Shiur 32: Torah Study (6) "The Day That You Stood Before The Lord Your God in Chorev" (Part II)

  • Harav Baruch Gigi



I. Reading the Torah – Hearing the Torah


            In the previous shiur we mentioned that there are two events that perpetuate the assembly at Mount Sinai for all generations. The first event, which we discussed in the previous shiur, is the hakhel assembly at the end of the sabbatical year. In this shiur we will focus on the second event – the public reading of the Torah.


            The Rambam writes:


Moses, our master, ordained that the Jews should read the Torah publicly on Shabbat as well as on Monday and Thursday mornings, so that the [people] would not have three days pass without hearing the Torah. Ezra ordained that [the Torah] should be read during the afternoon service on Shabbat, because of those sitting on street corners. He also ordained that on Mondays and Thursdays, three people should read [from the Torah], and that they should read no fewer than ten verses. These are the days when the Torah is read publicly: Shabbat, the Festivals, Rosh Chodesh, fast days, Chanukah, Purim, and Mondays and Thursdays each week. (Rambam, Hilkhot Tefila 12:1-2)


            The Rambam emphasizes that the purpose of the ordinance of public Torah reading is for the congregation to hear the Torah on a frequent basis, "so the [people] would never have three days pass without hearing the Torah." It appears that the Rambam deliberately chooses the word "hear" in connection with this obligation.


II. Standing While the Torah is Being Read


The Gemara in tractate Megila (21a) learns two laws from the verse: "But as for you, stand you here by Me" (Devarim 5:28). The first law is that one is to stand for the reading of the Torah, and the second, that one is to stand even while studying Torah.


The requirement to stand comes to perpetuate the situation at Mount Sinai, where all of Israel stood to receive the Torah.  We also reenact the forty days and forty nights that Moshe spent on Mount Sinai learning Torah from God while standing, and as it were, God Himself stood there, as is explained in the passage in Megila.


The Gemara there explains that after weakness entered the world, people began to study Torah while seated. This qualification, however, was stated only regarding Torah study, but not regarding the public reading of the Torah, which much be performed in a standing position until this very day.


Despite the fact that the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 146:4) rules that only the reader is required to stand, while the congregation may remain seated, the Rema cites the view of Maharam of Rothenburg that even the congregation must stand:


But some are stringent and stand. And so did the Maharam. (Rema, Orach Chayyim 146:4)


Why is one obligated to stand for the reading of the Torah? One possible reason is that one must stand in order to honor the Torah. Indeed, the Yerushalmi (Megila 4:1) was already doubtful about whether the obligation to stand was to show honor to the Torah or to show honor to the congregation.


Later in the passage, however, the Yerushalmi connects the law of standing for the reading of the Torah to the giving of the Torah at Sinai:


Just as it [the Torah] was given with dread and fear, so too we must act toward it with dread and fear. (Yerushalmi, Megila 4:1)


It is not entirely clear what the Gemara is saying. One might understand this to mean that one must relate to the Torah with honor, as at the time of the giving of the Torah. Alternatively, the Gemara might be comparing the time of the reading of the Torah to the time that it was given. Just as the Torah was given in dread and fear, the reading of the Torah must be this way as well.


The Zohar in Parashat Vayakhel explains the matter as follows:


When the Torah scroll is brought up to the table, all of the people must arrange themselves with dread, fear, trembling and quaking. They must direct their hearts as if they were now standing on Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. They must listen and incline their ears, and they are not permitted to open their mouths and talk even about Torah matters, and certainly not about other matters. Rather they must all stand in dread as if they have no mouths, based on the verse in Nechemya (8:5): "And when he opened it, all the people stood," and the ears of all the people were turned to the Torah scroll.

Only one person is permitted to read from the Torah scroll at a time, and all the others must silently listen to the words, so that they hear the words from his mouth as if they were receiving the Torah at that moment on Mount Sinai. When a person reads from the Torah, another person must stand next to him, and he must remain silent, so that there only one sounding of the words is heard, and not two, only one holy tongue… one voice and one translator… All must be silent as one person reads, as it is written (Shemot 20:1): "And God spoke all these words, saying." He [Moshe] was above, and all the people were below, as it is written (Shemot 19:17): "And they stood at the foot of the mountain." And it is written (Shemot 19:3): "And Moshe went up to God."

He who reads from the Torah must direct his heart and will to these words, and he must understand that he is a messenger of the Holy One, blessed be He, in arranging these words to cause them to be heard by all the people, as he stands as if he were God. Therefore one who goes up to read from the Torah must arrange the words beforehand in his house, and if he did not prepare his reading, he should not read from the Torah. From where do we know this? From that oration, for God [as it were] only sounded the Torah to the holy people as it is written (Iyov 28:27): "Then He saw it, and declared it; He established it, yes, and searched it out," and only afterwards did He say to man: "Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom." (Zohar, Parashat Vayakhel)


            According to the Zohar, the public reading of the Torah reenacts Israel's receiving of the Torah from the mouth of God at Mount Sinai. This being the case, one must be exceedingly meticulous when reading from the Torah and when preparing to do so.


            It may be suggested that this is also the position of the Maharam of Rothenburg, that the entire congregation must stand during the reading of the Torah. The Torah reading must be performed the way the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, where all the people stood at the foot of the mountain to hear the word of God with dread, fear and trembling.


III. The Assembly at Mount Sinai, Hakhel and Reading from the Torah


            In my opinion, the Rambam's position that the essence of the public Torah reading is to allow the congregation to hear the Torah accords with the assembly at Mount Sinai. For God said to Moshe:


The day that you stood before the Lord your God in Chorev, when the Lord said to me, Gather me the people together, and I will make them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children. (Devarim 4:10)


The assembly at Mount Sinai was designed to allow God to have the people hear His words. Thus, that the mitzva of reading the Torah publicly is a reenactment of allowing the people to hear.


This is similar to the hakhel assembly, only that here it is not a ceremonial hearing that takes place only once every seven years, but rather a continual experience of hearing, so that three days should not pass without the people hearing the Torah.


The passage in Megila appears to be drawing a comparison, at least according to the strict law, between the public reading of the Torah and the ordinary Torah study of an individual. Just as the public reading of the Torah represents the sounding of the Torah to the people at Mount Sinai, so too the ordinary Torah study of an individual represents Moshe’s study before God on the mountain.


Because of the weakness that entered the world we now sometimes study Torah seated, but it is clear that even after it became permitted to study Torah while seated, it must still be done in fear, dread and trembling.[1] The student's understanding that he is standing before the word of God, which was handed down from Moshe on the mountain to all later generations, must accompany him and shape his experience as long as he is engaged in Torah study.


Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik expanded on this idea:


The purpose of reading the Torah aloud in the synagogue is not solely to teach the congregation, but also to arrange an encounter with God, as experienced by our ancestors at Mount Sinai. Every act of reading from the Torah is a new giving of the Torah, a revival of the wondrous stand at the foot of the flaming mountain. The reading of the Torah is a "staging" of the giving of the Torah and a renewal of the awesome, sublime experience of Mount Sinai.

The revelational experience is reenacted whenever the Torah scroll is removed from the ark [for reading in the synagogue]. The person who is called up to the Torah utters a formula of sanctification ("Bless the blessed Lord") before the prescribed benediction. Why does he not simply begin with the benediction itself? The reading of the Torah contains an element of revelation of the Shekhina, and whenever or wherever man feels the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, he is obligated to sanctify God's name and praise Him: "Then shall all the trees of the forest shout for joy at the presence of the Lord, for He is coming, for He is coming to rule the earth" (I Divrei ha-Yamim 16:33).

R. Meir of Rothenburg's stringency of standing during the synagogue reading of the Torah is based on this principle. If the public reading of the Torah were merely an educational activity, there would be no need to stand. Since the time of Rabban Gamliel the Elder, we sit while studying the Torah (Megila 21a). Standing is an outcome of the revelational experience. (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, And From There You Shall Seek, pp. 139-140)


It seems to me that hakhel and public Torah reading are not two different ceremonies that reenact the assembly at Mount Sinai. Rather we are dealing with two types of the hakhel assembly, while the essence of both is sounding the Torah to the people. The one takes place once every seven years, in a festive and ceremonial fashion through a general assembly of all of Israel. The other one takes place almost every day, as a routine matter, and it is designed for each community, for the people in the fields, so that three days should not pass without them hearing the words of the Torah.


IV. The Torah Reading Cycle in Eretz Israel – Similar to Hakhel


The connection between the ceremonial hakhel assembly and the "Gather Me the people together, and I will make them hear My words" of public Torah reading at all times and in all places, is evident from the reading cycle of the synagogue Torah reading.


There are two main customs regarding this reading, the Babylonian custom and the custom of Eretz Israel.


The Babylonian custom, which is followed today in all Jewish communities, is to complete the reading of the Torah once a year, by reading Ve-Zot ha-Berakha on Simchat Torah (Shemini Atzeret in Eretz Israel, and the second day of Shemini Atzeret outside Eretz Israel). The new cycle begins with the reading of Parashat Bereishit on the first Shabbat after Sukkot.


The ancient Eretz Israel custom, on the other hand, was to complete the reading of the entire Torah once every three years. This appears in the Gemara in Megila:


The people of the west [= Eretz Israel] complete the reading of the Torah once every three years. (Megila 29b)


            In Eretz Israel the customary practice was to read sedarim, and not entire parashot; each Shabbat they would read one seder.


            There are significant disagreements regarding the practice of Eretz Israel. While the Gemara in Megila speaks about a three-year cycle, the book "Ha-Chilukim she-bein Anshei Mizrach u-Benei Eretz Israel," states:


The people of the east [= Babylonia] celebrate Simchat Torah every year, whereas the people of Eretz Israel [celebrate it] every three and a half years. (Sefer ha-Chilukim, no. 48)


The issue is discussed in a more expanded form in Yam shel Shelomo:


The people of the east celebrate Simchat Torah every year on the festival of Sukkot, and in every province, and in every city, they read the same parasha. However, the people of Eretz Israel celebrate Simchat Torah only every three and a half years. And on the day that they complete the parasha that is read in this place it is not read in another place. (Yam shel Shelomo, end of Bava Kama)


Here too we are dealing with a cycle of three and a half years. What is more, it seems that the custom varied from place to place in Eretz Israel.


Several years ago Prof. Shlomo Naeh (Tarbiz 67 [5758]) proposed that the order of the Torah reading in Eretz Israel was fixed. According to him, the determining factor was that they finished reading the Torah twice every seven years.


If we adopt his basic position, which seems quite reasonable to us,[2] we can argue that there was no fixed date for completing the reading of the Torah the first time in each cycle, and that there were different customs about that. This is because the critical issue was the second reading in each cycle, which would apparently be completed at the end of the sabbatical year on the festival of Sukkot, in commemoration of the mitzva of hakhel. This is why there are different divisions into sedarim, as this allows for a certain flexibility to ensure that the second reading of the Torah is finished at the end of the sabbatical year on the festival of Sukkot at the time of the mitzva of hakhel.


It was Moshe who ordained that the Torah be read publicly on Shabbat, as is stated in the Yerushalmi:


Moshe ordained that Israel should read the Torah on Shabbat. (Yerushalmi, Megila 4:1)


The Rambam states:


Moses, our master, ordained that the Jews should read the Torah publicly on Shabbat. (Rambam, Hilkhot Tefila 12:1)


According to the custom of Eretz Israel, this ordinance was designed to complete the reading of the Torah twice every seven years, in anticipation of the hakhel assembly. The hakhel assembly is the ceremonial assembly, which reenacts the assembly at Mount Sinai.


The Midrash ha-Gadol states as follows:


From here they said: The day of hakhel is like the day on which the Torah was given. (Midrash ha-Gadol, Parashat Vayelekh)


The Midrash points to the parallel between two verses: the verse relating to the assembly at Mount Sinai: "Gather me the people together, and I will make them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they shall live upon the earth" (Devarim 4:10); and the verse relating to the hakhel assembly: "Gather the people together… that they may hear, and that they may learn…" (Devarim 31:12).


With the Torah reading on Shabbat we attempt to discuss the content of the Torah and teaching it to the people. The essence of the hakhel assembly, in contrast, is the great impression that it creates, an impression that strengthens the great fear which is aroused when encountering the word of God.


According to what we have said, the public reading of the Torah itself has two focal points. The first point is studying the Torah and completing it with a fixed regularity, as the Gemara states in Berakhot (8a): "One should always complete his parashot together with the congregation." At the same time there is an obligation to allow the people to hear the Torah in a quasi-ceremonial atmosphere that includes being called up to the Torah and reading from it to the congregation. This act symbolizes God's giving of the Torah to Israel, as we saw earlier in the words of the Zohar.


The seven-year period, during which the Torah is read and studied twice, serves as a single life cycle. At the end of seven years, we start from the beginning and, as if,  receive the Torah anew in the hakhel assembly.


V. A Material System and a Spiritual System


            This system and this assembly parallel the renewal of the covenant with God, in the context of the mitzvot that are dependent upon Eretz Israel. A person works his land for six years, and sets aside the necessary terumot and ma'aserot in two cycles of setting produce aside for this purpose.[3] At the end of these two cycles there is the mitzva of vidui ma'aserot, which brings us to the sabbatical year, a year of rest for the land. As it were, during the seventh year the land returns to God.


            At the end of the seventh year, during the festival of Sukkot, we enter into a renewed covenant regarding the land in the hakhel assembly. In the wake of this covenant God once again gives us His land for another cycle of six years of planting, followed by a seventh year of rest.


            The connection between the worldly, material, agricultural cycle and the cycles of reading and studying the Torah is most fundamental. In many places we compare man's material nutrition to his spiritual nutrition. Thus, in the Gemara in Berakhot (20a) and in the Yerushalmi Berakhot (7:1), clear comparisons are drawn between the blessing recited over the Torah and the Grace after Meals. There is a profound relationship between these two blessings, as is explained in these passages. According to many opinions, the blessing recited over the Torah and the Grace after Meals are the only blessings that are obligatory by Torah law.


            What this means is that man's life is rooted in both his body and his soul. The body is nurtured by the good that God bestows with His positivity that is turned to Eretz Israel at all times, and the soul is nurtured by the bounty that falls upon us through His Torah. The two together – the Torah and the land's produce – give life to the people living in God's land and studying his Torah. "But you that did cleave of the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day" (Devarim 4:4).


            This connection between the body and the soul, between the Torah and Eretz Israel, in close relationship to the resting of the land in the sabbatical year and to the Torah that was given to man, joins together our material and spiritual lives.


            This connection is actualized in the mitzva of hakhel, which we are commanded to observe at the end of the sabbatical year. At that time we renew our covenant and relationship with God, and once again we receive the Torah and the land, and start afresh a new cycle of life.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] As is stated in the Gemara with respect to the Torah study of a ba'al keri (even though this too was ultimately permitted).

[2] We accept his basic position, and in its wake we propose our own unique understanding.

[3] We are commanded in the Torah to set aside teruma for the priest and the tithe for the Levite, in return for the services that they perform in the Mishkan and the Mikdash. This tithe is known as the first tithe. The Levites are commanded to set aside a tenth of this tithe, a tithe of the tithe, and give it to a priest. This is what is known as terumat ma'aser. In addition, at the beginning of Parashat Re'e the Torah commands to set aside the tithe, to bring it to the place which God will choose, and to eat it there in joy and purity, so that one learns to fear God all his days. This tithe is known as the second tithe. In that same parasha, the Torah commands us in to take out the whole tithe and give it to the poor in the third year. This is what is called the poor man's tithe.

The accepted Halakha according to Rabbinic tradition is that in the first and second years of the sabbatical cycle one must set aside the second tithe, and in the third year, one must set aside the poor man's tithe, and similarly in the fourth and fifth years one must set aside the second tithe, and in the sixth year, the poor man's tithe.

What we have then are two cycles of tithes every seven years: the first three years, the next three years, and then the seventh year which is the sabbatical year of the land. In each cycle there are two years of the second tithe and a year of the poor man's tithe. This is supported by the verses in the Torah (Devarim 26:12 and on) where we are commanded about bi'ur and vidui ma'aserot. That is, there is an obligation at the end of each cycle of ma'aserot, at the end of the third and the sixth years, to remove all the teruma and tithes from the house, and to bring them to their destination (the priest, the Levite, or the poor person), and to verbally declare that one has executed all of these tasks as commanded.

Since the produce of the third year is eaten after the harvest is completed, throughout the winter of the fourth year, Chazal set Pesach of the fourth and seventh years as the time for bi'ur .