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Torah reading (Hebrew: קריאת התורה, K'riat HaTorah ; "Reading [of] the Torah") is a Jewish religious ritual that involves the public reading of a set of passages from a Torah scroll. The term often refers to the entire ceremony of removing the Torah scroll (or scrolls) from the ark, chanting the appropriate excerpt with special cantillation, and returning the scroll(s) to the ark.

Regular public reading of the Torah was introduced by Ezra the Scribe after the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian captivity (c. 537 BCE), as described in the Book of Nehemiah.[1] In the modern era, adherents of Orthodox Judaism practice Torah reading according to a set procedure they believe has remained unchanged in the two thousand years since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 CE). In the 19th and 20th centuries CE, new movements such as Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism have made adaptations to the practice of Torah reading, but the basic pattern of Torah reading has usually remained the same:

As a part of the morning or afternoon prayer services on certain days of the week or holidays, a section of the Pentateuch is read from a Torah scroll. On Shabbat (Saturday) mornings, a weekly section ("parasha") is read, selected so that the entire Pentateuch is read consecutively each year.[2][3] On Saturday afternoons, Mondays, and Thursdays, the beginning of the following Saturday's portion is read. On Jewish holidays, Rosh Chodesh, and fast days, special sections connected to the day are read.

Jews observe an annual holiday, Simchat Torah, to celebrate the completion of the year's cycle of readings.

Origins and history of the practice

The introduction of public reading of the Torah by Ezra the Scribe after the return of the Jewish people from the first exile is described in Nehemiah Chapter 8. Prior to Ezra, the mitzvah of Torah reading was based on the Biblical commandment of Hakhel (Deuteronomy 31:10–13), by which once every 7 years the entire people was to be gathered, "men, women and children,"[4] and hear much of Deuteronomy, the final volume of the Pentateuch, read to them (see the closing chapters of the Talmudic Tractate Sotah). Traditionally, the mitzvah of gathering the people and reading them the Torah under Hakhel was to be performed by the King. Under Ezra, Torah reading became more frequent and the congregation themselves substituted for the King's role. Ezra is traditionally credited with initiating the modern custom of reading thrice weekly in the synagogue. This reading is an obligation incumbent on the congregation, not an individual, and did not replace the Hakhel reading by the king. The reading of the Law in the synagogue can be traced to at least about the second century B.C., when the grandson of Sirach refers to it in his preface as an Egyptian practise; it must, therefore, have existed even earlier in Judea.

Torah reading is discussed in the Mishna and Talmud, primarily in Tractate Megilla.

An alternative triennial cycle of Torah readings also existed at that time. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the triennial cycle "was the practice in Palestine, whereas in Babylonia the entire Pentateuch was read in the synagogue in the course of a single year,"[5] As late as 1170 Benjamin of Tudela mentioned Egyptian congregations that took three years to read the Torah[6]

Joseph Jacobs notes the transition from the triennial to the annual reading of the Law and the transference of the beginning of the cycle to the month of Tishri are attributed by Sándor Büchler to the influence of Abba Arika, also known as "Rab," or "Rav," (175–247 CE), a Jewish Talmudist who lived in Babylonia, and who established at Sura the systematic study of the rabbinic traditions, which, using the Mishnah as text, led to the compilation of the Talmud: "This may have been due to the smallness of the sedarim under the old system, and to the fact that people were thus reminded of the chief festivals only once in three years. It was then arranged that Deut. xxviii. should fall before the New-Year, and that the beginning of the cycle should come immediately after the Feast of Tabernacles. This arrangement has been retained by the Karaites and by modern congregations." At the time of the Jewish Encyclopedia's publication (1901-1906), the author noted there were only "slight traces of the triennial cycle in the four special Sabbaths and in some of the passages read upon the festivals, which are frequently sections of the triennial cycle, and not of the annual one,"[7] however, throughout the 19th and 20th century, many Conservative, Reform, and other more recent Jewish movements adopted a triennial cycle distinct from the historical practice of ancient Israel, by dividing the annual sedarim into thirds and reading a third of each during the appropriate week of the year. (The ancient practice was to read each seder in serial order regardless of the week of the year, completing the entire Torah in three years in a linear fashion.) The current practice in Orthodox synagogues follows the annual/Babylonian cycle.

It has been suggested that the reading of the Law was due to a desire to controvert the views of the Samaritans with regard to the various festivals, for which reason arrangements were made to have the passages of the Pentateuch relating to those festivals read and expounded on the feast-days themselves.

Occasions when the Torah is read

The first segment of each weekly Parsha from the Torah is read during the morning services on Mondays and Thursdays. The entire weekly Parsha is read on Saturdays. Most major and minor festival and fast have a unique Torah reading devoted to that day. The Torah is also read during afternoon services on Saturdays, fasts, and Yom Kippur.

When the Torah is read in the morning, it comes after Tachanun or Hallel, or, if these are omitted, immediately after the Amidah. The Torah reading is followed by the recitation of half-kaddish.

When the Torah is read during the afternoon prayers, it occurs immediately before the Amidah.


Boy reads Torah according to Sephardic custom

The term "Torah reading" is often used to refer to the entire ceremony of taking the Torah scroll (or scrolls) out of its ark, reading excerpts from the Torah with a special tune, and putting the scroll(s) back in the Ark.

The Torah scroll is stored in an ornamental cabinet, called a(n) (Holy) Ark (Hebrew: Aron (Kodesh)), designed specifically for Torah scrolls. The Holy Ark is usually found in the front of the sanctuary, and is a central element of synagogue architecture. When needed for reading, the Torah is removed from the ark by someone chosen for the honor from among the congregants; specific prayers are recited as it is removed. The Torah is then carried by the one leading the services to the bimah — a platform or table from which it will be read; further prayers are recited by the congregation while this is done.


A synagogue official, called a gabbai, then calls up several people (men in most Orthodox and some Conservative congregations, men and women in others), in turn, to be honored with an aliyah (Hebrew: עליה‎; pl. עליות, aliyot; "ascent" or "going up"), wherein the honoree (or, more usually, a designated reader) reads the Torah for the congregation. Each reads a section of the day's Torah portion. There are always at least three olim (people called to read the Torah):

Number of aliyot Occasion
3 Mondays and Thursdays, Shabbat afternoon, fast days, Hanukkah, Purim, Yom Kippur afternoon
4 Rosh Chodesh, Chol HaMoed
5 Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah
6 Yom Kippur morning
7 Shabbat (Saturday) morning

On Saturday mornings, there are seven olim, the maximum of any day, but more may be added, by subdividing these seven aliyot, if desired (according to the custom of some communities). When a festival or Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat the readings are divided into seven aliyot instead of five or six.

In most congregations, the oleh does not himself read the Torah aloud. Rather, he stands near it while a practiced expert, called a ba'al k'ri'ah ("one in charge of reading"; sometimes ba'al ko're), reads the Torah, with cantillation, for the congregation. In some congregations the oleh follows along with the expert, reading in a whisper.

According to Orthodox Judaism, as a sign of respect, the first oleh (person called to read) is a kohen and the second a levi; the remaining olim are yisr'elim — Jews who are neither kohen nor levi. (This assumes that such people are available; there are rules in place for what is done if they are not.) The first two aliyot are referred to as "Kohen" and "Levi," while the rest are known by their number (in Hebrew). This practice is also followed in some but not all Conservative synagogues. Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism have abolished special ritual roles for the descendants of the Biblical priestly and levitical castes.

Each oleh, after being called to the Torah, approaches it, recites a benediction, a portion is read, and the 'oleh' concludes with another benediction. Then the next oleh is called.

The gabbai recites a Hebrew verse upon calling the first person to the Torah. After that, everyone is called with: "Ya'amod (Let him arise), [Hebrew Name] ben (son of) [Father's Hebrew name] [Ha-Kohen (the Kohen) / Ha-Levi (the Levite)] (the name of the Aliyah in Hebrew)."

These aliyot are followed by half-kaddish. When the Torah is read in the afternoon, kaddish is not recited at this point, but rather after the Torah has been returned to the Ark.


On days when a haftarah is read (see Haftarah below), there is a final aliyah after the kaddish, called maftir. The person called to that aliyah, as well, is known as "the maftir." On holidays, maftir is read from the Torah verses describing the sacrifices brought in the Temple in Jerusalem on that particular holiday. On Saturday, the maftir is a repetition of the last few verses of the parsha.

When the Torah is read on the afternoon of a fast day (and on Yom Kippur), the third aliyah is considered the maftir, and is followed immediately by the haftarah.

Hagbaha and Gelila

In the Sefardic tradition, the Torah is closed and temporarily put aside. In Ashkenazic tradition, two honorees are called. The first, the Magbiah ("lifter") performs Hagbaha ("lifting [of the Torah]") and displays the Torah's Hebrew text for all to see. The second honoree (often a child under Bar Mitzva age), the Golel ("roller") performs Gelila ("rolling up"), then binds the Torah with a sash and replaces the Torah's cover.[8][9]


On Saturday and holiday mornings, as well as on the afternoons of fast days and Yom Kippur, the Torah reading concludes with the haftarah – a reading from one of the Books of Prophets. The haftarah usually relates in some way to either the Torah reading of that day, a theme of the holiday, or the time of year.

The Haftarah was created because the King did not allow Jews to read Torah, but he did not mention anything about a different type of reading. They created it so they could still read Hebrew, something that was very dear to them.

Returning the Torah

The Torah scroll is then put back in its ark to the accompaniment of specific prayers.

The Chazzan takes the Torah scroll in his right arm and recites "Let them praise the name of HaShem, for his name alone will have been exalted." The congregation then responds with Psalm 148, verse 13-14.

What is read?

The cycle of weekly readings is fixed. Because the Hebrew Calendar varies from year to year, two readings are sometimes combined so that the entire Pentateuch is read over the course of a year.

Weekly portion

See also: Weekly Torah portion

On Shabbat mornings, the weekly Torah portion (parsha) is read. It is divided into seven aliyot (see above for more on aliyot). .

Daily portion

On Monday and Thursday mornings and on Saturday afternoons (except on special days), a small section of the upcoming week's parsha is read, divided into three aliyot

Jewish Holidays

On Jewish holidays, the reading relates to the day. For example, on Passover the congregation reads various sections of the Pentateuch that relate to that holiday.

Order of precedence for special readings

When multiple special occasions occur at the same time, there is a standard order of precedence. Generally speaking, when major Jewish holidays occur on Shabbat the holiday portion is read, although divided into the seven portions for Shabbat rather than the number appropriate for the holiday. (There is a special reading for when Shabbat coincides with the Chol HaMoed (intermediate days) of Passover or Sukkot.) However, when Shabbat coincides with minor holidays, such as Rosh Chodesh (New month) or Hannukah, the regular reading for Shabbat is read, plus an additional reading (maftir) relevant to the occasion. The additional reading is read from a second scroll if available. On rare occasions, such as when a Rosh Chodesh falls on a Shabbat that is also commemorating another occasion, such as Hannukah or when one of the four special additional readings read prior to Passover, there are two additional readings and three scrolls (if available) are read.

Simchat Torah

On Simchat Torah (Hebrew: שמחת תורה ; "Joyous celebration of the Torah"), the order of weekly readings is completed, and the day is celebrated with various customs involving the Torah. The Torah is read at night – a unique occurrence, preceded by seven rounds of song and dance (hakafot, sing. hakafah). (Some communities have hakafot without subsequently reading the Torah.) During the hakafot, most or all of the synagogue's Torah scrolls are removed from the Holy Ark, and carried around the Bimah by members of the congregation.

On the day of Simchat Torah (in Judaism, day follows night), some communities repeat the seven rounds of song and dance to varying degrees, while in others the Torah scrolls are only carried around the Bimah (seven times) symbolically. Afterwards, many communities have the custom of calling every member of the congregation for an aliyah, which is accomplished by repeatedly re-reading the day's five aliyot. The process is often expedited by splitting the congregants into multiple rooms, to each of which a Torah is brought for the reading.

Following the regular aliyot, the honor of Hatan Torah ("Groom of the Torah") is given to a distinguished member of the congregation, who is called for an aliyah in which the remaining verses of the Torah are read, to complete that year's reading. Another member of the congregation is honored with Hatan Bereishit ("Groom of Genesis"), and receives an aliyah in which the first verses of the Torah, containing the creation account of Genesis, are read. (A second Torah is usually used, so that the first need not be rolled all the way to the beginning while the congregants wait). Afterwards, the services proceed in the usual manner, with the maftir and haftarah for Simchat Torah.

Women and Torah reading

Orthodox congregations

In the vast majority of Orthodox congregations, only men are called to the Torah, in keeping with a passage in the Talmud that while women could potentially be called, "we do not call a woman on account of the Kavod Hatzibur (the dignity of the congregation)." (Megillah 23a)

Modern Orthodox innovations

A small number of Modern Orthodox congregations have added all-female prayer groups where women are permitted to read. In addition, following recent publication of opinions by Modern Orthodox Rabbi Mendel Shapiro and Bar-Ilan University Talmud Professor and Modern Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Sperber claiming that halakha permits women to participate in regular Torah reading on Shabbat under certain conditions, a small number of congregations identifying themselves as Modern Orthodox, called "Partnership Minyanim", have begun permitting women to take on this role. The argument involved is controversial and most Orthodox authorities and organizations do not agree with it. [10].

In congregations who call women to the Torah through either a women's minyan or a partnership minyan, girls attain Bat Mitzvah at the age of 12 as in other Orthodox congregations rather than 13 (as in Conservative and liberal congregations). In all-women's services, it is often customary to call a Bat Kohen (daughter of a Kohen) and a Bat Levi (daughter of a Levite) for the first and second aliyah. In partnership minyan services, only men are called for the Kohen and Levi aliyah.

Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal

Most but not all Conservative congregations permit women to have an aliyah for at least part of the reading. Many Conservative congregations, and all or nearly all Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal congregations, practice complete gender egalitarianism. Contrary to the Orthodox stance that calling women to the Torah would detract from the "dignity of the congregation," non-Orthodox Jews tend to firmly believe that this practice adds to the "dignity of the congregation."

Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism generally follows practices for Torah reading similar to Orthodox Judaism except that:

  • In most but not all Conservative synagogues, women can receive an aliyah and/or can chant from the Torah out loud ("leyn").
  • In a minority of Conservative synagogues, women who are Bat Kohanim (daughter of a male Kohen) and Bat Leviim (daughter of a male Levi) can be called for the first and second aliyot. The Masorti movement in Israel, and some Conservative congregations in North America, permit only men to be called for the Kohen and Levite aliyot even if women can be called for the other aliyot.
  • Some Conservative synagogues do not call a Kohen or a Levite first at all, although Conservative Judaism as a whole retains some elements of special tribal roles.
  • Conservative synagogues who call women to the Torah generally hold a Bat Mitzvah ceremony for girls at the age of 13.
  • Some Conservative congregations use a triennial cycle, reading approximately a third of the Torah every year and completing the reading in three years.

Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Judaism

In addition to changes mentioned above for Conservative Judaism, these movements generally practice

  • Complete gender egalitarianism
  • Abolition of tribal distinctions among kohen, levi, and yisrael on grounds of egalitarianism
  • Most congregations abridge the portion read (usually by instituting a triennial cycle) and reduce the number of aliyot.
  • Some congregations modify the portions read.
  • Some Reform congregations have their main Shabbat service on Friday night and read Torah then.
  • Some Reform congregations used to have their main service on Sunday.
  • Some Reform congregations do not regularly conduct a Torah reading.

Triennial cycle

Adapting an ancient practice from the Land of Israel,[11] some Conservative (as evidenced in the Etz Hayim chumash) and most Reform,[12] Reconstructionist[13] and Renewal congregations have switched to a triennial cycle, where the first third of each parsha is read one year, the second third the next year and the final third in a third year.

See also

Other religions

  • Qur'an reading, in Islam
  • Lesson, in Christianity
  • Bible study (Christian), private or small group reading predominantly in Protestant Christianity


  1. Book of Nehemia, Chapter 8
  2. The division of parashot found in the modern-day Torah scrolls of all Jewish communities (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Yemenite) is based upon the systematic list provided by Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Torah Scrolls, chapter 8. Maimonides based his division of the parashot for the Torah on the Aleppo Codex. Though initially doubted by Umberto Cassuto, this has become the established position in modern scholarship. (See the Aleppo Codex article for more information.)
  3. Conservative and Reform synagogues may read parashot on a triennial rather than annual schedule. See: [1], [2]
  4. Deuteronomy 31:12
  5. Triennial cycle, citing Megillah 29b.
  6. "Itinerary," ed. Asher, p. 98
  7. "Triennial Cycle," op. cit.
  8. Weekly-Halacha, Parshas Vayeishev, 5760 -
  9. Glossary of Hebrew Terms
  10. (pdf)
  11. Triennial cycle, Joseph Jacobs, Jewish Encyclopedia
  13. Kol Haneshamah, Shabbat Vehagim, 3rd Edition, 2004, The Reconstructionist Press, page 710. Rabbi David A. Teutsch, Editor-in-Chief)

External links

Further reading

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