THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Tazria – פרשת תזריע
April 2, 2022 – ראש חדש ניסן תשפב
This essay is sponsored by David Goldstein.
Burdening the congregationThis year, Rosh Chodesh Nisan falls on the Sabbath. To mark the occasion, three Torah scrolls will be taken from the Ark (Mishnah Berurah 685:13). We will read the weekly portion of Parshat Tazria from the first scroll (Leviticus 12:1-13:59), the Rosh Chodesh selection from the second scroll (Numbers 28:9-15), and Parshat Ha-Chodesh from the third scroll (Exodus 12:1-20). Other occasions when there are readings from three Torah scrolls include: a) Rosh Chodesh Adar that falls on a Sabbath (weekly portion, Rosh Chodesh, and Parshat Shekalim), b) Rosh Chodesh Tevet that falls on a Sabbath (weekly portion, Rosh Chodesh, and Hanukah), and c) the annual observance of Simchat Torah (V’zot Ha-Berakhah, Bereshit, and holiday Maftir). The practice of bringing three scrolls to the reader’s desk in these situations, rather than rolling one Torah scroll as needed during the service, dates back at least to the Amoraic period (Megillah 29b). The Talmudic discussion about why multiple Torah scrolls are ever needed for one synagogue service is centered around a Mishnah describing the service of the High Priest in the Holy Temple on Yom Kippur (Mishnah Yoma 7:1). Toward the end of the day, after the High Priest had performed most of his duties in the inner sanctum, he read several Biblical passages in the presence of an assemblage gathered in the outer courtyard. He was handed a Torah scroll by his deputy and read out loud the Yom Kippur-related passages of Leviticus 16:1-34 and Leviticus 23:26-32. He then rolled that scroll closed, placed it under his arm, and addressed the crowd: “More is written here than what I have read before you.” He then proceeded to recited from memory verses about the Yom Kippur Musaf sacrifice (Numbers 29:7-11). The Talmud first questions how the High Priest was permitted to skip from Leviticus 16 to Leviticus 23, in light of a rule which forbids skipping during the public Torah reading. It then answers: The reader is permitted to skip on condition that he finds the second passage before the translator has finished rendering into the vernacular the final verse of the passage just read out loud by the reader. The Talmud next questions why the High Priest had to read Numbers 29 from memory rather than rolling the scroll to the appropriate column. It then answers: It is forbidden to roll a Torah scroll during the public service, because to do so is a violation of the congregation’s honor מפני כבוד ציבור. As Rashi explained, during the time that elapses while the synagogue officials roll the scroll, the other congregants sit idly, waiting for the service to resume. The Talmud then wonders why another scroll could not be brought out as an alternative to reciting Scripture from memory – a practice generally frowned upon. It first answers: Bringing out another Torah scroll would lead people to question the fitness of the first scroll. Then the Talmud challenges that answer, noting that in certain instances (e.g., Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Tevet), even three scrolls are used in the course of a synagogue service. The Talmud then concludes that nobody will question the fitness of a Torah scroll if a different reader reads from each scroll, unlike in the Holy Temple on Yom Kippur when the High Priest was required to personally execute the entire ritual (Yoma 70a). Rambam codified the ban on rolling a Torah scroll in the middle of the synagogue service, though he described the problem not as a breach of the congregation’s honor but as a matter of unfairly imposing a burden on the congregation טורח הציבור. Worshippers would be inconvenienced by having to stand and wait for the scroll to be readied. Instead, two scrolls are properly removed from the Ark whenever the calendar calls for a second Pentateuchal reading (Hilkhot Tefillah 12:23). But Shulhan Arukh noted that the law against rolling Torah scrolls during the service is not inviolable. If a synagogue possesses only one scroll, any concern about the honor of the congregation vanishes and that scroll is rolled as needed (Orach Chaim 144:3). Indeed, many smaller Jewish communities with limited resources face this reality on every holiday. The notion that the worshippers ought not to be unduly burdened with an intolerably long service, or needlessly irritated by downtime in the service, finds expression in several Talmudic discussions. When he prayed with the congregation, Rabbi Akiba was in the habit of reciting his prayers quickly lest his methodical rendering of the prayers slow down the public worship to the point of being burdensome to others. In contrast, when he prayed in solitude, he did so slowly and with much prostration and bowing (Berakhot 31a). Extrapolating from Akiba’s behavior, Rema ruled that the precentor’s repetition of the Amidah should not be delayed even if a prominent member of the community has yet to finish his silent devotions (Orach Chaim 124:3). Mishnah Berurah noted the more recent custom that, before commencing the repetition, the cantor wait until the local rabbi has finished his silent Amidah. The underlying premise here is that most congregants will rush through the liturgy and not properly recite every word of the Amidah. It is assumed that the rabbi does recite the Amidah word by word, and so only when he has finished is it clear that a diligent worshipper would have had enough time to recite the entire Amidah (124:13). On the Sabbath, when we are bidden to take delight, the weekday Amidah of nineteen blessings is reduced to seven. The petitionary section of the Amidah is omitted so as not to overburden worshippers and distract them from honoring the Sabbath (Berakhot 21a). Another example is that the sages declined to incorporate Parshat Balak into the twice-daily recitation of the Shema because that inclusion would have dramatically and unacceptably increased the burden of Scriptural readings imposed daily upon Jews (Berakhot 12b). In halakhic literature there are many more examples of synagogue practices declared to be violations of tircha d’tzibbur. While it is permissible to add Aliyot on the Sabbath beyond the required seven, it is unwise for the synagogue wardens to abuse that prerogative. Calling up too many Aliyot will needlessly burden and annoy the congregation (Mishnah Berurah 282:5). If a kohen is unready to receive the first Aliyah due to his late arrival, the service is not delayed to accommodate him; an Israelite is called up for the first Aliyah in his stead (Shulhan Arukh Orach Chaim 135:5). No repetition of the Amidah was enacted for the originally discretionary Maariv service, because a mere custom cannot justify burdening the congregation with having to listen to a superfluous Amidah (Mishnah Berurah 237). Rabbi Jacob Emden strongly advocated for the abolition of mi sheberach prayers recited during the Sabbath Torah reading for individual members of the congregation. He asserted that such prayers prolong the service to an absurd degree, forcing congregants to remain in the synagogue until noon (Shu”t Sheilat Ya’avetz 1:64). Halakhists sometimes invoke the principle tircha d’tzibbur even when the potential delay caused by a given action only amounts to a few seconds. When reciting the preliminary blessing over an Aliyah, the oleh is instructed not to roll the Torah scroll closed. In fact, there is an halakhic reason to favor closing the scroll during the blessing -- namely, so that onlookers do not get the false impression that the text of that blessing is found in the Torah itself. Nevertheless, the oleh is told the keep the scroll open because his closing it would necessitate the congregation’s waiting for him to re-open it (Mishnah Berurah 139:16). That even such a brief moment of downtime would be reckoned as legally significant and problematic may strike some of us as quite surprising. There is a seeming inconsistency between the sages’ invoking the principle of tircha d’tzibbur and the reality that the synagogue service has, over the centuries, in fact ballooned far beyond the core liturgy to include an abundance of piyyutim, supplications, and other non-statutory prayers. A careful review of the circumstances in which the legal dictum has been invoked makes clear that the rabbis did not think the Jewish public was incapable of tolerating a long service per se. Rather, it is that people become disquieted when the service is unexpectedly and artificially prolonged. People are especially displeased when the service is completely halted due to incompetence or lack of preparation. In those moments, an awkward silence overtakes the room. It is the responsibility of the pulpit rabbis and the sextons to ensure that services are conducted smoothly. And, in the case of a three-Torah Sabbath, the beauty and majesty of that service can be revealed when it is executed with precision.