Torah cycling....

A question was posed to me recently about where we are in the reading of the Torah (five books of Moses), and how we know what to read each week. Here is a short answer.

On Simchat Torah once again we began the cycle of reading the Torah, as I mentioned in an earlier posting. We read the final few verses from Devarim (Deuteronomy) and the first few from Bereshit (Genesis) as we do each year on that holiday, thus both concluding the cycle for last year, and beginning it anew for this year. By doing both at the same time on that holiday we indicate by our actions that we are always (forever) engaging with Torah, and that we are never done, there is always more to be learned and gained by interaction with the text.

But how do we know what to read after that?

The way this works is that the Torah is traditionally divided into 54 parashiot (portions or sections for reading), which are read one after another week by week in a leap year (a year in which a leap month is inserted, and consequently, when there are 54 non-holiday weeks in which to read Torah). In non-leap years, we have fewer weeks to assign a parashah (one of the parashiot), so two or more parashiot are combined and read in a single week in order to make it through the entire cycle by next Simchat Torah. In this way, it is possible to make the full cycle of the Torah in the course of one year, and read it all. That is how a Jewish calendar can identify which week in the year it is by the name of the Parashah to be read that week, and everyone can understand it and agree which one it is. [There is a minor variation on this with holidays that are observed for a day longer outside of Israel, so that there can be a slight difference occasionally in a few weeks on what is being read in Israel as opposed to outside Israel, but this is known and taken into account, and the two sync up shortly after.]

Of course, this means that the readings each week are fairly lengthy - usually about six chapters. This can be more than a given community wishes to do each week, so a variation on this to spread the reading out and to read on a triennial cycle, which means that the entirety of the Torah is read over three years (instead of one), and only one third is read in each year. Instead of reading less and falling behind week to week, and therefore being on a different cycle than other communities that read the whole parashah, however, those communities that choose this approach read one third of each Parashah in a given week, the next week skipping ahead to the next Parashah, thereby keeping up with other communities as to which Parashah is being read.  The way this is done is that in the first year, the community will read the first one-third of each Parashah, in the second year they will read the middle third, and in the third year they will read the final third. This means that the community has to keep track of which year of the triennial cycle they are in. Our community is one of those that follows the triennial cycle. This year (5767, 2006-2007) we are in the third year of the triennial cycle.

We select the break for the thirds of the Parashah to be read in each year based on the internal division of the Parashah into Aliyot (the calling up to the Torah of congregantsto be honored by reciting the blessings over the reading of the Torah). Â Since there are traditionally seven Aliyot on a Shabbat (Sabbath) morning service, we generally (as a guideline) take the first two or three Aliyot as the reading for triennial cycle year 1, the third and fourth or fourth and fifth for year 2, and the fith and sixth or sixth and seventh for year 3. This also helps to keep us lined up with other communities - which is a nice thing, especially if congregants are travelling and attending services elsewhere. This helps assure that they will be on the same reading cycle and will be able to follow along wherever they may happen to be.

Rabbi Joe Blair

Oct 29 2006