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D'var Torah: Tazria-Metzora

Usually on any given Shabbat, the same Torah portion is read all over the world. However, there also occur special shabbatot and chagim which have their own Torah readings. These readings interrupt the orderly progression of the Torah-reading cycle, with the result that certain portions are “doubled up” so that the entire Torah is read regardless of the length of the year. But sometimes the calendar forces a departure from this world-wide synchrony, as when a holiday such as Pesach falls on Shabbat as it did this year or when Shavuot falls on a Friday, as it last did in 2009. In Israel, where Pesach is only observed for seven days and Shavuot is only observed one day, the Shabbat on the last day of the holiday is treated as a normal Shabbat and the next portion in the weekly cycle of parashot is read.

In the diaspora, however, Pesach is observed for eight days and Shavuot is observed for two days. (Sukkot can begin on a Shabbat too, but this won’t happen next until 2020. When that date comes, I’ll dust off this d’rash and give it again. Actually, the eighth day of Sukkot is Shemini Atzeret which is also a holiday in Israel.) So in the cases of these two spring holidays, their last day can fall on a Shabbat. Because of this, the weekly cycle of Torah readings needs to be altered in favor of a reading designated for that festival. This requires that the next Torah reading in the normal sequence in the diaspora be delayed until the following week, and for the next several weeks, the Torah reading in the diaspora will lag behind that of Israel by one parashah. For this current year, catching up will occur on May 19 when parashot Behar and Bechukotai are read together in the diaspora and separately in Israel. For Shavuot, the one-week lag is not adjusted until the week when parashot Chukkat and Balak are read; this occurs six weeks after Shavuot.

However, modern practice has modified the Torah-reading custom somewhat, so the parashah that you read on the Shabbat following a multiday holiday actually depends both on where you live and/or what branch of Judaism you practice! If you live in Israel or you are a Reform Jew (or belong to certain Reconstructionist congregations), parashat Shemini is read on the Shabbat following the seventh day of Pesach and parashat Naso is read on the Shabbat following a Friday Shavuot. If you live in the diaspora and are a Conservative, Orthodox, or Reconstructionist Jew, the Torah reading is the one for Pesach Day 8 or Shavuot II. Recall that the reason for this is that in the diaspora, Shavuot is celebrated for two days, except by most Reform communities.

The options for how to do the Torah readings that follow these holidays can be complex. In general in traditional communities, the readings will be out of step between Israel and the diaspora until a doubled parashah is reached. With Pesach, there are actually two doubled parashot that occur before Behar-Bechukotai: today’s and next week’s, but because of the talmudic rules of doubled parashot, which I’ll get to soon, these two aren’t split to adjust a calendar oddity. But once we do reach the third doubled parashah, we can get the Jewish world back into sync again (right: if only that were true!). But lest you think that this solves the holiday problem, beware. It doesn’t; there’s yet another wrinkle. This one comes from the Reform movement. Reform Jews of North America handle the doubling problem by splitting the next parashah, Shemini in the case of Pesach and Naso in the case of Shavuot, into two parts. Splitting Shemini into two pieces results in two very short Shabbat readings but since Naso is a very long parashah (the longest, actually), it's easily divided into two. Splitting these parashot puts the North American Reform community back into step with the rest of the diaspora about a month sooner, while European liberal communities tend to follow the same Torah-reading schedule as Israel.

Apart from the special case of this year’s readings following Pesach, why are some parashot (and only these parashot) doubled and when does this doubling occur? Recall that the Hebrew calendar is a lunar-solar calendar where an extra month is inserted five times in every nineteen years, and thus the longest year can include a maximum of 55 shabbatot. The Torah is divided into 54 parashot, one of which (V’zot Berakhah) is never read on Shabbat outside Israel (it’s read on Simchat Torah). This leaves 53 parashot to be read on the year’s shabbatot. Since the festivals of Sukkot and Pesach always include at least one Shabbat, there are sufficient parashot for one to be read on each Shabbat. The last year that we needed every parashah to be separately read was in 5765—in that year there were 55 shabbatot.

If, however, a festival includes two shabbatot and/or when a non-leap year occurs, there are fewer shabbatot to accommodate all of the Torah readings. This gives rise to the need to double some of them up. Which are chosen and why? As you might imagine, the reasons are very complex and are found in the calendar rules, in the sidra lengths, in the subject matter of each sidra, and in the opportunities to combine sidrot. The four fundamental rules of sidrot placement, formulated during talmudic times into gaonic times, are these: Tzav must fall before Pesach; Bechukotai falls (at least) two weeks before Shavuot; Devarim falls before Tisha B’Av; and Ki Tavo falls two weeks before Rosh Hashanah.

Okay, that tells us the target shabbatot for the sidrot. Now, which ones can be combined? Naturally, the rabbis gave us rules for this too. There are two basic rules. First, it’s preferable that only those parashot that have a common theme or subject matter be joined together. Second, if there are no such similar parashot to combine, the combination of two parashot is delayed until the last possible opportunity to do so, within the same sefer.

Using this week’s combined sidra as an example, their subject matter and length make them an ideal candidate for doubling so they are joined in all 12-month years. Although next week’s doubled parashah is not quite as thematically unitary and is a bit longer, it’s also combined in all 12-month years. But the last sidrot of the book, Behar and Bechukotai, are combined not because of thematic reasons nor length reasons; they are combined because it’s the last chance to combine sidrot so that Bechukotai can be read on the second Shabbat before Shavuot.

It’s amazing how the rabbis kept track of all of these issues. I have to use a computer to check facts; those guys seem to have had it all memorized.

April 2012

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