Stringing the Pearls
How to Read the Weekly Torah Portion
Publication Year: 2008
Published by: Jewish Publication Society
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The seeds of this book were planted long ago, in my childhood, when my grandfather, at my mother’s behest, would pick me up every Saturday morning and take me—I should say drag me—to shul (synagogue) with him. Those were long mornings. I had no idea what was going on...
How to Read This Book
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Of all the texts of Jewish tradition none is more frequently read and discussed than the weekly Torah portion, the parashat hashavua, as it’s known in Hebrew. The volume of material commenting on and analyzing the 54 slices of the Five Books of Moses is immense and, happily, continues to proliferate...
A Note to the Christian Reader
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The prophet Isaiah counsels: “Look to the rock whence you were hewn . . .” (Isa. 51:1). For Christians this could be understood to mean that the path to one’s self-understanding as a Christian runs through an inquiry into Judaism and an encounter with its canonical texts and key ideas. This book hopefully can serve as a gateway to such an inquiry and a facilitator of such an encounter...
What Is What: Some Basic Terms
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PART I: Preliminaries: What Are We Talking About?
1. Starting Points
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Long ago our Rabbinic forebears divided up the Humash into 54 consecutive units. Each week, starting in the fall at the end of the Sukkot festival, one unit or portion would be read starting with the beginning of Genesis and progressing, over the succeeding weeks and months, to the end of Deuteronomy...
2. The Weekly Torah Portion: What Is a Parashah?
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We open the Humash and turn to the portion of the week. Then what? We are puzzled. What are we looking at? A finely crafted literary unit? An amorphous chunk of text? Bible scholars would affirm both views and would not regard them as mutually exclusive. But they would not call the text amorphous...
3. What Is the TANAKH?
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TANAKH is a Hebrew acronym for the three collections of books, 39 in all, that comprise the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament in Christian parlance).11 Spelled out, the acronym denotes the three parts as: • Torah, that is, the Five Books of Moses, a.k.a. the Pentateuch or the Humash • Nevi’im, Hebrew for “Prophets” • Kethuvim, Hebrew for “Writings” or “Scriptures.”...
4. Bible and Torah: What Is the Difference?
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Perhaps you have noticed that throughout this discussion so far I have freely interchanged the terms by which I have referred to the texts we are concerned with here. Sometimes I have called the five books on the Torah scroll the Pentateuch and sometimes the Humash or the Torah. Sometimes I have called the whole collection of the 39 books “the Bible”...
PART II: Reading and Hearing
1. On Reading
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What happens when we read? A lot. More than meets the eye. What happens is an ongoing exchange between three parties: the text, the author, and the reader. (There is also a fourth presence hovering silently in the background, but I’ll come to that later.) In any act of reading each of these three “players” asserts itself and, in doing so, presents specific issues and problems...
2. Reading the Humash
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Generally, then, when we read a parashah, whether in the synagogue, at home, or in a library, the presence of the reading community within which we are situated is taken for granted. We are often not aware of it. That is why I have called it a silent player. But whichever one it is, Jewish or Christian or secular, it serves an important function: it qualifies the essential subjectivity of our engagement with the text...
3. On Hearing
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One of the greatest transformations Judaism ever underwent was when it became a textual religion. Stories and laws that had been transmitted orally and received aurally were written down to be interpreted by reading. We don’t know exactly when this metamorphosis of spoken word to written text occurred. Was it when the Judeans went into exile?...
4. Hearing the Humash
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What does it mean to hear the Torah? How do we do this? One way, of course, is to hear the text chanted by the Torah reader during the services on Shabbat morning and other designated times. Each word has its own distinctive melody or trope based on a chanting, or cantillation, system that goes back farther than any other aspect of reading the Torah...
PART III: Some Major Approaches to Reading a Parashah.
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1. Modern Historical-Critical Approaches
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Notice the fusion of two analytical methods in this commonly used label. The historical and the critical are certainly related, interrelated in fact. I separate them out so as to illuminate the spectrum of possibilities they offer. The Historical Approach Were Adam and Eve real people? Abraham and Sarah? Did the Israelites really go out of Egypt? When? How?...
2. Premodern Ahistorical Approaches
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When people quote the Rabbis with the words “the Midrash says . . . ,” chances are they are referring to midrash as a collection of interpretations of the Torah that circulated orally in the Rabbinic period (from as early perhaps as 200 B.C.E. to as late as 800 C.E.) and were later collected and written down; they are not themselves engaging in such midrashic interpretation...
3. Existential Readings
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Of all the ways to read the Humash these are the most subjective. I use the plural because there are many approaches that could fall under this rubric. When we read existentially we come to the text to discover how it addresses us—you and me—in the life situation in which we are at the moment. Or if it addresses us at all. The perspective is personal...
PART IV: How to Read a Weekly Torah Portion
1. Which Humash to Use?
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A serious runner or walker would give careful consideration to which shoe he would choose. So, too, a tennis player with her racket and a golfer with his clubs. Equipment is a factor in the comfort and success of many a worthwhile endeavor. We should, therefore, not be too casual in deciding...
2. Reading a Parashah: A Four-Step Process
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I do not need to invent or devise a method of reading a weekly Torah portion. There is already one on the books. As I mentioned in Part I, the Talmud records the following dictum of Rabbi Ammi: One should always complete one’s [private] reading of the weekly Torah portion . . . twice in Hebrew and once in an Aramaic translation...
3. What to Look for in a Parashah
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Some readers will open themselves and the Humash they are working from to the parashah of the week and simply start reading. They choose to let the text take them where it will. You may be such a reader, and if that approach works for you— good! The approach I recommend, especially for beginners, is to survey the textual landscape in advance...
4. The Fourth Step
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The good work you’ve done at home, the first three steps, are prologue. Now you are ready for the fourth and culminative step: to hear the parashah read aloud in the synagogue. The first three steps were done privately or, in the case of the second and/or third ones, perhaps with a study partner or partners; the fourth step is communal...
5. Navigating the Parshiyot
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The fair neck of Israel is adorned by five golden necklaces on which a total of 54 pearls are strung.22 We will now consider these necklaces in turn, selecting as we go one pearl on each to hold up to the light. From a distance the necklaces all look quite similar. Collectively they and their jewels dazzle...
PART V: Commentaries: A Concise Guide
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1. Humash Commentaries
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The commentaries mentioned here are all excellent and worth consulting. Each one has some feature or features that recommend themselves to anyone at any level. The following are all found in volumes that provide the Hebrew text and an English translation...
2. Other Historical-Critical Commentaries: The Anchor Bible Series
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If you want to see the historical-critical study of the Bible at its most authentic and impressive best, the Anchor Bible series is the place to go. The Anchor Bible project, published by Doubleday (now part of Random House), began decades ago as an attempt to produce the finest and most authoritative scholarly treatment in English of both Old and New Testaments...
3. The Great Medieval Commentaries
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Medieval commentaries were written in manuscripts. You had to read them with the Humash text nearby, though I daresay many a reader in those days did not need such a “crib.” After Gutenberg, though, the major commentaries were published all togetherlaid out on the printed page in the margins above, below, and beside the Hebrew text...
4. Synthetic Commentaries
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Another way to access in a single reading from one book both the riches of the Midrash and the work of the medieval commentators is to consult two parashah-by-parashah commentaries that, deservedly, are treasured by experienced readers. I call them synthetic because they each reference and integrate a wide range of sources...
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What about reading Midrash so as to see directly what the Rabbis said about the Torah verses without mediation by later darshanim? In translation this could be disappointing and frustrating. Midrash is a form of poetry and, like poetry, it does not travel well to other linguistic systems. It is so rooted in the Hebrew language to attain its effect...
6. Women’s Commentaries
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As issues of gender and sexuality have moved to the forefront in human and cultural studies, the effects of this development on how the Bible is read have been enormous and fruitful. Gender and feminist criticism is a burgeoning field and today it is by no means confined to Christian and secular academic circles, as it was a decade or two ago...
7. Web Resources
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The Internet offers an amazing assortment of commentaries on the weekly portions. It is a major resource for any parashah reader. There is something in cyberspace for everyone, no matter how you define yourself in relation to Jewish tradition or outlook and no matter what your level of Jewish literacy and background may be...
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Each of the 54 portions, from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy, is a precious and exquisite pearl. Each of them has its place on the necklace to which it belongs. How many necklaces are there? Five? One? It doesn’t matter. The necklaces or the necklace is the Torah—which, in its totality, adorns the body of Israel. Each time we read a parashah we string another pearl onto its necklace...
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Publication Year: 2008