A friend had no familiarity with Judaism or Christianity. She asked me:
How are Torah-readings conducted?
In answer to your question:
1 — “Torah” is the original “Jewish” scripture; it later became the 1st five books of any Bible — Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Russian Orthodox, etc.
2 — The procedure for reading it in public evolved gradually. The procedure itself isn’t found in Torah; only the requirement and expectation that people speak of it, think about it and teach it to children.
3 — Conventionally (now), the five books are divided up into a standardized annual cycle of weekly readings. Every synagogue in the world is reading the same section in the same week. (There are variations, but I want to keep this simple). At the end of each annual cycle, the readings are begun again in the same order.
4 — Each weekly section is called a “parshah” (like “portion”) or “sedrah” (like “section” or “a step in a sequence”). The terms are interchangeable. Each parshah/sedrah has a title, based on a word or two usually found in the first sentence. For example, the opening parshah of the Book of Exodus (a Greek word) is called in Hebrew “Sh’mote” — which means “Names” — because the reading begins with the words “These are the names…”
5 — In a synagogue, the Torah is read from a “Torah scroll.” I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of it. If not, I’ll forward some to you. There are certain melodies used in the reading for practical purposes (to be pleasant to the ear and to make the reading “flow” smoothly; not as “entertainment” for its own sake).
6 — Each weekly parshah/public reading is sub-divided into 7 sections (again, this can vary, but I’m keeping it simple), for each of which someone from the congregation is invited up front to say a blessing thanking God, when the reading starts and again when it ends.
7 — While the Torah-scroll is being read aloud, the congregation is expected to follow along in a “chumash” (explained below), or to simply listen.
8 — Personal or home-reading of Torah doesn’t use a Torah scroll. It’s much too large and unwieldy for that use.
9 — Instead, one studies from a book called a “chumash” — same as the one read in synagogue while Torah is being read out loud. “Chumash” means “five” in Hebrew. The chumash contains the text of the five books of Torah (not the entire Bible), divided into weekly readings. It can be Hebrew-only for those few who are Hebrew-literate enough. More typically, it’s Hebrew/English or another vernacular. A Japanese-Jewish family, for example, who were not familiar with English, could have a chumash in Hebrew/Japanese.
10 — A “chumash” can also contain commentary on the parshahs/sidrahs. There are many different chumashim (plural), because there are many different commentaries, even though the text of Torah remains the same in all of them.
When I was becoming involved in Judaism as an adult, the standard chumash — used in every branch of Judaism at that time — had a commentary by Rabbi Joseph Hertz, who was chief rabbi of Great Britain in the 1940’s. These days, each branch tends to have its own commentary. Even Orthodox Judaism has several popular commentaries in print.
I have several chumashim at home and will sometimes look at what each one says about a given verse. The disagreements between commentaries and commentators aren’t meant to be “exclusive.” In reality, learning Torah ultimately includes understanding multiple interpretations — any and all of which contain some level of truth from varying perspectives.
The Torah is supposed to be read from the Torah-scroll in Hebrew, while you follow along using the chumash for Hebrew and/or English. I’ve seen some congregations do it in English alone, to accommodate members who can’t follow the Hebrew, but to me, something is “lost” when the Hebrew isn’t used. On the other hand, if a certain group feels that it gets more from hearing Torah read in English, then I accept and support it — with the hope that some or all of the members will eventually desire to become familiar enough with Hebrew to follow the reading in that language and learn with reference to it.
It’s interesting that the generation before me used to talk a lot during the Torah reading. I was astounded the first time I saw and heard that. My generation has tended to be more interested in the text and more respectful of the reading itself. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a room full of people talking while Torah was being read!
I think it’s because the old-timers saw the reading of Torah as simply a required ritual because Jewish observance was so pervasive all around them. My generation genuinely wonders what it’s saying to us — in part, because it’s our chance to understand better who we are and what Judaism is teaching. It’s a different era since 1975 — when I first returned to synagogue as an adult.
One of my teachers, Rabbi Joseph Gelberman (who has since moved on to a higher level of life) told a story about the end of the previous annual cycle and the beginning of the new one:
As a child, he asked his father, “Why do I have to read Torah again? It’s the same as it was last year.”
His father answered, “But are you the same?”
We read and re-read the same texts over and over again. Sometimes, we find something in the text that we didn’t notice before; or noticed and didn’t remember.
Other times, we find a new meaning, based on the different person we are each time we read Torah.
It can always speak to us anew, even after decades.
The real purpose of reading and learning Torah is not for “information” or even “intellectual understanding,” although those are involved, too.
Each time we read Torah, we’re confronted with God’s Presence no less than Moses was, when receiving the 10 Commandments from God on top of Mt. Sinai (if you’re familiar with the story). I think that every Jewish person feels this on some level, even if not with full, clear awareness. Reading from a Torah-scroll traditionally requires the presence of 10 Jewish males (women have begun to count as part of the “10” in the last few years). In the absence of the “10” — called a “minyan” — Torah could not be read from the Torah scroll. At those times, there’s definitely a feeling that something is missing; not just a “procedure,” but a kind of “presence.”
So, in answering your question, I tried to keep it simple. I hope I haven’t made it seem more complicated than it is. Talking about “faith” is the same way: The more you try to explain it, the more complicated it can seem. Once you’re familiar with doing it, it’s much clearer.