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Why does revi'i - the fourth reading - of Parashat Vayeira end with the first few verses of the story of the birth of Yitzchak (Gen. 21:1-4)?

Objections:

  • There's a natural break in narrative before these verses, between the Avimelech story and the Yitzchak story.

  • The narrative break is reflected in a paragraph break in the Torah text.

  • These four verses really fit well with the rest of the story in chamishi - the fifth reading. The Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashana, which comprises the Yitzchak birth story, starts with 21:1.

  • There doesn't seem to be any sour note at the end of the Avimelech story that could make us not want to end there.

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2 Answers

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Excellent question!

In fact, such a great question that the Teimanim (Yemenite Jews) agree with you. They place the beginning of Chamishi right at the perek break. (See here, page 153.) And of course, Stephen Langton, a Christian archbishop of Canterbury, agrees with you, which is why the perek break is right there.

Yet, to explain our standard (Ashkenazi / Sefaradi) aliyah break:

  1. Rony's first answer seems quite compelling to me: "In order to teach us that whoever prays for someone else is responded first." I would not spin it in quite that way, though. The aliyah break, placed later, joins the two sections. And this is because of the logical narrative connection between the women of Avimelech's house becoming pregnant and Sarah becoming pregnant.

  2. The verses at the end of revii are closing up details that were opened earlier. Earlier in the narrative, Hashem had promised the birth of a son, lamoed. And this closes that narrative by detailing the fulfillment of the promise. Then, the detailing of how old Avraham was at a specific time is a way of introducing a new chapter of Avraham's life -- namely, the impact of Yitzchak's birth on his relationship with Sarah, Hagar, and Yishmael. This sort of device might be common at the start of . Consider the start of Toledot, when we are told Yitzchak's age. Or being told Yosef's age at the start of parshat Vayeshev. It is a way of fixing us at a specific point in time, so that we know approximately when to date the narrative that follows.

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Weren't the chapter divisions introduced long after Jerome's time? You might more properly say that Stephen Langton agrees with the OP. –  Alex Nov 15 '11 at 15:14
    
Thanks. I don't know why I thought it was Jerome. Maybe something I saw years back in Abarbanel's introduction. Bli neder, I'll try to recheck. –  josh waxman Nov 15 '11 at 16:56
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A former teacher of mine, Rav Elchanan Samet who now teaches and publishes on Tanach at Herzog College, said that there are certain breaks in Aliyot in the Torah which simply don't correspond to a proper unit of a 'Biblical story'. Sometimes when reading Torah he'll end an Aliyah where he sees as the more appropriate stopping point, which makes him less than popular with the shul gabbaim. –  ChaimKut Nov 16 '11 at 13:40
    
As for division of the Bible's chapters, Wikipedia: <<Archbishop Stephen Langton and Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro developed different schemas for systematic division of the Bible in the early 13th century. It is the system of Archbishop Langton on which the modern chapter divisions are based.>> –  ChaimKut Nov 16 '11 at 13:43
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I have 2 points to make to help answering the question:

  1. In order to teach us that whoever prays for someone else is responded first (Bava Kama 92:a) the pregnancy and birth are connected to the praying for Avimelech.

  2. The reason that we read in Rosh Hashana 4 psukim before Chamishi may be because Sarah nifkeda (got pregnant?) in Rosh Hasha (Rosh Hashana 11:a).

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