Today is February 21, 2020 -
by Hazzan Michael Krausman
Having just celebrated the festival of Simchat Torah during which we conclude and immediately begin again the reading of the Torah, it is appropriate to consider the central feature of the Shabbat morning service – the public reading from the Torah scrolls. So ancient is this practice, that it is already mentioned in the Bible (Ex. 24:7). This indicates that gathering in order to hear the Torah reading may well have been the first form of public prayer.
At first, following the commandment that the Torah be read as part of “Mikraei Kodesh” (Holy Assemblies), the Torah was only read on festivals. The meaning of the latter commandment was soon expanded to include every Shabbat. Succeeding sections of the Bible describe how Ezra the scribe, in about 500 years BCE, popularized the public reading of the Torah and appended Torah reading to the services of Monday and Thursday mornings (market days), and Shabbat afternoons.
According to the tradition established in Babylonia, the Torah is divided into 54 sections called “Parashot”. Usually, one “Parasha” is read each week. Allowances in the Shabbat cycle of readings are made for leap years, which add an additional month to the calendar, and festivals, each of which has its own reading – not part of the regular cycle. On the Shabbatot which coincide with a festival, the festival reading is interjected into the cycle of readings. Thus, because of the above considerations, on some Shabbatot, two Parashot must be read.
Beginning in the 20th century, inspired by a practice that was popular in ancient Palestine, most conservative synagogues, including our own, adopted a triennial Torah reading cycle. In this system, the first third of the weekly portion is read during the first year of the cycle, the second third is read in the second year and the third section in the last year of the cycle. The advantages of the triennial reading are that it allows more time for learning during the Torah service and creates shorter individual readings.
Perhaps the best way to strengthen our relationship with the Torah is to learn how to read from the sacred text. The ancient sages mandated that in order to make the text more appealing when read in public it must be set to music. Thus, the Torah, like all of the Hebrew Bible, is chanted according to an ancient system of Music called Cantillation or Ta’ame Ha Mikra or Trop.
Stemming from the 10th century, this system uses symbols to represent short musical phrases. These symbols emanated from a system of hand signals which were given by an assistant to the Torah reader to remind the reader of the musical interpretation of the text. In an effort to codify these hand signs, each word in the Bible was given a Cantillation symbol which not only represents music, but also indicates punctuation and identifies accented syllables. In order to master the technique of Torah chanting, all one needs to do is to learn the Cantillation symbols and practice joining them to the words of the text. Anyone who has ever chanted the V’Ahavta paragraph of the Shema has already experienced using Cantillation.
Here at Beth El, we are fortunate to have a dedicated crew of Torah readers who are part of the Beth El Yad Squad. We also have a Jr. Yad Squad for students under Bar/Bat Mitzvah age who demonstrate an advanced ability to read Hebrew. I encourage people of all ages to join the Yad Squad and learn this wonderful and fulfilling skill. No great musical ability is required, just a little time and a sincere effort. An ability to read Hebrew is also important.
If you would like to become a Ba’al Koreh (Trained Torah Reader), please send me an email at email@example.com.
Plan on taking advantage of the opportunity to receive the Torah for yourself and to develop the unique relationship with our most Holy Text by learning to be a Ba’al Koreh. The rewards that can be gained from learning to read the Torah will enrich your Jewish life, delight your soul and remain with you forever.