What is the Torah?
“Torah” can take on different meanings, depending on the context. Generally, Torah refers to the first books of the Bible, known as the Five Books of Moses or Pentateuch – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – and often encompasses rabbinic commentaries as well (perushim).
In Rabbinic literature, Torah is often used to refer to both the Five Books ( תורה שבכתב; "Torah that is written") and Oral Torah (תורה שבעל פה, "Torah that is spoken"). The word Torah translates to "instruction," and in its broadest sense, some people may even use it to refer to the full Tanakh or the whole body of Jewish teachings and law.
The Torah makes up the first section of the Tanach – the Hebrew Bible, or what Christianity refers to as the Old Testament. Tanach is an acronym referring to its three parts: Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).
The words of the Torah are traditionally handwritten in Hebrew by a scribe (sofer) on a parchment scroll. These scrolls are read from in synagogue services, broken up into separate Torah portions to spread the readings over the course of a year. Public Torah readings are at the heart of Jewish communal life.
Torah Blessing and Aliyot
An aliyah, עליה, is the honor of being called to read a blessing over a segment of the Torah. In synagogue, members from the congregation are chosen to go up to the bimah (podium) and recite two blessings (one before the reading, and one after) to thank God for the Torah.
What are Haftarah Portions?
Haftarah portions – or Haftoroh in Ashkenazic, or “Concluding Portion” – are selections from the books of Nevi’im (Prophets) of the Hebrew Bible. They are also publicly read – rather, sung or chanted – in synagogue services, following the Torah reading each Sabbath, holidays and fast days. There is usually a thematic link to the weekly Parsha.
What Are Torah Portions?
The Five Books of Moses are divided into 54 portions (Parshiyot), linked to a specific week in a leap year. In non-leap years, with fewer weeks, some shorter Torah portion readings are combined into one week. Each weekly Torah portion takes its name from the first word or distinctive phrase of the passage.
The Torah is divided into portions of two to six chapters each week, with added corresponding readings from the Prophets (Haftarah portions). The Torah reading cycle starts after the Feast of Tabernacles, with Genesis 1:1, and finishes with the last verses of Deuteronomy around 12 months later. Jewish communities celebrate the annual completion of the Torah reading with a holiday known as Simchat Torah or “Rejoicing in the Law.”
Origin of the Weekly Torah Portion
After God saved the Israelites from captivity and restored the Jewish nation, Ezra the scribe wanted to ensure their people would not fall off the wagon again, as we read about in the Book of Nehemia, so he created a system to ensure we would read the text of the Torah each week at synagogue. Thousands of years later, Jewish communities all around the world still study the same portion of the Torah in unity.
Torah Reading Services & Ceremonies
Jewish communities read the relevant Torah portion aloud in synagogues on Sabbaths, as part of the prayer service. The first section of the Torah portion is also read on Mondays and Thursday mornings, an origin that stems from older days, when rural people would go to town to visit the market on those days.
On Saturday afternoons, Mondays, and Thursdays, the start of the next week’s portion is read. Special Torah portion readings are also associated with Jewish holidays, Rosh Chodesh and fast days. A Torah reading generally refers to the whole service, including the grand removing and replacing of the scrolls in the Torah Ark.