The climax of the Shabbat morning service is the Torah reading, which is often accompanied by great ceremony and beautiful chants. It is also an “interactive” ritual, since numerous congregants are involved. In contrast to this ceremony of great fanfare is the Torah reading of Shabbat Mincha (afternoon service).
On Shabbat morning, there are generally eight people called to recite the blessings over the Torah, whereas at Mincha, only three people receive an aliyah. The Shabbat Mincha Torah reading is actually a preview reading. Those three people called to the Torah read the verses of the first aliyah (division of the Torah portion) of the parasha for the next Shabbat.
The morning reading fulfills the need for a public Torah reading that has been customary since the time of Moses. (An annual cycle, dividing the Torah into weekly portions, began in the 2nd century B.C.E.) However, the Shabbat afternoon reading was only ordained in the time of Ezra (circa 4th century B.C.E.), when the prophet declared that “the law be read [publicly] in the Mincha service on Sabbath: on account of shopkeepers” (Baba Kama 82a).
Why shopkeepers? Because shopkeepers were unable to attend the public readings on Monday and Thursday morning. The Monday and Thursday morning readings had been ordained so that three full days would never pass without the Torah being read. “For it was taught: ‘And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water (Exodus 15:22),’ about which those who expound verses metaphorically said: “Water” means Torah… It thus means that when they [the People of Israel] went three days without Torah they immediately became exhausted” (Baba Kama 82a). The Mincha reading was ordained in order to give the shopkeepers an extra dose of Torah that would carry them through the week.
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