This year (5776), as the seventh day of Pesach falls on Friday, communities in Israel will observe the next day, Shabbat, as an ordinary Shabbat, whereas Diaspora communities will observe that day as the eighth and final day of Pesach. Hence, Israeli communities will read on that Shabbat Parashat Acharei-Mot, following the standard sequence of weekly Torah readings, whereas in the Diaspora, a special section will be read for the Yom Tov (the end of Parashat Re’ei). This discrepancy will result in a “gap” between Israel and the Diaspora, with Diaspora communities lagging one parasha behind. This gap will continue until after Shiva Assar Be’Tammuz, when Israeli communities will read Parashat Matot and Parshat Masei separately, rather than combining them as is normally done. Diaspora communities will combine these two parashiyot, thereby “catching up” to the communities in Israel.
Rabbi Dr. Chaim Simons, in an in-depth article on the subject, cites an account when this circumstance presented itself, and the Chief Rabbi of Aleppo, Syria ruled that his city’s community should combine Korach and Chukat, which are read several weeks before Parashat Matot. The advantage of this policy is that it allows the Diaspora communities to get back in sync with Israeli communities earlier, rather than waiting several more weeks until Parashat Matot.
Of course, this ruling is exceptional, and it is not customary to ever combine Korach and Chukat. However, Diaspora communities do, on occasion, combine Parashiyot Chukat and Balak. (This is done when Shavuot falls on Friday, and thus Diaspora communities fall behind because they observe Shabbat as the second day of Shavuot and thus do not read the regular weekly parasha.) The question thus arises, why do Diaspora communities in situations such as this year combine Matot and Masei, instead of Chukat and Balak, thereby prolonging the period of discrepancy?
In truth, we should ask even a stronger question. Why do Diaspora communities not “catch up” to Israeli communities immediately on the Shabbat after Pesach, by combining Parashat Acharei-Mot and Parashat Kedoshim, two parashiyot which are generally read together in non-leap years? And even if there is some reason we can find for why they do not combine these parashiyot, why do they not combine Behar and Bechukotai?
The answer to this question, as discussed by the Maharit (2:4), lies in the time-honored practice, rooted in the Talmud, to read Parashat Bamidbar on the Shabbat immediately preceding Shavuot. The Gemara in Masekhet Megilla (31a) tells of Ezra’s enactment that Parashat Bechukotai – the final parasha in Sefer Vayikra – should be read before Shavuot. Tosafot explain that the custom is to read Parashat Bechukotai not the Shabbat immediately preceding Shavuot, but rather one week earlier, in order not to juxtapose the kelalot (“curses”) found in Parashat Bechukotai with Shavuot. This is, indeed, the accepted practice, and thus Parashat Bechukotai is generally read two Shabbatot before Shavuot, and Parashat Bamidbar on the Shabbat immediately preceding Shavuot. The exception to this rule is situations such as this year, in Israel, when Parashat Naso will be read on the Shabbat preceding Shavuot. The schedule of Torah readings here in Israel this year leave no alternative to reading Parashat Bamidbar two Shabbatot before Shavuot. In the Diaspora, however, the lag created by the eighth day of Pesach allows communities to maintain the custom of reading Parashat Bamidbar right before Shavuot even this year. As such, they do not combine Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, or Behar and Bechukotai, which would have the effect of distancing Parashat Bamidbar from Shavuot. The interest in maintaining this practice overrides the benefit of being synchronized with the communities in Israel, and so Diaspora communities do not combine Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim or Behar and Bechukotai.
This does not, however, answer the question of why Diaspora communities wait until Matot and Masei to combine two parashiyot, rather than combine Chukat and Balak. Addressing this question, the Maharit explains, quite simply, that Parashiyot Matot and Masei are almost always read together, and thus communities preferred to read them together in our case rather than read them separately. Although here in Israel these parashiyot must be read separately (because of the leap year, as mentioned), the Diaspora communities are able to follow the normal practice of reading them together, and this is preferable to reading Matot and Masei separately and combining Chukat and Balak.