Understanding the divisions of the Parshiyos

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Understanding the divisions of the Parshiyos


There are various forms of divisions found in Tanach as it is published today, including verses, chapters, Sefarim, Parshiyos, and Aliyos. Interestingly, few of the above divisions are Biblically based, and rather have simply gained popularity throughout the generations as an organizational tool to divide the lengthy continuous text. We will now explore each one of these divisions and their source.


1. Pesukim-Verses:

All the verses [written in the five books of Moshe] are a Halacha [i.e. tradition] from Moshe from Sinai as to where they begin and end.[1] Nonetheless, we no longer retain exact knowledge as to the start and end points of all the verses that Moshe received from Sinai.[2] However, for the most part, the verses printed in our Chumashim are accurate.[3]

Stopping in middle of reading a verse:[4] It is forbidden for one who is reading a verse to make a complete stop in the middle of the verse, and he is rather required to stop at the end of the verse in accordance to the tradition of Moshe.  


2. Chapters:

The division of the text of scripture into chapters can be found in all printed versions of the Tanach available today, and so has been the case for hundreds of years. Nonetheless, going back in history, the chapter division of scripture is a fairly new development, and is not even attributed to the Rabbinate or Jewish clergyman but rather to an English bishop of the Catholic church known as Stephen Langton.[5] It is historically unclear as to why or how this Christian division found its way into the Jewish printing press, but fact remains that it has become accepted amongst the Jewish people and its Rabbinic leaders to adapt the chapter divisions within their Chumashim. Accordingly, the chapter division of the Chumash carries all the legitimacy of a Jewish custom and is to be respected as such.[6]

3. Chumashim-The five books of Moshe:

It is universally accepted that the Chumash is divided into five books, known as the five books of Moshe, containing the names 1) Bereishis; 2) Shemos; 3) Vayikra; 4) Bamidbar 5) Devarim. This division is mentioned in various places in the Talmud[7] which states “Chamisha Chumshei Torah/The five Chumashim of Torah.” It is likely attributed to Moshe Rabbeinu himself.[8] Nonetheless, we do not have a Talmudic source which points at the areas of division of the five books, and where their start and end points are located. Thus, while the general division of the Chumash to five books has Talmudic basis, its names and groupings of Bereishis, Shemos, Vayikra, Bamidbar and Devarim is not all found in the Talmud.[9] Interestingly, a second opinion voiced in the Talmud[10] states that there are actually seven books, or seven divisions, in Chumash and not five.[11] This approach learns that the two verses of “Vayehi Binsoa Haaron” found in Parshas Behaalosecha is its own Sefer, and hence book four is Bamidbar, book five is “Vayehi Binsoa”, book six is “Vayehi Ha’am Kimisonanim,” and book seven is Devarim.[12]

4. Parshiyos-The 53 Torah portions:

The concept of an order of Parshiyos being read on a weekly basis on Shabbos is recorded in the Mishneh and Talmud.[13] However, the division of the Parshiyos into the 53[14] weekly Torah portions that we know of today, is not recorded in the Talmud and is possibly not of Biblical status. Historically, it is unclear as to when this division took place and as to who authored it.[15] Nonetheless, one thing is for certain, that since the times of Moshe Rabbeinu we have been reading from the Torah for the weekday, Shabbos, and Holiday Kerias Hatorah, and obviously some form of division had to be made in order to organize the portions of the scheduled reading. Thus, it is not historically unfounded to suggest the possibility that this division was already followed by Jews since the Torah was given on Sinai, and was established by Moshe[16], and so is the understanding of some Poskim.[17] Other Poskim[18] however learn that the Parsha distribution was established by Ezra. Another approach is that the distribution is a mere custom that generated over the ages, not having been established by any one individual.[19] Thus, we find that during Talmudic times in Eretz Yisrael, they split the Torah to approximately 155 Parshiyos.[20]  Practically, the first recorded source which mentions the distribution of the Torah into 53 Parshiyos is the Zohar.[21] The next earliest recorded source is in the Siddur of Rav Saadya Gaon [900 CE]. In his famous Siddur, known as Siddur Rasag, he writes[22] “On each Shabbos we read 1/53 of the Torah, and this is called a Parsha….we already stated that there are 53 Parshiyos…as is known the Torah includes 53 Parshiyos”. A number of Rishonim[23] make mention of the 53 Parshiyos and their names. In conclusion, while the division of the 53 Parshiyos is not sourced in the Talmud, it is described as a known division by the Zohar, Rav Saadya Gaon and many Rishonim, likely dates back to the Talmud and possibly even to Biblical times and carries the full weight of a Jewish custom.

The division of the 53 portions: Regarding the start and end of each of the 53 Parshiyos as we know of today, we do not have a clearly written tradition. Rav Yissachar of Susan [1500’s] in his Sefer Ibur Shanim[24] writes this as follows “Even in the Diaspora there are places which follow variant customs in the start and end points of the Parshiyos. Some divide Parshas Ki Sisa to two, while others end Parshas Vaeira in middle of the Parsha and begin the next week from the middle of Vaeira. Other communities divide Parshas Mikeitz to two Parshiyos.” Rav Saadya Gaon in his Siddur attempts to make some organization of the Parshiyos, as to their start and end point, and in his words “Regarding the remaining Parshiyos I want to make an order.” Nonetheless, it seems evident from the above sources, that the general Parshiyos which we know of today, were for the most part followed likewise in the Geonic times of Rav Saadya, and it is only in certain areas that the order was different.

The double Parshiyos: While there are 53 Parshiyos in the Torah there are only 51 weeks in a Jewish [non-Leap] year. In addition, the weekly portion is not read on any Shabbosim that coincide with Holidays. This created a surplus of Parshiyos over the available weeks in a year, and necessitated the joining together of certain Parshiyos, so the cycle can be completed within a year. The Geonim and Rishonim, including the Rasag, Machzor Vitri, Eshkol, Sefer Haibur, record various suggestions as to which Parshiyos should be connected. Practically, the accepted custom today is to connect some or all of the following Parshiyos to facilitate the completion of the Torah reading cycle within one year. The exact number of Parshiyos that are connected in a given year, and their selection, is dependent on the factors mentioned above.

  1. Vaykhel-Pekudei
  2. Tazria-Metzora
  3. Acharei-Kedoshim
  4. Behar-Bechukosaiy
  5. Matos-Maseiy
  6. Chukas-Balak
  7. Nitzavim-Vayeilich

5. The names of the Parshiyos:

Just as the divisions of the 53 Parshiyos did not receive Talmudic mention, neither did their names, with exception to a few limited Parshiyos.[25] Several Rishonim[26], however, mention the names of all the 53 Parshiyos. Nonetheless, it is clear from the writings of these Rishonim that various customs existed regarding the names of the Parshiyos, and while the universal practice was to call it by one of the words mentioned in its opening sentence or paragraph, there were different customs regarding which word should be chosen as its name. For example, the Rasag in his Siddur, and the Rambam in his listing, refer to what is known today as Parshas Tazria as Parshas “Isha” and Parshas Metzora is referred to as Parshas “Vezos Tihyeh.” Nonetheless, the Rasag also lists a number of names of Parshiyos which are followed likewise today, such as Vayakhel, Vezos Habracha, Vayeilech, Haazinu, Pekudei, Acharei Mos, Kedoshim. The full list can be found in the Rambam’s Seder Tefillos Kol Hashanah [in end of Sefer Ahavah], and the vast majority of the Parshiyos retain the same name as we know of today. Thus, in conclusion, while not all of the names used today to refer to the Parshiyos were commonly used in previous times, such as in the Geonic era, for the most part the names are similar. Whatever the case, the fact that for over 1000 years the Parshiyos have received one universal name, is itself a matter of Divine providence and this is their name according to Torah.[27]

6. The Aliyos:[28]

Customarily, all Chumashim today contain stopping points for each Aliya; Levi, Yisrael, Sheiyni Shelishi, etc. Interestingly, the allocation of the grouping of verses that belong to each Aliya contains no source in Halachic literature, neither the Talmud or Poskim. Some Poskim[29] even attribute the distribution of Aliyos to the printers of the Chumashim and not to Rabbanim. While the Talmud and Poskim[30] provide certain rules and guidelines regarding the amount of verses each Aliya must contain and lists certain areas in which one may not end an Aliya, no distribution of Aliyos is recorded anywhere. Hence, ideally, one may stop wherever he wishes, so long as he abides by the Halachic restrictions, and so was done by some Gedolei Yisrael[31], claiming that the current distribution does not take into account all the Halachic and Zoharic requirements. Nonetheless, the widespread Jewish custom, which is Torah, is to stop by the end points of each Aliyah as written in the Chumash, and so is initially to be followed.[32] Nonetheless, different Chumashim contain different distribution points of Aliyos. The distribution of Aliyos in this Sefer is based on Chumash Torah Temima, which was followed by Russian Jewry, and is the Chabad custom until this day. It is beyond the scope of this book to research the hundreds of prints of Chumashim and their stop areas, and each community is to follow their custom. Accordingly, the subdivision of Aliya’s as printed in this Sefer is subjective to one’s community practice, and is not intended to cement in place their exact location.


[1] Admur 494:11; M”A 51:9; 282:1; 422:8; Taanis 27b; Megillah 22a; Brachos 12b regarding a Parsha [See M”A 51:9]; Nedarim 37b; Tosfos Sukkah 38b; Rokeiach 319; Chasam Sofer 10; Rav Poalim 1:11; M”B 289:2 ; Siddur of Rav Raskin Miluim 14

[2] Admur 32:47; M”A 32:45; Kiddushin 30a

[3] One must conclude this to be the case as otherwise the law recorded in the Talmud and Poskim ibid to not stop in middle of a verse would have no relevance today.

[4] Poskim ibid; See our online article for the full details on this subject: https://shulchanaruchharav.com/halacha/stopping-in-the-middle-of-a-pasuk/

[5] See here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Langton

[6] Likkutei Sichos 16 Yisro 4 footnote 40 “It is known the discussion regarding the chapter divisions of the Chumash. Whatever the case, these chapters are found in all the Chumashim of all the Jewish people for a number of generations, and a Jewish custom is Torah.

[7] Chagiga 14a; Megillah 15a and Rashi Megillah 29b; Nedarim 22b; Sanhedrin 44a; Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:1 [50b]; Sotah 5:6; Yalkut Shimoni Toldos Remez 111; Mishleiy Remez 944; The concept of Chumashim is mentioned in Megillah 27a

[8] See Mishneh Kesef of Rav Yosef Even Kasafi [1200’s] p. 112 “We will never really know who was the first person to separate the Parshiyos and make the Torah into five parts, but most likely this was done by Moshe himself.”

[9] See Mishneh Menachos 4:3 who mentions Chumash Pikudin and Toras Kohanim; See Rav Menachem Kasher in Miluim Letorah Shleima 8:1

[10] Shabbos 116a “There are seven Sifrei Torah” Rashi ibid “The verses of Vayehi Binsoa Haron are their own Sefer, and it hence splits [Bamidbar] into three Sefarim.”; Yalkut Shimoni Mishleiy Remez 944; See Zohar Mishpatim p. 119b

[11] This is derived from the verse Mishlei 9:1 “Chatzva Amudeha Shiva.” [Yerushalmi ibid]

[12] Shabbos ibid

[13] Mishneh Megillah 29a and in Gemara 30b according to Rav Ami as explained in Rashi there; Megillah 31b regarding the order of the weekday reading

[14] The earliest sources record 53 Parshiyos, including Vezos Habracha. [Siddur Rasag Hilchos Kerias Hatorah, printed by Mikitzei Nirdamim p. 363; Zohar Vayakhel 206b; Tikkunei Zohar 19 p. 38a] However, in the list of Parshiyos known of today, there are 54 Parshiyos. [Aruch Hashulchan 282:2] One must conclude that there is one Parsha that is not considered a real Parsha and is meant to be attached to another Parsha. The Chida in Dvash Lefi Mareches Pei 3 writes that Veatah Titzaveh is really part of the Parsha of Teruma. Others suggest that Nitzavim Vayeilech is really one Parsha and so is the widespread accepted explanation.

[15] See Mishneh Kesef in next footnote

[16] See Mishneh Kesef of Rav Yosef Even Kasafi [1200’s] p. 112 “We will never really know who was the first person to separate the Parshiyos and make the Torah into five parts, but most likely this was done by Moshe himself.”

[17] Some Poskim write that Moshe established which Parsha is to be read each Shabbos for all the Parshiyos of the Torah. [See Zohar Vayakhel p. 206b “It is forbidden to stop an area that Moshe did not stop and it is forbidden to read a different weeks Parsha.”; M”A 282:1 understands the Zohar to refer to the [53] Parshiyos, and that on each Shabbos a designated Parsha/Sedra is read, and this was received from Moshe on Sinai. Yeish Sechar Dinei Kerias Hatorah 6 [1600’s] writes that Ezra Hasofer established all seven Aliyos of each Parsha based on a tradition dating all the way back to Moshe; Aruch Hashulchan 282:2 “Moshe Rabbeinu established which Sedra should be read each Shabbos.”; Shulchan Hatahor 135:4 that even the double Parshiyos are a tradition of Moshe from Sinai; Piskeiy Teshuvos 135:1]

[18] See Bach 685 “However, Moshe did not establish the order of what should be read on Shabbos until Ezra came along.”

[19] See Rambam 13:1-2 that the weekly Torah portion read on Shabbos is based on custom and not law; See Megillah 29b that the custom of Jewry in Eretz Yisrael during Talmudic times was to follow a triennial cycle and hence finish the entire Chumash every three years. Some historians attribute the 53 Parsha split to the Geonic or Talmud Savuraiy period. See, however, M”A 282:1; and Aruch Hashulchan 282:3 who seem to imply that everyone agrees to the split of 53 Parshiyos, however, in Eretz Yisrael, they held that it was permitted to split each Parsha into three. Whatever the case, even if true that this division existed from the time of Sinai, the 53 Parshiyos distribution was not legally binding regarding the Torah reading and was not the universal practice, as evident from the fact that in Eretz Yisrael they split the Chumash into approximately 155/167 Parshiyos, thus completing it every three some years, unlike is done today.

[20] Some sources state that they split the Torah to 155 Parshiyos. Others say they split it to 167 Parshiyos, while others say it was split to 141 Parshiyos. Miseches Sofrim splits the Torah into 175 Parshiyos

[21] Zohar Vayakhel 206b; Tikkunei Zohar 19 p. 38a in play of the verse “Gan Naul Achosi Kallah”

[22] Siddur Rasag Hilchos Kerias Hatorah, printed by Mikitzei Nirdamim p. 363

[23] Rambam Ahavah Seder Tefilos Kol Hashana lists all 53 Parshiyos and their Haftorah’s; Rashi in Sefer Haorah “There are 53 Parshiyos in the Torah.”; Machzor Vitri 2 Hilchos Kerias Hatorah 522; Abudarham; Eshkol 21; Sefer Haibur “There are 52 Parshiyos read every Shabbos annually.”

[24] P. 33

[25] See Megillah 29b “Ata Titzaveh, Ki Sisa”; 31a “Vezos Habracha”; See Likkutei Sichos 5 Lech Lecha

[26] Rambam Ahavah Seder Tefilos Kol Hashana lists all 53 Parshiyos and their Haftorah’s; Machzor Vitri 2 Hilchos Kerias Hatorah 522; Abudarham; Eshkol 21

[27] Likkutei Sichos 5 Lech Lecha

[28] See Piskeiy Teshuvos 139:3

[29] Meoreiy Or Basar p. 156

[30] See Michaber 137:2 regarding that each Aliya must contain at least three verses; Michaber 138:1 that one may not end within three verses of a Setuma or Pesucha

[31] Gr”a in Maaseh Rav 132; Minchas Elazar 1:66; Piskeiy Teshuvos ibid

[32] See Shaar Hatziyon 138:1

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