December 2019 QUESTION:
Having been a member of a Conservative synagogue until I moved here, I had never seen Torah read on a Friday evening. Why do Reform congregations do this?
December 2019 ANSWER:
Traditionally, Torah is only read during daylight hours, because in antiquity, people did not have enough light (olive oil was used for a long time, till wax candles became available) to read Torah accurately, once the sun had set. And of course, Torah must be read accurately.
In the late 19th century, many Jews living in the US worked in retail businesses, and they worked at least five and a half days a week; Saturday was the “half day”. So they were never able to attend a Shabbat morning service, at which time the Torah reading would normally take place. And because they worked till 6 pm, they could never attend the traditional Shabbat evening service, at sundown.
Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise instituted the practice of reading Torah at a late evening service on Fridays. He reasoned that it was better to read Torah when people could attend the service than to read it when they couldn’t hear it read at all. So he created the late evening service, which usually begins at 7:30 or 8:00 pm, and he made Torah reading a part of that service.
This was a well-received innovation, though of course the Orthodox were offended by the service itself and the reading of Torah in the evening.
An unintended consequence of this practise, however, was that many Reform Jews have made Friday evening the totality of their Shabbat observances; Bnai Mitzvah services are usually still held on Shabbat morning in most Reform congregations, but only the invited guests attend that.
While Rabbi Wise’s reasoning was sound, it no longer applies today; the percentage of Jews who must work on Shabbat is very low now, and some of our movement’s leaders have been encouraging us to reclaim the Shabbat morning service as our main congregational Shabbat observance. But it is not easy to do, since our congregants are well accustomed to the Friday evening service, and usually have lots of other things to do on Saturdays.
In our congregation, we have a Shabbat morning service twice a month, but it is attended by fewer than two dozen people. When we don’t have a Torah service on a Friday evening (because I am doing a sermon) we do not experience an upsurge in attendance the next morning by those who missed the Torah reading that Friday evening.
But we can say that our congregants seem to appreciate the Torah reading on Friday evenings, and despite my wish that more Jews would extend their Shabbat practices to Saturday, we will continue to read Torah on Friday evenings, because that is when they are in Temple. And since we have lighting via electricity, the original objection to reading Torah after dark does not apply.
Jewish religious practices have always responded to the needs of the people, and this is a perfect example of that.