A Blessing on Your Head - Introduction
Directly after reciting the blessings over the Torah, we immediately follow them by reading verses from the Torah. Tosafot in Tractate Berachot 11b explain that this custom originated in France and it is extremely old. What is the rationale behind the custom? Normally, on making a blessing over something, we straightaway do whatever it was that prompted the blessing. For example, before eating an apple we make a blessing and then, without pausing, we bite into the apple right away so that there is no break between the recitation of the blessing and the action that goes together with it. So, too, here, directly after reciting the blessings over the Torah, we read selected portions of the Torah. Our recitation of the verses and the Talmudic teachings are an act of learning, and eliminate concern that we might have recited the blessings over the Torah in vain.
What exactly is said to constitute our Torah learning after saying these blessings? First, three verses are recited from Numbers, 6:24-26. Following that, the very first Mishna in Tractate Peah – a Tractate that deals with agricultural issues – is said. The third piece that is said is a lesson from the Talmud that is taken from Tractate Shabbat 127a. The theme of “number three” is clearly prevalent here: the first section is comprised of three verses, and, all together there are three different segments from the Written Torah and the Oral Torah that are recited.
The Mishna in Tractate Middot 2:6 describes that in the Holy Temple there were three steps between the Israelites’ Courtyard and the Priestly Courtyard, and it was on these three steps that the Priestly Blessing was recited. Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1579-1654), in his formative and indispensable commentary on the Mishna called Tosafot Yom Tov, explains that the Priestly Blessing was comprised of three verses — exactly the same three verses that we recite each morning after the Morning Blessings — and that is why there were three steps: one for each verse. Subsequently, it is extremely fitting that we recite three different sections of the Torah, corresponding to the three steps between the two courtyards.
But there is another dimension as well. The Torah is comprised of both a Written Torah and an Oral Torah. The dominant part of the Oral Torah is the Mishna and the Talmud. Hence, we recite verses from the Written Torah as well as sections from the Mishna and from the Talmud. And, by doing so, we are ensuring that we say something from each facet of the inestimable and priceless triple-twined treasure that is the Torah.
Rabbi David Avudraham, in his foundational Sefer Avudraham on the prayers and blessings, adds another detail. The first of three verses that we read is comprised of three words, the second verse has five words, and the third verse has seven. The universally accepted custom is that when the Torah is read during the week, three people are called up to recite blessings over the Torah. On a Festival, five people are called up. And on Shabbat, seven people are honored with being called up. The Avudraham explains that the reason that our Sages instituted such a system was to mirror the number of words in each of the three verses of the Priestly Blessing — three, five and seven.
To be continued…