Outdoor Torah Readings in the Corona Winter

A congregation that could not read from the Torah on Shabbat morning would read the entire Torah portion later in the afternoon.

Children read Torah in Mea She'arim (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Children read Torah in Mea She'arim
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
In my previous column, we discussed problems that emerge with outdoor prayer during the rainy season and potential solutions by using gazebos, awnings or umbrellas to stay dry. In this column, we’ll continue on the theme of inclement weather to discuss what to do if the weather makes it impossible to do the public Torah reading on Shabbat morning.
According to the Talmud, public Torah reading is one of the oldest legal enactments, with this ritual attributed to central figures like Moses and Ezra the Scribe. They declared that the Torah should be read not only on Shabbat morning but also later that afternoon as well as during the week on Mondays and Thursdays. The weekday readings were enacted so that the community should not go more than three days without a public Torah reading. Shabbat afternoon, in turn, was enacted so that those who wouldn’t attend during the week would still get some preview of the coming week’s Torah portion. It had the further benefit of ensuring that the afternoon would be utilized productively instead of people becoming inebriated or wasting that time (“sitting on corners,” as the Talmud puts it).
What happens if someone misses the Torah reading? Unlike the Megillah reading on Purim, when each individual has a personal invitation to hear the chanting, the weekly Torah reading is an obligation on the community as a whole. As such, as long as the community reads the Torah, an individual does not need to make up a missed Torah reading.
Yet what happens if the community itself fails to read from the Torah on a given week?
In the early Middle Ages, the Jewish community in Cologne, Germany had some form of dispute or mishap that made it impossible to read the Torah that day. On the following week, the local rabbis asserted that they must read two Torah portions that day. In subsequent centuries, rabbinic scholars debated whether a congregation that had missed multiple consecutive weeks of Torah readings should read several portions together on the next Shabbat that they congregated.
This question, which was largely academic for many centuries, became quite practical during 2020 when many congregations had multiple weeks in which they could not assemble together because of corona restrictions. Rabbinic scholars disagreed on what should be done, with some asserting that all of the missed weeks should be read on the first Shabbat when the congregation reconvened, while most asserted that this was not necessary or allowed, especially since the congregations had, for all practical purposes, been (compulsorily) dissolved during various lockdowns.
WHEN FEASIBLE, however, the simplest solution for a congregation that could not read from the Torah on Shabbat morning would be to read the entire Torah portion later in the afternoon.
This conclusion was made by Rabbi Yehezkel Landau, who asserted that when necessary, the mitzvah of communal Torah reading may be fulfilled until sunset. The simplest example when this ruling might be utilized is when a quorum fails to arrive in the morning to synagogue because of a snowstorm. As Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg argued, it may also be utilized by hospitals in which patients and health care professionals are not able to form a quorum in the morning because of their condition or procedures.
These situations are all ad hoc solutions to one-time problems. A more complex case developed in the late 19th century in Germany when many observant children would attend gymnasium schools on Saturday mornings. To ensure that they continued to maintain their religious levels of observance, Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer organized for a full Torah portion reading to take place every Shabbat afternoon. While he recognized that it was problematic to regularly deviate from the widely accepted practice, he contended that this was an extreme situation that called for unique measures to preserve the religious observance of these children.
Not everyone, however, agreed with Landau’s ruling to permit Saturday afternoon readings of the Torah portion, even on an ad hoc basis. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai argued that there were mystical reasons found in the Zohar that prohibited full Torah readings in the afternoon. He further contended that the Talmudic enactment of Torah readings established a mid-day deadline to complete the reading; if a community couldn’t read the Torah portion by then, they could only make it up on the next Shabbat morning.
While this position was supported by other decisors, the majority upheld the possibility of reading the entire Torah portion in the afternoon.
In theory, one could argue that the Shabbat afternoon’s Torah reading, taken from the upcoming week’s reading, should be integrated into the seven aliyot read in the afternoon, given that the purpose of that reading was originally to create some meaningful Torah learning in the afternoon. While this was suggested by Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein, most decisors argued that the morning Torah reading alongside its Haftorah should be read separately, with the traditional prayers recited when the Torah is taken out and placed back into the Ark.
In this manner, the integrity and independence of each service is maintained.
If it is not feasible to read the Torah throughout the entire day then the community should wait to “make up” that reading on the following Shabbat since it is forbidden to recite the weekly Torah portion on a weekday. It remains absolutely prohibited to move the Torah reading (or other parts of the service) indoors when this would violate local health regulations or place any worshipers in increased danger.
Thankfully, we have many ways to fulfill our meaningful rituals while still prioritizing public health.
The writer, a post-doctoral scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School, is the author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates and directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute. Facebook.com/RabbiShlomoBrody