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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
How is the sacred text studied and used?
by Howard Greenstein

The 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 occurs.

The 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.

Each 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.

Since 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.

At 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 purpose.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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 blessings.

Copyright ©2006 Howard Greenstein

Howard 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).

Excerpts 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.


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