Today, all synagogues throughout the world read the same parshah every week. (Of course, there are brief periods where the Jews in Israel get ahead of us for a few weeks because of a second day Yom Tov that falls on Shabbat. But after a few weeks, Diaspora Jewry catches up.)
But this uniformity was not always the norm. A passage in the Babylonian Talmud at Megillah 29b refers to “the people of the west [=Palestinian Jewry] who conclude the Torah every three years.” From many post-Talmudic sources, we learn that when the Babylonian Talmud refers to the Palestinian practice of “three years,” they were oversimplifying. The Torah reading cycle in Palestine actually spanned about three and a half years. Moreover, there was no uniform start and finish date there. The different communities would start and finish their three-and-a-half-year cycle at different times. The ancient practice in Palestine is referred to today, in an oversimplified way, as the “triennial cycle.”
In this column, I am not going to focus on the details of the triennial cycle and the division of the Torah into 153, 155 or 167 sections (and the many extra haftarot!). Rather, I would like to focus on the one-year cycle in Babylonia at the time of the Talmud and try to determine when and why this cycle arose.
We can infer from the above passage at Megillah 29b that Babylonian Jewry was completing their cycle in something other than three years. Of course, from later sources we know that they must have been alluding to their own one-year cycle. But this one year cycle is not explicit anywhere in the Babylonian Talmud. Nor is there any reference to “54 parshiyyot” in the Talmud. There are almost no references to parshiyot by name. (An exception is Meg. 29b-30a; three parshiyyot are named there.)
If we look at the Mishnah (Meg. Chapter 3), it does refer to readings for special Sabbaths (e.g., Shekalim, Zachor, etc.) and for the festivals. But there is nothing to indicate what was read on regular Shabbatot. Also, at Megillah 31b there is reference to a disagreement between two Tannaim about certain details of the reading process. But still we do not know what the basic reading cycle was at the time of the Tannaim.
But there is one passage that sheds much light on the cycle in Babylonia at the time of the Talmud. It is a passage at Megillah 31a where the readings for all the holidays are listed and briefly discussed. The passage seems to be a Tannaitic passage, but the Talmud includes additional comments by Babylonian Sages on the passage. After describing the reading for the eighth day of Sukkot, the Babylonian Sages comment: On the next day [in the Diaspora], the reading is “V’zot Habracha.”
Let us analyze this choice of Torah reading. The passage is one that is giving readings connected to the holidays. This means there must be a connection between “V’zot Habracha” and Shemini Atzeret. What could this connection be? Anyone who learns about Shemini Atzeret in the Talmud will know this answer. The Talmud tells us (Suk. 48a) that one of the unique themes of Shemini Atzeret is “beracha.” This is based on I Kings 8:65 that records that on the eighth day of Sukkot, the people blessed Shlomo. See Rashi to Suk. 48a, and Tosefta, fourth chapter. (If one looks at the Siddur of R. Saadiah Gaon, pp. 365 and 373, he does not even call the holiday “Simchat Torah.” He calls it “the day of blessing.” See the Arabic term he used.)
So “V’zot Habracha” was chosen as a Shemini Atzeret reading because of a reason related to this holiday. It is at least theoretically possible that we had the above holiday readings in Babylonia, and then the yearly cycle was constructed in a later period to fit with this. But I think this is not what happened. Rather, it was realized that by setting up “ve-zot ha-berachah” as the reading for the second day of Shemini Atzeret, the Babylonian Sages could accomplish two things at once. They would have a reading that matched a holiday theme and they could also end the yearly cycle. If I am correct, then this passage at Megillah 31a implies that the Babylonian Sages were on a one-year cycle at this time that ended on the second day of Shemini Atzeret. Whenever the time was in Babylonia that the reading for the second days was established was likely the same time that the one-year cycle that ends with the second day of Shemini Atzeret was established. Could there have been a one-year cycle in Babylonia that ended at some other time, prior to this? No one knows.
There is a passage at Megillah 31b that states that Ezra enacted that the curses in Leviticus (=the ones found in Bechukotai) must be read before Shavuot and that the curses in Devarim (=the ones found in Ki Tavo) must be read before Rosh Hashanah. The Talmud explains that in this way “techaleh shana u’kelaloteha.” This does not mean that the curses must be read immediately before these holidays, but that they should at least be completed at some time before them. (Shavuot is when “peirot ha’ilan” are judged. Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2.) It seems from this passage that at the time of Ezra, mid-fifth century B.C.E., there was a yearly cycle in Palestine. But sometime later, no one knows when, Palestinian Jewry started to develop their triennial cycles, even though some communities in Palestine still maintained a one-year cycle. (For example, it seems that the paytan R. Eleazar Ha-Kallir, c. 600, lived in a community in Palestine that still maintained a one-year cycle!)
Rambam, writing in Egypt at the end of the 12th century, observed that in his time, the triennial cycle was not widespread (Hilchot Tefilah 13:1). Perhaps the immigration of Babylonian Jews to Palestine led to its decline.
Finally, there is a famous passage from the traveler Benjamin of Tudela that describes what he saw on his visit to Cairo around the year 1170. There were two synagogues there, one with their members from Israel, and the other with their members from Babylonia. In the synagogue of the Babylonians they read one portion every week and finished the Torah every year. In the synagogue of the men from Israel, they divided each portion into three sections and finished the Torah at the end of three years. But he continues: “They have a custom…to join together and pray in unison on the day of Simchat Torah…” (The passage is quoted in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, 15:1247). (I presume that the men from the Israel-type synagogue traveled to the Babylonian-type synagogue. That was likely where the kiddush was!)
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] Even though I wrote that nowadays all synagogues throughout the world read the same parshah every week, I have heard that there are a handful of obscure synagogues somewhere that still follow the triennial cycle!