“Playing Catch Up” Behar (Bechukotai) 5776

This week we’ll address the elephant in the room. I’m referring to the parenthesis in the name of the Parasha. This Shabbat Israelis will be reading Parashat Bechukotai while in the Diaspora they will be reading Parashat Behar. This discord was caused by the seventh day of Pesach, which this year fell on a Friday. In Israel, the next day was just another Shabbat and so we read Parashat Acharei Mot. In the Diaspora, however, Shabbat was also the eighth day of Pesach and so the “regular reading” was pre-empted by the reading for the eighth day of Pesach. As a result the Diaspora fell one Parasha behind Israel. Not a problem. Acharei Mot and Kedoshim are often read together. An obvious solution would be to read the two Parshiot together in the Diaspora while reading only Parashat Kedoshim in Israel and Jews around the world would be reading the same Parasha. This was not to be. In the Diaspora only Parashat Acharei Mot was read. The next potential double-Parasha is Behar-Bechukotai but the Diaspora will not catch up then, either. Neither will they catch up by reading the next potential double-Parasha, Chukat-Balak. They will catch up only on August 4, when they combine the Parshiot of Mattot and Masaei, while the Israelis read only the Parasha of Masaei. Why does the Diaspora lag behind for so long?

I heard a shiur on this very topic recently given by Rabbi Asher Oser of the Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong. The shiur was informative but it rubbed me the wrong way. In order to understand why, we need some background on the division of the Torah into the weekly Parasha. The Torah is divided into fifty-four Parshiot. The Parshiot we read today were codified by the Rambam and are based upon the division found in the Aleppo Codex[1]. On any given week one or more Parshiot are read, depending on the length of the Hebrew Year[2] and the days of the week on which the holidays fall[3]. What is important is that on Simchat Torah we read the last Parasha in the Torah, Parashat Zot Ha’Beracha, and immediately afterwards we start at the top with Parashat Bereishit.

The Talmud in Tractate Megilla [31b] defines a number of “anchors” that connect certain weekly Parshiot to holidays. One anchor is that the two “tochechot” – rebukes – in the Torah are read before the New Year, so as to begin the year on a good note and to leave last year’s curses behind. One tochecha is found in Parashat Bechukotai, which is read before Shavuot[4], and the other tochecha is found in Parashat Ki Tavo, which is read before Rosh HaShanah. Rav Mordechai Yoffe, also known as the Levush, who lived in the seventeenth century, rules [OHC 428:4] that one other Parasha must serve as a buffer between the tochecha and the New Year. As a result, the tochecha in Parashat Bechukotai is read two weeks before Shavuot, meaning that the next Parasha, Parashat Bemidbar, is read the Shabbat before Shavuot. Similarly, the tochecha in Parashat Ki Tavo is read two weeks before Rosh HaShanah, meaning that the next Parasha, Parashat Nitzavim, is read the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah. This year is slightly different: Shavuot falls on a Sunday, and so in Israel an additional Parasha, Parashat Naso, is read before Shavuot, forming a two-Parasha buffer between the tochecha and the New Year, diluting the connection between the two.

So here is what Rabbi Oser said: If the Diaspora were to catch up with Israel before Shavuot, they would join Israel in a suboptimal situation in which the tochecha is separated from the New Year by more than one week. In order to keep only one week between the tochecha and Shavuot, the Diaspora delays catching up. Lest the astute reader ask why the Diaspora does not merge Parshiot Chukat and Balak, which would mean catching up two weeks earlier, Rabbi Oser answered that there are indeed some (former) Syrian communities that do precisely that. I later discovered that Rabbi Oser’s explanation was based on the response of the MaHaRiT (Rav Yossef Trani), Part 2 Response 4[5].

So what did Rabbi Oser say that I found objectionable? Just a wee bit more background is necessary here. It turns out that finishing the Torah once a year was not the only custom out there. The custom in Israel was to finish the Torah once every three and a half years. This “triennial cycle” requires dividing the Torah into around 165 “sidrot”. Each community in Israel had its own custom as to where each sidra began and ended and not all communities had the same number of sidrot. The most vocal opponent to the triennial cycle was the Rambam, who tried to weed out the custom. The Rambam writes in Hilchot Tefilla [13:1] “The common custom throughout all Israel is to complete the [reading of] the Torah in one year… There are those who finish the Torah reading in a three-year cycle. However, this is not a widely accepted custom.” Documents from the Cairo Genizah[6] attest that Rav Avraham the son of the Rambam pretty much put an end to the “Israeli” custom.

Back to Rabbi Oser. After stating the problem, his first point was (and I’m paraphrasing here) that “it is not a big deal that Israel and the Diaspora are reading different Parshiot, because for many years the Israelis were reading the triennial cycle while the Babylonians were finishing the Torah once a year”. One of the axioms upon which Judaism is based is that national unity is paramount. The second Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because we couldn’t get along with each other. If someone is going to do things differently, he better have a jolly good reason. That is to say, it is a huge deal that Israel and the Diaspora are reading different Parshiot. Rav Avraham the son of the Rambam attests that his father wanted to abolish the triennial reading in order to standardize liturgy so that any Jew walking into any shul on any given Shabbat will be reading the same Parasha. Further, when the triennial cycle was introduced transportation was rudimentary. Most people were born, lived, and died in the same town. The only time they travelled was to Jerusalem for the holidays. Because of the parochial nature of life, different towns had different breakdowns into sidrot – not because they ruled differently but because they were unaware of what other towns were doing. This made life extremely difficult for the Darshanim, people who went from town to town teaching Torah. They never knew from week to week what they would be preaching. Today things are vastly different. We truly live in a global village. Advances in communication and transportation have turned all of us into Darshanim. Since Pesach I have spent one Shabbat in Hong Kong, one Shabbat in San Francisco, and I’ve managed to spend time in Australia and Los Angeles as well. Because of the Diaspora-Israel Parasha incompatibility, I wound up missing Parashat Emor this year. The upshot is that standardization of ritual in the twenty-first century is no longer a luxury – it is a necessity.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not preaching the reformation of halacha. As far as the normative halacha is concerned, we’re going to continue ruling like the MaHaRiT, at least in the short term. But if we ever want to build a third Beit HaMikdash, one of the first steps will be to internalize that the plethora of customs – Ashkenaz, Sephard, Israel, Diaspora – is a is a direct result of two thousand years of exile. One day we will right that wrong. We will be one nation, living in one land, and praying in one Beit HaMikdash.

Speedily in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka.

[1] The Aleppo Codex, also called the “Keter Aram Tzovah”, or simply “The Keter”, is the oldest and most accepted manuscript of the Tanach. In 1947, the shul in Aleppo in which the Keter was kept was attacked and burnt, and parts of the Keter were damaged. The extent of the damage is unclear, and every so often “new” pages turn up. In 1958 the Keter was smuggled out of Syria and brought to Jerusalem, where it is kept in the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum.

[2] The Hebrew year can be either twelve or thirteen lunar months long.

[3] As mentioned above, holidays that fall on Shabbat pre-empt the usual weekly Parasha.

[4] The Talmud in Tractate Rosh HaShana [16a] teaches that on Shavuot the fruits on the trees are “judged”. As such, Shavuot can also be considered a “New Year”.

[5] Many thanks to Rabbi Russ and to Rabbi Groner for the source.

[6] Many thanks to my wife, Tova, for this information.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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