How is the sacred text studied and used?
by Howard Greenstein
teachings of the Torah are the most sacred legacy and inspiration
of the Jewish people. They are so fundamental that they are recited
in public reading every week of every year. The five books are divided
into segments or portions, one of which is to be read on every successive
Sabbath. A segment of each portion is also read during the weekday
morning service on Mondays and Thursdays. Usually, the first words
of each portion are chosen as the title, so that every
week of the Jewish year can be identified by its Torah portion.
In Hebrew this segment is called a sidrah or parashah.
The sidrah thus often provides a symbol for the week in which it
Five Books of Moses are written in their original form on a parchment
scroll by men called Sofrim (“scribes”), who have devoted
their entire lives to copying the words of Scripture by hand, using
special ink and goose quills for their task. A Jewish congregation
may possess one or several scrolls, since no object in Jewish life
is more precious than a Torah. All the scrolls are placed in the
Aron Kodesh (“holy ark”) in the synagogue and are removed
only to be read, revered or repaired.
Torah scroll contains exactly the same content. Each is a full text
of Genesis through Deuteronomy. If a congregation is blessed with
more than a single scroll, it may use one or more for special occasions
and another for the weekly reading cycle on each Sabbath. A congregation
with only one scroll must continually roll it from the weekly reading
to special readings for various holidays and festivals.
the Torah is frequently called the “crown of life,” it is often
decorated with a silver crown or similar symbol of supreme authority.
It is wrapped in a festive mantle and may also be embellished with
a silver breastplate, the symbol of authority, which presumably
the high priest wore in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem . Usually
the accoutrements also include a yad (“hand”), which is
a silver ornament in the shape of a human finger and is used as
pointer for the leader to follow the reading in the text.
a designated juncture in certain worship services, the holy ark
is opened while the congregation rises. A scroll is removed from
the ark and transported to the reading desk on the bimah
(“platform”). During the delivery of the Torah portion, the congregants
are encouraged to follow in Hebrew-English Bibles provided for that
sidrah is either read or chanted according to an ancient prescribed
set of musical modes. The
Torah itself contains no vocalization signs, punctuation marks or
musical notations. The leader must know them all through previous
training and preparation.
parashah of the week is usually divided into sections of its own.
This permits different members of the congregation to be called
to the bimah to offer blessings over the Torah before and after
the reading of a particular section. Such an invitation is considered
a significant honor and is customarily distributed to the most deserving
congregants. Judaism teaches that actually every person is expected
to prepare the weekly sidrah by examining the text prior to the
service and searching every word for its meaning and implications.
Tradition dictates that every word of the ancient text is sacred.
Any scroll which contains an error is declared deficient or “unkosher”
until the error is corrected. A Torah scroll can never be deliberately
destroyed or discarded. If it becomes too brittle or too fragile
to use, it is buried in the earth just like a deceased person.
other two major divisions of the TaNaK are not read as frequently
in the synagogue as the Torah. The weekly Torah reading, however,
does include a selection from one of the two other major divisions
of the Hebrew Bible and is referred to as the haftarah
(“completion”). The haftarah may be a selection from the K'tuvim
(Writings) or the N'vi-im (Prophets). Like the Torah portion, it
is usually though not always chanted with its own distinctive melody.
The haftarah designated for each sidra usually focuses on a theme
similar to that in the parashah or includes a reference to a significant
individual or event mentioned in the Torah portion. From time to
time special occasions will dictate their own particular book of
the TaNaK as the haftarah, such as the book of Ruth on Shavuoth,
or the book of Jonah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Like the Torah
portion, the haftarah is also preceded and followed by appropriate
©2006 Howard Greenstein
R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation
of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations
in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer
at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville
University. He is the author of Judaism:
An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism
and Reform Judaism (1981).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.