Question #1: When is it a good idea to have doubles?
Question #2: Disproportionate readings
Why are the last four parshiyos of the Torah so short? Would it not make sense that the weekly readings be more evenly divided?
Question #3: Why does is take them so long to catch up?
Sometimes the weekly reading in Eretz Yisrael and chutz la’aretz are a week apart for months on end. Why don’t we coordinate things better?
Most doctors and other health professionals agree with the Rambam’s assessment that taking a double portion is not good for our health. Nevertheless, in most calendar years, our policy is to have several weeks of the year when we read a double parsha, and this is definitely good policy; otherwise, we would have difficulty completing the Torah every year and making a Siyum HaTorah on Simchas Torah. This year 5774 adds an unusual feature, in that there is only one parsha doubled the entire year, and that is not until the very last week of the year – almost as if we need to break the no-hitter in the ninth inning. Although this happened exactly three years ago, the time before that this happened was almost thirty years ago — back in 5744/1983/4, and we will not see this phenomenon again for another 21 years. Those who deplore long Shabbos davenings, and those curious to find out why this year was so singular – stay aboard.
There are a total of seven potential “double parshiyos,” meaning parshiyos that can sometimes be read as one reading on a Shabbos, but we rarely double them all in the same year. The reason for the doubling of most parshiyos is to accommodate the extra Shabbosos that are missing in a common (non-leap) year, which is a month shorter than a leap year; but, this is not the only reason for doubled parshiyos. Since the doubling of most parshiyos is to accommodate the four extra weeks of the leap year (or the four missing Shabbosos of the common year, depending on whether you look at the year as half-full or half-empty), four of the doubled parshiyos are at the end of Sefer Shemos or in Sefer Vayikra (Vayakheil-Pekudei; Tazria-Metzora; Acharei-Kedoshim and Behar-Bechukosei) – all of them falling between Adar, the new month added because of a leap year, and Shavuos.
Why do we want to “catch up” in time for Shavuos? This is so that we can fulfill a decree of Ezra, as presented in the Gemara:
Ezra decreed that the Jews read the curses of the Tochacha in Vayikra before Shavuos and those of Devarim before Rosh Hashanah. [The Gemara then queries:] Why? In order to end the year together with its curses! [The Gemara then comments:] We well understand why we read the Tochacha of Devarim before Rosh Hashanah because the year is ending, but why is that of Vayikra read before Shavuos? Is Shavuos the beginning of a year? Yes, Shavuos is the beginning of a new year, as the Mishnah explains that the world is judged on Shavuos for fruit.” Tosafos (ad loc.) explains the Gemara to mean that the tochacha should be completed two weeks before each “New Year,” to allow there to be one Shabbos as a buffer between the Tochacha and the beginning of the year. Therefore, the parsha of Bechukosei, which includes the tochacha, should be read at least two weeks before Shavuos, thus necessitating combining the parshiyos in a way that we complete them and are able to read Bamidbar before Shavuos. As a result, in most years there is one Shabbos between the tochacha of Bechukosei and Shavuos, when we read Parshas Bamidbar. In some leap years, there are two Shabbosos between Bechukosei and Shavuos; in those years, Naso is also read before Shavuos.
There are three other “double parshiyos” that do not come out during this part of the year, and each has its own reason for doubling the parshiyos, a reason that is unrelated to whether it is a leap year.
The “Double Parsha of the Exile”
Chukas-Balak is a double parsha that exists only outside Eretz Yisrael. I once heard it jokingly refered to as “Parsha Sheniyah shel Galiyus,” The Double Parsha of the Exile, a takeoff on the halachic term “Yom Tov Sheini shel Galiyus,” the second day of Yom Tov that is observed outside Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, the two days of Yom Tov in chutz la’aretz is the reason for combining Chukas and Balak into one parsha. When Shavous falls on Friday, its second day is on Shabbos, and, therefore, the communities of the exile read Aseir te’aseir in Parshas Re’eih, because it discusses the Yom Tov, whereas in Eretz Yisrael the next week’s parsha, Naso, is read, since it is no longer Shavuos. When this phenomenon occurs, the Jewish communities of Eretz Yisrael and of the Golah are reading different parshiyos for four weeks, from Parshas Naso through Parshas Chukas, with Eretz Yisrael always reading the parsha a week earlier, until the Golah “catches up” on the Shabbos that falls on the 12th of Tamuz, by reading both Chukas and Balak on one Shabbos, while in Eretz Yisrael they read only Parshas Balak. Thus, the following week, both communities read Parshas Pinchas.
The doubling of Matos and Masei
There are two other parshiyos, Matos and Masei, which are almost always read together, and are separated only when the year requires an extra Shabbos reading, as it did this year. Although we treat Matos and Masei as separate parshiyos, we should really view them as one long parsha (making the combination the largest parsha in the Torah), that occasionally needs to be divided to accommodate the need for an extra Torah reading.
In the occasional years when Matos and Masei are read separately, Parshas Pinchas falls before the Three Weeks — and we actually get to read the haftarah that is printed in the chumashim for Parshas Pinchas, Ve’yad Hashem, from the book of Melachim. In all other years, Parshas Pinchas is the first Shabbos of the three weeks, and the haftarah read is Divrei Yirmiyahu, the opening words of the book of Yirmiyahu, which is appropriate to the season. The printers of chumashim usually elect to print Divrei Yirmiyahu as if it is the haftarah for Parshas Matos, and then instruct you to read it on most years, instead, as the haftarah for Pinchas. What is more logical is to label this haftarah as the one appropriate for the first of the three weeks, and to print both after Pinchas; one for the occasional year when Pinchas falls before the 17th of Tamuz, and one for the far more frequent year when it falls after, and instruct people that when there is a haftarah to be read just for Parshas Matos, that they should read the second haftarah printed after Parshas Pinchas. But, alas, the printers do not usually consult with me, but look at what other printers have already done.
When do they go alone?
In what years are Matos and Masei separated? Only in leap years and only when there are no parshiyos doubled together from Simchas Torah until the week before Rosh Hashanah. (I will explain shortly why Parshas Netzavim is treated differently.) There are two types of leap years that require Matos and Masei to be separated:
(1) A leap year that begins on a Thursday.
A leap year adds an extra month, which is thirty days, not 28. Thus, a leap year sometimes adds five extra Shabbosos, not just four, and there is a need to add an extra reading. This occurs when a leap year begins on a Thursday. In calendar jargon, these years are called החא and השג, which both mean that Rosh Hashanah falls on Thursday. In these years, to accommodate the extra Shabbos, the parshiyos of Matos and Masei are separated. As we can imagine, this is not a very common occurrence – a leap year that begins with Rosh Hashanah on Thursday. However, not only did this happen this year, but it also continued an interesting and quirky streak: This was the fourth leap year in a row to begin on a Thursday. Leap years 5765 (the eighth year of the current cycle), 5768 (the eleventh year of the current cycle), and 5771 (the fourteenth year of the current cycle) all began on Thursday. Thus, Matos was separated from Masei this year for the fourth time in ten years. This streak is broken, finally, in the next leap year, 5776, when Rosh Hashanah occurs on a Monday, and Matos and Masei are again combined. At this point, one will have to get used to long davenings in the middle of the summer, since the next time that Matos and Masei are separate is not until 5795, the secular year 2034, which means that 21 years will pass before Matos and Masei are again read on separate Shabbosos.
(2) What I have said until now is accurate only if you are outside Eretz Yisrael. There is one other situation in Eretz Yisrael in which the parshiyos of Matos and Masei are read on separate weeks, because, otherwise, there are simply not enough readings for every Shabbos of the year. When Rosh Hashanah of a leap year falls on a Tuesday, or in some leap years, even when it falls on a Monday, Eretz Yisrael has to read every possible separate parsha from Rosh Hashanah until the next Rosh Hashanah to accommodate all the Shabbosos of the year. In these years, in Eretz Yisrael, there are no doubled parshiyos, and, therefore, Matos and Masei are separated.
Why is this dependent on being in Eretz Yisrael? The year is the same length no matter where you are, and there seem to be just as many Shabbosos in Eretz Yisrael as there are outside?
The difference is that in these years, the Eighth Day of Pesach, Acharon shel Pesach, falls on Shabbos. On this Yom Tov day, observed only outside Eretz Yisrael, the special Yom Tov reading in chutz la’aretz is Aseir te’aseir, whereas in Eretz Yisrael this Shabbos is after Pesach (although the house is still chometz-free!), and the reading is Parshas Acharei. Thus, in chutz la’aretz there is a need to double a parsha, and, according to what is today common practice, that parsha is Matos and Masei.
The practice I just mentioned however creates a very unusual phenomenon:
The subsequent Shabbos, the Jews of Eretz Yisrael are already reading Parshas Kedoshim, whereas outside Eretz Yisrael the reading is Parshas Acharei. The communities outside Eretz Yisrael ignore the opportunity of doubling up parshiyos Acharei and Kedoshim, Behar and Becholosai and Chukas and Balak, all of which are doubled together upon other occasions, and wait until the very last parsha of Bamidbar to combine Matos with Masei. Thus, the disparity between Eretz Yisrael and chutz la’aretz lasts for over three months, until Parshas Masei, which, as I mentioned above, outside Eretz Yisrael is doubled into Matos–Masei. By the way, this phenomenon is fast approaching. Hebrew year 5776, to be here in two years, follows this pattern, so those who return to chutz la’aretz after spending Pesach in Eretz Yisrael will find that they have missed a parsha. Unless, of course, they decide to stay in Eretz Yisrael until the Nine Days.
The Long Wait to Double
This leads to a very interesting question: Why is the disparity between Eretz Yisrael and chutz la’aretz allowed to last for such a long period of time? There are three potential doubled parshiyos that are passed before one gets to Parshas Matos – all weeks in which those in chutz la’aretz could combine two parshiyos in order to catch up.
As you can imagine, we are not the first to raise this question, which is indeed raised by one of the great sixteenth-century poskim, the Maharit (Shu’t Volume II # 4). He answers that Shavuos should ideally fall between Bamidbar and Naso, and that combining either Acharei with Kedoshim, or Behar with Bechokosai would push Shavuos until after Parshas Naso. Indeed, in these years, this is what happens in Eretz Yisrael, but there is no option there, since there are simply not enough Shabbosos for all the parshiyos. In chutz la’aretz, since one can have the readings occur on the preferred weeks, we delay the combined parshiyos until after Shavuos.
However, the Maharit notes that this does not explain why the parshiyos of Chukas and Balak are not combined, although he notes that the Syrian communities indeed follow this practice — that is, on leap years when Acharon shel Pesach falls on Shabbos, they combine parshiyos Chukas and Balak, but read Matos and Masei on separate weeks, as is done in Eretz Yisrael.
To explain why the parshiyos of Chukas and Balak are not combined in other communities, the Maharit concludes that once most of the summer has passed and the difference is what to read on only three Shabbosos, we combine Matos with Masei, which are usually combined, rather than Chukas and Balak, which are usually separate.
Netzavim – Vayeilech
We have now explained the reason for every time we read a double parsha, with one important and anomalous exception – the two tiny parshiyos of Netzavim and Vayeilech. Tosafos already asks why we often combine the two huge parshiyos of Matos and Masei, and in the very same year, read the two tiny parshiyos of Netzavim and Vayeilech on separate weeks. His answer is based on his explanation to the Gemara that we quoted earlier:
Ezra decreed that the Jews read the curses of the Tochacha in Vayikra before Shavuos and those of Devarim before Rosh Hashanah. [The Gemara then queries:] Why? In order to end the year together with its curses, which Tosafos understood to mean that the tochacha should be completed two weeks before Rosh Hashanah to allow a week as a buffer between the tochacha and the beginning of the year.
That buffer parsha is Netzavim, which must always be read on the last Shabbos of the year; but, ultimately, this means that only a small part of the Torah is left to be read between Rosh Hashanah and Simchas Torah. This small part left is divided into three small parshiyos, Vayeilech, Haazinu, and Vezos Haberacha. Vezos Haberacha is, of course, read on Simchas Torah, and Haazinu on the last Shabbos of the cycle, which is either Shabbos Shuva or the Shabbos between Yom Kippur and Sukkos, if there is one. Thus, whether Vayeilech merits its own Shabbos or is combined with Netzavim depends on only one factor: if there is more than one Shabbos between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkos. When there are two such Shabbosos, Vayeilech is read on Shabbos Shuva, and Haazinu the week afterwards. When there is only one Shabbos between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkos, Vayeilech is combined with Netzavim on the week before Rosh Hashanah, and Haazinu is read the week of Shabbos Shuva.
From all of the above, we see the importance that Chazal placed on the public reading of the Torah and of completing its cycle annually. It goes without saying that we should be concerned with being attentive to the words of the Torah as they are being read, and that the baal keriah should make every effort to read them accurately.
 Gemara Megillah 31b; Rambam, Hilchos Tefillah 13:2
 The Levush explains that without the week as a buffer, the Satan could use te Tochacha as a means of prosecuting against us on the judgment day