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Torah Reading and Mount Sinai

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Keriat ha-Torah (public Torah reading) is based on an intriguing source.  Unlike typical biblical mitzvot, which are founded upon explicit verses or exegesis of verses, keriat ha-Torah stems from a pre-Sinai response to a national spiritual crisis.  In Parashat Beshalach the Torah records that after encountering the Divine at the Red Sea through the epic miracles, the Jewish people wandered three days “without water.”  Though the literal reading refers to the absence of hydration, Chazal sense a more ominous danger: Three days had elapsed since their previous contact with God.  This detachment had plunged the nation into spiritual torpor.  Recognizing this peril, the “contemporary prophets” (a fascinating reference to Moshe and perhaps other prophets) instituted keriat ha-Torah on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat Mincha to ensure that three days would never elapse without contact with the word of God.  Since the experience of keriat ha-Torah stems from this pre-Sinai stage, the details of the halakha are more elusive; unanchored to any legislative verse, there are scant sources available to generate the constituent halakhot. 




Rav Soloveitchik zt”l developed a powerful theory regarding the essence of keriat ha-Torah.  The mishna in Megilla (21a) asserts that Megillat Esther may be read while sitting.  Commenting on this leniency, the gemara asserts that keriat ha-Torah, in contrast with Esther reading, must be read while standing.  Rashi believes that the gemara is merely “encouraging” standing during Torah reading as a “lekhatchila” ideal.  Unlike Megillat Esther, in which standing is meaningless, Torah reading should inspire the greater respect expressed through standing.  Halakhically, though, keriat ha-Torah may be fulfilled while sitting.  The Rambam disagrees, concluding that standing is mandatory for keriat Ha-Torah.  He does not suggest a reason, and certainly the requirement of standing is not immediately obvious. 


The Rambam’s reading of the gemara in Megilla is reinforced by an interesting Yerushalmi in Megilla (perek 4, which is parallel to the Bavli’s perek 3).  The Yerushalmi cites an episode in which Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak visits a shul and witnesses keriat ha-Torah in which the reader is “leaning on a post.”  He claims that “This posture is forbidden; just as it was delivered at Sinai in a manner which instigated fear and trembling, so must it be rendered in public in a manner which evinces awe.”


This vignette supports the Rambam’s position and actually provides a logical basis.  Keriat Ha-Torah, the Rav claimed, is not merely the collective or communal recital of Torah text.  Instead, it reenacts the pivotal moment at Har Sinai during which God’s word was delivered to a human audience.  As a re-dramatization of Sinai, the posture of the audience must resemble the quaking and trembling reported about the participants at Sinai.  (Regarding the actual Halakha, the Shulchan Arukh requires that the reader stand but not the audience.  The Rema cites that there are those “who are machmir to stand” during keriat Ha-Torah.  See Orach Chayim 141:1 for a discussion regarding the reader, and 146:4 regarding the audience.) 


The continuation of the Yerushalmi cites a related episode in which the same Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak visits a keriat ha-Torah (presumably in a different shul) and witnesses the reader standing alone on the podium.  He registered his disapproval, claiming “Just as Torah was delivered through an intermediary agent (sirsur), so must it be rendered during keriat Ha-Torah.”  The Torah reports that Moshe spoke the words of Torah as God replied (Moshe yedabber ve-ha-Elokim ya’anenu be-kolShemot 19:19).  Ignoring the exact details of this “teamwork,” it is clear that the delivery at Har Sinai was executed “jointly.”  To capture this ambience, keriat ha-Torah must be performed by multiple personalities - sirsur.  This symbolic role of intermediary is played by the gabbai who stands alongside the reader.  Again, the Yerushalmi insists on recreating Har Sinai during keriat ha-Torah because it viewed the process as a symbolic re-dramatization of that moment in time. 


This theory may be based in part on an interesting position of the Ramban.  While listing the prohibitions which the Rambam omitted in his enumeration of the mitzvot, the Ramban cites the prohibition to forget the events at Har Sinai (see Devarim 4:9-10).  The Ramban does not deduce any particular actions necessary to avoid this neglect and the violation of this mitzva; simple memory will do.  However, the spirit of his description certainly supports the institutionalization of symbolic ceremonies to help recall the experience at Sinai. 




The Rav deciphered an additional element of keriat ha-Torah based on this association with Sinai.  The gemara in Megilla (21b) demands a minimum of three aliyot during keriat Ha-Torah.  Special days augment the number of aliyot, but the base number remains the same.  One version of the gemara attributes this minimum number to the three-part demographic division of our people into Kohanim, Leviim and Yisraelim.  Why should keriat ha-Torah be modeled upon this symbolic division of different populaces?  (This gemara should not be confused with the gemara in Gittin 59b, which awards the first aliya to a Kohen and the second a Levi, etc.  That gemara explains the secondary evolutionary stage: having established in the gemara in Megilla the need for three aliyot, how do we best allocate these aliyot with an eye to honoring the Kohen as well as preventing contention in the struggle to receive aliyot?) 


The Rav suggested that to fully capture the Sinaitic flavor of keriat Ha-Torah, the attendance of an entire nation would be necessary.  Har Sinai is repeatedly referred to (Devarim 9:10, 10:4, 18:16) as “yom ha-kahal” – the day of assembly, in which the entire nation (according to midrashic sources, even future unborn Jews) convened to receive the word of God.  Reinstating that experience would demand a similar kahal or population of Jews.  Obviously, unable to convene a national audience, we allocate three aliyot to capture symbolically that which we cannot achieve through actual expression.  By designating three aliyot, we achieve a representative sampling of an entire nation and capture the full flavor of yom ha-kahal, thereby lending to keriat ha-Torah its Sinaitic quality. 


An additional halakhic consequence of this aligning keriat ha-Torah to Sinai emerges from the Rambam’s ruling (Hilkhot Tefilla 12:6) that requires the reader to correct basically any mistake in the reading - even phonetic mistakes which may not alter the actual meaning.  Interestingly, the Rema does not adopt this stringency, forcing correction only for instances in which the content was affected by the misreading.  The Rav explained the Rambam’s stringency about keriat ha-Torah as an enactment of Har Sinai.  To fully capture the moment at Sinai, it is not enough for the “stage” to resemble the original delivery (standing, intermediaries and an assembly).  The rendered text must exhibit fidelity to the original rendering.  Even if no cognitive differences emerge, if the text is rendered differently the experience of Sinai may be compromised.  In fact, the Rav reported, that Rav Chayim of Brisk would typically correct the reader (and encourage repetition) even for misread cantillation (trup), which does not affect meaning.  Evidently, he felt that the accurate cadences could also help capture the sense of Har Sinai. 


Of course, this tethering of keriat ha-Torah to Har Sinai cannot be predicated upon the aforementioned source in Parashat Beshalach of wandering without water for three days - a description which occurred prior to Har Sinai.  Evidently, keriat ha-Torah was instituted for alternate reasons, and after Har Sinai it became reconstituted as a reenactment of Har Sinai. 




The Rav asserted, instead, that employing public Torah reading as a reenactment of Har Sinai stems from a more concrete source - the practice of hakhel.  When the Rambam describes the once-in-seven year public reading, he writes (Hilkhot Chagiga 3:6):


Even converts (who may not yet appreciate the nuances of Torah) are obligated to listen with fear and awe as though it were the actual day in which the Torah was delivered…each person should envision himself as if just now commanded from God Himself.


The Rambam justifies the rendering of hakhel by the king because he serves as God’s agent to deliver Torah.  Hearing Torah from him (with the typical fear associated with a king) helps arouse the requisite fear and awe in memory of Sinai.  The Rambam views hakhel’s reading of the Torah as an attempt to recreate the experience at Har Sinai. This association is captured in the very name of the mitzva – hakhel – which invokes the great assembly that characterized Har Sinai.  The Torah actually demands the presence at hakhel of every man, woman and child, even though the latter two may not be formally obligated to study Torah, since their presence assures the presence of a sweeping and all encompassing assembly.  The legislation of hakhel as a reenactment of Sinai may have been the source for the reconstitution of keriat ha-Torah (a pre-Sinai custom) into a reenactment of Har Sinai. 

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