22 – Several Laws of Torah Reading

01 – The Establishment of Torah Reading

The mitzvah to learn Torah is a basic commandment, on which all the other mitzvot depend. There is no specific time for Torah study; instead, it is a mitzvah to learn Torah at all times, as it is written (Joshua 1:8), “You shall meditate upon it day and night.” In order to strengthen Israel’s connection to Torah, Moshe Rabbeinu instituted the Torah reading on Shabbat, and in Shacharit of Yom Sheni (Monday) and Yom Hameshee (Thursday), so that three days will not pass without hearing Torah (Rambam Tefillah 12:1).

The Chachamim teach (Bava Kama 82a) that this was instituted based on the verse (Exodus 15:22), “They traveled for three days in the desert without finding any water.” Moshe Rabbeinu, and his disciples, the elders and the prophets, understood that the thirst for water was a result of three consecutive days during which Israel did not communally engage in Torah study. Torah is likened to water, for just as water sustains all that lives and grows in the world, so Torah sustains the soul. Since the nation became slightly detached from the Torah, the springs of water also ceased to flow. Although the Torah scholars of that generation most probably learned Torah during those three days, for three days the nation of Israel did not engage in Torah publicly. Therefore it was established that the Torah would be read every Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat, so that never again will more than three days pass when Israel does not publically read from the Torah.

Ezra HaSofer further instituted that, for the Torah reading on Mondays and Thursdays, three people are called up to the Torah. Each person called up reads at least three verses. All together ten verses must be read (Bava Kama 82a; Shulchan Aruch 137:1-2; additionally, in Peninei Halachah Likutim, part 1, 4:2-3, the reasons for this halachah are explained).

02 – The Torah Scroll

The Torah must be read from a kosher scroll. This means that it must be a Torah scroll written for the sake of Heaven, with ink on parchment, just as the first Torah scroll was written by Moshe Rabbeinu, according to the direct word of Hashem. Even a congregation which sets aside time for Torah study must assemble at least every three days to read from the original Torah scroll, just like the Torah which Hashem gave to Moshe on Mount Sinai. If there is no minyan present, the mitzvah of reading the Torah cannot be fulfilled, since it is a matter of sanctity requiring ten Jews.

If the Torah scroll is missing even one letter, the entire scroll is invalid, and it cannot be used to perform the mitzvah of Torah reading. This halachah emphasizes the extraordinary quality of the Torah. Its entirety is one complete Divine idea which is expressed by all of its narratives, mitzvot, teachings, and letters together. If even one letter is lacking, a flaw exists in the absolute completeness of the Divine Torah.

According to a number of Rishonim, it is permissible, b’dieved, to read from an invalid Torah scroll (Rambam’s responsa to the sages of Narvona; Mordechai). Still, in practice, the opinion of the majority of poskim is that the mitzvah of Torah reading can only be fulfilled with a kosher Torah scroll, and that is the halachah (Rashba, Rosh, and Rambam in his halachot; Shulchan Aruch 143:3).

If, in the middle of the reading, a faulty letter is discovered which renders the Torah scroll invalid, a different Torah scroll is taken out and the reader proceeds from where he stopped in the first. We do not continue reading from the first Torah since, according to the majority of poskim, it is forbidden to read from an invalid scroll. On the other hand, we do not require the congregation to repeat the beginning of the Torah portion, since b’dieved we rely on the poskim who maintain that the obligation of Torah reading can even be fulfilled with an invalid Torah scroll.[1]

If a defect is found in one of the letters, and there is doubt as to whether or not it invalidates the Torah scroll, the reading is still continued from that Torah. There are two reasons to act leniently in such a case. First, it is possible that the Torah scroll is actually kosher. Second, even if the Torah does possess something which renders it invalid, we have already learned that there are opinions which maintain that b’dieved it is permitted to read from an invalid Torah scroll. Still, the Torah must be repaired promptly after the reading.


[1]. If the mistake is found in the middle of the reading, according to the Shulchan Aruch, the invalid Torah scroll must be switched for a kosher one, and at least three verses must be read from it so that the one who was called up may recite the blessing after the reading on the kosher scroll. If there is no kosher Torah scroll available, the berachah after the Torah reading is not recited on the invalid scroll. According to the Rama, if the reader reached a point at which it is possible to end the reading (which is not less than three verses from the beginning or end of a section), the blessing after the reading is recited on what he read from the invalid scroll, so as not to switch scrolls in the middle of an aliyah. However, if the mistake is found in a place in which it is not possible to stop reading, since it is not permissible to continue reading from an invalid Torah scroll, they must switch scrolls and continue reading from a kosher one, and the person called up to the Torah recites the blessing after the reading on the kosher Torah scroll (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 146:4; Mishnah Berurah 13).

03 – Taking Out the Torah and Returning It to the Ark

It is customary to recite verses of scripture when opening the ark, when the Torah is escorted to the bimah (pulpit), and when it is brought back to the ark, as printed in the siddurim – each ethnic group according to its custom.

Ashkenazim are accustomed to first say “El Erech Apayim…” which is not recited on days that there is no Tachanun, and after several verses they recite “Berich Shemei.” Sephardim are only accustomed to recite “Berich Shemei” on Shabbat and Festivals, though some say it on Rosh Chodesh as well (Piskei Teshuvot 134:13).

The chazan holds the Torah scroll with his right hand, and when he says “Gadlu” he raises it a little. On Shabbat and Festivals he elevates it slightly when he says “Shema” and “Echad” as well. After that, he walks to his right to take the Torah to the bimah where it is read (Rama 134:2; Mishnah Berurah 13). It is customary that people kiss the Torah as it passes and partially escort it on its way. Most people are accustomed to kiss the Torah directly with their lips, yet some touch it with their hand and then kiss their hand (see Piskei Teshuvot 149:1-2). It is not proper for a person who is sick, or has a cold, to kiss the Torah directly with his mouth, so as not to infect the other people praying.

Before the reading, it is the task of the gabbai to prepare the Torah scroll at the proper place so that it will not have to be rolled there in public, because it is disrespectful to compel the congregation to wait. Generally there is no need to prepare the scroll, since the reading is conducted according to the order of the weekly Torah portions, and thus the Torah is opened to the place where the previous reading left off. However, on Festivals, Rosh Chodesh, and fast days, the Torah is read out of its usual order, and it is necessary to prepare the Torah scroll ahead of time. Afterwards, it must be rolled back to the order of the weekly Torah portion.

If, by mistake, a different Torah scroll was taken out, the prevalent custom is not to switch it. Even though the congregation will have to wait until it is rolled to the place of the reading, nevertheless, that is part of the honor shown to the Torah scroll; once it is removed from the ark, it is not replaced by another (Kaf HaChaim 144:13). Some say, in order not to waste the congregation’s time, it is permitted to switch a Torah scroll which was removed mistakenly, even if it was already placed onto the bimah. In times of need, when the congregation is strict about its time, we may rely on that opinion (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, part 2, 37).

04 – The Lifting of the Torah Scroll (Hagbahah) and Its Return to the Ark

The Chachamim established that the Torah scroll be lifted and its letters displayed to the whole congregation. The original minhag was to lift the Torah before the reading (Masechet Sofrim 14:13-14), which is the custom of Sephardim and a few Ashkenazim, as well as that of the Ari. Most Ashkenazim follow the custom of lifting the Torah after the reading, so that everyone will know that the essential objective is to hear the words being read. After the reading, the Torah is displayed to the nation (Shulchan Aruch 134:2; Mishnah Berurah 8; Kaf HaChaim 17; Piskei Teshuvot 9).

The lifting (hagbahah) is so important, the Chachamim say (Megillah 32a) that the golel, referring to the person who lifts the Torah, receives a reward equivalent to all those called up to the Torah. Therefore, it is proper to give the honor of hagbahah to one of the distinguished people in the community. Today, it is customary to honor even ordinary congregants with hagbahah, although the more correct minhag is to give the honor of hagbahah to a respected person of the community. In any case, great care should be taken not to give the honor of hagbahah to someone who may drop the Torah scroll.

L’chatchilah, at the time of hagbahah it is necessary for the Torah scroll to be held open at the place it was read, though if it was not, it is not necessary to lift it again (see Piskei Teshuvot 134:4). Regarding an Ashkenazic Torah scroll, the one who is lifting it must open the Torah so that it is possible to see three columns (Mishnah Berurah 134:8).

Some lift the Torah and turn it only slightly to the left and slightly to the right, and many people from the congregation standing in front of the bimah cannot see the writing. The person doing hagbahah must make sure that all the people praying can see the letters of the Torah. It is best if he slowly turns in a full circle, thereby enabling everyone to see (see Piskei Teshuvot 134:5).

It is a mitzvah for all the men and women who see the writing to bow and say “V’Zot HaTorah…” (Masechet Sofrim 14:14; Shulchan Aruch 134:2). Many Ashkenazim are not accustomed to bow, and some poskim lend credence to that; however l’chatchilah, it is proper to bow when seeing the writing (Har Tzvi, Orach Chaim 1:64).

There are those who are accustomed to point to the Torah with their pinky while saying “V’Zot HaTorah…” and then kiss their finger. Some also hold their tzitzit and point to the Torah scroll with it, and afterwards kiss the tzitzit.

The Geonim introduced the recital of Half-Kaddish after the conclusion of the Torah reading, just as it is customary to recite Kaddish after verses of scripture (Piskei Teshuvot 147:9). So as not to interrupt excessively between the Amidah and the Kaddish-Titkabal after U’va L’Tzion, only Half-Kaddish is recited.

The Ashkenazim are accustomed to say “Yehi Ratzon” while the Torah is being rolled and covered, except on days that Tachanun is not recited (see Piskei Teshuvot 147:7).

According to the Ashkenazic minhag and the custom of some Sephardim, the Torah scroll is returned to the ark after the Torah reading and before the recital of Ashrei. The Chassidic minhag and the custom of most Sephardim is to return the Torah to the ark after U’Va L’Tzion and Kaddish Titkabal.

It is customary to recite verses of scripture while escorting the Torah scroll and returning it to the ark.

05 – The Torah Reader

The Torah is read with cantillation signs, that is, in a melody which suits the meaning of the words being read. Since the cantillation signs are not written in the Torah scroll, the reader must learn the signs that accompany the reading by heart. If there is no one present who learned the particular portion with cantillation signs, another person may look into a printed Chumash with the signs and whisper them to the reader, so that he can read from the Torah with the proper melody (Mishnah Berurah 142:8). If no one is able to read the Torah with cantillation signs, it is permissible b’dieved to fulfill the obligation of Torah reading without them (Shulchan Aruch 142:2).

It is necessary to be meticulous in the reading of the Torah. If the reader errs in reading a word, such that the meaning of that word is changed, he must repeat it properly. However, for a mistake which does not alter the meaning of the words, there is no need to repeat the reading.[2]

Initially, it was customary that each person called up to the Torah would personally read his portion. For that purpose, everyone would prepare the whole weekly portion of the Torah reading. Alternatively, the gabbai would plan in advance the order of the people to be called up and notify each of them, so they could prepare their portions ahead of time. Yemenite Jews still do this nowadays.

However, from the time of the Rishonim, the majority of congregations became accustomed to appoint a Torah reader (ba’al koreh) who would read the Torah for everyone. The one called up recites a blessing on the reading before and after it, and the ba’al koreh reads the Torah for him. This way, people who do not know how to read the Torah are not embarrassed (Ran). This also avoids the possibility that people who erroneously think that they know how to read properly will be insulted if the gabbai does not call them up (Rosh). (See Shulchan Aruch 139:1-2; Peninei Halachah Likutim I, 4:6.)


[2]. A Torah reader who left out a word, even if the meaning was not changed, must repeat the word. In a case in which he omitted a letter from a word without changing the meaning of the word, such as saying Haron instead of Aharon, according to the Mishnah Berurah 142:4 he need not repeat it, yet according to the Kaf HaChaim 142:2, he must.

If he erred in his reading of a word and continued on a bit, he must go back to the beginning of the verse in order to correct the mistake in such a way that the text will be understood correctly, and from there he continues reading in order. If the mistake is made in the first aliyah, and it is only realized during the third aliyah, the Mishnah Berurah rules (Bei’ur Halachah 142, s.v. “Machzirim”) that the congregation must return to the beginning of the verse in which the mistake was made and then continue reading in order from there until the end of the third aliyah. If, after they conclude the Torah reading, they realize the mistake, they return to the verse in which the mistake was made and read it along with another three verses. They do not recite a blessing on this second reading, because some maintain that b’dieved they fulfilled their obligation the first time even in reading with mistakes. See Peninei Halachah Likutim I, 4:13-14.

06 – The One Who Is Called Up and the Torah Blessings

Although every person recites Birkot HaTorah in the morning, the Chachamim established that those called up to the Torah recite the blessings again before and after the reading, so as to instill a feeling of Divine reverence and awe in the heart of the one who is called up, and in the hearts of the listeners.

Originally, the minhag was such that only the first and last people called up to the Torah recited the blessings. The first person called up would recite the first blessing before the Torah reading, and the others called up would not make a blessing. The last person called up would recite the final blessing after the conclusion of the reading.

Subsequently, the Chachamim established that each and every person called up to the Torah would recite the blessings before and after their portion is read. The Chachamim were concerned that perhaps someone would enter the synagogue in the middle of Torah reading and would not have heard the berachah recited by the first person called up, and  would think that no berachah is recited before Torah reading. Therefore, they established that each person called would make a blessing before his reading. Furthermore, they were concerned that perhaps a person would leave in the middle of Torah reading. Since he would not hear the last person recite a blessing, he would think that there is no berachah after the reading. Therefore, they established that every person called up would recite the blessing at the end of his individual reading (Megillah 21b). The fact that the Chachamim instituted blessings before and after each reading, demonstrates the importance of Birkot HaTorah (see earlier in this book 10:1).

During the reading, the person who is called up must read each and every word quietly along with the Torah reader. Since he is the one who recited the blessing on the Torah, if he does not read it himself, there is concern that his blessings will have been recited in vain (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 141:2).

In extenuating circumstances, even a person who does not know how to read, or a person who is blind, can be called up to the Torah, despite the fact that it is the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch (139:3) not to call up a person who is incapable of reading the written words along with the Torah reader. Nevertheless, the Rama rules like the lenient opinion, and even in Sephardic congregations it has been customary in extenuating circumstances to act leniently regarding this matter (see Kaf HaChaim 135:16; Yalkut Yosef, part 3, 139:4).

07 – The Order of the People Called Up

The Chachamim established that a Kohen is given the honor of the first aliyah, a Levi the second, and a Yisrael the third. The reason for this enactment is “in the interests of peace,” so there will not be any fights concerning the honor of the first aliyah. Originally, this establishment was only for Shabbat, for many people come to synagogue then, and there is more concern that tension will develop surrounding the aliyot on Shabbat (Gittin 59b). Nevertheless, the Rishonim write to practice this way on Mondays and Thursdays as well, and so it is ruled as halachah (Shulchan Aruch 135:3).

If the Kohen is equal to the Yisrael in status, even without the enactment of the Chachamim he would have to be called up before the Yisrael, for it is written concerning a Kohen, “V’Kidashto” (“You shall sanctify him”) (Leviticus 21:8). Still, Chazal’s ruling comes to establish that even if the Yisrael is greater in Torah than the Kohen, the Kohen is called up first for the sake of peace. However, if the Kohen is an am ha’aretz (uneducated person) and the Yisrael is a talmid chacham (Torah scholar), the Rishonim disagree as to the law in this case. According to the Rashba, the Yisrael is to be called up for the first aliyah, since he is a talmid chacham. However, according to Rav Amram Gaon, Rav Natrunai Gaon, and a number of other Rishonim, even if the Kohen is an uneducated person, concerning the matter of the ascent to the Torah, he should be called up even before the Yisrael who is a talmid chacham, and that is how we practice (Shulchan Aruch 135:4).

Sometimes, a great need arises to add another aliyah, such as on a Monday when two chatanim (grooms) who are both Yisraelim come to pray at the same synagogue. Since the first and second aliyot are reserved for the Kohen and Levi, if another aliyah is not added, one of the chatanim is deprived of the honor of being called up to the Torah. Although according to the Rama it is permitted to add an aliyah for this reason, in practice it has been ruled that it is forbidden to add to the already existing three aliyot (Shulchan Aruch 135:1; Mishnah Berurah 3). The advice given is to ask the Kohen to leave the synagogue at the time of the first aliyah. Then, when no Kohen is present, a Yisrael will be called up for the first aliyah, thereby allowing both chatanim to be called up to the Torah that day (see Yabia Omer, part 6, 23).

08 – The Congregation’s Conduct During Torah Reading

It is forbidden to leave the synagogue from the beginning of the Torah reading until its conclusion. Even someone who already heard the Torah reading is forbidden to leave. If one does leave, he offends the respect of the Torah. Of him it is written (Isaiah 1:28), “Those who abandon God will perish.” One who must leave, such as a person whose only ride to work is about to depart, is permitted to leave between aliyot, for then the Torah scroll is closed and the offense to the respect of the Torah is minimal (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 146:1).

In principle, there is no obligation to stand throughout the Torah reading, though there are some who enhance the mitzvah by standing, just as all the Jews stood at Mount Sinai (Rama 46:7). Some are strict to stand when answering “Baruch Hashem HaMevorach L’Olam Va’ed” since it is a matter of sanctity, and the recital of a matter of sanctity requires that one stands (Mishnah Berurah 146:18). According to many, it is unnecessary to stand when the Torah is being read, and that is how the Shulchan Aruch rules (146:4). The Ari HaKadosh was also accustomed to sit throughout the whole reading, even when Barchu was recited (Kaf HaChaim 146:20). Indeed this is the custom in many Sephardic and Ashkenazic synagogues.

From the time the Torah scroll is opened to be read, the people in the congregation are forbidden to talk to one another, even concerning matters of halachah (Sotah 39a). There is an opinion which permits a few brief words of Torah between the aliyot, provided that the exchange does not continue into the berachot or Torah reading (Bach). Some say that it is even forbidden to talk matters of Torah in-between aliyot and that it is only permitted to learn alone at that time (Eliyah Rabbah). It is good to be strict concerning this, because if people start to talk about matters of Torah, it will be hard to stop when the person called up begins to recite the blessing.

It is permissible for a rabbi to answer an urgent question in the breaks between the aliyot (Mishnah Berurah 146:6). Gabbaim are also permitted, during the breaks, to talk about essential matters that are pertinent to the prayer service. When there is no other option, it is permitted for a rabbi to answer questions even at the time of the Torah reading. Likewise, the gabbaim are permitted to talk about pressing issues which demand immediate attention; for instance, how to avoid insulting one of the people praying who expects to be given an aliyah.

09 – An Individual and a Congregation Who Did Not Hear the Torah Reading

Torah reading was established for the community as a whole, and does not apply to each and every individual (Ramban Megillah 5a). Therefore, a person who had to leave in the middle of the Torah reading and missed part of it, need not find another minyan in which to make up what he missed, because the important thing is that the congregation fulfilled the mitzvah of Torah reading.

Someone who has the following two options: to pray in a minyan and leave before Torah reading, or to hear the Torah reading in a minyan, but pray individually – it is preferable that he pray in a minyan because an individual is commanded to pray in a minyan, whereas the mitzvah to read the Torah is a communal commandment and does not pertain to individuals (see Minchat Yitzchak 7:6 and Piskei Teshuvot 135:2). Likewise, even if a person who had to pray individually later discovers a minyan in which the Torah was not yet read, he is not obligated to go join them and hear the Torah being read there (Yalkut Yosef, part 3, 135:7).

If a person arrives late to synagogue, and when he is reciting Pesukei d’Zimrah or Birkot Keriat Shema, the congregation starts to read the Torah, if he will have a chance afterwards to hear the Torah reading, he should continue to pray. However, if another opportunity to hear the Torah reading will not arise later, l’chatchilah it is best that he stop praying and listen to the Torah being read (Leket Yosher p. 18; Yabia Omer 7:9).

If six people who prayed individually, but did not yet hear the Torah reading, assemble in the morning, another four people may join them to read the Torah (Bei’ur Halachah 143:1).

Even if they only convened in the afternoon, according to many Acharonim, they may make up the Torah reading at Minchah (Mishnah Berurah 135:1). However, some disagree and maintain that the Torah may not be read in the afternoon. Nonetheless, in practice, those who wish to make up the Torah reading in the afternoon are permitted to do so, and that is how many prominent Jewish rabbis practiced (Shut Yehudah Ya’aleh, Orach Chaim 51). Therefore, those who did not have a Torah scroll for Shacharit, such as a minyan of soldiers or travelers, upon arriving at a place in the afternoon with a Torah scroll, may read the Torah and make up what they missed (see Yabia Omer 4:17; Piskei Teshuvot 135, note 24).