (See B.T. Megillah 23a). It seems that basing themselves on the Hakel ritual (Deut. 31:12) where every seven years the king reads the Torah to the nation also modeling the awe inspiring revelatory experience, the Rabbis choose to make an important fundamental statement. Any representative member of the Jewish people, who experienced the revelation and received the Torah, is able to be the vehicle through which Torah is continuously revealed anew to the Jewish people throughout history.

Hag Sameah!

About Rahel Berkovits

Rahel teaches Mishnah, Talmud and Halakha at Pardes. She has spent many years studying Talmud and Jewish texts in both traditional and academic frameworks at Midreshet Lindenbaum, The Shalom Hartman Institute, and Hebrew University in both the Talmud and Jewish education departments. In 2015, Rahel completed her studies at Beit Midrash Har’el and received ordination from Rabbi Herzl Hefter and Rabbi Daniel Sperber. Click here to read more.

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