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An Interesting Note on How and Why the Parashiyoth Are Set the Way They Are , Part 1

January 30, 2015

Earlier, we discussed how the old custom in the land of Israel was to read through the entire Torah using a tri-annual cycle: a system that divided the Torah into 150 or so s’daroth. The publishers of the Koren Bible hypothesize that the simanim, a system of division that predates the chapter/verse ordering system and that features just as prominently in the Koren Bibles, correspond to the old s’daroth. our custom is to read through the Torah once a year, and we therefore have fewer but much longer parashiyoth, and as we showed before, our division often has nothing to do with the old division. The question is, what did the ancient sages see that prompted them to divide the Humash into the sections with which we are familiar?

I believe that the relative and approximate length of each weekly sidra is already a given; the question was merely where exactly to break each week. Being that the Torah itself was composed with the utmost wisdom, the structure of which being the best example, the sages chose to end their parashiyoth at the points that had indicated structure reminiscent of that of the Torah. The Torah is composed of both chiasms and conjoined parashiyoth, (s’michoth) and they therefore chose to end each parasha on a note that either paralleled or contrasted with the beginning of the parasha.

This week’s Parasha begins with (13:17-22)

God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said: ‘Lest the people regret when they see war, and they return to Egypt.’ But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt… And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; that they might go by day and by night…

which contrasts with  the end of the parasha, where the Israelites (17:7)

tried the LORD, saying: ‘Is the LORD among us, or not?

and immediately thereafter (17:8)

came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.

That is, the parasha begins with God purposely taking the people away from their enemies, and manifesting his presence in a permanent manner at the head of the camp, and ends with them questioning His presence, and then being attacked from the rear (Deut. 25:18) by another enemy, an enemy that came from afar.

The other parashiyoth follow a similar pattern;

  • B’reishith begins with God creating the world through His word, and ends with His regret and vow to destroy the world.
  • Noah begins with God selecting the righteous Noah from the rest of Humanity, and ends with God finding Abram.
  • Lech L’cha begins with God’s first promises to Abram, and ends with Abraham and his household accepting God’s covenant at great physical risk.
  • Wayera opens with the tidings of Isaac’s birth and ends with the tidings of Rebecca’s.
  • Hayei Sara opens with the death of Sarah, and closes with the death of Abraham.
  • Toldoth begins with Isaac taking a wife, “the sister of Laban the Aramean”, and starting a family, and ends with him sending Jacob to go to Aram to “take a wife from the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother.”
  • Wayeitzei begins with Jacob encountering angels on his way out of Canaan, and ends with Jacob encountering angels on his way back to Canaan.
  • Wayishlah begins with Jacob sending messengers “to Esau, his bother, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom,” and ends with Esau founding the nation of Edom “in the land of Seir, the Horite.”
  • Wayeishev begins with Joseph’s dreams, and ends with the dreams of the butler and the baker.
  • As far as I can tell, Mikeitz does not fit this pattern.
  • Wayiggash begins with Judah begging for the life of his elderly father in Canaan, and ends with Judah settling said father in Egypt.
  • Wayhi begins with Jacob’s instructions to Joseph before Jacob’s death, and ends with Joseph’s instructions to his brothers before his own death.
  • Sh’moth opens with the beginning of the Egyptian servitude; it closes with God declaring that “now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for by a strong hand shall he let them go, and by a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land.”
  • Wa’era starts with the declaration that both the Israelites and Egyptians shall “know” God, and ends with Moses declaring “I will spread forth my hands unto the LORD; the thunders shall cease, neither shall there be any more hail; that you may know that the earth is the LORD’S. But as for you and your servants, I know that you will not yet fear the LORD God.”
  • Bo begins with Moses describing the extent of the desired exodus to Pharaoh, ‘We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds we will go; for we must hold a feast unto the LORD,” and ends with it actually happening.

to be continued….


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