The custom in Ashkenazic communities is that at the conclusion of each of the Five Books of Moses, the congregation stands and calls out “Chazak, chazak, venitchazek!” (“Be strong, be strong, and we will be strong!”),1 and then the one reading the Torah repeats that phrase. In most Sephardic congregations the custom is to say Chazak ubaruch” (“Be strong and blessed!”) at the conclusion of every aliyah to the Torah.

It Began With G‑d and Joshua

In the beginning of the book of Joshua, G‑d encourages Joshua by telling him, “But you must be very strong and resolute (chazak ve’ematz) to observe faithfully all the teaching that My servant Moses enjoined upon you . . . Let not this book of Torah cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it . . .”2

Since Scripture uses the term “this book of Torah,” the Midrash understands that Joshua was actually holding the Torah scroll, and when he completed it, G‑d told him “Chazak.”3 This is why the custom developed to say “Chazak” to one who finishes reading the Torah.4

Finished What?

Thus, the Sephardic communities say “Chazak” every time one finishes reading a part of the Torah. The custom further developed to where the congregants tell the person who was called to the Torah, or anyone who led the congregation in prayer or recited kaddish, “Chazak ubaruch” (“Be strong and blessed”), and the person responds Chizku v’imtzu” (“Be strengthened and heartened”).

On the other hand, as mentioned above, Ashkenazic communities say “Chazak” only when they finish reading an entire book of the Torah.5

(Additionally, the widespread Ashkenazic custom is to actually say Chazak venitchazek,” an expression from the book of Samuel,6 instead of Chazak ve’ematz,” which is the wording in Joshua. Although these two phrases are very similar in meaning, there is a key difference, which we will get to later.)

Now, what does strength have to do with Torah?

Strength to Do More

The Talmud tells us that one of the things that is in constant need of “bolstering” and improvement is Torah study.7 Thus, we say “Chazak” to strengthen ourselves in Torah study.8

It’s crucial to review the Torah we’ve learned so as not to forget it. This is why, after finishing a portion of the Talmud, we say Hadran alach,” “I will return to you.” Similarly, when we finish a book of Torah, we say “Chazak,” in other words, “We should have the strength to review what we learned.”9

Likewise, when a person does a mitzvah, we say “Yasher koach (“More power to you”), meaning, “Just as you did this mitzvah, may it be G‑d’s will that you do many more mitzvahs!”10

Elixir of Life

Depending on how it is spelled, the Hebrew word sam can mean both “put” and “potion.”11 Thus, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said in the Talmud:

What is the meaning of the verse “And this is the Torah that Moses put [sam] before the children of Israel”?12 If one is deserving and learns Torah with the proper intentions, the Torah becomes a potion [sam] of life for him. If one is not deserving, the Torah becomes a potion of death for him.13

We therefore say “Chazak,” expressing our wish that the Torah learned should be an elixir of life.14

Chazak Three Times

Some have the custom to say the word chazak (חזק) three times, because it has the numerical value of 115, and 115 x 3 = 345, which is the numerical value of “Moses” (משה), the receiver of the Torah.15 Yet the common custom is to say “Chazak, chazak, venitchazek” (“[Be] strong, [be] strong, and we will be strong”). The word chazak alone literally means “strong,” and can refer to the past, while venitchazek refers to the future. Thus, we are expressing our wish that this strength carry into the future.16

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that although in the book of Joshua it says “Chazak ve’ematz,” “Be strong and resolute” (which has two expressions of strength), the common custom is to say Chazak, chazak, venitchazek” (which has three expressions of strength). Why? Because in Jewish law, doing something three times is considered an established pattern with legal strength.17

Who Says Chazak?

In some communities, the custom is that the one who is called up to the Torah does not say “Chazak.” One of the reasons given is that it does not make sense that he is blessing himself with strength.18 However, the common custom is to say “Chazak, chazak, venitchazek,” which means“And we will be strong” (as opposed to Chazak ve’ematz,” “ You must be very strong and resolute”), implying that the entire congregation is included. Thus, the common custom19 (including the Chabad practice) is that the one called up to the Torah also says “Chazak, chazak, venitchazek!”20