Halakhic Discussions

Catching up to Israel: A Yom Ha’atzmaut Reflection on the Post-Pesah Parshah Gap

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Shmuel Hain

Here is the dilemma: a family in my synagogue suddenly decides to move to Israel, realizing a lifelong dream on the heels of a fantastic job opportunity.[1] Their children are being pulled out of school mid-year, making a difficult transition especially challenging. On top of that, shortly before their lift departs, the parents realize that their son’s bar mitzvah, long reserved on our shul calendar for June 1, 2019/Parshat Behukotai is now going to be celebrated in Israel, where Parshat Bamidbar will be read on June 1. There is not enough time or emotional bandwidth for an oleh hadash to learn a new parshah in a few short months. Returning to America to celebrate the milestone is also not an option. Hence, the halakhic query: may a pre-bar mitzvah boy lain Behukotai in Israel on Shabbat, May 25, the Shabbat right before his thirteenth birthday?

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Though I have had many congregants from our shul move to Israel over the years,[2] this particular scenario pushed me to reflect more deeply on my identity as a Religious Zionist in America. During the process of researching the narrow question about the propriety of a minor reading the Torah on behalf of the community, I began wondering why this was even a question in the first place. The facts of the accepted practice are straightforward:[3] during a leap year, when the eighth day of Pesah in the Diaspora falls out on Shabbat, the Torah reading in Israel is Parshat Aharei Mot. Here in the diaspora we don’t read Aharei Mot until the following Shabbat, while in Israel they read Kedoshim. This parshah gap continues until August, when the diaspora combines Matot and Masei, finally catching up to Israel.

But why should this pattern persist? Why don’t we in the Diaspora simply combine Aharei Mot and Kedoshim on the Shabbat right after Pesah, and synchronize with Israel as soon as possible? If we did that, by the time we reached June 1 we would all be reading Parshat Bamidbar, and this boy would never have learned the “wrong” parshah in the first place.

Remarkably, 5779 is the second consecutive year when the Diaspora will fall a week behind Israel for an extended period of time after Pesah.[4] 5778 was a non-leap year when the eighth day of Pesah also fell out on Shabbat. In a non-leap year, there is an equally simple solution. All that is needed to synchronize the two communities is for Israel to separate Tazria/Metzora or Aharei Mot/Kedoshim. Instead, those parshiyot are combined, and Israel and the Diaspora do not realign until Parshat Bamidbar, after Israelis read Behar and Behukotai on separate weeks. In the non-leap year scenario, the question is equally obvious: why doesn’t Israel separate one of those earlier double parshiyot so as to synchronize with the Diaspora as soon after Pesah as possible?

Of course, it’s not just bar and bat mitzvah Torah readings that are impacted by the Diaspora/Israel divide. Those who travel midweek to Israel from the Diaspora after Pesah miss a whole Torah portion, unless they conduct a reading of their own. And those going in the opposite direction, who dutifully attend shul, will hear the same parshah in the Diaspora as they heard the week before in Israel. More broadly, in our hyper-connected global world, it seems inconvenient and strange at best, and needlessly divisive at worst, to have two different Torah readings the same week. Why not do everything we can, calendrically and otherwise, to unite the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora?[5]

But the more I considered this parshah paradox, the less absurd it seemed. Truth be told, the misalignment may even capture a certain feeling I have at times as a Religious Zionist living in the Diaspora. It’s not just the time difference, though being seven hours behind certainly makes staying meaningfully connected with family and friends in Israel more challenging. It’s deeper than that. There is a disconnect that I experience, even and especially when I visit Israel and spend time in the communities and around the people with whom I should feel most aligned.

It is the slight disconnect I experienced when I was in Israel for the night of Yom Ha’atzmaut several years ago, and was overwhelmed by the many liturgical elements added to a meaningful and joyous service in my siblings’ shul in Raanana. They pulled out all the stops: shofar, full Hallel with a berakha (at night!), yom tov nusah, and additional recitations on top of what was printed in the Koren Siddur. Not only did I have a hard time following, I felt as if I did not fully belong at this over-the-top religious celebration of statehood.[6]

I experienced a different, albeit related, disconnect this past year when I participated in an exchange between a group of North American Modern Orthodox rabbis and prominent Religious Zionist rabbis from Israel. Many of the Israeli participants were scholars and leaders whom I admire greatly. The goal of the exchange was to discuss remedies for the seemingly ever-widening rift between parts of American Jewry and Israel. Somewhat astonishingly, two of our colleagues from Israel spent a good deal of our time together sharing, with a great deal of pride, how they had never stepped foot outside of Israel. When I noted that this kind of talk was not furthering our stated goal of narrowing the chasm between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry, the chastened rabbis responded that they did not mean it personally; they were just sharing their halakhic view that no Jew is ever allowed to leave Eretz Yisrael.

Maybe these moments reflect my own feelings of inadequacy over not having made aliyah, but I don’t think that insecurity as an American Religious Zionist fully explains what transpired on these occasions. These vignettes highlight a disconnect when it comes to assessing the relative importance of the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities more generally, and the alienation experienced by Diaspora Religious Zionists in the face of a “shelilat ha-golah/negation of the exile” ideology espoused by our Israeli counterparts.

And so, not being in lockstep with Israel and their Torah readings no longer feels so ill-conceived. The parshah gap has begun to resonate with me, a minor misalignment providing metaphoric space for the independent significance and stature of both the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities as part of the Jewish nation.

This perspective is borne out by the two sixteenth century halakhic sources that justify the post-Pesah parshah gap in its two iterations (leap year and non-leap year). First, some background: the Bavli in Megillah (31b) states that there are two poles for determining placement of parshiyot in the Jewish calendar:

It is taught: Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: Ezra enacted for the Jewish people that they should read the curses in Leviticus before Atzeret (Shavuot) and the curses in Deuteronomy before Rosh Hashanah. What is the reason for this? Abaye said, and some say Reish Lakish: In order that the year may conclude its curses (and the new year begin without the ominous reading of the curses). Granted, with regard to the curses in Deuteronomy, this makes sense: in order that the year may conclude together with its curses, (for Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a new year). However, with regard to the curses in Leviticus, is Atzeret (Shavuot) a new year? Yes, indeed, Atzeret is also a new year, as we learned (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 16a): And on Atzeret, divine judgment is made concerning the fruit of the trees (indicating that Shavuot also has the status of a new year).

Tosafot (ad loc. s.v. kelalot) add that the ideal fulfillment of the requirement to read the portions containing the admonition prior to the “new years” of Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah actually entails reading one additional portion before these holidays, so as to establish a buffer between the curses and the blessed new year. Thus, Tosafot explain, our practice is to read Bamidbar prior to Shavuot and Nitzavim (or Nitzavim/Vayelekh) prior to Rosh Hashanah.

R. Joseph Trani (Shu”t Mahari”t Helek Bet, Orah Hayyim, 4) utilizes Tosafot’s ruling to answer our question about a leap year scenario such as this year.[7] Maharit explains that Tosafot’s requirement for a one-week Bamidbar buffer following the curses is precise; the buffer must be one week and no more:

Just as we do not delay the reading (of Bamidbar until after Shavuot), so too we do not advance it and read it two Shabbatot before Shavuot, because then it would not be clear that we are completing the reading of the curses in advance of the “New Year.” That is only clear when we read the curses close to the end of the year (and have just one portion in between)… In Israel during a leap year when they read Aharei Mot on the seventh day of the Omer, there is no choice but to have two weeks of interposition (Bamidbar and Naso) between the curses and Shavuot. But outside of Israel, it is appropriate to maintain the usual practice of “manu ve-atzru” (the aphoristic shorthand that the portion of the census “manu-Bamidbar be immediately followed by Atzeret-Shavuot).

According to Maharit, the residents of Israel are forced to compromise on the ideal parshah/calendar cycle during a leap year when Pesah coincides with Shabbat. They have no choice but to read Naso before Shavuot. This off-kilter adjustment is not necessary outside of Israel, nor should it be adopted, in Maharit’s view.[8] Therefore, we in the Diaspora delay combining the weekly Torah portions and synchronizing with Israel until after Shavuot.[9]

Turning our attention to the non-leap year scenario, Tikkun Yisaschar (R. Yisaschar ben Mordekhai ibn Shoshan, 16th Century, Safed), a work devoted to issues related to the Jewish calendar, addresses the extended gap and the question of why residents of Israel do not separate parshiyot right after Pesah. After initially justifying the combining of Tazria and Metzora to avoid doubling the number of Shabbatot where the Torah reading deals with the distasteful topic of negaim, the author acknowledges that this does not explain why Israel does not split Aharei Mot and Kedoshim in order to harmonize with the Diaspora sooner. Tikkun Yisaschar therefore explains that a larger value is at stake. The parshah gap, in his view, cuts to the very core question of hierarchy between the Jewish communities of Israel and the Diaspora:

If residents of Israel were to split these earlier parshiyot to harmonize with residents of the Diaspora it would make the “primary ones” (those living in Israel who observe one day of Yom Tov) dragged along to follow the halakhic practice of the “benei ha-minhag” (non-Israeli residents who observe the custom of yom tov sheni). It is incorrect to relegate the primary ones to secondary status, and, if we were to separate those earlier parshiyot, it would elevate those outside of Israel by making the residents of Israel follow them. (Sefer Ibbur Shanah, p. 32b)

Because the Jewish community in Israel should never be perceived as an afterthought, Tikkun Yisaschar concludes that the proper practice is for residents of Israel to wait until just before Shavuot (splitting Behar and Behukotai) to close the gap. In this way, the residents of Israel properly sequence the curses, Bamidbar, and Shavuot, without prematurely broadcasting that Israel is getting in line with the Diaspora order of parshiyot.

These positions on the weekly Torah readings have broad implications regarding peoplehood, Medinat Yisrael, and the relationship between the Jewish communities of the Diaspora and Israel. Maharit’s explanation for Diaspora Jewry to maintain the parshah gap in a leap year expresses one critical message about living outside of Israel with religious integrity. As Religious Zionists in the Diaspora, ideal Jewish practices and values should always be promoted, even if that occasionally creates space between, and even tension with, our brothers and sisters in Israel. In a word, the parshah gap underscores and fosters the significance of a strong Diaspora Jewish community.

At the same time, Tikkun Yisaschar’s argument for Israel to maintain the gap in a non-leap year must also loom large for Religious Zionists living in the Diaspora. The people and practices of those residing in Israel represent an ideal. We must retain the perspective of Israel’s centrality as the corporate headquarters of the Jewish people, even if at times that creates a disconnect with those of us in the Diaspora. We should not expect or encourage Israel to just follow our lead, even when it comes to the annual cycle of Torah readings.

This parshah gap has also brought to the fore my own self-contradictory feelings as a Religious Zionist in America, contradictions that I have come to believe are religiously valid and rooted in halakhic sources. I should feel discomfort—but I should also feel proud.

On the one hand, the disconnect of the post-Pesah parshah gap speaks to the anxiety I feel about the life which I have completely slipped into in the Diaspora. I speak the language of Religious Zionism every time I daven, yet I am about to embark on a major expansion project of my shul, a building campaign that concretizes and promotes the permanence of my roots outside of Israel. On the other hand, I should take pride in the accomplishments of our community, and not just because so many of our members and their adult children have made aliyah and support worthy causes in Israel. In deepening religious practice and values, unifying a diverse membership and neighborhood, and creating a spiritual and intellectual home for so many people, our shul has played a transformational role.

However, beyond the impact of any single shul, the perspective that American Jews bring to Jewish identity in the twenty-first century is critical and distinct. Living, and thriving, as a minority in this always great country, has taught us to be mindful of the diverse and interconnected world in which we live. This mindfulness is not just about political correctness; it is a religious value. The challenging, multi-faceted nature of the society in which I live, work, and worship ultimately brings me closer to God. These are values that Diaspora Jewry must transmit to the totality of the Jewish people, alongside the spirit of nationalism and singular responsibilities embedded in the enterprise of building the Jewish state, values which Israelis uniquely contribute to Jewish Peoplehood.[10]

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Today, on Israel’s Independence day, I am thinking about the pre-bar mitzvah boy and his family celebrating their first Yom Ha’atzmaut in Israel as citizens. Less than three weeks from now, they will celebrate his bar mitzvah on Parshat Behukotai. Much to my congregants’ relief, numerous authorities rule that a minor may read the Torah for the community in extenuating circumstances such as these.[11] The young man will read Parshat Behukotai, a week earlier than anticipated, and across the ocean from the original plan. I will miss the celebration but look forward to catching up with them and the rest of Israel: first, the following week, when we in the Diaspora will read Parshat Behukotai; and several months later, when we finally reconnect and harmonize our Torah readings, affirming the interdependence of the Jewish communities of the Diaspora and Israel. This calendrical quirk generates a powerfully symbolic space, one I aspire to fully inhabit this Yom Ha’atzmaut: We may be different, but we do not stand alone.


[1] I want to express thanks to my friend and colleague Simon Fleischer for his many helpful suggestions on an earlier draft, and for his determination to help me personalize this piece. I also want to thank Eitan Cooper, who sparked my initial interest in this subject when he gave a shiur on the topic at Young Israel Ohab Zedek of North Riverdale/Yonkers over Shavuot last year. Eitan directed my attention to an article by Chaim Simons which surveys sources related to the differences between Torah readings in Israel and the Diaspora. For an in-depth look at the division of the parshiyot more generally, see this article in Volume 2 of Hakirah.

[2]  I think I may have written more “Aliyah Letters” in the past five years (some 60 plus at last count!) attesting to the Jewishness of congregants than any other rabbi in North America, a distinction which gives me a great deal of pride but is also bittersweet, as Israel’s gain has been our community’s loss.

[3] There were a number of other practices during the medieval period, as attested by the author of the Kaftor va-Ferah, and Meiri in his work Kiryat Sefer. See this source sheet for exact citations and sources.

[4] Next year will give us the third consecutive year with a gap, this time when day two of Shavuot coincides with Shabbat. The Diaspora will catch up a few weeks later when they combine Hukat and Balak. See the Simons article above for further details on this scenario.

[5] Indeed, see Rav Amnon Bazak’s recent Facebook post, which proposed that the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and/or religious leaders outside of Israel should unify Torah readings as soon as possible.

[6] For an overview of sources in support of reciting Hallel with a blessing on the night of Yom Ha’atzmaut, see here.

[7] Here is the text of the question:

What is the reason in a leap year, such as this year, when the eighth day of Pesah coincides with Shabbat and those in Israel read Aharei Mot on that day and those outside of Israel read it the following week, and what emerges is that we are separated from those in Israel for every Shabbat until Matot/Masei? Why don’t we just combine Aharei Mot and Kedoshim, the Shabbat right after Pesah, like we combine them in all non-leap years?

[8] Maharit’s explanation highlights a potentially significant historical point. During the Talmudic and Geonic periods when the weekly Torah readings were being determined, the Jews of Babylonia read according to an annual cycle, even as many in Israel continued to follow the triennial cycle. So when the annual Torah reading cycle was originally canonized and practiced according to a fixed calendar in the Diaspora, reading Naso before Shavuot was not a possibility. As a result, Maharit maintains that it is ideal for those outside of Israel to retain the original system and tradition of Torah readings, as designed by and for Diaspora Jewry.

The origins and history of the triennial cycle in Israel has been the subject of much scholarly discussion. See, especially, Ezra Fleischer, “Remarks Concerning the Triennial Cycle of the Torah Reading in Eretz Israel,” Tarbiz 73:1 (2004): 83-124 (Hebrew). Idem., “Annual and Triennial Reading of the Bible in the Old Synagogue,” Tarbiz 61:1 (1992): 25-43 (Hebrew). Idem., Eretz-Israel Prayer and Prayer Rituals as Portrayed in the Geniza Documents (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988); 293-326 (Hebrew).

[9] See further in Maharit’s responsum for an explanation of why we don’t combine Hukat and Balak this year. See also the Simons article for sources attesting to alternative practices to avoid reading Naso before Shavuot, including splitting Ki Tisa into two parshiyot.

[10] For further analysis of the two centers of Jewry, and citations to much of the literature on this subject, see this paper by Rabbi Tully Harcsztark on the topic of Israel, Diaspora, and Religious Zionist Education.

[11] For a brief summary of the issues see the audio shiur here. I also want to express my thanks to Rav Yoni Rosensweig who wrote up a comprehensive response to my specific question in the classical form of a responsum, available here.

Shmuel Hain
Shmuel Hain is a pulpit Rabbi and educator. Under his leadership, Young Israel Ohab Zedek of North Riverdale/Yonkers has transformed into a vibrant community synagogue. As Rosh Beit Midrash at SAR High School, he directs the graduate Beit Midrash Fellowship, teaches advanced Judaic Studies classes, and oversees after-school and Alumni learning programs. He is also co-director of Machon Siach at SAR High School, a research institute for high school educators. Shmuel has co-authored and edited several volumes of Torah and academic scholarship, including a volume in The Orthodox Forum series entitled The Next Generation of Modern Orthodoxy (Ktav: 2012).