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I understand that Ezra began the concept of an annual Torah cycle where each Parsha is to be read on a Shabbat (except if coinciding with Yom Tov.)

However, V'Zot Habracha was scheduled to be completed on a Yom Tov, not on a Shabbat. (In Israel, it is read on Shmini Atzeret which COULD coincide with Shabbat. Outside Israel, where V'Zot Habracha is read on the second day of Shmini Atzeret, it never occurs on Shabbat.)

Who began this concept of moving this weekly parsha away from Shabbat, and why did they do so?

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    The short answer: it isn't so clear exactly how and when the order of the parshiyos with the cycle ending on Simchas Torah began. If you're interested in the details, I'd suggest looking at Avraham Yaari's book תולדות חג שמחת תורה which is still considered the best book on the topic – הנער הזה Aug 18 '14 at 17:24
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    @Matt add it as an answer – user613 Aug 19 '14 at 12:50
  • It's worth noting that the custom in Israel was to split the Torah into smaller portions and only finish every three years, so the specific splits and assigned dates for reading different parts wasn't set in stone. – Josh Friedlander Sep 2 '18 at 14:52
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It looks like the original reading of V'Zot Habracha fluctuated in time based on the 3-year Torah reading cycle. As the Bavli custom of finishing the Torah every year took hold, the reading of the final portion became fixed to Shmini Atzeret.

Here is how I understand the historical development

  1. Originally in Israel, the Torah was completed every 3 years, so the time of the reading of V'Zot Habracha changed every 3 years (the day of the final reading was referred to as "Yom Habracha" from the name of the parsha, see here)
  2. Meanwhile, in Bavel, the Torah was read every year and V'Zot Habracha was read on Shmini Atzeret to finish the holiday season "in style" (see here)
  3. Reasons for reading V'Zot Habracha on Shmini Atzeret provided by some Rishonim (Sefer Ha-Eshkol, Sefer Ha-Manhig, Abudraham, Orchot Chaim, see references here) include

    • so that the blessings of Moshe, as they appear in the final parasha of the Torah, are purposely read on the day on which we read how Shlomo Ha-Melekh blessed the people of the eighth day of Sukkot (Melakhim I chapter 8)
    • because the Torah mentions the commandment of “simcha” twice on Soukot (see Devarim 16:15) (The Machzor Vitry 385)

Avraham Yaari's Toldot Chag Simhat Torah (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1998) appears to be THE standard reference on the history of the holiday, see here for a historical outline as well as here.

  • I always assumed that the custom developed to finish the Torah on the second day of Shemini Atzeret because the day's holiday reading was from vezot haberacha (see Megillah 31a). – Joel K Sep 4 '18 at 9:44
  • @JoelK the holiday reading probably didn't include Moshe's death. Just the blessings part. (I don't see how this answers the question. It's just a scattering of random sorta related material.) – Double AA Sep 4 '18 at 12:23
  • I do like it better. I think there's more to it though. I think the original Babylonian practice was to finish around Yom Kippur and later it moved to Shmini Atzeret. Isn't there a Gemara about someone catching up on Shnayim Mikra before YK? There was also an old custom to read from the beginning of Bereishit between Mincha and Neilah IIRC. Also that'd explain why it's traditionally 53 Parshas with Vayelekh viewed as the second half of a split Nitzavim. – Double AA Sep 6 '18 at 16:55
  • Your article for instance says Vezot Haberakha is not the Shmini Atzeret theme and Simchat Torah trumps the regular holiday in Israel, but this is mistaken. See my comment above. – Double AA Sep 6 '18 at 16:57
  • @DoubleAA Brachot 8b on top. ArtScroll cites comments saying he wanted to increase his merits so might or not be linked to ending the Torah then. Agree this requires further research though – mbloch Sep 6 '18 at 17:07

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