Reading From The Torah: What It Entails

May 22, 2006 at 12:44 pm (Uncategorized)

Many people believe “Bar Mitzvah” and “Bat Mitzvah” refers to a celebration when a Jewish boy or girl, respectively, comes of age. “Bar mitzvah” means, literally, “son of the commandment,” meaning the boy is now under the yoke of the mitzvot (commandments) of Judaism. “Bat mitzvah” means “daughter of the commandment.” This refers to the belief that on a boy’s thirteenth birthday and on a girl’s twelfth birthday, the child is considered an adult under Jewish law and, consequently, subject to its laws and commandments. This event is emphasized by giving the child the honor of reading from the Torah on the Sabbath after the child’s relevant birthday. Whether the child reads from the Torah or not, whether there is a party or not, the child becomes a bar/bat mitzvah on the child’s relevant birthday.

One may wonder what the child recites, how it is determined. Almost every Sabbath has a parshah (portion of the Torah) assigned to it. Among Orthodox this is divided such that the whole Torah will be read each year. As the honor of reciting the Torah for a bar/bat mitzvah is given on the first Sabbath after the child’s relevant birthday, it is easy to determine ahead of time what the child’s parshah will be. The child does not have to concern himself/herself with the whole parshah. The parshah is divided into seven portions. The child will be given one of them.

So, the child reads one-seventh of a parshah of the Torah from a nice scroll. How hard can it be?

Actually, reading Hebrew is not so easy. Like Arabic, Hebrew is written only with consonants. Vowels are indicated by dots and dashes (niqqud) around the letter, also like Arabic. Also important are other diacritics such as the shva (which indicates a consonant is without a vowel or followed by what is called a schwa vowel (like the “a” in “about”)) and dagesh (a dot in the middle of certain letters which changes its pronunciation; an example is the letter “bet”: with the dagesh it is pronounced as “b,” without the dagesh it is pronounced as “v”). Also problematic is figuring out whether the qamatz (a vowel mark) is qamatz gadol (in which case it would be pronounced as “a”) or qamatz qatan (in which case it would be pronounced as “o”) – there is no differentiation in the text. Not to mention paying attention to the colon-like period. So much to pay attention to!

On top of this, Hebrew of the Hebrew Bible have other essential marks known as tropes, cantillation marks, or ta’amim. These are necessary for syntax and grammar. While reading, these are used to determine each word’s melody. There are about 23 separate tropes. One may say that when reading the Torah, the punctuation is sung. Each word has a troope. So the child has to learn the tropes.

In addition to this – yes, there is even more! – ever so often a word in the Torah is pronounced not the way it is written. That is, the recited word (qere) is different from the written word (ketiv).

The portion the child has to read is not all that short. Not just a few words or phrases or sentences. It’s more like a paragraph.

But this is not all. Get ready for the clincher.

The Torah scrolls, from which the child has to read, are “unpointed.” Meaning, on the scroll there are no niqqud, no dagesh, no tropes, no punctuation, no markings whatsoever. It is word followed by word – only consonants. What does this mean? This means that the child has to practically memorize all the vowels, tropes, punctuation, and other added material. And, if there are any qere-ketiv discrepancies, the child has to remember where exactly it is. The Torah scroll has only the ketiv with no indication of what the qere may be.

Considering this, the child certainly deserves the huge bash thrown in his/her honor.

Reading the Qur’an is extremely simple and easy compared to this. The Qur’an has its vowels and points and punctuation marks right there. There are no tropes or other cantillation marks or rules. Reading the Qur’an is practically mechanical: there is the consonant, determine the vowel according to the vowel-marking, consider some of the easy and universal rules concerning Arabic pronunciation, and then recite. Easy. Reciting the Torah, on the other hand, seems like a job for experts. Which it is. On ordinary Sabbaths, usually an expert on Torah reciting will recite the parshah for the Sabbath. Before the Sabbath, the expert (usually called a ba’al qeriah or ba’al qorei) will consult and familiarize himself using a book called a tikkun. It has the pointed text on one side, and the unpointed text (as found on the scrolls) on the other, side by side. There is probably no one who can turn to any random parshah and recite it without prior preparation.

Anyway, just to add some perspective. To all who have recited from the Torah, yasher koach! May you have strength! (This is the traditional greeting said to a bar/bat mitzvah after he/she has read from the Torah.)

innaa naHnu-l-a’lam.



  1. Enas Yorl said,

    Hmm. Very interesting, and very complicated! They should just switch everything over to Feanorian letters. Much simpler, and it still looks all eldritch and cool.

  2. Patton said,

    Fascinating. So much for me ever learning either language, though.


  3. Wes said,

    Actually, the Qur’an does have ‘tropes’, and the proper way to ‘read/sing’ them is called ‘tajweed’. But yes, it should be a lot easier, because they’re written right there.

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