(The following piece appeared in “Integral Yoga Magazine” in 2005):

In his “Yoga Sutras,” Patanjali says: 


Swami Satchidananda, z”l, translates this as:

“Accepting pain as help for purification;
study of spiritual books,
and surrender to the Supreme Being
constitute Yoga in practice.” [1]

            The most important Jewish “spiritual book” is the “Torah.”  All other Jewish spiritual writings are based on it.  A “Torah-scroll” contains five separate “books.” But those five books, taken together, are also called “Torah.”

            Don’t Jewish people study the Bible?  Yes. The “Torah” is the first five books of the Bible; the oldest ones in it. Their English names are: “Genesis,” “Exodus,” “Leviticus,” “Numbers,” and “Deuteronomy”. Have you ever seen the reading from a Torah-scroll, in a synagogue?  That scroll is the same in every synagogue in the world, and contains these five books; no others.

            To ensure that people could do “svadhyaya” properly, it became customary to read the entire Torah publicly each year, dividing it into weekly sections, each one called a “parshah” (pl.: “parshiyot”) or a “sedrah” (pl.: “sidrot”). Each “parshah” or “sedrah” covers several chapters, and has its own “title” or name.  They’re always read in the same order.     

            You don’t need a Torah-scroll in your house, to do the weekly read-ings.  

            To keep up with them at home, you’d use a type of book called a “chumash,” (pronounced “hu-MahSH”).  In it, you’d find the Torah divided up into the weekly sections, as well as into chapters and verses, and into the five separate “books”.  Newer ones combine the original Hebrew, with a “modern” English translation that’s easily understood. Most synagogues will gladly give you a free calendar (while supplies last), that tells you which section is being read each week.

            It can be hard to study an entire parshah thoroughly each week. Often, your attention is attracted by a particular topic, or idea, or question; maybe by a single word; maybe even by a single letter!  That’s ok.  As Swamiji says, the purpose of svadhyaya isn’t to become a “walking library.” It’s to understand what the Divinely inspired words are teaching you about your Self, each day.  It can be of more spiritual value to ask yourself, “What is this teaching me, today?” or, “What would Swamiji say about this verse, or this chapter, or this topic,” than to read as much as possible, just for the sake of “quantity.” Swamiji says, “Sometimes, learning can become an obstacle, if you don’t know what and how much to learn.”            

            “Svadhyaya” means reading spiritual books as if the most enlightened person we’ve ever met has taken time to speak to us privately. The aim of svadhyaya isn’t to win debates, or get good marks on tests; it’s certainly not to impress others with how much we know!  The goal of svadhyaya, of Torah-study, is spiritual progress. That’s why Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai said: “If you’ve learned much Torah, don’t be conceited about it; you were born for this purpose.” [2]

            Each time we read the chumash, we’re like Moses on Mt. Sinai, perceiving Truth. Maybe we’ll be a bit more peaceful, as our attention moves from the unreal to the Real (jnana yoga). Maybe we’ll be filled with greater love for G-d and for other people (bhakti yoga). Maybe we’ll be inspired to surrender the fruits of our actions to the Divine (karma yoga). Maybe we’ll read the Hebrew, just for the sound-value of the words (raja yoga). We can do svadhyaya, or read the chumash, in many ways. But, as with meditation, or art, it only begins as something we “do.” Gradually, it becomes an experience we “receive.”

            Each time we read the chumash with an open heart, we progress a little bit further on our own, unique path. As we progress, we also find ourselves accomplishing the other two elements of Yoga-practice that Patanjali mentioned. We realize, through svadhyaya/Torah-study, how much we are filled with, and surrounded by, the Divine; then, we can more easily accept difficulties as being beneficial for us, and more willingly “surrender to the Supreme Being,” which, Swamiji says, means that we’ll dedicate the fruits of our actions to G-d, or to other people. About 2000 years ago, a teacher named Shimon the Just said something very similar: “The world is based on three things: On Torah (study), on worship of the Divine, and on acts of loving-kindness.” [3 

            Almost every new chumash has a commentary, to help explain it. The comments are usually brief and easy to read. But how can you know which commentary is right for you? 

            Ask another person, who’s also doing svadhyaya by reading from Jewish tradition.

            If there’s a Jewish bookstore near you, try browsing the various “chumashim” (plural of “chumash”) that you find there. You can quickly tell if the comments are helpful for you.

            If you attend a synagogue, check out which chumash & commentary is being used there.  That same synagogue might also have its own “gift and book” shop, where you can buy a copy for yourself (on weekdays; not on Sabbaths or holidays).

            Or, your public library can often borrow one for you, from almost any library in the country, by “inter-library loan.”

            There are several websites where you can find teaching about the parshah, but in the beginning of your svadhyaya, you might just want to “keep it simple” and get your own impressions and ideas. Over time, you’ll find an endless number of new meanings and experiences in your reading.  

            Rabbi Joseph Gelberman, a friend of Swamiji’s, once complained to his father, “Why do I have to read the chumash again this year? It’s the same as it was last  year.”

            His father answered, “Yes, but are you the same?”  

            Enjoy your svadhyaya.


[1] Patanjali; “INTEGRAL YOGA; THE YOGA SUTRAS OF PATANJALI” 2:1; Swami Satchidananda, translation and commentary; p. 93
[3] ibid. 1:2