Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Ki Thavo

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


The Meta-temporal Significance of the Torah Reading

(From the teachings of Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik z"l)

Dr. Jeffrey Wolff

Dept. of Talmud

The series of blessings and curses recited on Mount Gerizim concludes as follows: "Cursed be he who will not uphold [asher lo yakim] the terms of this Teaching and observe them.--And all the people shall say, Amen" (Deut. 27:26). Medieval commentators have interpreted these words several ways. Rashi viewed them as indicating the people's explicit and renewed acceptance of the Torah on the eve of entering the land. Similarly, Nahmanides viewed it as expressing the undertaking to uphold the entire body of commands in the Torah. Thus far, there is nothing radically new in these comments, for the Bible abounds in descriptions of covenants made in anticipation of major turning points in the history of the nation. However, special attention should be paid to Nahmanides' concluding remark on this verse:

It is said by way of the Agadah, that this is a reference to the hazzan [the Talmudic term refers to the present-day beadle of the synagogue or shamash], if he not stand the Torah upright so that they do not fall. It seems to me, that it refers to the hazzan who does not hold up the Torah scroll before the public, showing its writing to all, as is explicitly set forth in Tractate Soferim (14.14), that the scrolls are to be held up high, the writing shown to all those who stand to the right and left, then to those in front and behind, for all the men and women are commanded to see the text, bow, and say "This is the Torah that Moses placed ..." (Deut. 4:44). And indeed, such is the custom.

Mentioning a synagogue custom in connection with the blessings and curses is highly instructive, because it reflects a central motif in Jewish living: the continual attempt to transcend the boundaries of time and space, re-enacting events from the Biblical past in daily life and experiencing them anew. While the best-known example of this is the celebration of the Passover Seder, the same may be said with respect to the theophany at Mount Sinai. Rashi set the tone, if only obliquely, in his interpretation of the verse, "On the third new moon after the Israelites went forth from the land of Egypt, on this very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai" (Ex. 19:1), by saying, "On this very day--on the new moon. It should not have said 'on this very day,' rather, 'on that day.' What, then is the force of saying 'on this very day'? To indicate that the commands of the Torah should be as something new, as though He had given them to you this very day."

The plain sense of this remark is that the words of the Torah not come to be viewed in a fossilized manner. Over the years, however, this comment has come to be more of a mandate to receive the Torah anew each day, and more importantly, to feel the spiritual and emotional experience of receiving the Torah. It is in this sense that one should take Nahmanides' comments cited above. By making the association with hagbahah, raising the Torah following its reading in public, in accord with the Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah ch.7,4), he essentially established that each time the Torah is raised before the congregation, either before or after the Torah reading in the synagogue, the rite of the blessings and curses is enacted in miniature. It is as if the individual, at that moment, is no longer standing in the synagogue, rather on one of the hilltops of Samaria.

My illustrious teacher Rabbi Joseph Dov Halevy Soloveitchik continued this tradition most elegantly in the classes which he gave on the laws governing Torah reading. In his investigation of the subject, Rabbi Soloveitchik addressed a question discussed in Tractate Megilla 21b, which on the face of it appears rather trivial: "On Mondays and Thursdays, and at the Minhah service on the Sabbath, three people are called up... Why three? Rav Assi said: to represent the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa. Rava said: for the Priests, Levites and Israelites."

This passage offers various explanations why specifically three people are called up to the Torah. Rabbi Soloveitchik saw this passage as supporting his view that the purpose of reading the Torah in public is not merely related to education or prayer, but is a reenactment of "receiving the Torah." He found basis for this idea in the two views cited in this gemara, which he saw as complementing each other. To understand this better, let us take a closer look at the passage:

Rav Assi maintained that three people are called up, one for each of the parts of the Bible. Rabbi Soloveitchik interpreted this as indicating that the Torah is a single integrated unit and should not be divided into separate parts. Reading it obliges a person to study it in its entirety. But since this is an impossible undertaking, we suffice with a symbolic commitment to the entire Torah by having three people called up at each public reading. Thus, Rav Assi viewed the Torah service as an act symbolizing commitment to study the entire Torah.

Rava, however, said the three people who are called up stood for the three major categories in the Jewish people, thus approaching the matter from a different perspective. In his opinion (according to Rabbi Soloveitchik's interpretation), one must stress the fact that each and every one of the children of Israel took part in the theophany at Mount Sinai. Moreover, one must give each individual full right of access to the Torah. Therefore Jewish law stipulates that three people be called up, recreating receipt of the Torah along with the national unity and equality that characterized this central event in the life of the nation.

Like Nahmanides' understanding of the custom of elevating the Torah before the congregation during public readings, similarly Rabbi Soloveitchik viewed the Torah service as a moment when every Jew steps beyond the limits of time and space and returns spiritually to the foot of Mount Sinai, along with the rest of the Jewish people.