Reading of the Torah

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The practice of reading the Torah from a Scroll (Sefer Torah) in the synagogue is mentioned in sources dating from the first century ce and it is evident that it had been long established. The Talmud even suggests that the reading of the Torah on Monday, Thursday, and Sabbath afternoon was introduced by Moses so that the Israelites should not allow three days to go by without Torah. Ezra is said to have introduced the weekly Sabbath reading on Sabbath morning. It is obvious, in any event, that the custom is ancient. To this day the custom is to read a lengthy portion of the Torah on Sabbath morning and a smaller portion of the next Sabbath reading on Sabbath afternoon and on Monday and Thursday morning. On festivals a suitable portion dealing with the particular festival is read. Although it is conventional to speak of the reading of the Torah, the Torah is, in fact, chanted (see CANTILLATION).

The Reading of the Torah as Practised Today

The Ark is opened and the Scroll from which the reading is to be done is taken in procession around the synagogue. Many people bow to the Scroll as it passes, although some Rabbis in the Middle Ages objected to this because it might seem that the Torah was being treated as an object to be worshipped. The Scroll is then placed on the reading-desk and a number of people are called up to the reading of a portion. The term for this privilege is aliyah (‘ascent’) and the usual expression is ‘given an aliyah’ (plural aliyot). In Talmudic times those called to the reading chanted the portion themselves but, since not everyone is capable of reading the unvowelled texts, the universal custom is now for the chanting to be done by a special competent reader; those called up recite a benediction before and after the reading of their portion in which they thank God for having given the Torah to Israel.

On the Sabbath there are seven aliyot; on Yom Kippur six; on the festivals five; on Rosh Hodesh four; on Monday, Thursday, and Sabbath afternoon three. The first aliyah is given to a Kohen, the second to a Levite, and the third and the others to Israelites. Some members of the congregation are specially entitled to be given an aliyah: a boy celebrating his Bar Mitzvah; a groom on the Sabbath before the wedding; the father of a new-born child; and a person on the anniversary of the death of a parent (on the Yahrzeit). On Sabbaths and festivals a small portion of the reading is repeated as the Maftir (‘Conclusion’) and the person called up for this reads the prophetic portion for the day (the Haftarah), not from the Scroll but from a printed vocalized book from which it requires no great expertise to read. It is considered a special honour to be given Maftir and to read the Haftarah. It is also considered a special honour to be called up for the reading of the third portion, the first given to an Israelite, and to the Decalogue on the occasions when this is read. In many congregations there is much competition for the privilege of being given an aliyah, often paid for by a donation to the synagogue or to charity. In some congregations there is even an ‘auction’ of aliyot but this is frowned on in more staid congregations.


Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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