Dear Rabbi,

I read your response about the history of the division of the Torah into chapters and Parsha portions. As a regular attendee of Shabbat services, I know that the weekly Parsha is not read from the Torah scroll in one go, but is divided into seven portions, with seven different people called up to the Torah for an aliyah.

I am wondering when the aliyah portions were divided and by whom?


To be quite sure, we do find reference to the seven aliyah divisions in the Talmud; however, the Sages do not describe exact points where the portions are to be divided, but give several guidelines regarding the minimal length of an aliyah and where not to stop and start.1

Here’s how Maimonides, in his code of Jewish law, sums up those guidelines:

[When] beginning a passage2 from the Torah, [one should read] at least three verses, and one should not conclude less than three verses from the conclusion of a passage. Each reader should not read fewer than three verses.3

In the next chapter, he adds a general rule:

Whoever is called to read from the Torah should begin [his reading] with a positive matter and conclude with a positive matter.4

Other than these general instructions, it seems from some of the early commentaries (and from the very fact that the Talmud gave these guidelines) that the division of the aliyahs as we know them are not “set in stone,” and the decision of where to stop is up to the individual reader.5 In the words of the 13th century Spanish Talmudist, Rabbi Menachem Meiri, “The exact division is not known, rather the reader does as he pleases, provided that he begins and ends with good.”6

Nevertheless, in order to uphold the Talmud's guidelines, and to simplify achieving them for the Torah reader who might not be fluent with the rules, an official division of the aliyahs was developed at one point. The earliest known official divisions were published in the 16th century, in an appendix to a volume called Tikkun Yissachar, by Rabbi Yissachar ben Mordechai ibn Susan, who presented two versions of aliyah divisions that he found in ancient manuscripts.

According to Ibn Susan, one of the manuscripts stated that the aliyah divisions in it were based on the practice of the sages in the Gaonic period (5th to 10th century). He writes further that it was suggested that the aliyah division in the second manuscript followed the instructions of Ezra the Scribe!7

It has been suggested that there were recommended standard divisions in existence, such as in the manuscripts mentioned, but since they were not binding in Jewish law, and the custom may have varied from one community to another, the sages of the Talmud did not make any mention of them.

Interestingly, in a later publication on this topic, printed in 1722, one of the reasons given for such an official division of the aliyahs is to avoid the debating and bickering that might take place in the synagogue when the congregation thinks that the reader ended in the wrong place!8

Comparing these manuscripts of suggested divisions, as well as varying printed volumes of the Torah known as the chumash,” which we use to follow the readings in the synagogue today, one notices that differences between them are only slight and not very common.

There have been scholars in recent history who contested these divisions, most notably the Lithuanian scholar, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (1720-1797), known as the Gaon of Vilna. Nevertheless, as these divisions have become the established custom in our synagogues, it is incumbent upon us to maintain these customs, in the spirit of the maxim in Jewish law, minhag yisrael torah hu,” “Jewish customs are themselves Torah.”9