This blog has been too long quiescent. It feels good to revive it.
After exploring the first chapter of Masechet Gittin—which recounts graphically the disaster of the Destruction of the Second Temple and the Bar Kochba rebellion—we find ourselves at the other end of that bloody tunnel in a new mishnah (which is why I used the term “slogging” up above, whose broad headline, appropriately enough, is מפני דרקי שלום Mipnei Darkei Shalom (“for the sake of peace”).
The primary enterprise of the Rabbis is to create Judaism on the foundation of Scripture and out of the ashes of the Second Temple. They sought to shape a tradition that, itself, would generate a culture that transcends time and place. What is required to accomplish this modest goal? It could not depend upon the Temple service, which came to a grinding halt when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. It could not be tied exclusively to the Land of Israel, because Jews had been widely dispersed throughout the Roman empire and beyond by the time the Rabbis are engaged in this enterprise. It must preserve memories of the people’s beginnings (hence the centrality of the story of the Exodus in both prayer and the festival cycle) and nurture a sense of ultimate purpose: redemption. It must provide distinctive identity, a strong sense of community, and foster a will to remain part of a people, even when times are difficult and even under conditions of duress and persecution. Above all, it must nurture hope. That’s not too tall an order, is it? How does one craft rules, laws, and customs to shape a new set of religious practices, and sustain and nurture a traumatized people? And not just for the present, but also for a future we cannot foresee? We find the Rabbis engaged in this endeavor on many occasions, including here at end of Gittin chapter 5, which is devoted to מפני דרקי שלום Mipnei Darkei Shalom (“for the sake of peace”).
Mishnah Gittin 5:8 enumerates a long list of communal customs and structures implemented but the Rabbis for the purpose of minimizing quarreling and rancor within a local community. In other words, the expressed intent of these rules is to foster harmony. In this blogpost, I will discuss the first “rule” concerning the order of people invited (or eligible) to read Torah in the synagogue. I will relegate considerable background material that you might find helpful to footnotes.
Mishnah Gittin 5:8 (59a) begins:
אלו דברים אמרו מפני דרקי שלום: כהן קורא ראשון ואחריו לוי ואחריו ישראל מפני דרכי שלום.
Mishnah: These things they said (established) for the sake of peace: A kohen [one descended from a priestly family] reads from the Torah first, and after him a levi [from the levitical tribe], and after him an Israelite, for the sake of peace.
If Torah had ordained a regular public reading of Torah that the Tannai’m knew and practiced in the first two centuries of the Common Era, there would be no point to telling us the obvious. Although we don’t know the details of how and when Torah was read in the Mishnaic period, it was clearly a staple of Jewish life. Mishnah Gittin 5:8 assumes a regular Torah reading and asks how the honor of the actual reading is distributed. At the time the Mishnah was set down, those who read also recited the blessing over the Torah. In time, the functions of reading and blessing were separated because not everyone possessed the skills to read and chant Torah, and so the Mishnah discussion, while ostensibly about reading Torah, pertains to the distribution of aliyot, the honor of blessing the Torah. This is of great interest today because the Torah reading lies at the heart of our communal ritual life: Torah is read four times each week (Monday, Thursday, Shabbat morning and afternoon), as well as on chagim, Rosh Chodesh, fast days, and minor festivals. What is more, there are three aliyot every Monday and Thursday; four on Rosh Chodesh; five on festivals (four on each of the intermediary days); six on Yom Kippur; and seven every shabbat. While it would seem that there are many opportunities to read, in a large community (or even a not-so-large community) not everyone will be invited for an aliyah and thereby honored. It’s easy to imagine people hoping to be invited for an aliyah and forming resentments about who is invited to read and in what order, and raising objections that so-and-so doesn’t deserve the aliyah, and even worse. (People do not always behave at their best, even in shul.)
The Mishnah reserves the first slot for a kohen (priest) and the second for a levi (levite) each time Torah is read. The first two slots are positions of prominence, according the kohanim (priests) and levi’im (levites) special honor. Why are these aliyot reserved for kohanim and levi’im at all? In a society whose leaders—especially in the synagogue and bet midrash (study house)—are rabbis accredited by their learning and intellect, why not reserve the first aliyah or two for rabbis?
In a post-70 C.E. world, with the Temple in ruins and not likely to be rebuilt in the foreseeable future, the Rabbis sought to honor and preserve the structure of Jewish society and concretize the memory of the Temple in the evolving Jewish practice of their time: the order of aliyot-honors recalls the days of the Temple and the prominence of the priests. For the Rabbis, the sacrificial service has been replaced by the prayer service. It is probably unthinkable to them that the priests and levites, whose roles and duties in the Temple were central to its operation, should not be elevated in some symbolic way in the Synagogue.
Gemara explains that the first aliyah is reserved for a kohen because, as R. Matnah points out, Torah says, Moses wrote down the Torah and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the Ark of the Lord’s covenant, and to all the elders of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:9). R. Yitzhak Nafcha offers another excellent prooftext: The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward; for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to pronounce blessing in the name of the Lord… (Deuteronomy 21:5). Since we already know the priests to be from the levitical tribe, R. Yitzhak Nafcha points out, the verse must be alluding to the proper order of disseminating aliyot: kohen first; levi second. R. Chiya bar Abba offers a third prooftext: And you shall sanctify [the priest]… (Leviticus 21:8); here, the remainder of the verse that Gemara does not quote is important: because he offers the food of your God; they shall be holy to you, for I the Lord who sanctify you am holy. The priest’s role in the Temple worship is highlighted in this verse. When the Temple stood, Israel offered sacrifices to God. Now that the Temple is destroyed, Israel offers prayers to God. The climax of the prayer service is the reading of Torah. Surely the priests should have a prominent role.
Three beautiful prooftexts, yet it is not entirely clear whether the Rabbis are arguing that the kohen’s claim to the first aliyah is mi d’Oraita (i.e. explicit in Torah and therefore ordained by God) or whether the verses cited serve only as asmachta (to buttress a ruling that is mi d’rabbanan (on rabbinic authority, but not toraitic). I suspect that the Rabbis understood their decision to be on their own authority and established the rule to fix a visible place of communal honor for kohanim and levi’im whose status was left dangling after the Destruction.
Why, then, couch this rule as being מפני דרקי שלום (“for the sake of peace”), which presumes a need to limit squabbling and dissent concerning who should receive aliyot? That in itself suggests that the rule is mi d’Rabbanan. The Rabbis are asserting themselves into the leadership void left by the Destruction and exert authority over the community. In the Temple, sacrifices to God were mediated by the priests; in the study house, and by extension in the synagogue, God’s will for the people was mediated by the Rabbis. Establishing a special, honored role for kohanim and levi’im who were suffering genuine loss of communal status and no longer had a tangible role to play in public life could only help. That this role was deeply meaningful, centered as it was on the communal Torah reading, but also largely ceremonial, worked to the Rabbis’ advantage, as well. Perhaps the Rabbis sought to propitiate and mollify the kohanim at a time when there was still hope that a third Temple would be built, even if there was no realistic expectation of that happening. The kohanim, who had been disenfranchised by the Destruction and superseded by the Rabbis, now had a fixed place of honor and function in the community. By reserving the first two aliyot for the priests and levites, the Rabbis set in concrete their roles in the community: figureheads without genuine authority.
The Gemara discussion that follows, concerning what to do in a situation when no kohen or levi is present when the Torah is read, then comes as no surprise. The situations proposed happen today as well. If there is no kohen present, do we simply skip the kohen aliyah? Do we substitute a levi for a kohen? Can two kohanim read consecutively? Can two levi’im read back-to-back? The Gemara decides by a simple and respectful criterion: we avoid doing anything that would permit or encourage others to question the credentials of kohanim and levi’im. For example, R. Yochanan reasons that a kohen should not read immediately following another kohen because people might interpret this to mean that the bona fides of the first kohen had been discredited. By the same logic, if two levi’im read in succession people might presume one of them is not truly a levi, but not know which one was inauthentic. As a result, both would be discredited. The Sages sought to insure that those of levitical lineage would neither suffer embarrassment nor be the cause of argument in the synagogue. In a sense, this rule helped smooth the on-going social and cultural transition from Second Temple Judaism to Synagogue-and-Study-House-based Judaism.
This makes the next section of Gemara particularly interesting. The conversation segues to two queries posed to R. Chelbo by the people of the Galilee region. Both questions arise from the mishnah’s designations for the first two aliyot. The first question posed by the Galileans is: Who reads next after the kohen and levi? Strange question, given that the mishnah already answered it: an Israelite (i.e., any other Jew). I suppose, therefore, the question is: may the remaining aliyot be given to just any Jews, and in any order? By now, you surely realize that the answer is no, because otherwise the question would not have been raised.
R. Yitzhak Nafcha delineates five categories of community members for the remaining five aliyot:
1. Torah scholars who are official community leaders.
2. Torah scholars who are qualified to be official community leaders.
3. Sons of Torah scholars whose father are official community leaders.
4. Administrative leaders of the synagogue.
5. Anyone else.
According to R Yitzhak Nafcha, the next two aliyot are reserved for rabbis and the one after that for their sons (a pinch of nepotism here?). In all, six of the seven aliyot on shabbat are reserved for people with particular status and position, including two for the levitical “tribe” and three for the rabbis and their families. Only one aliyah is open to the “Common Man.” R. Yitzhak Nafcha’s stratagem takes the hierarchy imposed by the Mishnah much farther. Given that it is customary today to give aliyot to those about to be married, one who is becoming bar/bat mitzvah, parents of a newborn, and people observing yahrzeit, it becomes clear that were R. Yitzhak Nafcha’s game plan put into practice, it would be nearly impossible to meet both the requirements of the Gemara and the needs of a congregation. An ordinary Israelite (that’s most of us) would rarely be honored with an aliyah, but some people would be given aliyot frequently. The result would be anger, competition, arguments and resentment—a situation very far from the peace and goodwill the Mishnah set out to assure. Perhaps R. Nafchah’s scheme is included because it speaks to the social hierarchy the Rabbis seek to establish, envisioning themselves at the top of the ladder, the leaders and caretakers of a community emerging from Destruction and hunkering down for a long-anticipated future in the Dispersion.
Placing this rule under the banner of מפני דרקי שלום (“for the sake of peace”) raises a question: If narrowing the possibilities by imposing a hierarchical order and designating certain aliyot for certain groups of people reduces the likelihood of arguments, resentments, and squabbling, then would an extreme narrowing serve to foster more peace, or inspire more resentment? How do we balance that with the goal of trying to retain a tangible memory of the Temple service within the prayer service? Perhaps מפני דרקי שלום (“for the sake of peace”) would be better served by more flexibility than R. Yitzhak Nafcha’s game plan would allow.
The Rabbis were in the business of shaping culture through halakhah (Jewish law) and minhag (custom). They crafted practices and structures in an attempt to preserve memory, promote values, publicize mission, and protect the community from disintegrating influences and forces from within and from without. That’s a very tall order and, while worthy, not every decision they made continues to serve their purposes in other times and venues. From the vantage point of the 21st century, we can recognize that it is nothing short of remarkable how well they did. But standing in the 21st century, there are times when we can also recognize that their underlying goals might be better served by adjusting the structures they set down.
Torah itself, tells us that God specifically inscribed the stone tablets and gave them to Moses to instruct the Israelites (Exodus 24:12). Deuteronomy tells us that Moses wrote down the Torah and passed it along to the priests and elders, instructing them as follows:
מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה--בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת. יא בְּבוֹא כָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵרָאוֹת אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר: תִּקְרָא אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, נֶגֶד כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל--בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם. יב הַקְהֵל אֶת-הָעָם, הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף, וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ--לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ, וְיָרְאוּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת.
Every seventh year, the sabbatical year of remission, during Sukkot, when all Israel comes to appear before Adonai your God in the place that [God] will choose, you shall read this Torah aloud in the present of all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and thereby learn to revere the Adonai your God and observe faithfully every word of this Torah. (Deuteronomy 31:1-12)
Clearly, the tradition of reading Torah publicly is an ancient one. But every seven years is a far cry from every Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat, as well as new moons and festivals. Joshua is said to have read the the entirety of “Sefer ha-Torah”—every word that Moses had taught—to the assembled people of Israel when they entered the Land after the conquest of Ai (Joshua 8:34-35). And the Book of Nehemiah affords us the first glimpse of how a public reading was choreographed in the ancient world when Ezra the Scribe read and translated the Torah to those who returned from exile in Babylonia at the Water Gate on Rosh Hashanah (Nehemiah ch. 8). The Mishnah describes public readings connected with the Temple service, both for the High Priest (M Sotah 7:7 and M Yoma 7:1-3) and for the king (M Sotah 7:8). The latter appears to be based on the Deuteronomy and Nehemiah traditions cited above.
By the First Century, however, there were synagogues in which Torah and Prophets were read on shabbatot and chagim (festivals). Isomer Elbogen writes: “The reading of the Torah and the Prophets is one of the most ancient liturgical institutions; it is very likely that the reading of Scripture was the occasion for the first communal assemblies for the purpose of prayer. Elbogen is suggesting that gatherings to read Torah gave rise to prayer, rather than Torah readings being incorporated into prayer gatherings. Like the prayer service, the Torah reading has undergone change; this development occurred almost completely outside the sources available to us, and we can do no more than make conjectures about it.” Elbogen further suggests that that the earliest practice may have entailed reading Torah only on special shabbatot and chagim, and the weekly cycle of shabbat reading evolved from this. In any case, market days (Monday and Thursday) and shabbat, occasions that attracted large gatherings, were natural times for public reading and teaching.
How much Scripture did the people read? And on what sort of schedule? The Babylonian Talmud is a much later witness, coming several centuries after the Destruction in 70 C.E.; it tells us that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael completed the reading of the entire Torah in three years, which is generally understood as the original triennial cycle (BT Megillah 29b). Supporting this is a geonic work cited by Joseph Heinemann cited in “The Triennial Lectionary Cycle,” JJS 19 (1968), p. 42 that states that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael celebrated Simchat Torah—and thus the completion of one cycle of reading—every 3.5 years.
Gemara records that R. Chelbo did not, himself, know the answer to either question, and therefore asked R. Yitzhak Nafcha. Herein lies a wonderful example for us: It’s fine to admit we don’t know something and ask someone who does; it appears that Gemara is going out of its way to provide us with this example, because there are two such questions that R. Chelbo passed along to his colleague.