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Unpacking the Parashah

March 17, 2020

by: Terry Mason, Director of International Development

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The Jewish people have a long history of closely studying God’s word. It is precious to them. The Torah (Gen.–Deut.) is especially dear, and they focus on it weekly throughout the year. In fact, the Jewish community worldwide reads through those five books of Moses, sometimes called the Pentateuch, every year on a standardized cycle. The books are divided into weekly sections, known as the weekly parashah (plural parashot), which is usually four to five chapters long.

Knowing that observant Jewish people all over the world are studying the weekly portion makes it a great touch point with the Jewish community. As Christians we share the same Scriptures and can discuss them with our Jewish friends and neighbors. Wherever you live or travel, you can be certain that the Jewish community is studying certain chapters during any given week. And everyone gets involved. In families, everyone studies the weekly parashah at whatever level they are capable. Children learn about it at school. On Friday evenings during the weekly Shabbat (Sabbath) meal, it is common for the father to ask those around the table to share what they have learned about the portion that week. Usually he will have a short teaching to share, often with a practical message of how to live it out.

An Ancient Practice

So when did this tradition of reading through the entire Torah (Gen.–Deut.) once a year begin? It is actually an ancient tradition dating back to the time of Moses. As we read in Deuteronomy 31:9–13, it was commanded that the Torah should be read to the entire nation every seven years during the festival of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). This is the first place in Scripture where we find the command to publicly read the Word together.

Unfortunately, the Israelites in biblical times did not always maintain the practice. In 2 Kings 23:1–2 we learn that many generations later, King Josiah (641–610 BC) had to reinstate the practice of public Scripture reading. Then during the Babylonian exile, which started in 586 BC, the practice was once again lost. When the exiles returned to Israel around 70 years later—about 450 years before Jesus (Yeshua)—we read that Ezra and Nehemiah gathered all the people of the land together. Ezra began reading from the Torah early in the morning and continued until midday (Neh. 8:1–4). This was of course long before printed and bound books became common.

Ezra and Nehemiah knew that the people needed to hear the Word of the Lord on a regular basis so that they would know how to serve Him, but it was impossible for people to have copies of their own to read. Hand copied scrolls were very costly, so they established a system of public reading that is still followed in some form today. In most Orthodox synagogues today, sections of the Torah are read on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and on Shabbat, the entire Torah portion for the week is read. The sages did not want the community to go more than three days without hearing the Torah read.

Relevance for the Church

The apostle Paul, being a trained Jewish Pharisee, taught his disciple Timothy the same in 1 Timothy 4:13. “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (ESV, emphasis added). Of course, the only ‘Scriptures’ Paul and Timothy had were the Hebrew Scriptures. There was no New Testament (Writings of the Apostles) canon at the time.

According to tradition, in Jesus’ (Yeshua’s) time—the Second Temple period—a three-and-a-half-year reading cycle was in use. After the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70, the center of Jewish community life shifted even more to the local synagogue. It was around that time the Jewish sages decided to move to an annual reading cycle and established the weekly parashot that are still read today. The weekly Torah (Gen.–Deut.) reading cycle, coming down from Moses to Ezra and Nehemiah and then the Jewish sages, is an ancient practice that is evidenced within the early Christian tradition.

During the first Church council recorded in Acts 15, there was a debate about how Gentiles should be brought into the community of faith. Did they need to fully convert to Judaism and keep all of the commandments up front, or were they accepted based on their faith? James, the leader of the believers, summed up the debate when he said in Acts 15:21, “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” His decision seemed to be that non-Jewish believers were welcome based on their faith alone, but that over time, as they met with the community every week in the synagogues, they would grow in their knowledge and practice. It is instructive that Moses (the Torah) was read every week in the synagogues. James expected that the non-Jewish believers would hear the weekly Torah portion and learn from it to walk in God’s ways.

The public reading of Scripture and studying the weekly Torah portion are ancient traditions. Many Christians today find it edifying to embrace these practices from the earliest times of our faith tradition. Whether you read it aloud or study it on your own, you will find that the practice helps you grow closer to the Lord. CLICK HERE for resources on the weekly parashot and a reading cycle for the current year.

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