The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Daf Shvui No. 114
The Commandment of Reading the Torah in Public
Rabbi Shlomoh Sheffer
According to Rabbinical tradition, Moses enacted several decrees, one of them being the reading of the Torah in public. About this Maimonides writes:
"Our teacher Moses decreed to Israel that they should read the Torah in public on the Sabbath and on Monday and Thursday during the morning prayers so that they would never pass three days without hearing the Torah ... and these are the days upon which the Torah is read publicly, on Sabbaths and Holidays, on the New Moon, on fast days, on Chanukah and Purim and on Monday and Thursday of each week " (Mishneh Torah, Tefillah, 12, 1-2).
The interpreters of Maimonides quote two sources as the basis for Maimonides' statement concerning these laws: One is in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Megillah 4,1) where the obligation to read the Torah on Sabbaths, holidays and on the New Moon is mentioned:
"Moses decreed for Israel that they should read the Torah on the Sabbath, on holidays, on the New Moon and on the intermediate days of the festivals, for it is said 'and Moses spoke of the holidays of G-d to the Children of Israel'."
The second source is a beraita (i.e. non-canonical mishnah) in the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Kama 82a) which defines the obligation to read the Torah on the Sabbath and on Monday and Thursday:
"'And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water'(Exodus 15:22), those who expound verses said: water always means Torah for it is said 'Ho, all those who thirst come to the water'. Since they went for three days without Torah they immediately became exhausted. The prophets among them took initative and decreed that they read (the Torah) on Sabbath, and pause on Sunday, read it on Monday and pause on Tuesday and Wednesday, read it on Thursday and pause on the eve of Sabbath so that they would never be three days without Torah".
This beraita ascribes the decrees to the prophets of that generation but Maimonides, who credited it to Moses did so for two reasons: "because he was the greatest prophet and all the other prophets of his generation were members of his court; and because they did nothing without his permission and therefore it is proper to credit the matter to him" (Kesef Mishneh, Tefillah 12,1).
Numerous issues relating to the reading of the Torah have been topics of discussion, among them - the manner of reading decreed in the time of Moses and the changes through which it went in the time of Ezra, the decree of Ezra to read the Torah at the Sabbath afternoon prayer (minchah), the number of those to be called up to the Torah, their order, the requirement for the presence of ten adult males since the Torah reading is a holy activity, etc.
One of the most interesting topics relating to this commandment deals with understanding the essence of the reading of the Torah and clarifies the obligation of every individual who hears the reading and the role of the reader. One such discussion may be found in the book "Mikraei Kodesh" on Chanukah and Purim written by Rabbi Zvi Pessach Frank (the Rabbi of Jerusalem who died in 1960). There (p. 87) he deals with the question, whether one can fulfill the obligation of reading the Torah if the reader is elderly and his voice is weak and it is impossible to hear him in a manner that not even one word is missed. He clarifies his own question:
"The aspects of the question are: is the reading only a communal obligation, so that the parashah is to be read in the Synagogue from a Torah scroll and it is not necessary for the reader to fulfill the obligation on behalf each individual in the community; or perhaps the commandment is incumbent on every single Jew to read the Torah and the Torah reader fulfills this obligation for him".
Rabbi Frank argues and brings proofs for each side of the question without making a decision. From his words we can learn two possible ways of understanding the nature of the commandment to read the Torah in public:
A. Reading the Torah is a communal obligation and even if for some reason certain individuals did not hear the reading - the decree has, in fact, been carried out (this possibility also appears in the opinion of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef in his book "Yabia Omer", part 4, Yoreh Deah, section 31).
B. The decree is that each and every member of the community should read the Torah. However, since this is practically impossible the reader must have the intention to fulfill the commandment for all of them by his reading. Accordingly if one did not hear part of the Torah reading he did not fulfill his obligation.
This last possibility, may be suppplemented by the statement of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (who was the greatest halachic authority in the United States in this generation until his death in 1986) in his "Igrot Moshe" (Orach Chayim part 4, section 23). In the opening of one of his responses on the relevant question, he says: "In the matter of the reading of the Torah surely each man must listen to the entire reading so as not to leave even one word unheard". Further on he clarifies the possibility of making up what was missed from the Torah reading and again emphasizes the obligation to hear every word, as follows:
"In any case he will be lacking the verse from which he missed one word and even moreso if he did not hear an entire verse, for there is a law of longstanding custom all over the world to complete the Torah each year. But there is no solution for this because the community should not be burdened to repeat it again for a few individuals. However, if there is an entire "minyan" (10 adult males) who missed hearing words or verses, they should read again, with a blessing, those places which they missed hearing, after the prayers are over, when it will no longer be a burden to those who heard the entire reading. In any case, for this reason, that it is not possible to repeat (reading) it, each individual must try to hear the entire reading without missing even one word".
Another possible way to understand the nature of the commandment of reading the Torah is discussed in the book "ýNefesh Harav" written in memory of Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik by his student Rabbi Herschel Shechter. In the section called "Likutei Hanhagot" (p. 136) the author writes:
"It happened that the reader told one of the members of the congregation that he hates him, and that when he reads the Torah in the synagogue he has the intention of fulfilling the obligation for the entire congregation - except for him. Consequently that member asked the Gaon Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, to find out if he needed to pray in a different synagogue in order to fulfill the obligation of reading the Torah".
Within his reply to that man Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik explained:
"And it seems correct to say that the heart of the matter is that when the reader fulfills the obligation of reading the Torah for the entire community, this does not mean that the listener is considered as one who repeats the words after the reader, that it is as if each and everyone of the congregation read from the Torah himself. Since, surely, if they were to do that, they would not thus fulfill the obligation of the decree of reading the Torah, because there is no communal participation in the reading. For the basis of the matter in Torah reading is that the whole community listens to the reader and thus they all participate in the commandment of public study of Torah, and even if the reader explicitly intends not to fulfill this obligation on behalf of someone, it does not matter because in the final analysis all listen and learn".
Upon this idea that reading the Torah in public amounts to the fulfillment of the commandment of studying Torah, an additional explanation is offered in the name of Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik:
"For to what is this similar? Suppose, there are two students in my class, one who does not understand a word, but I love him and have special intent during the class to fulfill for him the commandment of studying Torah, and the other one who understands the lesson well, but I hate him and intend during the class not to fulfill the commandment of Torah study for him. Is there any point in saying that for the one I intended to fulfill the commandment of Torah study even if he did not understand the lesson? Of course not. And the opposite is also true, the one who understood the lesson well certainly fulfilled the obligation of the commandment of Torah study despite my implicit intention not to fulfill it for him, because in the matter of fulfilling the obligation of the commandment of Torah study, everything depends on paying attention and understanding: everyone who pays attention and understands (my teaching) fulfills the obligation, and there is no issue here of hearing considered as if repeating the words after the teacher.
And this is also the essence of reading the Torah in public - it is the commandment of public study of the Torah, and is not dependent on the intent of the reader to fulfill the obligation for the congregation of listeners, but on their listening to the words of the Torah and understanding them".
In light of the various opinions shown here, it is easy to understand the importance of paying careful attention to the Torah reading , as it is expressed in these words from Maimonides:
"From the moment the reader begins to read the Torah it is forbidden even to talk about some matter of law, rather all must listen, and be quiet and pay attention to what he reads, as it is written: (Nehemia 8:3) 'and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the Torah' (Mishneh Torah, Tefillah, 12,9)."
Translated by: Phil Lerman Kibbutz Beerot Yitzchak.