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Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year (Jewish Publication Society).
“Every seventh year…at the Feast of Booths (Sukkot)…you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel (Deuteronomy 31:10-12).”
In much of the Diaspora (the Jewish communities outside the Land of Israel), Shemini Atzeret (the eighth day of Sukkot) is followed directly by a second special day, Simchat Torah (literally, “joy of the Torah”). In Israel and in most Reform congregations, however, all of the observances for Simhat Torah are held on Shemini Atzeret, combining the two holidays into one day and making them almost indistinguishable. Simchat Torah itself is the celebration dedicated to both completing the yearly cycle of public Torah reading and starting it again.
The first mention of such a cycle appears in the Bible, in Deuteronomy, where Moses instructs the tribe of Levi and the elders of Israel to gather all the people for a public reading from portions of the Torah once every seven years. The need to read the Torah publicly intensified after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE; Jews were dispersed into other parts of the Middle East, into North Africa, and into Europe; and their earlier religious and cultural world became decentralized.
Triennial & Annual Readings
Because a reference in the Mishnah (the first effort to permanently record Jewish custom and law, compiled in the 3rd century C.E.) supported Deuteronomy’s prescription, we understand that Jews were continuing to read the Torah publicly; and we also know that there were Torah readings for festivals, special Shabbatot (plural of Shabbat), and fast days.
But it was not until the Talmudic era, about the 6th century C.E., that the Jews in the Land of Israel began to read the entire Torah in public and do so until all the Five Books of Moses were completed. At that time, the cycle took three years in a pattern called the Palestinian triennial, beginning the first year with the first book, Genesis, and finishing, at the end of the third year, with the fifth book, Deuteronomy.
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