While it is true that the priests and the Levites were entrusted with the custody of the sacred books, they were also entrusted with the responsibility of teaching the Torah – Yehovah’s Instructions to the people, without this meaning that they had the exclusive dominion of the study and knowledge of it.
The survival of Yehovah’s people has depended on their faithfulness in fulfilling this mission. For this reason, ignorance of the Torah is unforgivable among the children of Yehovah, apart from the fact that the Torah itself makes this demand repeatedly. Moshe himself pointed out this way in teaching it to the people:
“And he (Moshe) took the Book of the Covenant and read in the ears of the people” Exodus 24:7.
One of the provisions of the Torah specifically calls for the reading of the entire book of Deuteronomy before the assembled people:
And Moshe commanded them, saying, At the end of every seven years, at the appointed time of the year of remission, in the solemnity of Tabernacles (Sukkot), when all Yisrael go to appear before Yehovah your Elohim in the place which He has chosen, you shall read this Torah before all Yisrael in their hearing.
You shall gather the people, men, women, and children, and your stranger who is in your gates, that they may hear and learn, and fear Yehovah your Elohim, and keep the words of this Torah to do them.
And that their children who do not know it may hear and learn to fear Yehovah your Elohim, all the days that you live in the land where you are going, past the Yarden, to take possession of it. Deuteronomy 31:12
So it was that every seven years, and during the Feast of Sukkot of each Sabbath year, all the people of Yisrael were summoned to be instructed by the priests and Levites, making it clear from the beginning of their existence as a nation, that they were the people chosen by Yehovah to develop that unique identity. And this is the reason why the holy books were never secret documents, but the patrimony of the whole community.
Tradition attributes to Moshe the practice of publicly reading portions of the Torah on Shabbat, on the Feasts of Yehovah and on Rosh Chodesh (New Moon). However, the reading of portions, as we know it today, dates from the time of the Babylonian captivity (4th century BC).
At first there was no established order for the public reading of the Torah. With time, the systematic reading of the Torah on each Shabbat and on the Feast Days became more important, thus achieving a significant influence on the people. The Torah was not only to be read, but also commented upon and explained to facilitate its application, to which the following portion of the book of Nehemiah testifies:
And the Levites Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah, made the people understand the Torah, and the people stood attentive in their place. And they read from the Torah scroll of God, explaining and clarifying the meaning, so that they would understand the reading. Nehemiah 8:7-8
When the Hebrew people returned from exile in Babylon, as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah relate, they had ceased to speak the Hebrew language, because the common language in that kingdom was Aramaic. Then it became necessary to bring a person to translate aloud each phrase as it was read.
Subsequently, the Talmud records the establishment of the practice carried out by the Rabbis of explaining at length the meaning of the text read. They used parables to present the truths and facilitate their application to daily life. Thus originated the “sermon”, a long-established tradition among Jews, whose purpose was to explain the Torah and also to teach Judaism to the congregated public, which has not changed up to the present.
Since Mondays and Thursdays were market days, when the peasants came to the cities to sell their products and make their purchases, an excellent opportunity arose to gather the people for a few hours on those same days to teach them something of the Torah. But since the urban merchants were busy these days attending to the peasants who came and could not attend such meetings, it was established for their benefit to read additional Torah on Shabbat afternoon.
The portion of the Torah that is read weekly is called in Hebrew: Parashat ha-Shavua, but it is better known simply as Parashah (or Parshah) and also receives the name of Sidra (or Sedra).
Each Parashah takes its name from the first word or words of the Hebrew text of the portion in question, often from the first verse.
When this practice began, the Torah was divided into 155 portions, which required three years for its complete reading. At the beginning of the 19th and 20th centuries, both Reform and some Conservative Synagogues maintained this three-year cycle; but this custom was gradually replaced by the annual cycle that most of them follow today.
It is very important to be aware that neither the annual nor the triennial division for the reading of the Torah is inspired and therefore it is not mandatory to follow one of them. But it is undoubtedly that for the purpose of familiarizing ourselves and deepening our understanding of the Torah and its role as the foundation of the rest of the Scriptures, it is very convenient to keep reading it permanently.
There is also no mandate as to when to start reading the Torah. It could be at any time, and if someone wants to and can read it all at once, that would be great! But since we are a society with very limited time, it is convenient to establish an order; and by committing ourselves to our Father, we can determine when and how to carry out such reading-study; so when we have the opportunity to meet with other Torah doers, we can have fresh truths to share with them as we discover the treasures that are in it and that are surely transforming our lives.
If we are to affirm our identity as Yehovah’s People, we need to keep immersing ourselves in His Word, otherwise we will not be able to discern the Truth, among the multitude of voices and messages that reach our ears every day. The path is narrow and staying on it requires our full attention to the Torah-instructions that our Father has provided us.
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