The Torah Service

The drama of the service draws upon imagery from Israel's history of wandering in the Sinai wilderness to the worship at the Temple in Jerusalem.

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Each Shabbat, a portion of the Torah is read, advancing each week until the entire five books of Moses are completed in a single year (three years, in some liberal communities). On festivals, special selections are read outside of this order that either mention the particular holiday or highlight a theme of the festival. The Rabbis further established that the Torah should also be read twice each week, on Mondays and Thursdays, when ancient market days were held in the land of Israel; on Saturday afternoons, the Torah is also read. The service for removing the Torah from the ark, parading it around the congregation, reading it, and then returning it became an opportunity to symbolically reenact the history of Israel, from the giving of the Torah at Sinai to the worship in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Torah serviceThe Torah service begins with the chanting of a series of biblical verses, primarily from the book of Psalms, describing God's grandeur and role as king of the universe. In every synagogue, the Torah scrolls are kept in a cabinet called the Aron haKodesh, or holy ark. In Sephardic congregations (generally Jews who lived in Arab lands), the cabinet is called a Teivah (ark). Both names, Aron haKodesh and Teivah, hearken back to the cabinet that housed the tablets of the Ten Commandments in the Holy of Holies in the portable Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The name confers upon the parchment scrolls a measure of the awe reserved for the stone tablets that, Scripture reports, were written by the finger of God. When the doors or curtains of the ark in a synagogue are opened, revealing the Torahs, it is customary for the congregation to stand just as the Israelites stood at the base on Mt. Sinai for the revelation of the Torah.

At this point, the congregation chants the verse from the Torah, "When the ark was carried forward, Moses would say, 'Arise, Lord! May Your enemies be scattered, may Your foes be put to flight'" (Numbers 10:35). By reciting this verse, the Jews in the synagogue begin the reenactment of the Israelite march through the wilderness with the holy ark in their midst. Collapsing history, the march proceeds metaphorically from Jerusalem, as the next line chanted is, "The Torah shall come from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (Isaiah 2:3).

The Torah is then taken from the ark dressed in an ornamental silver or gold breastplate and crowns over a mantle and belt, evoking the vestments that the biblical priest used to wear, connecting Torah study to Israel's historic worship with priests and animal sacrifices.

jewish liturgy quizOnce the Torah is removed, the leader holds the Torah in front of the community and leads the community in chanting the central doxologies of Jewish faith, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4), "One is our God, great is our Lord, holy is His name," and "Proclaim the Lord's greatness with me; let us exalt God together" (Psalms 34:4). As the Torah is then paraded around the sanctuary, the congregation sings a series of verses from I Chronicles 29:11 and Psalm 99:5 and 9, which state, "Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the splendor. Yours is the triumph and the majesty...Exalt the Lord and worship God, for He is holy..." These verses are intended to accent the presence of God as concretized in the text of the Torah and the drama of marching the Torah.

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Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.