What is Parashat Hashavua?

Image: Two Jews examining a Torah Scroll. Photo by Linda Burnett.

The quick answer to the question, “What is Parashat Hashavua?” is “It’s the Torah Portion of the Week.”

We go through the year, from Simchat Torah to Simchat Torah, reading the entire Torah Scroll from end to end. The beginnings of this custom go back into the mists of history – we don’t know exactly when Jews began studying a regular portion of Torah each week, but all over the world, Jews continue to do it. Some do it alone, but more gather weekly in groups for “Parashat Hashavua study.” For some, this study is their primary form of worship.

Some might ask, isn’t it boring to read the same things again and again? An ancient rabbi known to us as Ben Bag Bag said,

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. – Avot 5:22

Torah deals with the most sacred and the most mundane topics, everything from the nature of God to what to do with a lost cow. Every week, the Torah portion brings us narrative, commandments and mystery.

The words remain the same, but we change. To a child, the story of Noah is about a boat full of animals. An adult might read the story with horror at the carnage. A couple having trouble conceiving will notice that many of the matriarchs and patriarchs had the same problem. As we age, the stories change again and we might feel affinity for characters who did not interest us when we were young.

The words remain the same, but history moves on. It changes the lens through which we read the stories and hear the commandments. In a year when nations rattle their sabers, we may find strength in knowing that Jews have been turning and turning that scroll for thousands of years.  If we are looking for leadership, the Torah offers us role models for good leaders and examples of poor ones.

The words remain the same, but our skills grow. In the beginning, most people read for the stories, and find the directions for sacrifices almost unbearably boring. A good commentary, or better yet, study partners with varied skills can change that dynamic. The stories have depths the beginner does not suspect. The “boring parts” have subtleties that can amaze us.

For many of us today, the world is increasingly uncertain. Parashat Hashavua study offers us a mix of routine and insight that can both comfort and strengthen us. If you would like to begin, it can be done very simply with online tools:

  1. Go to Hebcal.com, the online Jewish calendar.
  2. Look at the top of the screen, after the date, and find the clickable link for the Torah portion. Click it.
  3. That will take you to a page with lots of information on the Torah portion of the week. Then you have options. You can:
    1. Scroll down to where it says “Torah Portion” and click the link.
    2. Use the chapter and verse to go to the Torah portion in your own Bible or commentary.

OR: Call your local synagogue, and ask when the Torah Study group meets. They will likely be a mixed group of adults, some of whom know a lot, and some who know just a little. All were beginners at one time. Show up, follow along, and participate when you feel ready. Be ready for multiple interpretations and conflicting ideas; that’s a good thing, not a problem. Torah Study groups are a way to make friends and become a part of things at your congregation; keep showing up, and you will become a regular.

The weekly study of Torah has sustained the Jews for thousands of years. Your place at the table is waiting.

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How to Write a D’var Torah

"Torah" by Ben Faulding (Some rights reserved)
“Torah” by Ben Faulding (Some rights reserved)

A d’var Torah [word of Torah] is a short talk or written piece about some passage of Torah, often taken from the weekly parashah [portion.]  Here are some basic steps to writing a d’var Torah:

1. Read the Torah portion. To find it, look at a Jewish calendar. Remember that Shabbat is Day 7 of the week – the last day for that Torah portion. So for Sunday through Friday, look to the Torah portion for the upcoming Shabbat.

2. As you read, make a list of the major events in the entire portion.

3. Take your list of events and turn it into a very short summary of the portion. Just hit the high points! This is just a quick summary, nothing more. That is Part One of your d’var Torah.

3. Now reread the portion. This time, watch for things that make you curious or that catch your eye. Make a list of those things, noting the verses in which they fall.

4, Read a commentary on the portion. You might read an ancient commentary, like Rashi, or a modern one, like the Women’s Torah Commentary, Etz Chaim, or Plaut. If you are ambitious, read a scholarly commentary like the JPS Torah Commentary. Again, make a list of a few things that you find particularly interesting.

5. Out of your list of “interesting things” from the portion and the commentary, choose ONE item that you find interesting.   This will be your “take away” item.  What ONE THING would you like people to remember from this portion?

6. Write a very short piece about your topic. You might mention:

  • WHAT IT IS – Name it.
  • CONTEXT – how it fits into the portion
  • MEANING – Explain what it means.  Translate if necessary.
  • SO WHAT? – What does this have to do with us?  OR- why did you find it interesting?
  • SOURCES – if you quote anyone, or repeat their ideas, be sure to give credit.  This is an important Jewish value, “speaking b’shemro.”

7. Remember, you are not here to teach Biblical Literature or World History.  This is a “Word-of-Torah.”  Focus on ONE THING, and it will be good.

8. Write the closing.  Divrei Torah should always end on an “up” note.  One strategy is to repeat your main point, with a wish that our lives be enriched by the insights of this portion.    

9. Put the paper away for at least 12 hours, then look at it again.  Does it follow the format (summary/topic/closing)?  Is it the right length?  What single thing will your listeners or readers carry away?

10. Read or publish the d’var Torah.

If you get stuck at any point, this is a time when it is good to have a rabbi or Jewish teacher to help you. If you contact them with enough lead time, they can be an excellent source of ideas and advice.

B’chatzlecha! – good luck with your first d’var Torah!