A Christian friend once asked me where she could find a copy of the תורה (“Torah”).  I told her that the Torah is the first 5 books of her Bible.

There are actually 3 “Bibles” (at least): The Jewish, the Catholic, and the Protestant. They differ in which books are included and, in many cases, the order in which certain books appear. But in all 3 traditions, the first 5 books are the same, and appear in the same order:

  1. בראשית – “Breishith;”  “In the beginning” or “Genesis”
  2. שמות    – “Sh’moth;” “Names” or “Exodus”
  3. ויקרא    – “VaYikra;” “And [G-d] called” or “Leviticus”
  4. במדבר   – “BaMidbar;” “In the wilderness” or “Numbers”
  5. דברים    – “D’varim;” “Words” or “Deuteronomy”.

In synagogue services, Torah is read in its entirety, in an annual sequence of weekly readings, each of which is called a פרשה (“parshah,” “portion”) or סדרה (“sedrah,” “section”).  Each “parshah,” or “sedrah” has its own “name” or “title,” usually derived from one or two words in the opening sentence.  Thus, the opening section of the book of בראשית (“Breishith”), which is read at the beginning of the cycle of readings, is also called “Breishith,” because it begins with that Hebrew word, but the 2nd reading, beginning a few chapters later and read the following week, is called נח (“Noach”) because it mentions “Noach” (“Noah”) in the first verse — Ber. (Gen.) 6:9: “These are the generations of Noach…” — etc.

The Qur’an seems to follow this practice, too.  It’s divided into sections, each of which is called a “sura” (which some scholars think might be derived from “sedrah”). [1] Each “sura” has a “title” based (usually) on one or two words in its opening sentence.  For example, Sura 3 begins with a review of the revelations that preceded the Qur’an, and is entitled: “Al-i-Imran” – “The Family of Imran” (in Hebrew, “Amram,” the father of Moses).

Christianity, too, absorbed from Judaism the practice of reading and teaching Scripture publicly, although without retaining the division into sequential weekly sections.

These weekly divisions are not found in the actual text of Torah.  In Torah itself, the only commandment for the public reading of, or education in Torah, is that it is to be publicly read to the “people” once each year. The division into the weekly reading of Torah was the outcome of a gradual historical process that seems to have begun during the “galut,” or exile, after the destruction of the first Temple. Upon returning, Ezra, leader of the returnees, set up a program of public readings on Mondays and Thursdays. Because those were the days when farmers came in from their fields to buy and sell their produce, a large population was thus gathered in central areas.

It seems that, at first, a reader could choose where he wanted to begin and end in the text. His choice didn’t depend on where the previous reader had ended, or where the next reader would begin – or even, it seems, whether Torah would be read, as opposed to another Biblical book!  This was still true as (relatively) late as Jesus’ era.  In Luke 4:16-17, it says, “[Jesus] went to Nazareth…and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue…and he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.  Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written…” The customary procedure was far from uniform, until centuries later.

Even into the Talmudic era, an annual cycle of fixed readings was still in development. There seems to have been a “triennial cycle” in some communities, in which Torah was begun and completed in 3 years, instead of 1.  Today, some Conservative synagogues have adopted a similar triennial program (although it might not be the same one that was used 1 to 2 millenia ago).  The advantage of the “triennial cycle” is that each weekly parshah or sedrah is smaller, allowing more attention to be given to the study of it, as well as less time spent in a service for the public reading itself.  But the annual cycle predominated, and is still typical.  In this cycle, each weekly parshah, or sedrah, is sub-divided into 7 sections  (also not found in the actual text of Torah itself) called עליות (“aliyot;” “going-ups” – i.e. to the raised reading platform; singular — עליה  or “aliyah”) when read on שבת (“Shabbath” or Sabbath) morning.  On Shabbath afternoon, and Monday and Thursday mornings, the first 3 aliyot of the following Shabbath-parshah are read.  Special parshiyot, read on holidays, are divided differently, and are additions to, rather than replacements of, the weekly cycle.

Any adult Jewish male (a male over 13 years old) could be called to read to the congregation. This was considered an honor because, in effect, the reader was “teaching” the congregation by reading Torah aloud.  The reader would ascend the בימה (“bimah” or raised reading platform) that was in the middle (not the front) of the synagogue, face the ארון (“Aron” or “Ark,” where the Torah scrolls are kept), thereby symbolically facing Jerusalem, pronounce the opening brachah or blessing (still said today), read the desired section, and finish with the closing brachah.  He’d then essentially step down, and the next person would repeat the procedure. [2]

Because Hebrew is written in Torah without vowels, a reader had to be literate enough to read fluidly and without errors (although a gabbai always stood next to him to correct him).  By the Medieval era, relatively few people were skilled enough to read directly from a ספר תורה (“Sefer Torah” or “Torah scroll”) themselves.  It became the practice to hire someone to do the reading, while individual congregants were invited up to recite the opening and closing ברכות (‘brachot,” or blessings; singular — ברכה, “brachah” or “blessing”) on each subdivision within the weekly reading.  That is how it’s still done today in most congregations.  You can go into any synagogue in the world and find (more or less) the same reading being done.  Since the procedure is also (more or less) the same, it’s easy to follow, whatever synagogue you attend.

Although public reading of Torah takes place only on Monday and Thursday mornings, Shabbat mornings and afternoons, and on holidays, some learning-Torah actually precedes the prayers themselves in every traditional daily service.  In the Judaism of the Talmud, learning Torah, even more than praying, was our best way to commune with G-d.  The rabbis described the text of Torah as “the written Torah” and the Talmud – originally transmitted orally – as “the oral Torah.”  “Learning Torah” could therefore traditionally mean learning either the written text of Torah or the Talmud – the “oral Torah” (the various levels of commentary on the written text). Learning random, diverse sections of Torah or Talmud was standardized by including the recitation of Rabbi Ishmael’s 13 Torah-principles of Torah-interpretation and the section on sacrifices from chapter 5 of Mishnah Zevachim, in the “preparatory” section preceding the actual beginning of שחרית (the Morning service).

The congregation follows the public reading of the Torah in a book called a  חומש (“chumash,” from a Hebrew root meaning “5” – i.e. the “five books of Moses,” or “Pentateuch”).  The chumash includes the text of Torah, divided into its weekly readings, also indicating their sub-divisions into “aliyot,” combined with the “haftarah,” (usually) prophetic readings that historically came to accompany them.  Beyond that, there can be a verse-by-verse translation and, often, a commentary.  The chumash can be – and often is – used for private, personal study of Torah, as well.  In particular, the chumash lets us study the text of Torah, along with the commentary of a leading Jewish authority.  The commentary can be “classical” – e.g. Rashi – or “modern” – e.g. the commentary of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch.  It can also be an anthology of comments on selected verses – e.g. the “Soncino” chumash or the “Art Scroll” chumash.

Reading a chumash can take some “getting used to.”  The layout of a page, with its combination of Hebrew text, English translation, and verse-by-verse commentary can be quite unfamiliar, even to people who have extensive backgrounds in reading literature.  As a Hebrew school teacher in the past, I actually taught “How to Read a Chumash” as a “Jewish life-skill.”

Studying chumash became very central in my life.  When I was young, my father took me for a walk on Burnside Ave., in the Bronx.  At that time, it was a predominantly Jewish neighbor-hood.  We’d just moved to the Bronx from a suburb; this was my first exposure to a place with so dense a “Jewish feeling.”  Something in me loved it immediately.  For years afterward, I believed that I could “be Jewish” merely by being around a Jewish area.  But when the demo-graphics of those areas changed, I was utterly lost.  Later, when I began to study chumash, what I’d felt so strongly in those Jewish neighborhoods I found again in Torah.  I realized that Torah had always been the source of that feeling, even when experienced through secular “Jewish cul-ture.”  Chumash showed me the Biblical sources of Jewish observance.  What’s more, it showed me the basis of both Christianity and American culture in Judaism; a basis typically unacknowledged.  It has been clarifying and transformational.  Studying chumash is not like “reading.”  It was, and is, a religious act; a spiritual experience for me. The “Yoga Sutras” call it “svadhyaya.”

For more than a half-century, an edition of the chumash edited by Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, was found in the synagogue of almost every English-speaking congregation, as well as in many homes.  I studied almost exclusively from it for many years. It can still be a major reference source, over 7 decades after it was first published.  Now, over 30 years after I began, I appreciate Rabbi Hertz’ brilliance, clarity and breadth all the more. It has lost none of its usefulness; I still find unexpected treasures in it.  He drew on the most traditional Jewish sources.  At the same time, he correctly comprehended many of the central questions modern Jews of all types face.  No other Jewish author can claim to have done so with equal accuracy and all-inclusiveness.  He was not a “universalist” thinker in the way we mean it today.  He didn’t regard every religion, or system of thought, as equally valid.  But with unusual tolerance, he accepted and included comments from a wide range of writers and thinkers — Jewish and “other-than-Jewish,” religious and secular — whenever he found them to be valid and relevant.  The extent of his scholarship is awesome in and of itself.  The number of issues upon which he comments is unparalleled by any other commentary I’ve ever seen.  Yet, in his essence, he was unquestionably a man of deep faith.  Perhaps we can think of him as a “jnana yogi,” insofar as he came to the love of G-d through the path of the intellect.  Yet, to speak of him as such does not negate the glow and warmth of the devotional fire that lies within and radiates from his scholarship.  It is precisely because of his devotion that his chumash is more than a work of scholarship.  Read in the spirit with which he wrote it, it can be as deeply inspiring as a visual or musical work of art.

To an Evangelical friend who confided that she’d barely read what she called the “Old Testament.” I gave the Hertz chumash, for her to “hear” about Judaism from a truly “Jewish voice.”

If reading Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary, written a century before Rabbi Hertz’, reminded me of the awe of hearing Beethoven, I’d compare reading Rabbi Hertz’ commentary to hearing Tchaikovsky: not as profound as Beethoven, perhaps, but deep in its own right, broader in its range of colors, and well-deserving of being taken quite seriously.

In recent years, both Reform and Conservative Judaism have published their own “chumash and commentary” (the “Plaut” edition and “Etz Hayim,” respectively) to meet the needs that a new generation defines as its own; for example, the use of a “modern English” translation, rather than the “King James”-like variety of the 1917 JPS (Jewish Publication Society) translation that the Hertz chumash employs.

I don’t believe that they replace the “Hertz Chumash,” but we can be grateful that all are available to us.


[1] “The very word surah (סרה) owes its existence, as I believe, to a misreading of sidrah (סדרה).”
(Israel Abrahams; Jewish Quarterly Review, Oct. 1907; vol. XX, no. 77; p. 877).
Other scholars have surmised the same, including the possibility that the letter “dalet,” which resembles the letter “reish” in Hebrew printing, was mistaken for it. However, no solid evidence directly connects “surah” with “sidrah,” despite the similarities in both the terms and their structure in Scripture (i.e. a section for reading, whose title is based on one or more words usually found in the opening sentence.)

[2] In Ashkenazic synagogues, congregants might be sitting between the Bimah and the Aron. In Sephardic synagogues, the space is left empty.