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I enjoy attending synagogue every Shabbat morning. When it comes to the weekly Torah reading, sometimes we read two parshas. Why is that?
The Torah is split up into 54 portions, called parshas. The entire Torah is completed once per year, which works out to approximately one per week.
More precisely, though, there are 54 weekly portions in the Torah, but only 50 or 51 Shabbats in a year. In addition, there are at least two, and sometimes as many as 4 or 5, times when Shabbat falls on a holiday, and the normal weekly portion is not read that week. How are the calendars and the Torah reconciled?
The normal Jewish year (i.e. not a leap year) is generally 354 days long. 354 divided by 7 is 50 weeks, with a remainder of 4. In other words, there are 50 or 51 Shabbats during a normal Jewish year.
There are also certain times when the normal weekly portion is not read on Shabbat. Such instances are during Passover and Sukkot, when at least one day of the holiday happens on Shabbat, and other holidays which sometimes fall on Shabbat. Thus, there are at least two times during the year where the normal weekly portion is not read on Shabbat.
So now we’re down to approximately 48 Shabbats each year when the weekly portion is read. (Actually, we only read 52 of the 54 portions on Shabbat: The first portion of the Torah, Breishis, is always read on the Shabbat immediately following Simchat Torah. The last portion is always read on Simchat Torah, even though that holiday can never fall on Shabbat.)
The way these problems get reconciled is that certain portions can be combined:
• Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1–38:20) and Pekudei (Exodus 38:21–40:38)
• Tazria (Leviticus 12:1–13:59) and Metzora (Leviticus 14:1–15:33)
• Acharei (Leviticus 16:1–18:30) and Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1–20:27)
• Behar (Leviticus 25:1–26:2) and Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3–27:34)
• Chukat (Numbers 19:1–22:1) and Balak (Numbers 22:2–25:9)
• Matot (Numbers 30:2–32:42) and Masei (Numbers 33:1–36:13)
• Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20) and Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1–31:30).
Some of these seven pairs of portions are combined each year to reconcile the number of Shabbat readings with the need to complete the annual Torah cycle.
During a Jewish leap year, an extra 30-day month is added to the year in the winter. This allows for at least four more weeks in the year, meaning that there is still a need to combine portions, but not as many as in a regular year.
Thankfully, all this is determined by a pre-set calendar, so there is no guesswork involved. If you’re interested to see how this plays out over many years, you can download user-friendly Jewish calendar software at http://www.aish.com/jl/hol/o/48970511.html