Welcome back, Diaspora Jewry! We missed you at the Torah reading!

For almost three-and-a-half months, the Torah-readings in Israel have been one week ahead of those in the exile. This is due to the extra day of Pesach outside of Israel which this year fell on Shabbat. This Shabbat we get back together.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Torah reading
Torah reading

On Shabbat 22nd Nissan (27th April), Jewish communities in the countries of exile celebrated the eighth day of Pesach, the extra day added in exile, and they read Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17. On that same Shabbat, communities in Israel resumed the annual cycle of weekly Torah-readings with Parashat Acharei Mot.

A week later, Shabbat 29th Nissan (4th May), communities in exile read Parashat Acharei Mot, while on the same Shabbat communities in Israel read Parashat Kedoshim.

And so we continued, Israel one week ahead of the exile, Shabbat-by-Shabbat. This coming Shabbat we will read Parashat Mas’ei, and the exile will catch up with Israel by reading the double parashah Mattot-Mas’ei.

So this Shabbat, all of us, both in Israel and in the exile, will conclude the Book of Numbers, and we in Israel will welcome our brothers in exile back to being synchronised with us in the Torah-reading cycle.

This prompts us to ask: Why has the exile taken so long to catch up with Israel?

There are seven parashot which can be doubled when necessary: Vayak’hel-Pekudey (concluding the Book of Exodus); Tazria-Metzora, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, and Behar-Bechukkotay (in Leviticus); Chukkat-Balak (only in exile, never in Israel) and Mattot-Mas’ei in Numbers; and Nitzavim-Vayeilech in Deuteronomy.

This means that the exile has had three opportunities to read a double parashah and thus catch up with Israel since Pesach. The first was the very first Shabbat after Pesach, 29th Nissan (4th May): instead of reading Parashat Acharei Mot by itself, they could have read the double parashah Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.

They could also have read the double parashah Behar-Bechukkotay on Shabbat 13th Iyyar (18th May), or the double parashah Chukkat-Balak on Shabbat 3rd Tammuz (6th July).

Why, then, has it taken almost three-and-a-half months for the exile to catch up with Israel? What rule is there, and what is the reason for the rule, that the exile would wait until this Shabbat, the final parashah in the Book of Numbers, the fourth opportunity to read a double parashah, to come back into synchronisation with Israel?

Let us start by noting that there are only two circumstances which can cause the disparity between the readings in Israel and the exile. One is when Pesach begins on Shabbat (as happened this year). The other is when Shavuot falls on Friday: then Israel continues with the annual cycle of weekly Torah-readings on Shabbat, the day after Shavuot (7th of Sivan), and communities in the exile read Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17, the reading for the extra day of Shavuot added in exile (the same reading as the extra day of Pesach), and resume the weekly Torah-readings the following Shabbat.

When the extra day of Shavuot falls on Shabbat, communities in exile catch up with Israel after just 5 weeks, by combining Parashot Chukkat and Balak. This is not unusual: it has happened 30 times in the last 100 years, the last time in 5769 (2009), and the next time will be next year, 5780 (2020).

(This 11-year gap is extremely unusual: the last time there was an 11-year gap from one Friday-Shabbat Shavuot to the next was 1762-1773.)

It is unusual for Israel and the exile to be out of step for almost three-and-a-half months, from immediately after Pesach until the end of the Book of Numbers: the last time this happened was in 5755 (1995), and the time before that was in 5752 (1992). It happened again this year, and the next time will be in 5782 (2022).

It can happen only in a Jewish leap year in which Pesach begins on Shabbat [1].

In a non-leap year in which Pesach begins on Shabbat, the same phenomenon occurs – on Shabbat 22nd of Nissan Israel continues with the annual cycle of weekly Torah-readings, while communities in the exile read the Torah-reading for eighth day of Pesach (Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17). However, in a non-leap year, communities in exile catch up with Israel by combining Behar and Bechukkotay, on the Shabbat that Israel reads Bechukkotay alone, just 5 weeks after Pesach. [2]

Why the difference between a regular year and a leap year in the number of weeks that it takes for the exile to catch up with Israel?

– Halachic considerations aside, I suggest:

The function of the leap year is to keep our calendar synchronised with the solar cycle. Our months are measured from new moon to new moon, meaning that the ordinary Jewish year of 12 months is 354 days long, sometimes one day less or more, i.e. about 11¼ days shorter than the solar year. Hence the calendar tends to drift backwards, with the months and the Festivals falling earlier by about 11 days a year.

To compensate, we add 7 leap years in each cycle of 19 years. The leap year contains an extra month – specifically an extra month of Adar with 30 days, making the leap year 384 days long, sometimes one day less or more. These additional 210 days in each 19-year cycle keep the Jewish calendar in step with the solar cycle and the seasons.

The prime requisite is that Pesach, also called Chag ha-Aviv, the Festival of Spring, must always fall in the spring. (This is the reason that the extra month is Adar, the month immediately preceding Nissan: it is in Adar, in those final weeks before Pesach, that we can discern with certainty if Pesach will fall in springtime, or if it needs to be postponed by another month.)

When G-d commanded us, while we were yet in Egypt, to calibrate our calendar (see Exodus 12:1-2 with Rosh Hashanah 22a, 25b, et al.), He entrusted us with determining when we would celebrate His festivals.

“These are Hashem’s appointed seasons, holy convocations, which you shall declare in their times” (Leviticus 23:4). Since the festivals fall on specific dates, the celebration of those festivals depends upon the calendar. And G-d Himself entrusted us to determine the calendar.

The question inevitably arises: Since the beginning of the month is determined by sighting the new moon, what happens if the Sanhedrin errs? What happens if the witnesses who claim to have sighted the new moon and testify to it before the Sanhedrin are mistaken, causing the Sanhedrin to declare the month a day earlier than they should? Or alternatively, if the Sanhedrin rejects testimony which was actually correct, and therefore declare the month a day later than they should? Does this mean that the entire Jewish nation is celebrating the festival on the wrong day?

– No. This situation actually occurred during Rabban Gamliel’s tenure as Nasi (Head of the Sanhedrin) in Yavneh. A pair of witnesses testified before the Sanhedrin that they had sighted the new moon; Rabban Gamliel accepted their testimony, accepting that the new month began that day, and Rabbi Dosa ben Horkenos and Rabbi Yehoshua rejected their testimony (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 2:8).

This threatened to cause a rift in the Jewish nation: the month was Tishrei, so the decision of when the new moon was visible determined the day on which the entire nation would celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot, and Shmini Atzeret. So the question of whose decision to accept – Rabban Gamliel’s or Rabbi Dosa ben Horkenos’s and Rabbi Yehoshua’s – was massively consequential.

Whenever the Talmud refers to Rabbi Yehoshua without any identification (there were more than 50 rabbis called Yehoshua), it invariably refers to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiyah (see Nazir 56b with Rashi, s.v. ור' אליעזר מר' יהושע). When Rabban Gamliel was Nasi, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiyah was Av Beit Din, the second-highest ecclesiastical authority in Israel, second only to the Nasi himself.

To avoid a potentially disastrous schism in the nation, Rabban Gamliel sent a harsh message to Rabbi Yehoshua: “I command you to come before me with your staff and your money-pouch on the day that Yom Kippur falls according to your reckoning” (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 2:9) – that is to say, demonstrate publicly that you have not followed your reckoning, rather you have accepted my decision.

Rabbi Yehoshua was understandably upset, and Rabbi Akiva – one of the greatest halachic authorities in the entire Talmud – went to comfort him by telling him: “I can learn that everything that Rabban Gamliel has done is valid; it says, ‘These are Hashem’s appointed seasons, holy convocations, which you shall declare’ – whether they are declared at their right times or their wrong times, I have no appointed seasons other than these” (Mishnah, ibid.).

Rabbi Yehoshua, still unconvinced, went to Rabbi Dosa (who had agreed with him against Rabban Gamliel). And Rabbi Dosa’s response was: “If we come to judge Rabban Gamliel’s Court, then we must judge every single Court that has ever arisen since the days of Moshe” (ibid.).

And so, convinced at last, Rabbi Yehoshua indeed took his staff and his money-pouch on the day that Yom Kippur fell according to his reckoning, and went to Rabban Gamliel – who stood up in respect and kissed his head (ibid.).

On the fourth day of Creation, G-d had created the sun, moon, and stars: “Let there be lights in the firmament of the Heavens...which will be as signs and appointed seasons” (Genesis 1:14), meaning that the heavenly illuminations which G-d created were to serve to calibrate our calendar, the beginning of the months, and by extension the correct times for the festivals.

But when He redeemed us from Egypt, He entrusted us with the task of calibrating the calendar. That is to say, we are G-d’s partners in Creation, no less – by His decree, no less!

This is never more blatant than when declaring a leap year: that extra month of Adar delays the festival of Pesach, the festival which celebrates our redemption from Egypt. That is to say, we mere mortals decide when the true anniversary of G-d’s redemption falls!

Thus the institution of the leap year is the most blatant example possible of how G-d Himself trusts us to run His world.

By contrast, the very existence of Jewish exile is the bleakest example possible of how we are mismanaging His world. G-d decreed, even from Creation, that the nation of Israel would live its national life in the Land of Israel (see the very first Rashi in the entire Torah), and the presence of the majority of Jews in exile shows a broken world.

Pesach celebrates and recalls G-d’s most stupendous miracles in history (so far – the greatest are yet to come, in the time of the final Redemption), demonstrating His sovereignty to Israel and to the world’s mightiest superpower of the day.

The Book of Numbers bridges between the generation of slaves who left Egypt and who died in exile in the Sinai Desert, and the generation who inherited the Land of Israel. It begins with the census in the desert a year and a month after the Exodus. And this week, Parashat Mas’ei concludes this Book by recapping very briefly the Exodus and the subsequent 40-year desert trek (Numbers 33:1-49); then the final 83 verses (33:50-36:13) are G-d’s instructions for our approaching conquest of the Land of Israel – how to relate to the inhabitants of the Land (33:50-56), the precise borders of the Land (34:1-12), the internal Tribal borders and Tribal leaders (34:13-29), the Levite Cities (35:1-8), the Cities of Refuge (35:9-34), and so forth.

That is to say, Parashat Mas’ei prepares us for tikkun olam, rectifying the world, by bringing the Children of Israel into the Land of Israel.

And as much as G-d has entrusted His calendar into our control, He has entrusted the running of His Land into our control. Thus, for example, the Shmitta (Remission) Year and the Yovel (Jubilee) Year are calculated from the time that the nation of Israel took possession of its Land (see the Rambam, Laws of Shmitta and Yovel 10:2).

Similarly the borders of the Land of Israel, which He defines in this week’s parashah, depend upon Jewish settlement of the Land: this is why Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh could expand Israel’s borders eastwards into trans-Jordan (Numbers 32), and decades later Dan could expand Israel’s borders northwards and eastwards by conquering Leshem, also called Laish (Joshua 19:47 and Judges 18:7-29, with Rashi and Radak to Joshua 19:47, and Ralbag to Judges 18:14).

As much as a world in which Jews are in exile is a damaged world, a world in which Jews are sovereign in their own Land is a rectified world.

And Parashat Mas’ei prepares us for the transition from the damaged world to the rectified world.

Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Mas’ei (or Mattot-Mas’ei) invariably falls during the Three Weeks, usually the Shabbat immediately before Rosh Chodesh Av, sometimes (as this year 5779) the first Shabbat in Av.

By calibrating the annual Torah-reading cycle thus, our Sages determined that the Torah would prepare us for our approach to the 9th of Av – the very epitome of a damaged world, a destroyed world, a ruined world, but also the day which is destined one day to be day of eternal redemption, of absolute rectification.

From this perspective, then, the 9th of Av will be an even more perfect Pesach: as much as Pesach celebrates the first redemption, the redemption from Egypt, the 9th of Av will one day celebrate the ultimate Redemption.

And now, after this long and circuitous explanation, we have a perspective on why we have waited so long – three-and-a-half months – for the exile to catch up with Israel in their Torah-readings. It was the extra day of Pesach which marks the end of exile, which knocked the exile’s Torah-reading backwards by one week, out of synch with Israel.

Specifically during a leap year, the time in which G-d’s granting of control over His world to us is most manifest, it is most appropriate that Jews in Israel and Jews in exile be reunited specifically at this time of the year – the conclusion of the Book of Numbers, and the Shabbat which either immediately precedes or immediately follows Rosh Chodesh Av.

This is the time for those of us in Israel to tell our brothers who are still in exile: Welcome back! 



[1] For those particularly interested in the Jewish calendar: This means either a year which begins on Monday and is “complete”, i.e. Marcheshvan has 30 days instead of the usual 29, as this year; alternatively a year which begins on Tuesday and is “kesidrah”, i.e. Marcheshvan has 29 days and Kislev has 30 days, as 5755 (1994-1995) was. 

[2] For an excellent and extremely detailed analysis and explanation of which parashot are doubled under what circumstances, I refer the interested reader to http://www.hakirah.org/vol%202%20epstein.pdf.