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Bo-Basic Principles of Reading from the Torah

One of the few enactments that Chazal attribute to Moshe Rabbeinu is the requirement to read from the Torah. This basic requirement applies to Monday, Thursday, Shabbos and Yom Tov (Rambam, Hilchos Tefilla 12:1; the primary source is the Mishnah in Megillah 31a, and the Yerushalmi which explains that this is an enactment of Moshe).

The Rambam explains that the purpose of the enactment is that Jews should never go three days without hearing – and studying – the Torah.

Beyond the basic enactment of reading from the Torah, Ezra established a requirement that three people should be called up to the Torah (receiving an aliyah), and at least ten Pesukim should be read (see Bava Kama 82a; Tosafos, Berachos 13a; Magen Avraham 135:1 and Mishnah Berurah 135:2).

The obligation to read on rabbinic festivals and fast days, such as on Purim and on Tisha Be’Av, follows on from the basic enactment (Aruch HaShulchan 135:2).

In the present article we will discuss the basic laws of reading the Torah, and focus on the question of whether this is a communal or a personal obligation. As we will seen this question has ramifications on a day-to-day level.

Personal or Communal Obligation

One of the basic questions concerning the obligation of reading the Torah is whether the enactment is a personal obligation, meaning that each and every individual has an obligation to hear the reading from the Torah, or whether the obligation is communal  (see below for further details and explanation).

This question can have a number of ramifications.

For instance, is it permitted for a person to go on vacation to a place where there is no minyan or no Sefer Torah, since he will not be able to fulfill the mitzvah of reading from the Torah? Is it permitted to do so if this is for the purpose of parnassah? And what is the halachah for somebody who misses some words in the reading of the Torah – does he need to hear the reading again to make them up?

Another interesting ramification is noted by Rav Baruch Ber Leibovitz (Birkas Shmuel, Yevamos 21), citing from Rav Chaim of Brisk. The problem he mentions arises where six out of ten people in a minyan have not yet read from the Torah, but the other four have.

If the obligation applies to the congregation, he suggests that there will be no obligation on the minyan to read from the Torah, because there is no “congregation of ten” that is obligated in reading. In this case, it appears, moreover, that it will not be permitted to read from the Torah, because the entire enactment does not apply (see below).

If, however, the obligation applies to each individual, then we would follow the majority of the ten people in the minyan, and the obligation will apply to the group.

Following the Majority

The Ramban writes (Milchamos, Megillah 3a in pages of Rif): “The obligations listed in our Mishnah [including reading from the Torah] fall upon the community, and apply to those who are obligated alone. This is different from the case of reading the Megillah, in which just as the community is obligated, so each individual is obligated in reading the Megillah, and an individual who has not heard the Megillah requires ten people (if reading before Purim) for publicizing the miracle.”

This passage of the Ramban clearly indicates that the reading from the Torah is a communal obligation, which does not apply individually, but rather to a community or congregation. In spite of this, the Ran states that if a majority of a congregation has not heard the reading of the Torah (six out of ten), we can follow the majority and read from the Torah – which appears to contradict the ramification mentioned above from Rav Chaim of Brisk.

The ruling of the Ran is noted by the Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah 143:1) concerning the question raised by the Chayei Adam of whether it is permitted to read from the Torah again for the benefit of those congregants who haven’t yet heard the reading of the Torah. If these are the majority, the Mishnah Berurah rules that it is permitted to read again from the Torah.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:28) raises the question of whether these individuals would create an obligation to read again from the Torah, or whether there is only permission to read from the Torah, but not a full obligation.

In a case where there are 11 or more congregants, and only six have not yet heard the reading of the Torah, Rav Moshe writes that the six cannot obligate the entire congregation to read the Torah again, and only four of the other congregants have to join them in reading the Torah.

Missing a Reading

If the congregation in a specific shul missed a reading of the Torah – for instance, due to the absence of a kosher Sefer Torah – and the majority of the congregation failed to hear the reading of the Torah in a different shul, the Mishnah Berurah (135:7) rules that the congregation has to read the Torah.

The question is what happens when a single individual misses the reading of the Torah. Is he obligated to make it up?

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Orach Chaim 4:23) writes that  every member of a congregation is obligated to hear each word of the Torah reading. He also expounds on how many Pesukim a person must hear, and explains that on Mondays and Thursdays he must hear three verses in each of the three aliyos, whereas on Shabbos there is an extra obligation to hear every word of the reading (in order to complete the Torah once a year).

Similarly, the Halichos Ha-Grach relates that when Rav Chaim of Brisk journeyed for the purpose of attending rabbinic conferences, and would be unable to daven Shacharis with a minyan, he would be careful to find a minyan for the reading of the Torah, even in the afternoon.

Being Part of the Congregation

It is possible that although the basic obligation falls upon the community and not upon each individual, each individual nonetheless has a responsibility to participate. This is apparently the explanation for the rulings given in Emek Berachah (Keriyas HaTorah 3). On the one hand, we know that it is forbidden for an individual to leave shul during the reading of the Torah (Shulchan Aruch 146:1), and the Emek Berachah rules that one who leaves does not fulfill his obligation.

On the other hand, he notes (citing from the Shulchan Aruch 146) that somebody who misses some of the words does not have to hear the reading of the Torah again, explaining that this is because the obligation falls on the community rather than on individuals.

These two rulings can be resolved if the obligation is to participate in the community reading. Each individual must participate in the communal reading of the Torah, and if a person who is part of the communal reading leaves, he does not fulfill his obligation.

However, if a person cannot be part of a communal reading – because of illness, because he is away, or for whatever reason – it is possible (based on the assumption of a communal obligation) that there is no private obligation to hear the reading of the Torah (and even if he can organize a “private” reading in the afternoon, for example, there is no obligation to do so).

In practice, the Emek Berachah writes at the end of the passage that most authorities have agreed that the obligation of reading from the Torah does fall upon individuals, and not upon the community. This conforms with the previously mentioned ruling of Rav Moshe Feinstein

Missing Keriyas HaTorah

From all that we have seen, it is clear that every person has an obligation to participate in the reading of the Torah, at the very least as a fulfillment of his part in the community reading. Based on this, is one permitted to go away, for reasons of parnassah or other reasons, to a place where he will miss the reading of the Torah?

Poskim do not appear to relate directly to this question, but rather address the general question of missing davening with a minyan – which includes the problem of tefillah betzibbur, as well as missing the Torah reading.

The Mishnah Berurah (90:29) writes that it is permitted to miss davening with a minyan only when failure to do so will cause an actual financial loss. However, if there is only a question of potential gain, it is not permitted.

In Halichos Shlomo (Vol. 1 5:4) Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach rules that it is permitted to travel to a place where there is no minyan if necessary in order to earn a living, for health purposes or for performing a mitzvah. Although the reference is to the general issue of davening with a minyan, presumably the same principle applies to reading from the Torah.

Certainly, one must refrain from going to a place where there will be no minyan if the purpose is only for a vacation (see Shut Shevet HaLevi 6:21).

Women’s Obligation in Reading the Torah

The Magen Avraham (282; cited by the Mishnah Berurah 282:12) rules that women are obligated to hear the reading of the Torah on Shabbos morning. Although they are not obligated to study Torah, they must hear its reading in Shul.

This ruling is based on a statement of Maseches Sofrim (18:4) which equates women to men for purposes of the communal Torah reading, and which states that the passages should be translated for women after the main service.

However, the Mishnah Berurah adds that we do not find that women are careful in this matter, and that on the contrary, sometimes they leave during the reading of the Torah.

The custom to leave may have originated in the time when women generally didn’t understand the reading of the Torah (this is suggested by the Piskei Teshuvos 143:6), which doesn’t apply today. Certainly it is praiseworthy for women today to stay for the reading of the Torah. However, if there is a pressing need, it is permitted for women to leave shul, even during the reading of the Torah, a practice which is forbidden for men (see Kaf HaChaim 146:2).

The Aruch HaShulchan (282:11) writes that the ruling of Maseches Sofrim is not to be taken as a full obligation, pointing out that women are exempt from Torah study. Rather, it only means to teach that it is correct for the Torah reading to be translated for women and children, so that they too can participate in the reading.

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