1.The Establishment of Torah Reading
The mitzvah to learn Torah is a basic commandment, on which all the other mitzvot depend. There is no specific time for Torah study; instead, it is a mitzvah to learn Torah at all times, as it is written (Joshua 1:8), "You shall meditate upon it day and night." In order to strengthen Israel’s connection to Torah, Moshe Rabbeinu instituted the Torah reading on Shabbat, and in Shacharit of Yom Sheni (Monday) and Yom Hameshee (Thursday), so that three days will not pass without hearing Torah (Rambam Tefillah 12:1).
The Chachamim teach (Bava Kama 82a) that this was instituted based on the verse (Exodus 15:22), "They traveled for three days in the desert without finding any water." Moshe Rabbeinu, and his disciples, the elders and the prophets, understood that the thirst for water was a result of three consecutive days during which Israel did not communally engage in Torah study. Torah is likened to water, for just as water sustains all that lives and grows in the world, so Torah sustains the soul. Since the nation became slightly detached from the Torah, the springs of water also ceased to flow. Although the Torah scholars of that generation most probably learned Torah during those three days, for three days the nation of Israel did not engage in Torah publicly. Therefore it was established that the Torah would be read every Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat, so that never again will more than three days pass when Israel does not publically read from the Torah.
Ezra HaSofer further instituted that, for the Torah reading on Mondays and Thursdays, three people are called up to the Torah. Each person called up reads at least three verses. All together ten verses must be read (Bava Kama 82a; Shulchan Aruch 137:1-2; additionally, in Peninei Halachah Likutim, part 1, 4:2-3, the reasons for this halachah are explained).
2.The Torah Scroll
The Torah must be read from a kosher scroll. This means that it must be a Torah scroll written for the sake of Heaven, with ink on parchment, just as the first Torah scroll was written by Moshe Rabbeinu, according to the direct word of Hashem. Even a congregation which sets aside time for Torah study must assemble at least every three days to read from the original Torah scroll, just like the Torah which Hashem gave to Moshe on Mount Sinai. If there is no minyan present, the mitzvah of reading the Torah cannot be fulfilled, since it is a matter of sanctity requiring ten Jews.
If the Torah scroll is missing even one letter, the entire scroll is invalid, and it cannot be used to perform the mitzvah of Torah reading. This halachah emphasizes the extraordinary quality of the Torah. Its entirety is one complete Divine idea which is expressed by all of its narratives, mitzvot, teachings, and letters together. If even one letter is lacking, a flaw exists in the absolute completeness of the Divine Torah.
According to a number of Rishonim, it is permissible, b’dieved, to read from an invalid Torah scroll (Rambam’s responsa to the sages of Narvona; Mordechai). Still, in practice, the opinion of the majority of poskim is that the mitzvah of Torah reading can only be fulfilled with a kosher Torah scroll, and that is the halachah (Rashba, Rosh, and Rambam in his halachot; Shulchan Aruch 143:3).
If, in the middle of the reading, a faulty letter is discovered which renders the Torah scroll invalid, a different Torah scroll is taken out and the reader proceeds from where he stopped in the first. We do not continue reading from the first Torah since, according to the majority of poskim, it is forbidden to read from an invalid scroll. On the other hand, we do not require the congregation to repeat the beginning of the Torah portion, since b’dieved we rely on the poskim who maintain that the obligation of Torah reading can even be fulfilled with an invalid Torah scroll. 1
If a defect is found in one of the letters, and there is doubt as to whether or not it invalidates the Torah scroll, the reading is still continued from that Torah. There are two reasons to act leniently in such a case. First, it is possible that the Torah scroll is actually kosher. Second, even if the Torah does possess something which renders it invalid, we have already learned that there are opinions which maintain that b’dieved it is permitted to read from an invalid Torah scroll. Still, the Torah must be repaired promptly after the reading.
3.Taking Out the Torah and Returning It to the Ark
It is customary to recite verses of scripture when opening the ark, when the Torah is escorted to the bimah (pulpit), and when it is brought back to the ark, as printed in the siddurim – each ethnic group according to its custom.
Ashkenazim are accustomed to first say "El Erech Apayim…" which is not recited on days that there is no Tachanun, and after several verses they recite "Berich Shemei." Sephardim are only accustomed to recite "Berich Shemei" on Shabbat and Festivals, though some say it on Rosh Chodesh as well (Piskei Teshuvot 134:13).
The chazan holds the Torah scroll with his right hand, and when he says "Gadlu" he raises it a little. On Shabbat and Festivals he elevates it slightly when he says "Shema" and "Echad" as well. After that, he walks to his right to take the Torah to the bimah where it is read (Rama 134:2; Mishnah Berurah 13). It is customary that people kiss the Torah as it passes and partially escort it on its way. Most people are accustomed to kiss the Torah directly with their lips, yet some touch it with their hand and then kiss their hand (see Piskei Teshuvot 149:1-2). It is not proper for a person who is sick, or has a cold, to kiss the Torah directly with his mouth, so as not to infect the other people praying.
Before the reading, it is the task of the gabbai to prepare the Torah scroll at the proper place so that it will not have to be rolled there in public, because it is disrespectful to compel the congregation to wait. Generally there is no need to prepare the scroll, since the reading is conducted according to the order of the weekly Torah portions, and thus the Torah is opened to the place where the previous reading left off. However, on Festivals, Rosh Chodesh, and fast days, the Torah is read out of its usual order, and it is necessary to prepare the Torah scroll ahead of time. Afterwards, it must be rolled back to the order of the weekly Torah portion.
If, by mistake, a different Torah scroll was taken out, the prevalent custom is not to switch it. Even though the congregation will have to wait until it is rolled to the place of the reading, nevertheless, that is part of the honor shown to the Torah scroll; once it is removed from the ark, it is not replaced by another (Kaf HaChaim 144:13). Some say, in order not to waste the congregation’s time, it is permitted to switch a Torah scroll which was removed mistakenly, even if it was already placed onto the bimah. In times of need, when the congregation is strict about its time, we may rely on that opinion (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, part 2, 37).
4.The Lifting of the Torah Scroll (Hagbahah) and Its Return to the Ark
The Chachamim established that the Torah scroll be lifted and its letters displayed to the whole congregation. The original minhag was to lift the Torah before the reading (Masechet Sofrim 14:13-14), which is the custom of Sephardim and a few Ashkenazim, as well as that of the Ari. Most Ashkenazim follow the custom of lifting the Torah after the reading, so that everyone will know that the essential objective is to hear the words being read. After the reading, the Torah is displayed to the nation (Shulchan Aruch 134:2; Mishnah Berurah 8; Kaf HaChaim 17; Piskei Teshuvot 9).
The lifting (hagbahah) is so important, the Chachamim say (Megillah 32a) that the golel, referring to the person who lifts the Torah, receives a reward equivalent to all those called up to the Torah. Therefore, it is proper to give the honor of hagbahah to one of the distinguished people in the community. Today, it is customary to honor even ordinary congregants with hagbahah, although the more correct minhag is to give the honor of hagbahah to a respected person of the community. In any case, great care should be taken not to give the honor of hagbahah to someone who may drop the Torah scroll.
L'chatchilah, at the time of hagbahah it is necessary for the Torah scroll to be held open at the place it was read, though if it was not, it is not necessary to lift it again (see Piskei Teshuvot 134:4). Regarding an Ashkenazic Torah scroll, the one who is lifting it must open the Torah so that it is possible to see three columns (Mishnah Berurah 134:8).
Some lift the Torah and turn it only slightly to the left and slightly to the right, and many people from the congregation standing in front of the bimah cannot see the writing. The person doing hagbahah must make sure that all the people praying can see the letters of the Torah. It is best if he slowly turns in a full circle, thereby enabling everyone to see (see Piskei Teshuvot 134:5).
It is a mitzvah for all the men and women who see the writing to bow and say "V’Zot HaTorah…" (Masechet Sofrim 14:14; Shulchan Aruch 134:2). Many Ashkenazim are not accustomed to bow, and some poskim lend credence to that; however l'chatchilah, it is proper to bow when seeing the writing (Har Tzvi, Orach Chaim 1:64).
There are those who are accustomed to point to the Torah with their pinky while saying "V’Zot HaTorah…" and then kiss their finger. Some also hold their tzitzit and point to the Torah scroll with it, and afterwards kiss the tzitzit.
The Geonim introduced the recital of Half-Kaddish after the conclusion of the Torah reading, just as it is customary to recite Kaddish after verses of scripture (Piskei Teshuvot 147:9). So as not to interrupt excessively between the Amidah and the Kaddish-Titkabal after U’va L’Tzion, only Half-Kaddish is recited.
The Ashkenazim are accustomed to say "Yehi Ratzon" while the Torah is being rolled and covered, except on days that Tachanun is not recited (see Piskei Teshuvot 147:7).
According to the Ashkenazic minhag and the custom of some Sephardim, the Torah scroll is returned to the ark after the Torah reading and before the recital of Ashrei. The Chassidic minhag and the custom of most Sephardim is to return the Torah to the ark after U’Va L’Tzion and Kaddish Titkabal.
It is customary to recite verses of scripture while escorting the Torah scroll and returning it to the ark.
^ 1.If the mistake is found in the middle of the reading, according to the Shulchan Aruch, the invalid Torah scroll must be switched for a kosher one, and at least three verses must be read from it so that the one who was called up may recite the blessing after the reading on the kosher scroll. If there is no kosher Torah scroll available, the berachah after the Torah reading is not recited on the invalid scroll. According to the Rama, if the reader reached a point at which it is possible to end the reading (which is not less than three verses from the beginning or end of a section), the blessing after the reading is recited on what he read from the invalid scroll, so as not to switch scrolls in the middle of an aliyah. However, if the mistake is found in a place in which it is not possible to stop reading, since it is not permissible to continue reading from an invalid Torah scroll, they must switch scrolls and continue reading from a kosher one, and the person called up to the Torah recites the blessing after the reading on the kosher Torah scroll (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 146:4; Mishnah Berurah 13).