Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Triennial Torah Cycle: Not Just for Reform Jews - Sermon Shabbat Bereishit 07

In 1924, the reform movement in America published its first Siddur, The Union Prayer Book. Amongst the many innovations in this Prayer Book was the triennial Torah Cycle. Traditonal Jews, then, now and for hundreds of years divided the Torah into 54 portions. Each portion is called a Parsha and one is read every week. This allows us to begin the Torah this week, parshat bereishit and conclude it on annually on Simchat Torah. But the reform movement decided that each parsha was too long. So they further subdivided the parshah into three, read the first third the first year, the second third – the second year and the final third – the third year. Thus, the triennial cycle. In the 60’s and 70’s a number of conservative synagogues adopted the triennial cycle and the question was brought before the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in the early 80s. A series of response were written, most notably this scholarly 51 page responsum by Rabbi Lionel E. Moses which endorses the triennial cycle. The responsum was voted on and adopted and the Conservative Movement officially sanctioned the Triennial Cycle. To date, I am not aware of any attempt within the Orthodox community to adopt a triennial cycle.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Bereishit and we are about to begin a new cycle of the Torah reading. I therefore think is a good time to ask if our system is the best way to go. Perhaps the Triennial Cycle might be the most appropriate cycle for all synagogues, Liberal and Orthodox alike.

So first I would like to take a moment with you to brainstorm some of the pros and cons of the triennial cycle. Let us begin with the cons. What are some disadvantages of the triennial cycle?
Decrease in the amount of material learned.

1.) You cannot really celebrate Simchat Torah annually because the entire Torah has not been completed.

OK. Now let us list some of the advantages of adopting a triennial cycle.
1.) Easier to find leiners because the sections are smaller
2.) More time to teach
3.) Easier to concentrate and learn a small section than a large section

It is really this last idea that I would like to focus on. Every year during parshat Yitro when we read the 10 commandments, I always have the same question. The 10 commandments constitute the only sermon that God gave to the Jewish People. Think about it. Every Shabbat rabbis get up and give a sermon, usually about 15 minutes. Then on the high holidays for the really special sermon, most rabbis go on for ½ hour or maybe even 45 minutes. So you would think that God’s only sermon in history, the original Sermon on the Mount, would go on for hours. Yet how long was the sermon? Just 10 short statements. It only took a few minutes to deliver.

I think God was trying to teach a lesson to all future teachers and rabbis – “Brevity is of utmost importance.” (I am not sure if we got the message!) And this is the major appeal of the triennial cycle. It is short, easy to concentrate on and conducive for a serious learning experience.

The question that I have and that I think we need to ask is while the triennial cycle might be more pedagogically sound, it is authentic. Does it follow the dictates of halakha and is it authentic to our tradition?
I mentioned that the reform movement adopted by the Triennial Cycle by 1924 but in reality they were far from the first to adopt such a practice. As early as the 6th century, we find the following statement in the Babylonian Talmud (Meggilah 29b):
בני מערבא דמסקי לדאורייתא בתלת שנין.

The people of Israel would complete the Torah every three years. In other words, they had a triennial cycle.

And then in the very important but relatively unknown Gaonic work called ספר החילוקים בין אנשי מזרח ובני ארץ ישראל – The book that records difference in customs between Bavel and Eretz Yisrael, this custom is once again reported.

בני בבל עושין שמחת תורה בכל שנה ושנה...בני א"י אין עושין שמחת תורה אלא לשלש שנים ומחצה

The inhabitants of Babylonia observe Simchat Torah annually…The inhabitants of Eretz yisrael celebrate Simchat Torah only every three and a half years… (trans. Lionel Moses).

Most scholars believe that this triennial cycle was popular in the Land of Israel and Egypt from about the 3rd century through the 12th or 13th century.

Why this custom died out we do not really know. One theory has to do with the dominance that Babylonian customs had towards the end of the 1st millennium. The death of the triennial cycle might have been one casualty of this trend. A second and more compelling theory is that we have some evidence that people from Israel visited their Babylonian counterparts on Simchat Torah and perhaps, they were so inspired by the Simchat Torah celebration that they too wanted to finish the Torah and celebrate Simchat Torah annually.

And that is exactly where the historical irony lies. In an attempt to adopt the current system that we have which allows us to finish the entire Torah in a year, we end up never finishing the Torah. And that is because each Torah reading, each torah lecture is too long and people get bored, lose focus. We forgot the most basic pedagogical lesson that we should have learned from G-d’s 10 commandment sermon. Brevity is of utmost importance.

Ultimately, what happened is that because the Torah portion was so long, we forgot that it was a lecture, we forgot that the point of it was to learn. It just became part of davening. This point can be illustrated very well with another difference between the orthodox and the liberal denominations. Which way does the Baal Koreh face, towards the Aron or to the people? In many liberal synagogues the Baal Koreh faces the congregation but in Orthodox shuls the Baal Koreh faces the Aron. Which one makes more sense? If the Torah reading is davening then it makes sense to face the Ark which represents the presence of God in our shul. But if the point of Keriyat Hatorah is to learn and the Baal Koreh is teaching then it makes no sense for him to face the ark. Could you imagine if I got up to give this sermon and I gave the sermon facing the ark. It would be pretty ridiculous. Well that is sort of what happens during keriat hatorah every shabbat.

Let me put it another way. There are two things we do in shul; we pray and we read torah. The praying is our chance to speak to God and the Torah reading is our chance for God to talk to us. Every week, we get to find out what God has to say to us. So what do we do, we read the Torah facing God as if it is part of davening as if we are telling the Torah to God. But God’s reaction is, “Don’t tell it to me, I know what it says, I wrote it!!!. Tell it to the people.”

I am not suggesting that we change our custom and have the Baal Koreh read facing the congregation and I am also not suggesting that we adopt a Triennial Cycle. Either of those changes would take away the traditional character of our service. I am however suggesting that we have a paradigm shift in the way we think about Torah Reading. The torah reading should not be thought of as part of davening. It is learning. And we need to learn the Torah portion in order to get guidance for the week ahead.

I would like to conclude with a story. Reb Hershele Riminover was just 21 years old when he became the Rebbe. He was still a single man. One day, a woman in her 20s comes to see him. She says, “Rebbe, you have to help me. I am an orphan and I have not parents to find a match for me. Please help me find a shidduch.” The rebbe looks at the woman, and he studies her a little better and he says, “Let me ask you a question. Would you marry me?” The woman thinks the rebbe is making fun of her and she breaks down crying. She says, “Rebbe, I am so broken, please don’t make fun of me.” And the Rebbe says, “My question was serious. Are you from such and such town. The woman says, yes. And do you have 10 brothers and sisters. The woman says yes, but how do you know that. The rebbe says “and was your father’s name R’ Moshe? She says yes. So the rebbe asks her, do you remember a boy named Hershele. She says, “of course I remember. Hershele was the tailors son and my brothers were very wild and they would always rip their shabbos pants and we would send them to Hershele’s father. On Erev shabbos, Hershele was often come to deliver the pants. The rebbe said, I am Hershele and every time that I would go to your house I saw something so beautiful. Your mother, your father and the your 10 brothers and sisters would sit at the shabbos table and study of the parshah of the week together. I would leave your house and I would start crying because my father was a poor illiterate tailor who did not know how to learn and I so envied your family. And I would cry to God, “Please let me have a family like that. Bless me so that I can marry one of those girls.” And the rebbe looks at the orphan and he says to her, “And now, you have come. It is as if we are soulmates. Please marry me.” Of course the couple got married, they raised a beautiful family, and every shabhos they would sit as a family at the table and study the Parshah of the week.

What a beautiful way to spend a Shabbat. On this Shabbat of Bereishit, of beginning the cycle, we should make a commitment, to really learn the parshah every Friday night at the shabbos table, by ourselves, with our spouses or with our family. And if we do that and we truly make an effort to learn every parshah, then next year on Simchat Torah when we dance and sing with the Torahs, we can be happy, inspired and elated with the knowledge that we did our best to finish the entire Torah. Shabbat Shalom.


Kol D'mama Daka said...

my parents sent me the link; it reminded me of a post a friend wrote, coming from a Reform perspective:

Anonymous said...

What do you think of this ?

Anonymous said...

I'm not at all of a Reform mindset, but there is a halachic argument for a Triennial Cycle, because of its historical antecedents and antiquity. It could be that in the future there will be a legitimate possibility to honour the heritage of both traditions, the Annual and the Triennial. This could be done by following the Annual Cycle during the Shemita years and the Triennial Cycle during the normal years. This would result in a rythm of two times the Triennial Cycle and the next year the Annual Cycle. Especially for the diaspora this would constitute a beautiful and meaninful way of honouring the distinction between the normal years and the Smemita years.