Dear Rabbi,

It was never clear to me why some call the weekly Torah reading parshah and others call it sidra.

Are these two words synonymous?


The words sidra (plural sedarim) and parshah (plural parshiot) are used interchangeably in the vernacular to refer to the Torah portion that is read on a particular Shabbat. However, according to their original definitions they mean different things.

In terms of Jewish law, the word parshah refers to a set of verses that is written in the Torah scroll without any break within the text. Depending on how big the space needs to be before a particular parshah, it is called a parshah petucha, “an open portion,” or a parshah setuma, “a closed portion.” The text of “an open portion” always begins on a new line on the parchment, and “a closed portion” can begin even on the same line, after an empty space equaling the width of as few as nine letters from the previous portion.1

In our printed versions of the Torah, the chumash, the place where an “open portion” would appear in the Torah scroll is marked with the Hebrew letter pei (Heb. פ), and a “closed portion” is marked with the letter samech (Heb. ס).

The weekly Torah readings do revolve somewhat around these parshiot, since they mostly begin and end with these spaces in the text. However, they do not directly correspond to them, as each weekly portion may contain several such “open” or “closed” parshiot. Nevertheless, in some places we find that the Talmud also refers to the weekly reading as a parshah.2

The term sidra is used several times in the Talmud and seems to be related to the concept of seder, which means “order,” or, in this case, the set and consistent pattern of things. We find that the Talmud refers to different consistent patterns of study by the name sidra.

For example, the practice of including a few verses from the Prophets with their Aramaic translation in our daily prayers (in order to make Torah study part of our daily routine)3 is referred to in the Talmud as kedusha d’sidra.”4

It can be suggested that for this reason the weekly Torah reading was also called sidra, since the pattern of reading follows the order of the parshiot as they are written in the Torah.5

Interestingly, at one point in Jewish history, there were two cycles followed for the public reading of the Torah:

  1. Apparently based on Ezra the Scribe’s institution that “they should read the curses in Leviticus before the holiday of Shavuot and those in Deuteronomy before the holiday of Rosh Hashana,”6 the prevalent custom was that the reading of the entire Torah was completed annually.7 This custom is universally observed today.8
  2. In Israel, there were communities where the Torah was completed over the course of three years9 (or in three and a half years, as it seems from some sources10).

It seems that the term seder was used to refer to the weekly portion in the triennial cycle of Torah reading,11 while the term parshah was used for the divisions according to the annual cycle.12 This difference is indicated in many of the printed versions of the chumash where at the conclusion of each of the five books is a list of how many verses, chapters, parshiot, and sedarim there are in that book. The parshiot listed refer to our weekly readings, while the sedarim refer to the divisions that were used in Israel for the triennial cycle.

In contemporary writing and speech, both parsha and sidra are used to refer to the regular weekly reading according to the annual cycle. Parsha is also used to refer to the portions of text as they are divided in the Torah scroll.

See the Torah Reading from our Synagogue Guide.