Sunday, September 15, 2013


My congregation's Library Committee, of which I'm a member, was called up (aliyah in Hebrew, same word as for immigrating to Israel) to recite the blessings over reading the Torah at yesterday's Yom Kippur services. About 6 of us were there, and we didn't make too bad a hash of it.

It's not too unusual for the committee to have this honor, as it's held to be, at High Holy Days, but I thought non-Jewish readers might appreciate a glimpse into this little ritual.

Reading from the Torah is the centerpoint of Jewish services, and if we have a physical object of veneration, it's the Torah scroll, a huge roll of parchment on two rollers, painstakingly hand-calligraphed with the Hebrew text of the Five Books of Moses, and kept in an embellished cloth cover with various metal decorations. Wealthy congregations, like ours, may have 3 or 4 of them, and it's a great honor to have one that was rescued from a Polish or Czech synagogue destroyed in the Holocaust. We have blessings and ceremonials for opening the ark, the cabinet at the back of the bima in which it's stored; more blessings for removing the scroll, taking off the coverings, unrolling it far enough so that a couple columns of text are visible, holding it up so everyone can see, and setting it down on the reading table; another blessing before actually reading it; and more blessings for doing all this in reverse afterwards. There's an elaborate liturgical calendar by which, in theory, the whole Torah is read aloud over the course of each year (in my experience, Reform congregations just do excerpts); and a whole holiday, Simchat Torah, to celebrate the annual arrival at the end of the scroll and the pressing of the rewind button.

The Bar Mitzvah (f. Bat Mitzvah) is supposed to demonstrate that the celebrant is mature enough to participate as an adult in the congregation, so it includes a Torah reading. In my day, this meant reading aloud, but not chanting, a chunk from that week's Torah portion (chosen by my tutor: I wanted to read a tribal census list, but she said that was too boring). I knew the Hebrew alphabet, but my grasp on the language was weak at best, so I learned my portion by rote from a chumash (a codex of the Torah text, with vowel points added, plus portion markings and other commentary in English) and on the day used the Torah scroll, which you follow with a metal pointer - no greasy fingers! - as a crib, rather than really reading from it. I memorized the Hebrew texts, and the liturgical melodies, for the pre- and post-reading blessings, and chanted those. And I read a portion of the haftarah, a section from the Prophets geared to that week's Torah reading, in English, and chanted the Hebrew blessings for before and after that, which are even more elaborate than the Torah ones. Then I read a sermon of my own composition, which was no more than 400 words long and makes me wince today; I am so glad this was before the Internet.

But Reform congregations have turned more traditional in their practices, and our Torah reading customs have changed. Nowadays at our congregation the readers chant both the Torah and Haftarah in Hebrew, using a cantillation practice I've heard many times but know nothing about, and since they're busy dealing with that, somebody else chants the blessings. At High Holy Days, and other more elaborate services, the portion is broken into short parts, so there can be multiple readers and multiple repetitions of the blessings.

So at the start of the reading, we gather at the side front of the large college auditorium which we rent for High Holy Days because our own synagogue isn't big enough when everybody attends, then climb the little back stairs to the side of the stage and wait for our turn to be called. Then we gather around the reader and the Torah. There's a laminated crib sheet with the blessings, but I read from my prayer book, and in any case I still remember them fairly well. The blessings are basically just an elaborate way of saying, "Praise God, who gave us the Torah." If you're curious, here's our written and audio cribs. After the reading, we shake hands with the chief rabbi and the congregation president and file off stage.

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