From Study of Scripture to a Reenactment of Sinai: The Emergence of the Synagogue Torah Service


Ruth Langer, Theology Department, Boston College

Published in Worship 72:1 (1998): 43-67, web posting with permission of the editor

The rabbis of late antiquity, with their constant engagement in the study of the Torah text itself and their focus on regularizing other elements of their new liturgical system, did not find it necessary to make elaborate ritual statements about the meanings inherent in the ritual reading of Scripture. Instead, they focussed exclusively on clarification of procedures such as the frequency, language, extent, and type of participation appropriate for reading. But with time, some of the meanings implicit in the rabbinic system received voice and an elaborate liturgical moment evolved. While these meanings by no means remained static, a close reading of the early texts in light of themes which emerge later in the medieval and modern rites enable us to interpret the symbolic role and little voiced (liturgically at least) centrality of the ritual Torah reading in the synagogue. This article focusses on the emergence of this elaborate ceremonial and its increasingly explicit statement of the meanings embedded in it, up to the point where we begin to have any significant manuscript record of actual rites, in the twelfth century. Future studies will trace and analyze the differences among the various medieval and modern rites and the reinterpretation over time of the meanings which have emerged in this earlier period.

It is highly likely that the ceremonial surrounding the Torah reading was not elaborate in the period of the early history of the synagogue. The only early rabbinic descriptions of Torah ceremonies are actually situated in the Jerusalem Temple. We find in Mishnah Sotah 7:7-8:(1)

How does the High Priest recite his blessings [on the Day of Atonement, towards the conclusion of his sacrificial functions]? The officiant of the synagogue takes the Torah scroll and hands it to the president of the synagogue, and the president of the synagogue gives it to the adjutant high priest and the adjutant high priest gives it to the High Priest, and the High Priest stands and receives it and reads Leviticus 16:1-34 and 23:26-32. Then he rolls the Torah and, embracing it in his bosom, says: More than what I have read to you is written here. Then he recites Numbers 29:7-11 by heart, and recites eight blessings over [the Torah]: for the Torah; for the worship; for the thanksgiving; for the forgiving of sin; for the Temple; for Israel; for the priests; and for the rest of the prayers.

How is the king's portion performed? On the conclusion of the first festival day of Tabernacles, on the eighth year of the sabbatical cycle, they make a platform of wood for him in the courtyard (of the Temple), and he sits on it, for it is said, "At the conclusion of seven years during the festival..." (Dt. 31:10f) Then the officiant of the synagogue takes the Torah scroll and gives it to the president of the synagogue, and the president of the synagogue gives it to the adjutant high priest, and the adjutant high priest gives it to the high priest, and the high priest gives it to the king, and the king stands and receives it and reads it sitting. King Aggripas stood and received it and read it standing, and the sages praised him... He reads from the beginning of Deuteronomy to Shema, and Shema (Dt. 6:4-9) and Dt. 11:13-21, 14:22-29, 26:12-15, and the Portion of the King (Dt. 17:14-20), and the blessings and curses, until he completes the entire chapter (Dt. 28). The blessings which the high priest recites, the king also recites, except that he substitutes that of the festivals for the forgiving of sin.

A close reading of these descriptions is highly illuminating. The preparation for the ceremony of the king's post-sabbatical reading requires the building of a simple wooden platform, probably in the larger "Courtyard of the Women." This deliberately echoes the wooden tower built near the city gate for Ezra's public reading of Scripture recorded in Nehemiah 8:4. This erection of a special structure was itself an announcement of a significant event. However, one should note also that, according to the Mishnah Sukkah 5:1-4, this was the same location as the elaborate nightly celebration during Tabernacles of the Simhat Beit Hasho'evah, the water drawing festival, complete with numerous golden candelabra, torches, instrumental music, singing and dancing. In contrast, this ceremony of Torah reading was apparently austere, lacking physical ornamentation, instrumental accompaniment, or song. A similar observation might be made about the High Priest's reading on the Day of Atonement, which, although also taking place in the courtyard, lacks even a special platform. Mishnah Yoma 7:1-3 indicates that, in order to fulfill this obligation of reading, the High Priest simply stepped aside from the main, sacrificial work of the day which continued in his absence. Unlike his sacrificial duties, this reading required no special vestments and was not the sole focus of Temple activities. These observations lend support to claims that these Scripture readings were possibly foreign or late interpolations into the Temple cult; their native locus was in another social setting.(2)

Both Torah reading ceremonies include a procession of sorts, but the texts record no musical or liturgical accompaniment to the performance. In both cases, the practical object of the procession was to bring the scroll to its place of reading, and here, also to the reader. After taking the scroll from an undisclosed place,(3) the officers of what was, at least later, the scroll's normal realm, the synagogue, pass it to the officers of the realm of this ceremonial reading, the priests, and in the second case, then to the king. As the Talmud recognizes,(4) there is a symbolic message encoded in this movement. It is an act of deliberate deference to the High Priest and the king, expressed not only in the chain of transmission of the scroll, but also in the very fact that the scroll is brought to the reader. Indeed, the Palestinian Talmud indicates that normally, readers go to the Torah scroll, but in this case, the scroll was brought to the king, as an indication his elevated stature. It also reports, and a later Babylonian chronicle verifies, that the Babylonian Jews continued to honor their civil ruler, the exilarch, in this way. The Babylonian exilarchs, like the Israelite king, claimed royal Davidic descent.(5)

The center of the performance, the reading, lies for these particular instances only in the realms of the priest and king. Both show deference to the scroll by standing to receive it. The priest continues to stand for the reading, and the sages applaud the king who humbles himself similarly despite the extreme length of his reading. Rabbinic law required that every reader stand.(6) In the hierarchy of symbols, Torah reigns supreme over all human beings, including kings.(7)

Apparently, the High Priest and the King did not even preface their reading with a blessing. Following the reading, however, both recited a series of eight benedictions. This is particularly curious; rabbinic liturgical law establishes on principle that a blessing precedes the fulfillment of any divine commandment. The rabbis had to struggle to justify only the blessing after the reading, basing it on an analogy to the laws of table rituals.(8) Obviously, at the time of these Temple ceremonies, the concept of framing the Torah reading with blessings was not yet established.

Little can be said about the content of these eight blessings, for, typically, the Mishnah itself lists only their topics, and the talmudic traditions provide little additional detail. It is possible that, at this period, only general forms and topics were fixed, and the person performing the ritual had the freedom to improvise within the established ideational and syntactic structure. While the blessings listed in the Mishnah show every sign of fitting into the general patterns which emerge in rabbinic prayer, this particular sequence of themes never appears together in known rites, and many of the individual blessings find their parallels in liturgies distinct from the Torah rituals.(9) As we shall see below, later Jewish communities will come to understand the presence of the Torah itself to create an opportunity for efficacious prayer and special access to God. Two arguments can be made against that being the case here: first, these ceremonies took place on the Temple Mount in reasonable proximity to the Holy of Holies, the most reliable point of contact with God for Jews, making this later, post-destruction function of the Torah scroll as yet unnecessary; and second, if these blessings were understood to have this function, one might expect them to have been preserved or imitated in this locus in later rites.

The mishnaic description of these Temple rituals does not record anything about the return of the Torah to its place and the movement of the various ritual actors on to their next tasks. The picture which emerges, in spite of the ceremonial of the setting, is one of a very functional, unembellished ritual moment. The Torah itself had a sanctified status, deserving of special respect, but it is not evident that this status was articulated in any marked way.

Other literary and archaeological sources from the late Second Temple and early rabbinic periods clearly indicate the centrality of Torah reading in the synagogues of Israel and the diaspora. There is room to question, though, as we will see below, whether this early Torah reading was simply communal study of the sacred text, or if it had already become a liturgical rite. At Qumran, although study of Torah was indeed a highly valued and even a ritualized activity of the community, it seems to have been more similar to the rabbinic study of Torah than to the synagogue's public reading of the text. Although one text found at Qumran mentions prayer and study together, it does not suggest an actual liturgical setting for the study itself.(10) This sense of reading as an act of study rather than an act of ritual is only reinforced by the extant descriptions of synagogal reading of Scripture. We have little or no indication that there was any liturgical accompaniment to the reading, suggesting that there was no need to mark a transition into a ritual moment or to express meanings embedded in the symbolism of that moment. The most expansive New Testament description, Luke 4:16ff., describing Jesus' actions on a Sabbath in the synagogue in Nazareth, simply reports:

He stood up to read the lesson and was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the scroll and found the passage which says,... He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. He began to speak...

Here we lack any blessings at all, for Torah or, in this case, Haftarah. That the scroll is handed to the reader may not have special significance, as Judaism does not assign prophetic texts the same degree of sanctity as the revealed Torah. In addition, the requirement that a ritually fit Torah scroll contain all five books in a single scroll made it a much bulkier and less easily handled book.

Yitzhak D. Gilat, among others, suggests that, based on the evidence of the early rabbinic texts and of Philo, the idea of a cyclical and systematic reading of all of Torah did not emerge until the period following the destruction of the Temple, and its mechanics were still being clarified in the early second century. Indeed, the earliest readings seem to have been functional, reminding the community of its obligations pertaining to a particular holiday.(11) This movement to a regular, complete reading of all of Torah is consistent with a move to an elevated conception of Torah as the single object best connecting the community with God's revelatory voice. Instructional reading, while still important, fades in the synagogue setting in comparison to the Sinai overtones.(12) While the Jerusalem Temple still stood, a Jew could reliably access God there. In the absence of the Temple, new routes had to be forged. Study of Torah, and at a more richly symbolic level, the ritual reading of Torah, was a way to fill this gap.

The blessings which come to frame the Torah reading are the most direct expression of this meaning. Although we do not find explicit definitions of the texts of these blessings in the talmudic literature, there is no doubt that blessings were recited. There is no significant documentable variation in the texts of these blessings as they have come down to us in the various rites; and the familiar blessing texts begin to appear explicitly in the post-talmudic discussions of the Torah reading.(13) Both blessings evoke Sinai. They both conclude praising God as the Giver of Torah. The opening blessing speaks of God's choosing Israel and giving it the Torah; the concluding blessing speaks of God's giving Israel the Torah, implanting the source of eternal life in its midst. While neither speak specifically and exclusively to Sinai, both highlight the relationship which began there. These themes are reiterated in the blessings surrounding the haftarah, the prophetic reading.(14)

However, these blessings would seem to be insufficient to express the profound meaning of the ritual of Torah reading. They are brief, and they are recited only in direct proximity to the actual reading. Initially, they were recited only once, before the first reading and after the last, but because of "the people coming and going," the custom was adjusted so that each person called to the Torah recited the full set.(15) One might wonder whether, rather than simply a response to communal irresponsibility, as the Talmud suggests, this liturgical adjustment deliberately emphasized the meaning of the entire rite through the reiteration of its basic spiritual underpinning. This explanation, of course, would depend on these blessings having existed in their current formulation, or in similar formulations, at the point of the adjustment. This cannot be demonstrated.

If correct, this observation points to very early evidence for a tendency to make more explicit the symbolic significance of this meaning-laden reading. In much of Jewish liturgy, in marked contrast to the rites of other religions, there is a tendency to avoid explicit statement of the mythic referent of the ritual. The amidah, the "Eighteen Blessings," for example, gains much of its centrality and significance from the fact that it corresponds to and, in the absence of the Jerusalem Temple, replaces, the biblically ordained sacrifices.(16) Yet, except in the additional service on Sabbaths and holidays, there is no mention at all of this purpose. The move to repetition of the blessings by each reader may be interpreted as a device to enhance the growing symbolic role of Torah in the Jewish world as the embodiment of the Sinai revelation, the sacred myth on which all of Judaism stands. Torah reading, as it moved to a sequential reading of the entire text, whether over a year or a period of approximately three and a half years, became the ritualized recitation of the central myth of the Jewish people, the heart of the liturgical experience. Its reading reenacts Sinai, and, over time, tells the story of Sinai too. No longer really an act of study or instruction, it has become a ritualization of the myth in sacred time, or in Paul Bradshaw's categories developed to describe the Christian liturgical use of Scripture, it has moved from a "didactic" to an "anamnetic" reading.(17)

A final point regarding the early description of Torah readings deserves discussion. We noted that the High Priest stood to read the Torah, the king who did so was praised by the rabbis, and when Jesus read in the synagogue, he too stood. While this might seem simply a logistical ideal enabling the reader to project his voice and receive the congregation's attention, the rabbinic discussions would suggest otherwise. Mishnah Megillah 4:1 begins: The one who reads the scroll of Esther may stand or sit. To this the Babylonian Talmud comments, "It is taught [in a tannaitic tradition]: which is not the case with the Torah." The later, amoraic talmudic discussion then asks:

What is the [biblical] source for this? Rabbi Abbahu (Palestine, c. 300) said, "From the fact that the verse says [recording the words God spoke to Moses at Sinai], `And you stand here with Me [and I will tell you all the commandments and laws]'(Dt. 5:28)." And Rabbi Abbahu also said, "Had Scripture not phrased it in this way, it would be impossible to utter it, but it is as if even the Holy One, blessed be He, was standing."(18)

Standing to read the Torah is much more than a logistical necessity or an expression of respect. According to this interpretation, by standing, the reader emulates, not Moses who stood to receive the Torah, but God who revealed it. The ritual reading of the Torah then, is not simply an act of study, but a reenactment of Sinai itself. The tradition recorded in the Palestinian Talmud does not go quite this far, but it does rebuke the reader who leans against the table while reading, saying that this is forbidden because "just as [the Torah] was given with fear and reverence, so too we need to treat it with fear and reverence."(19) While, in this more conservative understanding the reader represents Moses, or perhaps the Israelites, who received the Torah, the public reading is still a reenactment of Sinai and is to be treated as such.(20)

The architecture of the synagogue itself helps us to map this shift to heightened symbolic meanings. In the earliest synagogues, in Palestine at least, there is no permanent housing for the Torah ark. Like the original ark housing the Ten Commandments, the Torah ark was a mobile furnishing, brought into the synagogue when it was needed. This was perfectly functional, especially in small communities where the Torah scroll was needed both for regular study in other buildings and for the ritual reading in the synagogue. However, even this mobile ark formed a ritual focal point, as the early rabbinic tannaitic texts identify the person leading the recitation of the amidah as the "one who goes down before the ark." But evidence from synagogues from the fourth century on points to the permanent housing of the Torah scroll in an elaborate niche on the Jerusalem-facing wall, sometimes displacing the earlier synagogue's doors which opened towards that sacred city. Not only was the ark the architectural focus of the synagogue, but it also came to mark the direction of prayer. Any prayer which needed to be recited facing Jerusalem now was physically mediated by the Torah scroll. This became a universal feature of synagogues throughout the world. In Palestine, by the sixth century, some synagogues marked the sanctity of the Torah scroll even more dramatically, setting it apart from the rest of the synagogue's space by a set of chancel screens.(21) The Torah and its housing have moved from merely representing the Sinai revelation in its mobile housing, to representing the permanent housing of that ark in the Jerusalem Temple itself. This does not detract from the centrality of Sinai, for after that unique event, "Torah shall come forth from Zion and the word of the Eternal from Jerusalem." (Isaiah 2:3.) Like the Temple, these synagogues marked off their most sacred space with architectural barriers. This holiest of places is explicitly the locus of God and of God's revelation.(22)

It is impossible to know whether any further liturgical texts accompanied the Torah service in the talmudic period. Because these liturgies lay outside of the realm of the legal concerns of the halakhah, talmudic texts had no compelling reason to discuss them. In addition, the early liturgies were likely not fixed, and they almost certainly were not written down in any authoritative fashion. The first Jewish prayerbooks date only from the ninth century. As a result, we have very limited knowledge about the details of the liturgy of the early synagogue. However, by the twelfth century, the point from which we begin to have prayerbook manuscripts in any number, very rich and very varied liturgies have emerged which do enrich and express the performance of this reenactment of Sinai.

From the intervening period, we have only three descriptions of any detail, each problematic in its own way. The Seder or order of prayers of Rav Amram Gaon is an invaluable resource, but unfortunately, we possess no manuscript in which the prayertexts (as opposed to the extensive discussions of the rules about prayer) can be demonstrated to be original. Because the text was such an important source of liturgical law, copyists rewrote it to conform to their own rites, substituting their own liturgical variants where necessary. Hence, for the purposes of understanding the development of the liturgies accompanying the geonic Torah reading, this text is not a reliable source.(23) The two other texts, the narrative of Nathan the Babylonian and a section of Massekhet Soferim, deserve detailed treatment. Both of these demonstrate continuity with some of the themes discussed above and give first witness to themes and meanings which will continue to accompany the Torah reading to the present day.

The narrative of Nathan the Babylonian records the service of installation for a new exilarch in wonderful detail.(24) As for the mishnaicly described Torah reading of the king, a special wooden platform is constructed, this one specifically seven cubits high by three cubits wide. Unlike the king's platform, though, this one is completely draped with the richest of cloths, disguising its humble structure. A canopy of rich cloth is also suspended over this platform, an addition perhaps made possible by the indoor setting of the ritual, and one which certainly accentuated the royal Davidic descent of the exilarch. Hidden under this platform, from the beginning of the service, sits a boys' choir. The exilarch himself only appears after the completion of the morning prayers, accompanied and escorted by the heads of the Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbedita, the geonim; the three of them seat themselves on this platform. Preceding the Torah reading, the leader (the cantor) of the synagogue offers a soto voce blessing to the new exilarch, and then the exilarch and the geonim deliver sermons which are received with immense reverence. This entire section of the installation stands alone and is concluded with the kaddish prayer,(25) an ancient marker of the completion of a period of study. This is followed by blessings offered by the leader to the new exilarch and to the two geonim and a recognition one by one of the (probably Jewish) representatives present from other places.(26) All of this points to an unusual, elevated ritual. However, we do not have sufficient information to identify where it might deviate from the pattern of a normal Sabbath service.

The description of the Torah reading itself is mostly unremarkable, except in the special treatment accorded to the exilarch. Nathan reports:

And then (the officiant) takes out the Torah scroll, and the priest reads, followed by the levite. Then the officiant (lit. the cantor of the congregation) lowers the Torah scroll to the exilarch while all the people stand. He (the exilarch) receives the Torah scroll in his hands and stands to read in it. The heads of the academies (the geonim) stand with him, and the head of the academy of Sura provides the Aramaic translation. Then (the exilarch) returns the Torah scroll to the officiant who returns it to the reading desk.(27) After (the officiant) reaches the reading desk, he sits down in his place and then all the people sit in their places. Then the roshei kallah (the heads of the semi-annual academy sessions) read, followed by the students of the heads of the academies, but the heads of the academies themselves do not read because others have preceded them.(28) When the reader reads the prophetic portion, a wealthy and important man should provide the translation, and he should be greatly honored by this. When he finishes, he (the officiant, the reader, or the translator of the prophetic portion?) should continue by blessing the exilarch with the Torah scroll, and all of the prayer leaders (lit. the representatives of the congregation) who are practised and expert in leading prayers stand around the reading desk and respond "amen." After that he blesses both of the heads of the academies. Then he returns the Torah to its place and they pray the additional service and leave.(29)

Absent in this description, as from all others seen to this point, is any liturgical accompaniment to the movement of the Torah scroll from the ark to its place of reading and back again. Given the wealth of detail in Nathan's account, we must assume either that this movement was accomplished without liturgical marking or, less likely, that it was accompanied only by some standard texts which therefore required no notice. Otherwise, this ceremony continues to echo that of the ritual Torah reading of the king, in that the scroll is brought to the exilarch to read from his special platform. However, because this ritual occurs in the setting of a Sabbath service run by the conventions of rabbinic Judaism, seven individual readers must participate. The exilarch may not be the only reader. That the other readers come up to the reading desk while the scroll is carried to the exilarch who remains on his throne-like platform, decisively marks his extraordinary status.

Finally, we have here the germ of what will become standard practice in conjunction with Sabbath and holiday Torah readings, the blessing in one form or another of the heads of the community, both secular and religious, in conjunction with the presence of the Torah scroll itself.(30) Indeed, it is not happenstance that these leaders are blessed at this point in the service. Nathan says that the exilarch is blessed with the Torah scroll. The very presence of the scroll enhances the power or the efficacy of the blessing. This happens, I suggest, because the scroll itself becomes not merely an icon of the Sinai experience, but the very embodiment of it. It is the word of God, forever communicating. As such, the presence of the scroll ritually marks God's presence. (31)A prayer offered in proximity to it has an enhanced opportunity for efficacy. The ritual expression of this concept goes well beyond the prayer for the exilarch, encompassing eventually all "mi sheberakh" prayers(32) offered for those called to the Torah, for the sick, for the congregation, and for naming baby girls; and the blessing recited by one released from danger, memorial prayers for the dead, and the announcements of the new month or fast days. Outside the context of formal prayer, various private petitions, especially those of women, and even oaths were also recited in deliberate proximity to the scroll. This is a theme deserving of much greater elaboration. Nathan the Babylonian's account gives only our first hints of the appearance of this theme in a ritual context.

In contrast with the apparent lack of ceremony surrounding the Torah's movements in Nathan's account of the exilarch's installation, Massekhet Soferim describes an extended liturgy. Massekhet Soferim, a post-talmudic tractate often printed with the Talmud, prescribes protocols for creating Torah scrolls, and then, almost incidentally, the rituals surrounding them. The text's provenance and dating are unclear; theories place it anywhere from the sixth to the twelfth centuries anywhere between Babylonia and Europe. In many aspects, including those of interest here, the text of Massekhet Soferim clearly represents traditions which do not conform to those of the then, or soon to be, dominant Babylonian rituals. Scholars used to assume that anything from this period that was not Babylonian was necessarily Palestinian. The fact that no manuscripts of this tractate have appeared in the Cairo geniza makes this assumption questionable.(33) Additionally, we know that medieval copyists often inserted the prayer texts of their own rites into passages like the one of interest here. In spite of the fact that Higger's critical edition gives no evidence of such tampering, we must be somewhat suspicious. But whatever the provenance of this passage, whether it is original or not to the tractate, the form in which we and those few who cite it in the medieval world received it seems to be the first witness to liturgical elements surrounding the Torah reading which persist in the later rites. Yet, this text apparently describes its Torah ritual as the prayers to be recited by the reader of the prophetic portion, the maftir. As we shall see, it is not obvious that Massekhet Soferim describes a real situation. The text reads:(34)

[14:4] ...How does he begin?

A. Happy are they who dwell in Your house...(Ps. 84:5.) (35)

Then the reader of the prophetic portion stands and says:

B. There is none like you among the gods, O Eternal One, and there are no deeds like Yours. (Ps. 86:8.)

C. Who is like you among the gods, O Eternal One, who is like you majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders. (Ex. 15:11.)

D. Your kingship is an eternal kingship; Your dominion is for all generations. (Ps. 145:13.)

E. The Eternal One is king, the Eternal One was king, the Eternal One will reign for ever and ever. (Elaboration on Ex. 15:18.)

F. The Eternal was pleased for His righteousness' sake, to make the Torah great and majestic. (Isaiah 42:21.)

G. The Eternal will give strength to his people, the Eternal will bless his people with peace. (Ps. 29:11)(36)

H. You alone are the Eternal One, you made the heavens, the highest heavens and all their host, the earth and everything that is on it, the seas and all that are in them. You keep them all alive, and the host of heaven prostrate themselves to You. (Nehemiah 9:6.)

[14:5] Immediately, the reader of the prophetic portion goes in and holds the Torah and chants:

I. Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One. (Dt. 6:4, shema.)

And even the people repeat after him, and he repeats and says:

J. One is our God, great is our Lord: holy. One is our God, merciful is our Lord: holy.One is our God, great is our Lord: holy and awesome is His Name - corresponding to the three patriarchs, and there are those who say that this corresponds to the three "holies."(37)

K. Your beneficence is high as the heavens, O God, for You have done great things; O God, who is like You? (Ps. 71:19.)

L. O Eternal, Your name endures forever, Your fame, O Eternal through all generations. (Ps. 135:13.)

M. Let everyone ascribe might to our God and ascribe glory to the Torah.

N. Exalt the Eternal with me, and let us extol His name together. (Ps. 34:4.)

He must lift up the Torah during "Hear O Israel," and during the three declarations of God's unity, and during "Exalt the Eternal with me."

[14:6] Additionally, he must recite:

O. For everything,(38) let the glorious and awesome name of the King, the king of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, be exalted, sanctified, praised, (seven additional synonyms), in the worlds which He created, in this world and in the world to come, according to His will and according to the will of those who revere Him and according to the will of all His people the House of Israel. Let His majesty be revealed and seen among us speedily, and let Him rebuild his house in our days, and may He, in His great mercy and with much lovingkindness favor our remnant and the remnant of all His people the House of Israel with favor, lovingkindness, mercy, life, and peace, and may He have mercy on us and on all His people the House of Israel for the sake of His great name, and let us say "Amen."

[14:7] After this he lifts the Torah up high and says:

P. One is our God, great is our Lord, holy and awesome is His name for ever and ever.

And he begins to chant, saying:

Q. The Eternal is God (1Kings 18:39), the Eternal is His name. (Ex. 15:3.)

And the people answer after him, repeating and doubling his (words), and they answer after him twice.

[14:8] Immediately he unrolls the Torah scroll to (show) three columns, and lifts it up and shows it writing to the people standing to his right and left, and he turns it frontwards and backwards, for it is a commandment for all the men and women to see the writing and to bow and say:

R. This is the Torah which Moses set before the Israelites. (Dt. 4:44.)

Additionally he says:

S. The Torah of the Eternal is perfect, renewing life; the decrees of the Eternal are enduring, making the simple wise; the precepts of the Eternal are just, rejoicing the heart; the instruction of the Eternal is lucid, making the eyes light up; the fear of the Eternal is pure, abiding forever; the judgements of the Eternal are true, righteous altogether; more desirable than gold, than much find gold; sweeter than honey, than drippings of the comb. (Ps. 19:8-11.)

[14:9] And the reader of the prophetic portion gives it (the Torah scroll) to the prayer leader, and he girdles the Torah to cover the heads of the readers, for it does not honor the Torah for it to be alone in the hands of a single prayer leader...(39)

Chapter 14 of Massekhet Soferim begins with laws for the megillah reading. Our scenario appears in the context of a commentary on Mishnah Megillah 4:5, which like Massekhet Soferim moves from issues of reading Esther to the larger issue of Torah reading. But Massekhet Soferim presents a rather peculiar reading of this Mishnah. Rather than understanding it to mean that "One who may read the prophetic portion may (also) lead the recitation of (pores al) shema...," Massekhet Soferim interprets it as "The one who reads the prophetic portion also leads the recitation of shema." While the first understanding discusses the qualifications for prayer leaders, a theme which receives further elaboration in the continuation of the Mishnah, this second reading presupposes some combination of only the first two rituals listed in the Mishnah; inexplicably excluded from this is the continuation of the list: the leading of the amidah and the priestly benediction. This second reading is supported neither by the readings of either Talmud nor by the various commentary traditions, all of which consistently interpret this Mishnah as discussing the qualifications of the prayer leader. Massekhet Soferim's reading and its consequent question, "To which shema does this refer?" is thus very bizarre.

The bizarre nature of this passage is only heightened by the fact that my preliminary research in the medieval prayerbook manuscripts indicates that shema only very rarely appears in the rituals surrounding the Sabbath Torah service of any rite, and even within a particular rite, its appearance in the medieval prayerbooks is irregular.(40) This is such an integral part of Massekhet Soferim's discussion that we cannot dismiss it as a gloss or copyist's addition. There seems to be no justification for claiming broad familiarity with Massekhet Soferim's assumption that there is a shema connected to the Torah reading which was to be recited by the maftir. The few traditions which include shema may well simply rely on Massekhet Soferim. This may be inferred from the absence of this shema in any weekday Torah service, pointing to its linkage to services including a prophetic reading, thus preserving some remnant of Massekhet Soferim's system. In addition, even if we posit that Massekhet Soferim is recording the actual rite of a community, we cannot posit that this rite is the direct ancestor of any known later rite, as this shema does not appear uniformly in any family of manuscripts and it is never lead by the maftir. It is more likely that individual communities which accepted Massekhet Soferim as a source of legitimate liturgical guidance(41) used it as a partial model for their own liturgies, adding from it to their pre-existing traditions.

Brief mention must be made of another ambiguity in this text. As Massekhet Soferim only implies the connection of this ritual to a Torah reading, scholars have debated whether its placing this ritual in the hands of the maftir really means that this ritual occurred, not before the reading, but rather after it, at the point when the Torah was to be returned to the ark. The description of the ritual is, in any case, incomplete; it fails to state clearly where the Torah scroll is before the reader takes it and it only hints at its location at the end. Therefore, one cannot conclusively state that this describes either the taking the Torah from the ark or its return there, or, alternatively, some movement in the middle of the entire service. What can be said, though, is that all later liturgies derived from or otherwise similar to that recorded here have these prayers during the ceremony in which the Torah scroll is removed from its ark and brought to the reader's desk. It seems most likely that the placing of this ritual in the hands of the reader of the prophetic portion derives only from Massekhet Soferim's strange interpretation of the Mishnah; it may be wisest not to read it as a record of actual practice.(42)

The wide variations from one community to the next, the lack of direct duplication of Massekhet Soferim's liturgy in the liturgy of any known community on what was apparently, to it, a very important point, and the very fact that so many sources, including prayerbooks, have no recorded liturgy for bringing the Torah from its ark to its place of reading and back again all speak to the non-halakhic status of this moment of the liturgy. Anything which was said fell into the category of simply beautifying the moment; it was not mandatory or legislated. On the other hand, this opened this liturgical moment to freer and more poetic expression of its meanings. At this level, Massekhet Soferim does serve as a model and/or as a witness to the emerging patterns of Torah liturgies in the medieval Jewish world.

The most obvious characteristic of Massekhet Soferim's liturgy to find echo in all later rites is its use of biblical verses, mostly in direct citation, but occasionally in elaborated form. The stringing together of biblical verses to create liturgical compositions is known in Judaism, but it is also not characteristic of the central prayers. This form appears in such likely post-talmudic prayers as the birkat hapesukim (the blessing of the verses, the third blessing after shema in the evening in most rites), in collections of verses included in the morning pesukei d'zimra (verses of song, mostly from Psalms), and, in a slightly different way, at the conclusion of major segments of the Palestinian compositions of liturgical poetry. It is also the outstanding characteristic of the liturgy of the Karaite Jews who, rejecting the official forms of rabbinic prayer and turning deliberately to biblical models, may have simply accepted this available pattern for liturgical language instead. Although there is no absolute proof, these observations suggest a post-talmudic but fairly early geonic origin for this liturgical structure. The specific combination of verses which appears in Massekhet Soferim does not appear without modification in other rites. Communities obviously generated their own liturgies, probably based on some combination or gradual modification of existing models. Addition of new verses or entire passages was not restricted, and these liturgies gradually expanded over the centuries.

The prayer beginning "For everything" (O) is the only really significant exception to this use of biblical language. Once again, Massekhet Soferim is the earliest witness to this prayer, and this prayer does appear, with some modification, in every rite. From a form-critical perspective, it is obvious that this prayer belongs to the type that Joseph Heinemann identifies as "study house" prayers. It is largely a Hebrew variant of a kaddish prayer, with the characteristic "study house" language which addresses of God in the third person, as the King of Kings, and as the Holy One blessed be He, and requests redemption.(43) In these features, the prayer is unremarkable. As Heinemann indicates, it is not at all strange to find prayers associated with the study house and its rituals retained in connection with the synagogue's ritual reading of Torah, especially as it may be surmised that the ritual reading grew out of the study context. Given that we have demonstrated the lack of influence of Massekhet Soferim on the later rites, we must assume that it here is recording a text which was well-known and widespread. It is possible, although not necessary, that the prayer itself has some real antiquity.

This prayer acquires specific meaning through its inclusion and placement in the Torah service. Although there is not a single verse in Massekhet Soferim's liturgy which explicitly proclaims a reenactment of Sinai, this theme is nonetheless present and voiced. The verses recited by the maftir move from general to specific praise of God as the giver of Torah (F,G). In this context, the reader holds the Torah and proclaims God's oneness, both with shema (I) and with the direct declarations of God's unity which follow (J). Then, with some intervening praises, the reader proclaims the anomalous, non-scriptural line, "Let everyone ascribe might to our God and ascribe glory to the Torah" (M). Torah is thus the abiding symbol of God's presence among the people. It is the perpetuation of Sinai, its covenant, and its theophany. This then creates a particularly auspicious moment for praise of God and for request for that event most desperately hoped for by the Jewish people, redemption (O). The intensity of this moment is only heightened by what follows: a reiteration and intensification of the "unification" (P) and references to the responses to two additional biblical demonstrations of God's presence and providence, Elijah's at Mt. Carmel, and the Israelites' at the Sea (Q). At this point the revelation actually occurs. The scroll is opened, and its text is displayed to the entire people, men and women, who must see its essential aspect, its words. The people respond with the explicit declaration that this scroll is the Torah revealed at Sinai (R); the verses from Ps. 19 which follow simply respond to this (S).

Later liturgies rearrange the parts, adding and subtracting specific verses, but they maintain the basic concepts and symbols embedded here. By the time that the known rites emerge in the medieval world, Torah reading has moved from an almost entirely unadorned study of Scripture to a ritual which establishes the Torah reading as a primary and symbol-rich moment of the Jewish liturgical cycle. The authoritative texts of the rabbinic literature apparently still reflect, for the most part, the unadorned rite. As a result, later texts derivative of these in their content and structure also pay little attention to the richness of meaning which emerges – and which, as prayerbook manuscript evidence suggests, clearly has emerged in a fairly mature form by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This tradition of non-attention continues in modern academic studies of Jewish liturgy, belying the fact apparent to the most uninformed observer of a Sabbath morning service: the the emergence of the Torah scroll from its ark, its presence in the midst of the congregation before, during and after its reading, forms the ritual highpoint of the service. Far from being a routine reading of the book, these liturgies have emerged as expressions of the deep symbolic significance of the ritual. The Torah itself is approached with the greatest of reverence, for it embodies the theophany at Sinai, the core myth of the Jewish religious experience. Its treatment ritually is at many levels a reenactment of Sinai, recreating, not the fearful awareness of God's immense power loose in proximity to the human community, but the awesome, beloved grandeur of a providential God who speaks to Israel and who listens to their prayers. It took centuries for this liturgical statement to be recorded at all in any detail; it took many more centuries for it to reach a degree of fixity and authority, but that is the subject of another study.




1. Translation mine. Compare Mishnah Yoma 7:1.

2. See the discussion in Joseph Heinemann, Prayer in the Talmud: Forms and Patterns, trans. Richard S. Sarason (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1977), 126 and n. 9 there, citing Samuel Krauss, Synagogale Altertümer (Berlin-Vienna, 1922), 70.

3. Commentaries assume this to the be synagogue situated on the Temple mount near the courtyard. While locating a Torah scroll somewhere in the priestly precincts on the Temple Mount is not problematic, the assumption that this was in a "synagogue" may well be an anachronistic retrojection of later rabbinic norms onto an earlier period.

4. BYoma 69a; BSotah 40b, 41b.

5. PSotah 7:6, 22a. For the later Babylonian custom, see below.

6. See below.

7. This relationship is implied in the rulings of Dt. 17:18-20, in the requirement that the king constantly study the Torah which is to be with him at all times.

8. PBerakhot 7:1, 11a; PMegillah 4:1, 74d; comp. BBerakhot 48b. Compare also Deuteronomy Rabbah, Lieberman ed., Nitzavim 1:2 (Vilna ed. 8:2), which derives the blessing after the reading from the order of Moses' addresses to the people in Deuteronomy, where his blessing, Ch. 33, follows his song, Ch. 32. Although the exegetical basis of the answer is different, the question eliciting the responses is the same.

9. BYoma 70a; BSotah 41b; PYoma 7:1, 44b; PSotah 7:6, 22a. Heinemann, Prayer..., 126, 227-8, understands this series of benedictions to be an independent and early prayer, derived from the same formal structures as that which led to synagogue prayer, but independent of it. A general thesis of his work is that prayer texts were not fixed in this period.

10. See Steven D. Fraade, "Interpretative Authority in the Studying Community at Qumran," Journal of Jewish Studies 44 (1993): 46-69. Fraade, 56, cites 1QS 6.6-8, which dictates that "...the Many shall watch together for a third of every night of the year, to read the book, to study (communal) law, and to pray as a Community." This combination of study and prayer does perhaps reflect the same merger of activities which becomes the norm in the rabbinic synagogue, but the prayer and study could equally well be read as separate, sequential activities. But Fraade, in this article makes the larger, and for us, significant point, that the "concluding of the nightly study sessions with a liturgical practice suggests that communal study was itself a religious performance..." (57-8). The transition from ritualized study to ritualized reading need not have been difficult. See too, Shemaryahu Talmon, "The Emergence of Institutionalized Prayer in Israel," in The World of Qumran from Within, Collected Studies (Jerusalem - Leiden: Magnes Press, E.J. Brill, 1989), 241.

11. Studies in the Development of the Halakhah [Heb.] (Bar Ilan University Press, 1992), 356f. See also Ezra Fleischer, "Annual and Triennial Reading of the Bible in the Old Synagogue," [Heb.] Tarbitz 61 (1991/2): 29f. Fleischer traces in the early rabbinic texts evidence for the apparent transition from a reading devoted solely to the didactic needs of the moment to a cycle in which the entire Torah is read seriatum.

12. It retains some rank through the Palestinian institutions of the sermon, of liturgical poetry, and, in Aramaic speaking communities, through the institution of the targum, the often interpretive translation of the text into that language.

13. Massekhet Soferim 13:6 (Higger ed.) provides an alternative blessing to precede the reading as well as the conventional blessing afterwards * but this explicitly pertains to an individual's reading when no quorum is present. For the earliest, most historically reliable appearance of these blessing texts in their standard setting in the geonic literature, see the tenth-century Siddur Rav Saadia Gaon, 359. If the blessings had been the subject of any dispute, we would be more likely to find discussion.

14. Heinemann, Prayer..., 227-9, identifies this series of blessings as one which may well have antiquity predating the emergence of rabbinically standardized prayer.

15. BMegillah 22a.

16. BBerakhot 26a-b.

17. "The Use of the Bible in Liturgy: Some Historical Perspectives," Studia Liturgica 22 (1992): 36-41. I would argue strongly, based on the evidence presented in this paper, against Bradshaw's characterization of the synagogue reading as primarily "doxological." (42) While there is undoubtedly a doxological quality to the liturgical reading of Scripture in Judaism, this is tertiary at best to the "didactic" and "anamnetic" qualities. Bradshaw is correct in pointing out that the rabbis consider(ed) study a form of worship, but this applies primarily to non-liturgical study, limud torah, and not to the ritual reading of Torah, qeriat hatorah. A more detailed comparison of the development of these traditions and their possible cross-influences is a desideratum.

18. BMegillah 21a. The continuation of this passage tries to determine what postures are suitable for the teaching of Torah in both its written and oral forms. There is agreement that even though, ideally, all study and teaching should be performed standing, human weakness makes this impractical.

19. PMegillah 4:1, 74d.

20. This understanding did create a tendency among various groups of Jews throughout history to extend the requirement to stand during the reading to the entire congregation. See, for instance, the comment of Joseph Karo in his Beit Yosef, OH 141, who criticizes this custom. Is the Christian custom of standing to hear the gospel is a related phenomenon? On various early medieval customs for standing during the processionals to bring the Torah to or from its ark, see Mordecai Margulies, The Differences Between Eastern and Palestinian Jews [Heb.] (Jerusalem, 1938), #49, 173-4.

21. See Steven Fine, "From Meeting House to Sacred Realm: Holiness and the Ancient Synagogue," in Sacred Realm: The emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World, ed. Steven Fine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 21-47; and Rachel Hachlili, "Synagogues in the Land of Israel: THe ARt and Architecture of Late Antique Synagogues," in the same volume, 106ff; Shmuel Safrai, "The Synagogue," [Heb.] in The Ancient Synagogue: Selected Studies [Heb.], ed. Zeev Safrai (Jerusalem: The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1986), 31-32. On the chancel screens, see Joan R. Branham, "Sacred Space Under Erasure in Ancient Synagogues and Churches," Art Bulletin 74 (1992): 375-394 and "Vicarious Sacrality: Temple Space in Ancient Synagogues," in Ancient Synagogues: Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery, ed. Dan Urman and Paul V.M. Flesher (Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1995), 319-345. The antiquities gallery of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem houses a reconstruction of the chancel screens and ark from Khirbet Susiya, pictured in plate 18b in the Urman and Flesher volume.

22. This theme has vast implications, extending to the contemporary custom of opening the ark for the recitation of various important prayers, especially on the High Holy Days.

23. See the introduction to E.D. Goldschmidt's critical edition of this text. Other geonic texts, like the Siddur Rav Saadia Gaon, and the legal compendia like Halakhot Gedolot include extensive discussions of various legal issues concerning the Torah reading, but indicate no liturgical framework beyond the simple blessings.

24. A. Neubauer, ed. Medieval Jewish Chronicles and Chronological Notes, Vol. II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1895): 83-84.

25. Modified only slightly to recognize the occasion, reading, "in the lifetime of our prince, the exilarch, and in your lifetimes and in the lifetime of all the house of Israel."

26. The text reads "states," and Neubauer suggests that this should be read "academies." The context supports his reading, as it suggests that these are communities which contribute to the upkeep of the Babylonian academies. It would make less sense to suppose that the non-Jewish nations paid attention to this event to the extent of being required to sit through a hours-long service which was largely in Hebrew.

27. The technical term used here is teivah, which can also refer to the ark in which the Torah is housed. This is clearly not the intent here.

28. The precise intent of this phrase is obscure, but it seems to refer to issues of rank and its privileges.

29. Neubauer, 84.

30. On the history of the prayer for the secular government, see: Joseph Fenton, "Prayer for the Government (Rashut) and Permission (Reshut) for Prayer," [Heb.] East and Maghreb 4 (1983):7-21, and S.D. Goitein, "Prayers from the Geniza for the Fatamid Caliphs, the Head of the Jerusalem Yeshiva, the Jewish Community and the Local Congregation," in Studies in Judaica, Karaitica, and Islamica (Leon Nemoy Festschrift), ed. Sheldon R. Brunswick (Bar-Ilan University Press, 1982): 47-57, who give some early examples; Barry Schwartz, "Hanoten Teshua` The Origin of the Traditional Jewish Prayer for the Government," HUCA 57 (1986): 113-120; and for a concise summary of the former and an investigation of more recent materials, see Jonathan D. Sarna's forthcoming article, "Jewish Prayer for the United States Government: A Study in the Liturgy of Politics and the Politics of Liturgy," in the the David Brion Davis Festschrift, Moral Problems in American Life: New Perspectives in Cultural History, ed. Karen Halttunen and Lewis Perry (Cornell University Press). Less up to date in its questions and methodology but more directly relevant to this prayer for the exilarch is C. Duschinsky, "The Yekum Purkan," in Sefer Hazikaron Likhvod Hadoktor Shmuel Avraham Poznanski (Warsaw, 1927; rpt. Jerusalem, 1969), Vol. II, 182-198.

31. This needs to be compared in more detail to the Christian use of the Bible as "a sacramental expression of Christ's presence in the assembly." See Bradshaw, "The Use of the Bible...," 35.

32. This type of prayer, commonly recited in conjunction with the Torah scroll (although not exclusively so) begins "May He who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, bless so-and-so with ... because..." Often when the prayer is offered for a woman, the matriarchs are also listed. For an exhaustive collection of the varieties of this prayer, see Avraham Yaari, "Mi Sheberakh Prayers," [Heb.] in Kiryat Sefer 33 (1958):118-130, 233-250; 36 (1961): 103-118; and the comments and additions made by Daniel Cohen in 40 (1965): 542-559.

33. I am indebted for this perspective to Rabbi Debra Reed Blank, who is completing a dissertation on this tractate at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

34. My translation follows Michael Higger's critical edition in text and numbering (New York: Debei Rabbanan, 1937). The narration of the author/ editor appears in boldface. Bible translations are based on the new translation of the Jewish Publication Society unless the liturgical use demands otherwise.

35. Commonly prefixed to Ps. 145, which is recited in various rites as a prelude to returning the Torah to the ark. This is not necessarily the context here.

36. Commonly understood in the midrashic traditions to describe the giving of the Torah at Sinai. "Strength" is Torah.

37. Either the threefold repetition of the word "holy" in Isaiah 6:3, or the three modes in which this verse is embedded in the synagogue liturgy.

38. Naphtali Wieder suggests that these words, "al hakol" which appear in this form in the vast majority of appearances of this prayer, are actually a mistranscription of the common Judeo-Arabic instruction to recite the prayer "haqol." He points out that the Spanish rite seems to know this opening without the word "al." See his "Marginal Comments to the Article `Research on the Text of the Amidah in the Early Babylonian Rite,'" Sinai 78 (1976):279-280.

39. This last instruction is obscure, most likely because the textual tradition is corrupt. The words that I have translated as "girdles" and "to cover" are extremely unusual in this context. Higger lists a significant number of variants, none of which make more sense, all of which are the preferred readings of significant commentators on this passage. Most of them read some variation on "and he returns the Torah to the first of the readers" or "in order to count or appoint the readers." Higger explains his text in light of the continuation of the passage, saying that this refers to the traditions of having three people stand at the reader's desk at all times for the Torah reading.

40. In a survey of the collection of hundreds of microfilmed prayerbook manuscripts of the Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, I found this shema appearing in the following twelfth to seventeeth century manuscripts:

  • Sephardi (Spanish) rite: Of eighteen manuscripts checked, only in a fifteenth-century Sicilian siddur, Ms. Parma 1741 (570). It does not appear in today's Spanish-rite prayerbooks.

  • Italian/Roman rite: Of twenty manuscripts checked, only one, produced in 1420 in Ortona, Ms. Vatican Ebr. 545. This manuscript surrounds shema with many of the verses found in Massekhet Soferim, but not found in the other Italian rite manuscripts. The edition of this prayerbook produced by Samuel David Luzzato in 1829 does not include this shema.

  • Ashkenazi (German) rite: Of twenty-one manuscripts checked, only three: Ms. Parma 2225 (898), from the 12-13th c.; Ms. Cambridge Dd.13.7(13), dated 1387; and Ms. Vatican Ebr. 323, from the 13-14th c. It also appears in the rite recorded by Rabbi Isaac son of Moses of Vienna (d. mid-13th c.) in his Sefer Or Zarua, who explicitly justifies his custom on the precedent of Massekhet Soferim, but notes that the Jews in the Rhineland do not include it. It does not appear in the rite of Mahzor Vitry. Note, though, that shema is a standard and most dramatic feature of today's Ashkenazi rite. This transformation requires further study.

  • Romaniot (Balkan) Rite: Of nine manuscripts checked, only three: Ms. Parma 1791 (435), a 13-14th c. Greek prayerbook; Ms. Alliance Israelite Paris H.58.A, a 15th c. Romaniot prayerbook; and Ms. Parma 2587 (947), a 15th c. Greek prayerbook.

  • Eastern Rites: Of the four manuscripts checked of the Persian rite, only one (Ms. London, British Museum Or. 10516, 16-17th c. prayerbook) contains liturgy for a Sabbath Torah reading, and this includes shema. Shema also appears in a geniza manuscript of uncertain origin, Ms. TS NS 150.168, and in Ms. Cincinnati 407, a prayerbook from fifteenth-century Aleppo.

  • French Rites: Shema does not appear at all in the five prayerbooks checked. It also does not appear at all in the manuscripts checked from Yemen, Corfu, and North Africa.

41. The authority of this text was not universally accepted. See, for example, its influence on the question of whether the individual may recite the kedushah in the morning yotzer prayer, discussed in my The Impact of Custom, History and Mysticism on the Shaping of Jewish Liturgical Law (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, 1994), Ch. 7, especially 402-405, 423ff.

42. For a summary of the arguments on this matter and an argument for this being a liturgy following the Torah reading, see Heinemann, Prayer..., 259-60, n. 18.

43. Heinemann, Prayer..., 259, 271. Note that Heinemann's list of the rites in which this prayer occurs is incomplete. I have found it in every rite I have examined.