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The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish | The Sefer Torah Is Read, Part 8

The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish, Ein Eight Parts

By Mark L Berch

The public reading of the Torah is the primary use for the Sefer Torah, and is, for many, the central feature of the Shabbat morning service.   It is read on Shabbat mornings, Holiday (including intermediate days and Rosh Hodesh) mornings, certain Fast days, Shabbat and Yom Kippur afternoons, Monday  and Thursday mornings, and, in some communities, Israel Independence Day.  By tradition, it is not read at night, although with the advent of electricity there wouldn’t seem to be any  barrier against nighttime reading, and indeed, it is read in the evening of Simchat Torah.  Likewise, public reading on, say, an ordinary Sunday morning isn’t halakhically forbidden, but again this is not the custom.  A minyan is required, at least at the start. 

The service for taking out of the Torah on Shabbat and Holidays (which begins in Siddur Sim Shalom on page 394) begins with singing, to express the joy of seeing and hearing the Torah again. Once the ark is opened, the congregation stands and remains standing while the Torah is out, although not during the reading of the Torah or Haftorah, which would be considered burdensome  However, during the Ten Commandments, the Song of the Sea, and the last  verse of each book, the congregation does stand.

The Ark is closed after the Sefer Torah is removed, and the first two verses of the Shema are recited, along with the “Gadlu” line.  After this, the Torah is marched around the synagogue, and it is traditional to kiss the Torah as it passes through.  After its dressings have been removed, and the Sefer Torah is placed on the reading table, the congregation is seated.  At least seven people are called to the Torah, one at a time (the person is called the “oleh”, plural “olim”) for each “aliyah”.  However, many synagogues will permit couples or even groups of people to have an aliyah; TI once had 12 cousins share an aliyah.  The first aliyah is a Kohain, the second is a Levy (a Kohain can substitute if none is present); the remainder are for “Yisroel”, those who are neither.  Practices vary among synagogues for distributing these aliyot.    But by tradition, priority is given to a groom (or the couple) the Shabbat before the wedding (this called an “uhf-ruf”), to the family or friends of the Bar/Mitzvah family, or a visiting dignitary. Some liberal Conservative congregations (and all Reform) have eliminated the Kohain-Levy-Yisroel distinctions, sometimes on basis of the fact that virtually no one can be certain of lineage, let alone demonstrate it, and sometimes because it is deemed non-egalitarian.  The person called up (by Hebrew name) kisses the Torah with talis fringes or with the wemple, at the place where the reading is to start, and with the Torah closed, recites a set of blessings while grasping the lower wooden rollers (the “Atzay Khayyim”).

The Torah reader, called a Baal Koran, recites in a distinctive melody called torah trope, of which there are many kinds.  Torah reading is sometimes called “leining” (leyning), or “to lein”.  The reader traditionally stands slightly to the left, and to keep place, points (without touching the Sefer Torah) with the “yad”.  The Torah is flanked by two gabbayim, whose job it is to catch errors in the reading, and who act as a kind of honor guard for the Torah.  When the segment is completed, the oleh kisses the place where the reading stopped, and recites the closing blessing.  That person will tarry for one additional reading, standing next to a gabbi during the next aliyah, before leaving the bimah, customarily by a longer or slower path than he or she arrived.  During the Torah reading, a special prayer, called a “Me-Sheh-bayrakh” may be recited on behalf of someone who is ill, and in some synagogues for the oleh as well.  Parents of the Bat or Bar Mitzvah child have a special prayer to recite.  Someone who has undergone a hazardous experience may recite the “Birkat Hagomel.”  These assorted prayers are found on pages 402-408 of Siddur Sim Shalom, and the Torah is covered with a cloth called a mappa, when these are recited.

When the Torah reading is completed, there are two additional aliyot: Hagbah and G’leelah.  The person given Hagbah grasps the Atzay Khayyim and lifts the Sefer Torah, turns, and, facing away from the congregation, displays at least three columns of text to the congregation, which is now standing and singing the “V’Zot Hatorah” song.  He or she then sits, while G’leelah hovers nearby, and then G’leelah rolls the Sefer Torah back up, wraps it with the wemple, and puts the Torah ornaments back on.  At this point, it is placed on the stand, and the Haftorah is read.  The sermon may be given either at this time, or after the Sefer Torah is put away. Next, a small piece of the service is done.  The congregation then rises for the return of the Torah.  A second processional is done.  Finally, as the congregation sings “Aitz Khayyim Hee...” (“It is a tree of life...”), the Sefer Torah is returned to the Ark, which is then closed.

This Shabbat morning drill is the longest.  Thus, holidays generally have just four or five readings; The Sephardic ritual has many differences, large and small.  Just as some examples, there is no separate G’leelah honor (the task is done by a gabbi).  The Torah is lifted before the reading, not after.  The Torah is held vertically (by eastern Sephardim), not horizontally when read.  It always remains in its case.

As this is the final essay in my 8-part series of the Sefer Torah, I want to close on a personal note.  I am a Kohain, and over the decades, I have been called to the Torah hundreds of times.  I respond to the ritual summons to go up, and stand amidst the gabbayim and the Torah reader.  I do this with the understanding, the intention, the kavannah, that I am participating in what is arguably the oldest and most important public ritual in Judaism.  I see myself taking my rightful place as a Jew in a procession of olim, one that stretches from thousands of years in the past, through me and so many others in the present,  into the indefinite future.  The Torah blessings are for me personally, the most meaningful brakhot that I recite over the course of the year.  And when, under those circumstances, I gaze at the ancient and elegant text, I will tell you, I feel something.  I cannot really describe the feeling, except to say that a sense of connectedness is part of it.  It’s not a powerful feeling, it’s modest, but it’s real and it’s reliably present.  Indeed, if it were to disappear, I’d have to step back and try to figure out where, spiritually, I had gotten off track.

Of course, not everyone will react this way; people differ.  But if you have not been called to the Torah in a long time, or if you never have been, it is worth doing.  It is worth doing even if you think it will be a great deal of effort to learn the short blessings; it is worth doing even if you find the service too long and largely meaningless to you.

For it is the right of every adult Jew, man or woman, fully observant or far from it, to go up, to grasp the Atzay Khayyim, and to take spiritual possession of what we Jews have made to be our most sacred possession, the Sefer Torah.