Community Development

The Triennial Torah Reading Cycle: A Chart of the Breakup of Parshiot and Aliyot for the Whole Year


Many congregations pattern their weekly Torah reading cycle after a system similar to the one used in ancient Israel during the rabbinic period. In this system, the traditional parashiot are each divided into three shorter segments, and the whole Torah is completed once every three years. The system has both advantages and disadvantages, but its ability to shorten the length of Torah reading without sacrificing the complete reading of the Torah on a regular basis has made it the choice of some synagogues in the Conservative Movement.

Chart of Triennial Torah Readings (PDF file 61 KB)

The responsum of the Committe on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly follows:

The Rabbinical Assembly
A Complete Triennial System for Reading the Torah

This paper was adopted by CJLS. The vote and the names of those voting are not available. Several improvements were recommended in a paper by Rabbi Judah Kogen on June 14, 1995. They are incorporated in this responsum on the triennial cycle and noted by an asterisk*. The original recommendations are found in Rabbi Kogen's paper.

Many Conservative congregations in America are currently utilizing a triennial cycle for the reading of the Torah. There are several ways of implementing such a cycle, and all sorts of variations are practiced in different congregations. As such, an atmosphere of confusion now exists with regard to Kriat Ha-Torah in our movement.

Rabbi Lionel Moses, in a paper which he submitted to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards entitled "Is There an Authentic Triennial Cycle of Torah Readings," provided a clear direction by suggesting a return to the original Palestinian triennial concept. The Torah would be divided into 154 Sedarim which would be read consecutively over a three year period. Rabbi Moses's excellent and thorough critical analysis was an attempt to provide an authentic and halakhically justifiable triennial approach. Although his specific recommendation was ultimately not accepted by the Law Committee, Rabbi Moses's efforts led to a re-evaluation of the triennial cycle and a call for an approach which would be true to Halakha, to the purpose behind the public reading of the Torah and to the needs of contemporary synagogues and worshippers.

An alternative approach was recommended to the Law Committee by Rabbi Elliot Dorff in a paper entitled "Annual and Triennial Systems for Reading the Torah." Rabbi Dorff suggested the first third of the Sidrah be read in one year, the second third the second year and the third on the third year. He also followed Rabbi Moses's lead in ruling out the practice of skipping from one section in the Sidrah to another on the same day (though Rabbi Moses further argued against skipping from one week to the next). Rabbi Dorff's recommendation was approved by the Law Committee.

It is the purpose of this paper to provide a complete triennial system according to the model provided by Rabbi Dorff.1 Each Sidrah has been subdivided into thirds, and each third has been subdivided into seven Aliyot and Maftir. The following halakhic guidelines have been observed:2

  1. Each Aliyah must contain a minimum of three verses and each Seder must contain at least twenty-one verses.
  2. Paragraphs with four or five verses are read in their entirety.
  3. There is no skipping from one section to another on the same day.
  4. Excessive overlapping is avoided whenever possible so as not to lend preference to one section over others.
  5. Effort has been made to avoid beginning and ending the Sedarim and Aliyot on a negative note.
  6. Upon the completion of a three year cycle, no sections will have been omitted.

The Sidrot are divided into three roughly equal Sedarim usually following the traditional Ashkenazic divisions of Aliyot.3 In some Sidrot, the flow of the narrative or the dialogue would be interrupted until the following year when the reading in the Parasha would be resumed. For example, in year II of Lekh Lekha, it would be convenient to conclude at Genesis 15:6, which is the end of the fifth Aliyah in the Ashkenazic system.4 However, 15:6 does not conclude a literary unit; rather, it stands in the middle of a divine revelation to Abraham which includes the Brit ben ha-Betarim (Covenant of Between the Pieces). It was decided, therefore, to extend the reading in year II to 15:21, the conclusion of the revelation account and a logical place to stop.5

Various problems and solutions emerged during the preparations of this triennial system. The following examples are outstanding:

  1. Several Sidrot are combined in some years and read separately in others. In any triennial system, the question arises as to how to best divide these Sidrot in each instance without omitting or skipping sections. In the system presented here, a solution is offered which eliminates skipping and omissions during the three year cycle without requiring the reading of an entire Sidrah when it appears separately. This is particularly useful in cases like Vayakhel-Pekudei, where the length of Vayakhel would present difficulties to the Torah Readers and congregants who are accustomed to much shorter readings. The system first lists different triennial cycle variations. For example, a Sidrah might be combined with its neighbor on the first and second years of the cycle while read separately on the third. The rabbi or torah reader simply chooses the variation which fits the current cycle by consulting a calendar.6 A list of Aliyot divisions is then provided for cases when the Sidrot are combined. If they are combined on the first year of the cycle, the reader selects the first section, the second section is selected on the second year and so on. Finally, a list of Aliyot divisions is provided for cases of separate Sidrot; the reader selects the section of the Sidrah based on the appropriate triennial cycle variation.

    Let us take Vayakhel-Pekudei as an example. If the reader is beginning a triennial cycle in 1989, he or she will find that the Sidrot are separate in 1989, combined in 1990 and combined in 1991. Therefore, the reader will turn first in the chart below to Section 1, Triennial Cycle Variations, and select option F (Separate-Together-Together). On the first year (1989) the selection from Vayakhel will be Exodus 35:1 - 37:16; the selection from Pekudei will be Exodus 38:21 - 39:21. Section III (Aliyot Divisions for Separate Sidrot) is then consulted for the divisions of Aliyot; in this instance, the divisions are listed under F.1. on p. 16 ("F" refers to the option and "I" refers to the year in the triennial cycle). On the second year of the cycle (1990) Section 11 (Aliyot Divisions for Combined Sidrot, p. 14) is consulted for the divisions of Aliyot in Exodus 37:17-39:21 listed under column II On the third year (1991) Section II (p. 14) is once again referred to; in this case, the division of Aliyot in Exodus 39:22-40:38 is found under column III.

    The application of this system in each instance of combined Sidrot will be discussed in the Appendix. The reader is advised to make no changes or adjustments which would lead to the omission of any section of the Torah. There is bound to be some overlapping of sections from year to year, but less so than if the separate Sidrot were to be read in their entirety.7
  2. The proclamation of "chazak". Since no skipping is allowed on the same day, the concluding verses of each book are read only during year 3. Therefore, "chazak" should only be recited during that year and not during the first two years of the cycle. This is indeed the only logical solution, since the books are completed only in the third year; it is not desirable to proclaim their completion before that point.
  3. Crucial Sections such as the Ten Commandments and Shirat HaYam. Effort has been made to extend the reading to include these sections whenever possible. In Yitro, for example, the entire Sidrah may be read each year in order to include the Ten Commandments since the Sidrah is brief. However, an option is provided here whereby the Sidrah is divided in half and the Ten Commandments are read on years 2 and 3. In Beshalach, the Sidrah is divided into three sections with some overlapping so that Shirat Hayam is read each year.
  4. Overlapping and Repetition - This is considered necessary in instances such as combined Sidrot, and in sections which cannot be interrupted, e.g. the curses in Leviticus 26:10-46, where several verses may out of necessity be repeated from one year to the next. Repetition of verses on the same day occurs only in the case of Vayelech, where 31:22 is read twice in order to avoid stopping on a negative note in 31:14-19. Application and discussion of the above issues are presented more fully in the Appendix.
  5. Haftarot - The system of Haftarot currently in use should not be changed. Selecting new Haftarot to fit each Seder would place our congregations out of synch with the rest of the Jewish world and would create confusion. In any event, the rabbi should explain to the congregation how the Haftarah relates to the weekly Sidrah. In this way, the Haftarah maintains its connection to the Torah portion even when the related section in the Torah is not read.
  6. Hosafot - This system does not provide Hosafot. Congregations which add extra Aliyot to the regular seven are advised to either repeat the seventh Aliyah or subdivide that or other Aliyot along the halakhic guidelines listed above.
  7. Maftir. In each instance, the Maftir reading is found at the end of the Seder. Some or all of the verses in the seventh Aliyah are repeated. Thus, during years I and II the reader does not skip to the end of the whole Sidrah. Instead, he or she repeats what has already been read. This is the proper function of the Maftir Aliyah.

A congregation which adopts this triennial system may be assured that the entire Torah will be read in a three year cycle in an orderly and coherent way. This system reflects a deep sense of reverence for the sanctity of the Torah text as well as a respect for the needs of our congregations and worshippers. It is my recommendation that those congregations which already use a triennial cycle consider adopting the system proposed in this paper.

A uniform effort to begin utilizing this system on the same year ought to take effect in our Movement. All congregations which use the triennial cycle would then be reading the same selections at the same time. Thus will a greater uniformity of practice for the reading of Torah be achieved in the Conservative Movement.

  1. Rabbi Dorff examined the proposed triennial system upon its completion and offered several corrections, comments and suggestions for which I am deeply grateful.
  2. Rabbi Lionel Moses in his "Is There An Authentic Triennial Cycle of Torah Readings" provides a detailed description of the halakhic guidelines for Torah reading on page 7-8. His painstaking research was of considerable help to me in my own efforts.
  3. I chose the Ashkenazic system because it is used in the Hertz Chumash which is, in turn, used by the overwhelming majority of Conservative congregations. In most instances, the Ashkenazic and Sephardic divisions are identical. The Sidrah of Bereshit is a notable exception.
  4. The new Jewish Publication Society translation of the Torah (1962) was of utmost value here. The beginnings and endings of Aliyot were often determined by the paragraph divisions in the J.P.S. translation, along with the paragraph divisions in the Torah text itself.
  5. I am indebted to Rabbi Avram Reisner for drawing my attention to instances where Sedarim should not conclude at traditional Aliyah breaks and for offering alternative suggestions.
  6. Arthur Spier, The Comprehensive Hebrew Calendar (New York. Feldheim Publishers, 1981).
  7. Thanks to Rabbi Robert Dobrusin for his helpful suggestions in devising this method.