On the first Rosh Hashana after the wall around Jerusalem was reconstructed by the returnees from the Babylonian exile, everyone gathered to hear Ezra read from the Torah: "And Ezra opened the scroll before the eyes of all the people, for he was [on a platform] above all the people; and when he began [kefit'ho], all the people stood" (Nehemiah 8:5).
Citing another biblical verse, our sages understand that the standing mentioned here signifies silence (B. Sotah 39a). Thus, our sages infer that that it is forbidden to converse, even regarding halachic matters, once the Torah scroll has been opened.
The reinterpretation of "standing" as referring to silence leads to a further halachic conclusion: There is no requirement to stand during the reading of the Torah; people may sit or stand as long as they follow attentively (Tur, 13th-14th centuries, Spain). Nevertheless, there are scrupulous individuals who respectfully stand while the Torah is being read (Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen of Radin, 19th-20th century, Poland).
The ambiguity surrounding the meaning of one of the words in this verse - kefit'ho - gives rise to differing opinions as to the onset of the prohibition against talking. When did the masses attentively fall silent? If the ceremony began with the opening of the Torah scroll, we can conclude that as soon as the scroll is opened for Torah reading, the prohibition against conversing begins and continues until the end of the reading when the scroll is closed (Rabbenu Yona Gerondi, 13th century, Spain; and others). If, however, the people rose only when Ezra began to read, then the prohibition applies only during the reading (Maimonides, 12th century, Cairo).
An alternative verse, albeit from the same context, is offered for the banning of conversation during Torah reading: "And the ears of all the people were turned to the Torah scroll" (Nehemiah 8:3).
A talmudic passage offers another angle on the mores of Torah reading (B. Berachot 8a). Our sages tell us that the prophetic words "And they who forsake God shall be consumed" (Isaiah 1:28) refer to people who exit the synagogue, leaving the Torah scroll. This statement is qualified permitting a quick exit in the short interval between people being invited to read the Torah.
A further question is raised: Is it permitted to leave during the even shorter gap between verses, while the translator renders the verse in Aramaic. This query is left unanswered by our sages, and is theoretical for most communities today - Yemenite communities being the exception - who do not continue with the practice of translating each verse into Aramaic.
The talmudic passage concludes with a surprising report about the practice of one sage: Rav Sheshet would turn away during the public Torah reading and learn the oral tradition. Explaining his actions, he said: "We are occupied with our domain, and they are occupied with theirs!" Rav Sheshet's practice and justification caused quite a stir amongst the commentators: Given the prohibition against talking during the public Torah reading - even about worthy Torah matters - how could he literally turn his back on the service and study Torah?
A number of explanations are offered by the commentators, whereby the common theme is the attempt to distinguish Rav Sheshet from the general rule proscribing chatter.
The earliest approach suggests that the rule against chatter during Torah reading does not apply to those whose Torah study is their profession. Thus Rav Sheshet and his colleagues were permitted to excuse themselves (Rabbenu Hananel, 11th century, Kairouan; and others). According to this approach, Torah reading is designed for the masses. The privileged who are fortunate to spend their days ensconced in Torah study are permitted to continue their lofty pursuit, even while the rest of the congregation attentively listens to the Torah reading.
Another approach limits the exception to Rav Sheshet himself. He was blind and hence was not obligated to read the Torah. Only he was permitted to turn away from the public Torah reading (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany).
Other explanations redefine the prohibition on talking during Torah reading. Thus according to some commentators, the ban is only against disturbing prattle; talking in an inaudible voice would not contravene the injunction. Rav Sheshet did not mean to demonstratively turn away; he merely sought to facilitate his concentration (Rosh, 13th-14th centuries, Germany-Spain).
Alternatively, the prohibition can be circumvented by beginning to study prior to the Torah reading. Rav Sheshet thus turned away to visibly indicate that he had established himself in Torah study before the commencement of the Torah reading (Rabbenu Yona Gerondi, 13th century, Spain).
It is of course entirely possible that the sources reflect two conflicting approaches among the sages as to the importance of the public Torah reading. One source gives voice to its centrality, prohibiting any conversation even about Torah matters; the other gives primacy to personal Torah study.
It must be said that in general commentators strove to present the Talmud as a unified text such that passages in one tractate augment parallel passages in other tractates. Faced with an apparent contradiction - as in our case - the commentators sought to distinguish between the two cases and explain that the texts complement each other rather than suggest incompatible positions. Here too the commentators, as we have seen, try to make room for both passages rather than suggest that we have a disagreement on the matter.
In addition to the goal of presenting a unified text, there may be a further reason in this case for avoiding conflicting views. The public Torah reading is an act of communal study. It is difficult to entertain that a sage - in this case Rav Sheshet - would deny the value of this communal endeavor. Hence distinctions are offered that acknowledge exceptions, but keep the rule intact even according to Rav Sheshet.
Torah reading is an encounter with our foundational text, without commentators and without recourse to legal arguments. Thus it is hopefully accessible to all and reflects the communal value that we place on joint study.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.