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Parsha

The common meaning of parashah (plural: parshiyot; colloquially, “parsha”) is the weekly Torah portion. The Torah (also called Chumash, or the first five books of the Bible) is divided into sections read cyclically.

The beginning of Parashat Nitzavim in the Koren edition of Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy).

Reading Cycles

There are two cycles for reading:

(1) An annual cycle of 54 portions, meaning that you read the entire Torah yearly (some are doubled up)—the most commonly used cycle today;1

(2) A triennial cycle, meaning that the entire Torah is read every three and a half (it varies slightly) years.2

Each parsha is known by a name, taken from the first notable word of the portion.3

Public reading

A parsha is read on Shabbat morning in the presence of a minyan (quorum of ten), and portions of the portion are read at Monday and Thursday morning minyan of the week leading up to that Shabbat, as well as on Shabbat afternoon. Most Jewish calendars print the name of the weekly portion on the Shabbat on which it will be read.

The parsha itself is divided into seven aliyot (readings; singular: aliyah) on a standard Shabbat. Today there is a ba’al kriyah (Torah reader) who chants the Torah text from a kosher scroll, with the person receiving the aliyah chanting the blessing before and after each aliyah. If there is one present, the first aliyah is given to a kohen (a man of priestly lineage), the second is given to a Levi (one whose lineage places him among the tribe of Levi), and a bar mitzvah often chants the final portion of the seventh aliyah, called the maftir (from the same root as haftarah). The Torah reading is followed by a haftarah, pesukim from Neviim (Prophets) that are thematically related to the parashah or to the time of year. The haftarah is also traditionally read by a bar mitzvah.

Commentaries on the Parsha

Each parashah has engendered volumes of commentary. Many collections of Midrash are organized by parsha. Another important work organized by parsha is Sefer ha-Chinuch, by an unknown Rishon (medieval Torah scholar), which takes Rambam’s enumeration of the mitzvot and reorganizes it according to the order that the mitzvot occur in Torah.4

Parshah and Sidra

Another, possibly more technically correct, term for the weekly Torah portion is sidra (plural: sederot or sedarim). In common speech, parashah and sidra are used interchangeably.5 However, the term parashah has a separate meaning as a different kind of subdivision of Mikra (Torah text).

Two different kinds of parshiyot

A parashah in the sense of subdivision is shorter than a weekly parashah. Parshiyot in the narrower sense function like paragraphs. (So, a parashat ha-shavua is made up of many parshiyot of text.)

The text of Tanakh is divided into two kinds of parshiyot:

(1) Petuchah (“open”): Sets of pesukim that are grouped by a full line break after them. This is conventionally indicated in a printed Tanakh with the Hebrew letter {פ}, for פתוחה, though some publishers indicate the breaks visually. Here is the same text (Devarim 31:1) showing a parashah petuchah, first visually:

Devarim 31:1 (the beginning of Parashat VaYelekh) in the Koren edition.

And, with the {פ} notation:

Devarim 31:1, the same parashah petuhah in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS).6

(2) Setumah (“closed”): Sets of pesukim that are grouped together by means of a wide space (the equivalent of nine letters) after them, with the next parashah beginning on the same line. This is conventionally indicated in a printed Tanakh with the Hebrew letter {ס}, for סתומה, but again, it’s sometimes represented graphically:7

Devarim 29:38 in Koren, a parashah setumah indicating a break before the next group of parshiyyot, which also begins the fourth aliyah.
Devarim 29:28 in the BHS, the same parashah setumah indicated by a {ס} (even though, visually, it looks like a petuchah).

These divisions are important because they indicate cohesive units of text according to Masorah (authoritative tradition). They are meaningful, usually as a topical and/or thematic organization of the text. The chapter and verse numbers that are commonly used today to identify a pasuk—for example, “Amos 2:16″—are actually a medieval Christian method of numbering the verses.8

This is why the Koren Tanakh, the first Tanach in history printed by as well as for Jews,9 has both the now-conventional book and verse numbers in the inner column, and also prints and preserves the traditional Jewish divisions, which are somewhat different, in the outer column. Other Jewish publishers today have adopted the visual style of indiciating parashah petuchah or setumah also.

There are communities today that tend to use the term sidra (sometimes spelled sedra) for the weekly, annual-cycle Torah portion. The term sidra is also associated with the triennial cycle, probably because it was the term used in ancient Eretz Yisrael.10 It seems that sidra was once the common term used by Ashkenazim 11. I’d conjecture that parsha, used by Sefardi communities, was subsequently widely adopted as an element of Sefardi-based modern Israeli Hebrew. It’s now the prevalent term used.

Related Entries

Notes

  1. The annual cycle is associated with Bavel, the community from which the Talmud Bavli comes.
  2. The triennial cycle is associated with the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael. Note that this is different from the triennial cycle used in some communities today, in which the annual parashah is subdivided into three sections, so that a shorter section is read weekly and the entire Torah is read every three years.
  3. This is a common titling practice. The books of Chumash are today known the same way, meaning that the first parsha of every sefer (book) of Torah is the same as the name of the entire sefer, e.g. Bereshit can refer to Sefer Bereshit or Parashat Bereshit, depending on context. Usually if the parashah rather than the sefer is intended, it is specified as such.
  4. Rambam himself organizes the mitzvot into Aseh (Positive) and Lo Ta’aseh (Negative) in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot and conceptually in Mishneh Torah, for which Sefer ha-Mitzvot is preparatory.
  5. Note Mishnah Megillah 3:4 (רֹאשׁ חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר שֶׁחָל לִהְיוֹת בְּשַׁבָּת, קוֹרִין בְּפָרָשַׁת שְׁקָלִים) and the discussion on Megillah 30b (בחמישית חוזרין לכסדרן וכו’: לסדר מאי ר’ אמי אמר לסדר פרשיות הוא חוזר ר’ ירמיה אמר לסדר הפטרות הוא חוזר).
  6. The BHS is a critical edition based on the Leningrad Codex, currently the oldest extant complete Masoretic (vocalized) Bible. There’s currently an update of it, called the Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ).
  7. Sometimes there’s a difference between parashah petuchah and setumah in different editions; I spotted a few in this sidra, actually.
  8. This is also true of the division of larger books, like Melakhim (Kings) into two sections, as well as matters of ordering of the books of Tanakh.
  9. Jews were not often granted permission to operate Hebrew presses int he early period of printing, and the first printed Bibles were edited either with the assistance of Jews or of Jewish converts to Christianity, and printed by Christian-operated presses.
  10. See for example Yerushalmi Ta’anit 4:3.
  11. However, in Shabbat 116b sidra is used explicitly to refer to a section of Ketuvim (Writings – פסקי סידרא בכתובים), and this is, notably, how Rashi explains it ad loc. (פסקי סדרא בכתובים – [היו רגילים לקרא בבהמ״ד פרשה בכתובים]). Meanwhile, in Massekhet Soferim (a masecha ketana, a minor tractate of the Talmud), 11:3, parashah is used to refer to a section of Neviim.