Today’s section discusses what was interrupted by the special Shabbatot—the regular cycle of Torah reading, or just the haftorah. We should note that many scholars believe that in Israel during the special Shabbatot they did not read the regular Torah reading, whereas in Babylonia they read the regular parshat hashavua and read only a special maftir and haftorah, as we do today.
Ammi says they go back to the regular order of Torah readings. This implies that during the special Shabbatot, they did not read the regular portion of the week.
But R. Jeremiah seems to imply that only the haftarot were interrupted by the special Shabbatot. The regular Torah reading cycle was not interrupted (this is how we behave today). On the fifth Shabbat they go back to the regular order of haftarot.
Abaye cites the mishnah to support R. Ammi, who said that they interrupted the cycle of Torah portions. The mishnah refers to interrupting the cycle for events that can only occur during the week, such as fasts (for rain on Monday or Thursday) or “ma’amadot” (readings by the local population when the local priests are serving in the Temple). Thus it must mean that the regular Torah reading is interrupted, not the haftorah, for there is no haftorah during the week.
Jeremiah resolves the mishnah by saying that if the holiday falls during the week, then the there is no haftorah and only the Torah reading is interrupted. But if it falls on Shabbat, then the regular Torah reading is not interrupted; only the haftorah. [Again, this is how we behave today].
Theoretically, according to R. Jeremiah’s position that we don’t interrupt the regular Torah reading, we could read the regular Torah reading at Shacharit on fast days and then the special Torah reading at Minhah, for we do read Torah on Minhah of fast days. So why interrupt if it’s not necessary?
The answer is that on fast days people gather in the morning to examine their deeds, to try to understand why the troubles have occurred. Thus there will be no time to read in the Torah. [Remember, the fast days referred to here are those called because it has not rained, or because of other national crises. These are not the fast days we usually still observe today.]
Today we read Torah on mornings and afternoons of fast days. But this was not customary during the Talmudic period.
Abaye explains how they would act on the day of a public fast, in line with what was stated above, where we learned that they would not read Torah in the morning. This practice is loosely based on a verse from Nehemiah, describing the confessions and prayers of the Jews who returned to Israel after the Babylonian exile. During the second half of the day the Jews would first read the Sefer Torah and then confess and bow down to God.
The Talmud asks how we can be so sure that Ezra 9:3 is referring to the second half of the day. Perhaps they read Torah, prayed and confessed on the first half of the day?
This is ruled out by the following two verses. In v. 4 the exiles gather around Ezra to discuss the sins of the returning exiles. This, according to the Talmud, occurred during the first half of the day. During the second half of the day Ezra prays and asks God for mercy.
This mishnah lists the portions read first on the holidays, then on non-biblical holidays and concludes with some general rules.
I have explained the mishnah only where I felt that it requires explanation.
The one slightly confusing issue is the readings for Sukkot. On the first day of Sukkot we read from Leviticus 23, the same reading as on Pesah. On the remaining days we read the sacrifices listed for that day in Numbers 29:17 ff. Sukkot differs from Pesah in that on Pesah the same musaf offerings are made every day. On Sukkot each day has a different number of offerings. As an aside, this is one reason why we recite the full Hallel for all seven days of Sukkot but only on the first day of Pesah.
Section six: Hannukah literally means “dedication” and refers to the dedication of the Temple after its restoration in the time of the Maccabees. The portion in the Torah read on Hannukah is a list of the gifts brought by the princes of each tribe at the dedication of the Mishkah, the tabernacle.
Section seven: On Purim we read about Amalek because Haman was, according to the rabbis, from Amalek.
Section nine: On Ma’amadot people would gather in the Temple or in their own cities while their local kohanim took there turn at service in the Temple. See Taanit 4:2-3.
Section ten: The curses (called today the “tochekhah” or rebuke) are read on fast days as a warning to people that they must repent. When reading the curses we don’t interrupt, making them into two or more aliyot—rather they are all read by the same person. This is still the custom today, making one of the aliyot in Ki Tavo the longest aliyah of the year.
Section eleven: Besides Shabbat morning, the Torah is also read on Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbat at minhah (the afternoon service). These readings go according to the regular cycle but they don’t count toward the regular progression. This means that the same portion that is read at all three occasions and then again on Shabbat. We only move forward on Shabbat.
Section twelve: The chapter ends with a midrash on Leviticus 23:44. The verse states that Moshe told the holidays to the people of Israel, but this verse is superfluous—Moshe taught all of the commandments to the people. Therefore the midrash teaches that not only did Moshe teach the holidays, but he taught each one at the time that it fell. By his example we learn that on all holidays we read the Torah portion relevant to that holiday.