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A cycle of three years, in the course of which the whole Law is read on Sabbaths and festivals. This was the practise in Palestine, whereas in Babylonia the entire Pentateuch was read in the synagogue in the course of a single year (Meg. 29b). The modern practise follows the Babylonian; but as late as 1170 Benjamin of Tudela mentioned Egyptian congregations that took three years to read the Torah ("Itinerary," ed. Asher, p. 98). The reading of the Law in the synagogue can be traced to at least about the second century B.C., when the grandson of Sirach refers to it in his preface as an Egyptian practise; it must, therefore, have existed even earlier in Palestine. It has been suggested that the reading of the Law was due to a desire to controvert the views of the Samaritans with regard to the various festivals, for which reason arrangements were made to have the passages of the Pentateuch relating to those festivals read and expounded on the feast-days themselves.

The Masoretic divisions known as "sedarim" and variously indicated in the text, number 154 in the Pentateuch, and probably correspond, therefore, to the Sabbath lessons of the triennial system, as was first surmised by Rapoport ("Halikot Ḳedem," p. 11). The number varies, however, so that Menahem Me'iri reckoned 161 divisions, corresponding to the greatest number of Sabbaths possible in three years; the Yemen grammars and scrolls of the Pentateuch enumerate 167 (see Sidra); and the tractate Soferim (xvi. 10) gives the number as 175 (comp. Yer. Shab. i. 1). It is possible that this last division corresponds to a further development by which the whole of the Pentateuch was read twice in seven years, or once in three and a half years. The minimum seder for a Sabbath portion when seven persons are called up to the Law (see 'Aliyah) should consist of twenty-one verses, since no one should read less than three verses (Meg. iv. 4). Some sedarim have less than twenty-one verses, however, as, for example, Ex. xxx. 1-8.

Divisions and Beginning of the Cycle.

If the 154 sedarim are divided into three portions corresponding to the three years, the second would commence at Ex. xii. and the third at Num. vi. 22, a passage treating of the priestly blessing and the gifts of the twelve tribal chiefs after the erection of the Tabernacle. Tradition assumes that the events described in Num. vi. took place on the 1st of Nisan, and it would follow that Gen. i. and Ex. xi. would also be read on the first Sabbath of that month, while Deut. xxxiv., the last portion of the Pentateuch, would be read in Adar. Accordingly, it is found that the death of Moses is traditionally assigned to the 7th of Adar, about which date Deut. xxxiv. would be read.

A. Büchler has restored the order of the sedarim on the assumption that the reading of the Law was commenced on the 1st of Nisan and continued for three years, and he has found that Genesis would be begun on the 1st of Nisan, Deuteronomy on the 1st of Elul, Leviticus on the 1st of Tishri, and Exodus and Numbers on the 15th of Shebaṭ, the four NewYears given in the Mishnah (R. H. i. 1). Nisan has always been regarded as the ecclesiastical NewYear. This arrangement would account for many traditions giving definite dates to Pentateuchal occurrences, the dates being, strictly speaking, those of the Sabbaths on which the lessons recording the occurrences are read. Thus, it is declared that the exodus from Egypt took place on Thursday, the 15th of Nisan ("Seder 'Olam," x.), and the passage relating to the Exodus was read on that day. The slaying of the Passover lamb is said to have occurred on the 10th of Nisan, and is described in Ex. xii. 21, the passage read in the triennial cycle on the second Sabbath of Nisan, which would be the 10th where the 15th fell on Thursday. This likewise explains the tradition that the Israelites encamped at Rameses on a Sabbath, the 17th of Nisan, on which Ex. xii. 37 would be read in the triennial cycle. The tradition that Rachel was remembered on New-Year's Day (R. H. 10b) is due to the fact that in the first year of the cycle the sidra Gen. xxx. 22, beginning, "And God remembered Rachel," would be read on Rosh ha-Shanah. As the reading of Deut. xxxiv. would occur on the 7th of Adar, there would be four remaining Sabbaths to be filled in before the new triennial cycle, which began with Nisan. Four special Sabbaths, Sheḳalim, Zakor, Parah, and Ha-Ḥodesh, still occur in Adar. Including these and the festival parashiyyot, and possibly also the special sedarim for Ḥanukkah and Purim, eleven extra divisions would be obtained, making up the 166 or 167 of the Yemen Bible.

Connections Between Readings and Festivals.

The triennial cycle seems to have been established in New Testament times. John vi. 4 contains an allusion to the Passover, and vii. 2 to the Feast of Tabernacles, while in vi. 59, between the two, reference is made to a sermon on the manna delivered in the synagogue at Capernaum. This would be appropriate for a discourse on the text for the first or eighth of the month Iyyar (i.e., between Passover and Tabernacles), which, in the triennial cycle, dealt with Ex. vi. 1-xvii.1, where the account of the manna is given. So, too, at the season of Pentecost the cycle of readings in the first year would reach Gen. xi., which deals with the story of Babel and the confusion of tongues, so that in Acts ii. Pentecost is associated with the gift of the spirit which led to a confusion of tongues. Similarly, the Decalogue was read on Pentecost in the second year of the cycle, whence came, according to Büchler, the traditional association of the giving of the Law with Pentecost. Ex. xxxiv., which contains a second Decalogue, is accordingly read on the 29th of Ab, or 80 days after Pentecost, allowing exactly forty days before and after the sin of the golden calf. So too Deut. v., containing a third Decalogue, began on the same day, the 29th of Ab. The above diagram shows the arrangement and the connection of the various dates with the successive sedarim, the three concentric rings showing the three cycles, and the twelve radii separating the months of the Jewish year indicated in the inner circle.

The Triennial Cycle of the Psalms.

In addition to this division of the Pentateuch into a triennial reading, E. G. King has proposed an arrangement of the Psalms on the same system, thus accounting for their lection in a triennial cycle which varied between 147 and 150 Sabbaths; and he also shows the agreement of the five divisions or books of the Psalms, now fixed by the doxologies, with the five divisions of the Pentateuch, the first and third books of both the Psalter and the Pentateuch ending in the month Shebaṭ. Ps. lxxii. 19 would be read on the same day as Ex. xl. 34, the two passages throwing light on each other. The Asaph Psalms (lxxiii.-lxxxiii.) would begin, on this principle, on the Feast of "Asif" in the seventh month, just when, in the first year of the Pentateuchal cycle, Gen. xxx. et seq. would be read, dealing with the birth of Joseph, whose name is there derived from the root "asaf." A still more remarkable coincidence is the fact that Ps. c. would come just at the time in Adar when, according to tradition, the death of Moses occurred, and when Deut. xxxiii. would be read; hence, it is suggested, originated the heading of Ps. xc., "A prayer of Moses, the man of God." The Pilgrim Psalms (cxx.-cxxxiv.) would be read, in this system, during the fifteen Sabbaths from the 1st of Elul to Ḥanukkah, the very time when a constant procession of pilgrims was bringing the first-fruits to the Temple. Many other associations of appropriate Psalms with the festivals which they illustrate have been pointed out.

Diagram Showing Arrangement of Readings from the Law During the Triennial Cycle. The Readings are Represented by Concentric Circles; Hebrew Months are Indicated by Radii.(From the "Journal of Theological Studies.")

Besides these examples Büchler gives the following sections of the Pentateuch read on various Sabbaths in the different years of the cycle, basing his identification on certain haggadic associations of the Sabbaths with the events to which they refer. In the first year the four sedarim of Nisan appear to be Gen. i. 1-ii. 3, ii. 4-iii. 21, iii. 22-iv. 26, and v. 1-vi. 8. The second Sabbath of Iyyar was probably devoted to Gen. vi. 9-vii. 24 (comp. vii. 1). In thesecond year the readings on the Sabbaths of Nisan deal with Ex. xii., xiii., xiv., and xv., ch. xiv. concurring with the Passover; and it is for this reason that the Haggadah states that Adam taught his sons to bring a Passover offering, since the passage Gen. iii. was read during the Passover week in the cycle of the first year. In Iyyar of the second year the readings included Ex. xvi. 1, xxviii., xvii. 1, xviii. 1, and xix. 6, there being usually five Sabbaths in that month. Two of the portions for Siwan are also identified as Ex. xx. 1, xxii. 4; at the end of Elul Lev. i. was read; while on the first days of Tishri ib. iv. 1, v. 1, and vi. 12 were the readings, and on the 10th (Yom Kippur) ib. viii. 1 and x. 7.

In the third cycle, besides the account of the death of Moses already referred to as being read on the 7th of Adar, or the 7th of Shebaṭ, in Nisan the four pericopes were Num. vi. 22, vi. 48, viii. 1, and ix. 1, while the third Sabbath of Iyyar was devoted to the reading of Num. xv. 1, and the 3d of Ab to that of ib. xxxvi. Some of these passages were retained for the festival readings, even after the annual cycle had been introduced.


Besides the readings from the Law the readings from the Prophets were also arranged in a triennial cycle. These appear to have been originally a few selected verses intended to strengthen the passage from the Law read previously, and so connect it with the following discourse of the preacher, which took for its text the last verse of the hafṭarah. Thus there is evidence that Isa. lii. 3-5 was at one time regarded as a complete hafṭarah to Gen. xxxix. 1. Even one-verse hafṭarot are known, as Ezek. xlv. 17 and Isa. lxvi. 23, read on New Moons. A list of the earlier hafṭarot suitable for the festivals is given in Meg. 31a. Evidence of two hafṭarot for one festival is shown in the case of Passover, for which Josh. v. 10 and Josh. iii. are mentioned. This can easily be explained by the existence of a triennial cycle, especially as Num. ix. 2-3 was the reading for the first day of Passover, and corresponds exactly to Josh. v. 20. In the case of the NewYear it has been possible to determine the hafṭarot for the three cycles: I Sam. ii. 21, Jer. xxxi. 19, and, for the third year, Joel ii. 1, corresponding to the reading Deut. v., which formed the Pentateuchal lesson. For Ḥanukkah, the Torah seder of which treats of lamps (Num. viii. 1-2), the hafṭarot Zech. iv. 2 and I Kings vii. 49 were selected as being suitable passages. A third hafṭarah is also found (I Kings xviii. 31), completing the triennial arrangement.

The Karaites adopted some of the triennial hafṭarot in their reading of the Law. The hafṭarot of the first year of the cycle can often be identified by this fact. Of the twenty-nine sedarim of the Book of Exodus eighteen were taken from Isaiah, three from Jeremiah, four from the Minor Prophets, three from the historical works, and one from Ezekiel, whose words, for some reason, seem on the whole to have been eschewed by those who selected the prophetic readings. A certain confusion seems to have arisen among the hafṭarot, owing to the fact that among some congregations the reading of the Pentateuchal portions was begun on the 1st of Elul (also regarded as a New-Year).

Diagram Showing Arrangement of Readings from the Psalms During the Triennial Cycle. The Psalms are Represented by Concentric Circles; Hebrew Months are Indicated by Radii.(From the "Journal of Theological Studies.")

In the Masoretic text of the Prophets occur a number of divisions marked as sedarim which correspond to smaller divisions in the Torah. Among these may be mentioned:

I Kings vi. 11-13correspondingtoEx. xxv.
Ezek. xii. 20""Lev. xxvi. 3 or 4?
I Sam. vi. 14""Num. iv. 17
Josh. xvii. 4""Num. xxvi. 52
Jer. ix. 22-24""Deut. viii.
II Kings xiii. 23""Deut. x.
Judges ii. 7""Deut. xxxi. 14

The present arrangement of hafṭarot seems to have been introduced into Babylonia by Rab, especially those for the three Sabbaths of repentance preceding the Ninth of Ab, and the three consolatory ones succeeding it. Büchler has traced the prophetic portions of these three latter Sabbaths for each of the three years of the cycle as follows:

  • I. Isa. xl. 1, li. 12, liv. 11.
  • II. Isa. xlix. 14, lx. 1, lxi. 10.
  • III. Isa. liv. 1, Zech. ii. 14, ix. 9.

He finds traces of the triennial cycle also in the prophetic portions for the four supplementary Sabbaths, Sheḳalim, Zakor, Parah, and Ḥodesh. For Sheḳalim hafṭarot are found from (a) II Kings xii., (b) Ezek. xlv. onward (among the Karaites), and (c) I Kings iv. 20 onward. It is tolerably clear that these were the hafṭarot of the three different years of the cycle when that particular Sabbath came round. It is possible that when the arrangement of the calendar and of the reading of the Law was first made these four supplementary Sabbaths were intended to fill out the time between the 7th of Adar, when the account of the death of Moses in Deut. xxxiv. was read, and the first Sabbath in Nisan, when the cycle began. Traces of the cycle are also found in the hafṭarot for the festivals. Thus, on the first day of Passover, Ex. xii. 29 was read, approximately in its due place in the cycle in the second year; and corresponding to this Josh. v. 10 was read in the Prophets, whereas there are also traces of Num. ix. 22 being read on that day, as would occur in the third year of the cycle, when Josh. iii. was read as the hafṭarah. The passage for the second day of Passover, Num. ix. 1 et seq., which was introduced by the Babylonians, has attached to it II Kings xxiii. 21 as the hafṭarah, and would correspond to the section in the first year's cycle. On Pentecost, Ex. xix. was read in the second year, while Gen. xi. 15 was read for the first year of the cycle. So, too, on New-Year, Gen. xxx. 22 was read in the first year, Lev. iv. in the second, and Deut. v. in the third, the corresponding hafṭarot being Jer. xxxi. 19, I Sam. ii., and Joel ii. For the Sukkot of the first year for the sidra of Gen. xxxii., the hafṭarah was Zech. xiv. 16-19; for that of the second year, Lev. ix. 10, the hafṭarah was I Kings viii. 8; and for that of the third year, Deut. viii. 9, the hafṭarah was Isa. iv. 6 (among the Karaites).

In the accompanying diagram the sidrot of the Law for the Sabbaths of the three years of the cycle are indicated, as well as the hafṭarot which accompany them. Sometimes these have alternatives, and in several cases, as for Gen. xl. 23, xliii. 14, Ex. i. 1, xxvii. 20, and Lev. xix. 1, three hafṭarot are given for the sidra, pointing in all probability to the hafṭarot reading during the triennial cycle. In this enlarged form the connection of the beginning of the reading of the books with the various sacred New-Years, those of Nisan, of Elul (for tithes), and of Shebaṭ (for trees), comes out most clearly and convincingly. The manner in which the present-day reading of the Law and the Prophets has been derived from the triennial cycle is shown clearly by the diagram. It would appear that at the beginning of the cycle all the sidrot of the month were read together; but this was soon given up, as obviously it would result in the whole of the Law being read in three-quarters of a year or less.

There are indications of the application of the triennial cycle to the Psalms also. The Aggadat Bereshit treats twenty-eight sedarim of Genesis uniformly in three sections, one devoted to a passage in Genesis, the next to a corresponding prophetic passage (hafṭarah), and the third to a passage from the Psalms, generally cognate with either the Law or the Prophets. It may be added that in Luke xxiv. 44 a threefold division is made of "the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms."

The transition from the triennial to the annual reading of the Law and the transference of the beginning of the cycle to the month of Tishri are attributed by Büchler to the influence of Rab, and may have been due to the smallness of the sedarim under the old system, and to the fact that people were thus reminded of the chief festivals only once in three years. It was then arranged that Deut. xxviii. should fall before the New-Year, and that the beginning of the cycle should come immediately after the Feast of Tabernacles. This arrangement has been retained by the Karaites and by modern congregations, leaving only slight traces of the triennial cycle in the four special Sabbaths and in some of the passages read upon the festivals, which are frequently sections of the triennial cycle, and not of the annual one. It would further be of interest to consult the earlier lectionaries of the Church (which has borrowed its first and second lessons from the Jewish custom) to see how far they agree with the results already obtained for the triennial cycle. The Church father Chrysostom about 175 C.E. declared that it was customary to begin reading from Genesis during Lent, that is, in Nisan, thus showing that to the end of the second century the Church followed the Synagogue in commencing the reading of the Law at the beginning of the Jewish ecclesiastical New-Year. See also Parashiyyot; Sidra.

  • Büchler, in J. Q. R. v. 420-468, vi. 1-73;
  • E. N. Adler, ib. viii. 528-529;
  • E. G. King, Journal of Theological Studies, Jan., 1904;
  • I. Abrahams, in J. Q. R. xvi. 579-583.
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