Moshe continued to sing his song, telling the people of HaShem’s great love for them.
“Remember the grand exodus from Egypt? Just 50 days later, at Mount Sinai, HaShem gave you His most precious gift of all, the Torah.”
“I remember that. It was back in Parshas Yisro in the Book of Shmos.”
“Remember how no other nation wanted the Torah… not the descendants of Eisav and not the descendants of Yishmael, yet you eagerly accepted it?” Moshe asked his rhetorical question.
Time now for a Shazak Flashback, back to the Parsha of Matan Torah, Parshas Yisro:
The Midrash tells us an interesting “conversation” between HaShem and the nations of the world.
HaShem approached the descendants of Yitzchak’s son, Eisav, and said, “Do you want My Torah?”
“Maybe yes, maybe no,” they replied. “After all, how do you expect us to accept the Torah if we don’t even know what it says?”
Hashem replied, “Here’s an example of one of the 613 laws of the Torah, ‘Do not murder.’”
“Impossible!” answered Eisav’s descendants without hesitation. “We were born to kill. Our ancestor Eisav was blessed that he would forever live by the sword! This Torah really wouldn’t be a good match for us.”
So HaShem offered the Torah to the descendants of Avraham’s son, Yishmael, “Do you want My Torah?”
“It depends,” answered the Yishmaelim, “What’s it all about?”
“It has laws to live by – no stealing, for example,” said HaShem.
“Well, thanks for the offer, but we are not interested. How can we make an “honest” living without stealing?!”
And so it went. HaShem offered the Torah to every nation, and each one asked what was in the Torah, and then rejected it. Finally, HaShem approached the Jewish people and sure enough they happily agreed.
Moshe continued, “While you wandered the hot, barren desert 40 years, it was HaShem Who nourished you with food from Heaven and water from a rock.”
“I remember that. It all began back in Parshas Beshalach in the Book of Shemos.”
“In the dangerous wilderness, where vicious animals roam, where snakes and scorpions crawl, and where dangerous enemies lurk, HaShem has surrounded you with the greatest protection – the Ananei HaKavod, the Clouds of Glory.”
“I remember that. It is in many Parshiyos in the Book of BaMidbar.”
“Hey guys, what are you talking about? The division of the Parshiyos of the Torah has not been invented yet!”
“No doubt about it… HaShem is your loving guardian. He has protected you in the past, and He will protect you in the future. Forever.”
Good question! Actually, the Torah was divided into 5 books from the very beginning. Bereishis, Shmos, VaYikra, Bamidbar, and Devarim. Moshe Rabbeinu wrote it that way. There are extra blank lines in the Sefer Torah that show us – “this Sefer is complete and get ready for the next Sefer!” But there is nothing in a Sefer Torah that tell us – “this Parsha is finished and get ready for the next Parsha!” That’s because it wasn’t Moshe who divided the Parshiyos.
So, if it wasn’t Moshe, who divided the Torah into 54 Parshiyos – one Parsha for every week of the year?
Nobody knows for sure who it was, and not the exact date, but it seems that it originated a long time ago, during the days of the Talmud, in Bavel (present day Iraq), which was once the main center of Torah scholarship. In fact, as we will soon see in the next insight, the Talmud tells us that long ago, different communities had different customs – some read 54 Parshiyos yearly, like we do today, and others split it up into over 150 Parshiyos for a three-year-cycle!
“What’s the Parsha of the week?” The answer, depending on the time of the year, could be any one of 54 Parshiyos. Every year on Simchas Torah we finish Parsha #54, V’Zos HaBrachah, and start the cycle again with the first Parsha, Parshas Bereishis.
However, the Talmud tells us (Megillah 29b), that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael had a different system, with much smaller Parshiyos. It would take them 3 years to finish the entire Torah. This custom was still around in the time of the Rambam (in the 12th century) and slowly but surely disappeared.
In the words of the Rambam:
The widespread practice in all of Israel is to complete the Torah in one year. There are some who complete the Torah in three years, but this is not common.
BTW: When the Rambam lived in Egypt there existed an “Eretz Yisrael” Shul with the 3 year-Parsha-system, but the Rambam went to the other Shul, the one that completed the Torah in one year.
So, what about Simchas Torah when we celebrate the completion of reading the Torah? Did these finish-the-Torah-once-in-three-years Jews only celebrate this holiday once every three years?
Fortunately, we have an eyewitness account from a famous Rabbi/traveler, by the name of Binyamin of Tudela (Spain, 1130-1173) who sheds light on this subject. He writes in his travel-diary about his visit to the two synagogues in Old Cairo (a.k.a. Fustat), Egypt. One synagogue followed the Bavel tradition (that finished the Torah every year) and the other followed the Eretz Yisrael tradition (once every three years).
Rabbi Binyamin describes in his diary how the members of the Eretz Yisrael synagogue would joyfully join up with the Bavel synagogue members every Simchas Torah… dancing and singing joyfully in honor of the Torah. Fascinating!