Reading the Torah – a Holy Tradition among the People of the Book
One of the names that became synonymous with the Jewish people is "People of the Book" ("Am Hasefer" in Hebrew) a name that reflects the great contribution of the Jews to the world – the Bible.
The Old Testament is indeed the most sacred text among the Jewish people, yet to the outsider there can be some confusion as to what sections of the books are read by Jews in synagogues throughout the year. The term "reading the Torah" indeed refers to reading from the Bible in synagogues, but the name "Torah" in this case refers only to the first five books in the Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
The reading of the Torah is divided into weekly sections – each called "Parasha", bringing together several chapters of each book. Each week a new Parasha is read, and the cycle of reading the entire Torah is complete within a year, to be repeated in the following year.
Reading the Torah is among the holiest and most ancient practices among the Jewish People. In the Bible itself, the book of Nehemiah refers to mass reading of the Torah. Throughout the many years of the Jewish People's exile from their homeland, the reading of the Torah was a tradition that kept Jewish faith alive. Today, millions of Jews attend synagogues for the reading of the Torah each week, in both the Holy Land and all over the world.
Sefer Torah. Image Source: Wikipedia
There are minor differences in the reading of the Torah among different Jewish communities, but the general ceremonial customs are the same: the weekly Parasha is read completely on the Sabbath morning service, the holy day, along with the Haftrah – a section from the Book of Prophets (which is part of the Old Testament, but not of the Torah), thematically related to the weekly Parasha. The first segment of the following week's Parasha is read on Sabbath afternoon, and also on the following Monday and Thursday.
The reading itself is done from Sefer Torah – the Biblical text handwritten on a parchment. Aliyah – coming up to read the Torah in front of the public in the synagogue – is considered to be one of the greatest honors among those who attend the reading. The Bar Mitzvah ceremony, in which a Jewish boy comes of age on his 13th birthday, involves an Aliyah.
There are several special dates and holidays throughout the year related to the reading of the Torah. The holiday of Shavuot celebrates G-d's giving of the Torah to the People of Israel and a section of Parashat Yitro which describes the event is read on it. Simchat Torah, the holiday that celebrates the end the year's Torah reading cycle – and the beginning of the New Year's reading cycle – is among the happiest, accompanied by festivities and dancing with the Torah scrolls.
The ancient and proud tradition of reading the Torah is reminder of the great historical and spiritual legacy that lives on in the hearts of the Jewish people.