Mas’ei: Mysticism, Geography and the Ba’al Korei’s Dilemma

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torah readingby R. Moshe Schapiro

Place Names

In ancient times when gypsum was more prevalent than the GPS and Gilgamesh was better known than Google Maps, the Torah detailed, in the opening of Parashat Mas’ei, the travels (masa’ot) of the Jewish people in the desert.  Rashi asks why the Torah presents us with this long list of forty-two masa’ot, and answers that it teaches us about God’s kindness. It is true that the Jews wandered for forty years, but if you study their journey carefully, you will realize that most of their movements were in the first and last years of their desert stay. The intervening years were relatively stable. R. Avraham Saba (a Spanish commentator and kabbalist who died ca. 1508) offers a different perspective on the significance of this list in his Torah commentary Tzeror HaMor. He quotes Chazal (source unknown) that the forty-two masa’ot of the Jewish people parallelthe mystical forty-two-letter name of God and concludes that since God’s name may not be broken up, when reading this passage in the synagogue, one must read the entire list without interruption. Practically this means that the first forty-nine verses of Parashat Mas’ei must be read as one aliyah.

There is a lively exchange in the Journal Ohr Yisrael1 between two contemporary authors, R. Avraham Rapaport and R. David Yitzchaki regarding whether this practice is or should be mainstream.  If you look at any of the chumashim in your local synagogue, you will immediately notice that when Matot-Mas’ei are read together, which is most of the time, the fourth aliyah ends after the masa’ot. However, when Mas’ei is read separately, as it is this year, the second aliyah is indicated after verse 10, which is right in the middle of the list. A similar break-up is found in older sources. R. Yissachar ben Mordechai Susan (b. ca.1510) marks the end of the first aliyah after verse 92 and R. Yosef Kosman (d. 1758),3 while wondering why the Tzeror HaMor’s words were disregarded, faithfully records that the ancient custom of the Frankfort community was also to break at verse 9. More recently, there is a report that R. Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky4  was apparently unfazed when the ba’al korei in his minyan followed the standard printed chumash instead of the Tzeror HaMor. Yet, the standard commentaries such as the Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 428) and the Sha’arei Ephraim (7:25) quote the Tzeror HaMor and the Mishnah Berurah cites the Magen Avraham, thereby bringing this somewhat obscure source to the attention of fastidious ba’alei keri’ah and demanding gabba’im everywhere.

A further question is how to count the forty-two masa’ot, as there seem to be only forty-one. R. Shabbtai Lipschutz5 in his commentary on the Sha’arei Ephraim points out that in verse 3 the Torah records that the Jews left Ra’amses and then after a short digression repeats that they left Ra’amses in verse 5. He suggests that perhaps the repetition should be counted as two masa’ot.6 Inspired by this approach, R. Avraham Rapaport7 contends that there really is no repetition and that Ra’amses can legitimately be counted twice. According to Ibn Ezra8 there actually were two different locations known as Ra’amses: the province (Shemot 12:37) and the city (Shemot 1:11). The Jews first traveled from the city in verse 3 and then ultimately from the entire province in verse 5.  An entirely different solution is suggested by R. Yehoshua Falk.9 Rashi in Shemot 40:38 writes that the Hebrew term mas’a does not refer only to traveling between two places, but to the places traveled to and from. Rashi, here in Parashat Mas’ei, is consistent with his comment in Shemot in counting the forty-two place names, starting with Ra’amses in verse 5 and ending with the Jordan River in the Plains of Moav in verse 49, even though there are only forty-one actual movements between places. R. Rapaport points out that the practical ramification between these two approaches is whether a break can be made after verse 3. According to the “two Ra’amses” theory, the forty-two masa’ot begin in verse 3 and no interruption is allowed from that point on. However, according to the “place-names” theory, the forty-two count only begins in verse 5 and an extra aliyah could be inserted before that point.

Traveling Non-Stop

Though many authorities, following the Magen Avraham, adopt the practice of not breaking up the forty-two masa’ot, they disagree about its extent. R. Yechiel Mikhel Epstein10 quotes the Magen Avraham, with one important caveat: this rule only applies to the keri’at ha-Torah of Shabbat morning, not to the readings of Shabbat afternoon and Monday and Thursday mornings.11 The source for this distinction is Rema’s ruling about another Torah portion. The Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 31a) reports that, in the time of the Beit ha-Mikdash, the Levi’im would sing Shirat Ha’azinu (Devarim 32) during the service for the Shabbat musaf sacrifice. They divided the song into six distinct sections, represented by the acronym ha-ziv lach, spelled out by the first letter of each segment.12 The Talmud notes that when we read Parashat Ha’azinu in the synagogue, we follow the same divisions. Rif13 and Rosh14 write that these sections are maintained both on Shabbat and Monday and Thursday morning, and the Shulchan Arukh (428:5) follows their opinion. However, Rema decides in accordance with the Mordechai15 that one need only be careful about this on Shabbat. R. Chaim Benveniste (1603-1673)16 believes that the majority of medieval authorities followed Rif and Rosh, and therefore insists that even Ashkenazim must read Ha’azinu during the week according to the predetermined sections. Still, R. Ephraim Zalman Margoliyot17 and R. Epstein in his Arukh HaShulchan decide like Rema. R. Epstein’s ruling that one may break up the masa’ot during the week is simply an application of Rema’s distinction between Shabbat and weekday readings with regard to Parashat Ha’azinu.

The Munkaczer Rebbe, R. Chaim Elazar Shapira, disagrees with R. Epstein. While apparently accepting Rema’s ruling regarding Ha’azinu, R. Shapira argues that, with regard to the masa’ot, he cannot fathom any reason for a distinction between the Shabbat and weekday readings.18 On the other hand, R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik19 rejected the ruling of Rema and was careful to maintain the integrity of both Ha’azinu and the masa’ot during both Shabbat and weekday readings. In summary, there are three views. R. Epstein consistently distinguishes between the Shabbat and weekday readings. R. Soloveitchik consistently equates the readings. And the Munkaczer Rebbe, while equating them with regard to the reading of Mas’ei, distinguishes between them with regard to the reading of Ha’azinu. We will now attempt to explore these three opinions and place each within its conceptual framework.

The Arukh HaShulchan’s Approach

The Talmud (Bava Kamma 82a) teaches that Moshe Rabbenu20 established the reading cycle of Shabbat morning, Monday and Thursday so that the Jews would never go for more than three days without Torah study. Generations later, Ezra ha-Sofer expanded keri’at ha-Torah, requiring the reading of more verses and adding to the number of aliyot, and also added the Shabbat afternoon reading. What is the relationship between these different readings? The Talmud (Megillah 31b) records a dispute between R. Meir and R. Yehudah about the schedule of Torah reading during the course of the week. According to R. Meir we begin a new parashah on Shabbat afternoon and at each successive reading we continue further along in the parashah until we complete it on Shabbat morning. However, the normative ruling21 follows R. Yehudah: we read the beginning of the new portion on Shabbat afternoon, repeat the same reading on Monday and Thursday and then, starting again from the beginning, we read the parashah in its entirety on Shabbat morning. R. Meir believes that there is no intrinsic difference between any of the readings. Moshe Rabbenu instituted three readings of essentially equal stature over the course of the week in order to provide spiritual sustenance to the people. However, we follow the position of R. Yehudah, that the keri’at ha-Torah of Shabbat morning is primary, while the other readings are only secondary.

The difference between the Shabbat and weekday readings is further underscored by Ritva.22 The Talmud (Megillah 17b), after citing the opinion of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi that Shema must be recited in Hebrew, inquires whether this implies that according to biblical law, “the rest of the Torah may be recited in any language.” Rashi, as quoted by Tosafot (s.v. kol ha-Torah), explains that “the rest of the Torah” refers to keri’at ha-Torah. Tosafot is confounded by Rashi’s explanation, since with the exception of Parashat Zachor there are no biblically mandated Torah readings. What is this “rest of the Torah” that the Talmud is asking about? Ritva rejects Tosafot’s premise. Moshe and Ezra only innovated the Torah readings of Monday and Thursday and Shabbat afternoon. The weekly Shabbat morning reading is actually a biblical obligation. The proof for this is that the Talmud (Berakhot 21a), discussing the biblical commandment to recite a blessing over Torah study, speaks of making a blessing before and after study. But the personal obligation to study Torah is constant and has no “after.” Therefore, the Talmud must be speaking of a biblically mandated communal Torah reading, and the passage in Bava Kamma means to say that Moshe added on the weekday readings to the original Shabbat reading. Additionally, Ritva may be relying on the Talmud Yerushalmi (Megillah 4:1) that anchors Moshe’s establishment of the Yom Tov and Shabbat23 readings to a scriptural source. Ritva’s opinion is unique, but it is still suggestive of the profound difference between the Shabbat and weekday readings.

We can perceive the fundamental distinction between the Shabbat and weekday readings even in the history of the rabbinic construction of keri’at ha-Torah that is described in Bava Kamma. In that passage, the Talmud is unsure of the exact historical development of this mitzvah. Perhaps Moshe Rabbenu instituted that one person should read three verses or, alternatively, that three people should each read one verse, but in any case, Ezra formalized matters, decreeing three aliyot and a total of at least ten pesukim. The Talmud only discusses the development of the weekday readings with their three aliyot. What of the Shabbat reading?  Magen Avraham, in his opening comments to Orach Chaim 135, argues that Moshe Rabbenu set the number of aliyot for Shabbat morning at seven, whereas the formalization of the weekday readings was left for generations until the days of Ezra ha-Sofer.  Clearly, when we speak of keri’at ha-Torah, we must recognize that there are really two categories of readings. This explains Rema’s ruling that the strictures that apply to the reading of Ha’azinu only apply on Shabbat morning, the primary reading. The Arukh HaShulchan’s application of this leniency to the masa’ot makes perfect sense.

In fact, R. Epstein consistently follows this line of reasoning. As noted, the Shulchan Arukh codifies the opinion of R. Yehudah that the weekday readings repeat the opening of that week’s portion instead of reading further into the parashah. Rema, quoting the Or Zaru’a,24 comments that if a congregation skipped the Shabbat morning reading they must make it up on the following Shabbat together with that week’s portion. The Mishnah Berurah25 writes that if a similar thing happened on Monday or Thursday morning, there would be no obligation to make up the reading on Tuesday or Friday because Chazal only sanctioned Torah readings on specific days. The Arukh HaShulchan26 adds that even without this technical reason the entire concept of making up the weekday readings does not make sense. They are just place holders. The entire portion will be read on Shabbat anyway. Another similar scenario is discussed by the poskim.  If the Torah was read on Monday or Thursday morning, but the wrong portion was read accidentally, must the ba’al korei correct his mistake? Presumably, if this were to happen on Shabbat morning, the correct parashah would have to be read, but there is a debate regarding the weekday reading.27 R. Epstein rules that, in contradistinction to the Shabbat reading, the weekday readings need not be corrected.28 This is because the fulfillment of reading the Torah on Shabbat is the reading of the parshiyot over the course of the year in consecutive order. If a parashah is omitted, the obligation is not fulfilled. However, the function of the weekday readings is only to prevent us from going for more than three days without Torah. Even if the wrong portion is read, the goal of the weekday reading has been accomplished. R. Epstein’s understanding of the two categories of keri’at ha-Torah is at the core of his position that when reading Ha’azinu and the masa’ot on Shabbat, we must be meticulous in dividing the parshiyot correctly, but during the week we can be less rigorous.

R. Soloveitchik’s Approach

Even if we accept that the Shabbat morning and weekday readings are functionally or conceptually different from one another, this may not force Rema’s ruling regarding Parashat Ha’azinu or R. Epstein’s conclusion regarding the masa’ot. R. Benveniste, mentioned above, argues against Rema’s distinction between the Shabbat and weekday readings of Parashat Ha’azinu, citing Rambam’s explanation that the Talmud insisted on dividing Ha’azinu into six distinct segments: “Because they are a rebuke, in order that the people should repent.”29 According to R. Benveniste, this reason applies equally on Shabbat or during the week, and the divisions should be the same for both readings. R. Benveniste’s reading of Rambam, is somewhat perplexing, though, because he seems to ignore the context of Rambam’s remarks. R. Avraham Dovber Kahane Shapiro30 observes that Rambam is discussing the principle that aliyot must begin and end with positive themes. The problem is that some of the segments of Ha’azinu, arranged in the pattern of ha-ziv lach, violate this rule. Rambam is explaining that since Ha’azinu is read as a form of rebuke to motivate the nation to repent, the need to maintain the themes of the song overrides the usual rules of how to divide aliyot. Rambam is not giving a reason for the intrinsic importance of the six segments, rather, he is explaining why this is an exception to the general rule of ending aliyot on positive themes.  On Shabbat our purpose in reading Ha’azinu is to give rebuke to the nation, but, as noted above, our purpose in the weekday readings is just to read some Torah verses, and if there is no intrinsic need to divide the verses a specific way, perhaps we need not do so. In fact, we can read three aliyot on Monday and Thursday that all end and begin on a positive note, without following the divisions of ha-ziv lach. Therefore, R. Benveniste’s citation of Rambam to prove that there is no distinction between the Shabbat and weekday readings is unconvincing.

R. Soloveitchik31 offers a different rationale to explain his rejection of Rema, based on the rule that “Any portion that Moshe did not divide, we may not divide.” The Talmud (Megillah 22a) points out that the first paragraph of the Rosh Chodesh reading, comprising only five verses, cannot be broken up into two aliyot of three verses each and suggests splitting one verse into two. The Gemara forcefully rejects this suggestion citing the rule: “Any verse that Moshe did not divide, we may not divide.” The implication is that, while we may not read only part of a verse, there is no rule that prohibits selecting an entire verse from a larger portion to read on its own. But this implication is contradicted by a different Talmudic passage. Berakhot 12b discusses the third paragraph of Shema in which we must mention the Exodus to fulfill the daily obligation of remembering that God redeemed us from Egypt. The Talmud establishes that we read the parashah of tzitzit (Bemidbar 15:38-41), which concludes with a declaration to remember that God took us out of Egypt. However, originally Chazal considered using the entire parashah of Balak, spanning chapters 22-24 of Bemidbar, in order to read 23:22 which refers to the Exodus.32 The Gemara asks why it would be necessary to read such a lengthy portion for the sake of one verse and answers: “Any portion that Moshe did not divide, we may not divide.” Clearly, this rule prohibits selecting even one whole verse from a larger context. Is there any way to harmonize these two opposing statements?

R. Soloveitchik explains that these rules do not contradict each other, rather, they apply in different circumstances. The institution of keri’at ha-Torah is fundamentally about reading Torah verses. The passage in Bava Kamma 82a describes the decrees of Moshe and Ezra in terms of how many verses must be read: Moshe first decreed that one person read three verses or, alternatively, that three people read one verse each, and then Ezra later instituted that three people read a total of ten verses.  Therefore the operative principle in keri’at ha-Torah is “any verse which Moshe did not divide we may not divide” and the Gemara in Megillah that invokes this principle is, in fact, speaking about the laws of Torah reading. However, the passage in Berakhot is discussing appending a third section onto the first two paragraphs of Shema. Keri’at Shema is not the recitation of individual pesukim; it is a mitzvah of reading parshiyot.33 In the context of Shema, it is the principle of not dividing parshiyot that is operative. Therefore, had Chazal not settled on the fairly short parashah of tzitzit, we would have been bound to read the entire portion of Balak as the third paragraph of Shema in order to access the one verse that speaks of the Exodus.

Most Torah readings reflect the obligation to read pesukim. However, there are certain readings that bear unique status, more akin to reading parshiyot. Parashat Ha’azinu is not just a group of verses strung together, but a song that must be divided into specific stanzas. The principle “any portion which Moshe did not divide, we must not divide” is the operative principle.34 The same can be said of the forty-two masa’ot. The list of the Jewish people’s travels in the desert constitutes a distinct portion, signified by the observation that the mystical forty-two letter name of God is contained within the united parashah. R. Soloveitchik argues that it is immaterial whether the reading takes place on Shabbat morning or during the week. To put it in Brisker terminology: it’s not a din in keri’at ha-Torah, it’s a din in the particular parashah being read. The portions of Ha’azinu and Mas’ei require, intrinsically, that they be read according to the sanctioned divisions.

The Munkaczer’s Approach

Why does Rema not employ R. Soloveitchik’s analysis? R. Benveniste, although he rejects Rema’s opinion, offers a crucial explanation of his position. Rema sees the Shabbat and weekday readings as two profoundly different institutions, as we explained above. The Shabbat morning reading is part of the yearly cycle of reading the Torah. Each Shabbat morning we must read one parashah or, on occasion, a double parashah as the calendar requires. Fundamentally, the Shabbat morning reading is the reading of a parashah in its totality. The weekday readings are place holders, to keep us spiritually connected to Torah between one Shabbat and the next. We read and re-read the same short selection of verses until we arrive at the next Shabbat and finally fulfill the obligation to read the full parashah. R. Benveniste explains that when reading Ha’azinu on Shabbat morning, R. Soloveitchik’s analysis holds true. We are intending to read the entire portion. We are going to sing the song. Therefore, we must read stanza by stanza as it was intended to be sung. The same is true of the mas’aot. On Shabbat morning, we are going to read Parashat Mas’ei in full. Our intention and focus is on parshiyot and therefore, “any portion that Moshe did not divide we must not divide.” However, during the week, we are not attempting to read the parashah. We are not thinking of the poetry of Ha’azinu and we do not look upon the list of place names at the beginning of Parashat Mas’ei as a unified entity. We are only thinking of reading some verses. We are looking at the trees, not the forest and, therefore, we can divide the parshiyot as we choose.

R. Benveniste’s explanation of Rema’s position, that our intention is determinative, is the key to understanding the Munkaczer’s split decision. On the one hand, the Munkaczer Rebbe seems to accept Rema’s view that Ha’azinu need not be read in any particular fashion during the week. Yet, when it comes to the masa’ot he writes that he cannot even fathom a reason for a distinction between the Shabbat and weekday readings! What is the difference between these two parshiyot? The answer is that our intention makes the difference. On Monday morning when we read Ha’azinu, there is no compelling reason to view it as a song. We are reading pesukim, not parshiyot. However, the masa’ot are a self-contained portion for which there is a compelling reason to view it as a unique parashah and not just as a string of verses. The unity of God’s mystical name binds the portion together as one entity. Even during the week the integrity of the parashah must be maintained. The Munkaczer thus concludes that regarding Ha’azinu, which can be a unit or individual verses, we can make a distinction between Shabbat and weekdays, but regarding the masa’ot, which are always a unified entity, we cannot.

R. Soloveitchik agrees that the masa’ot are a unified entity, but regarding Ha’azinu he insists that, even though we do not read the entire parashah during the week, our intention is still to sing a song, not just to read selected verses. Indeed, the original source for the six divisions of Ha’azinu is the Levi’im’s song for the Shabbat musaf offering in the Beit ha-Mikdash, and the Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 31a) says that they would read only one stanza each week, completing the entire song every six weeks. Just as the Levi’im did not read the entire parashah at one time, yet each individual stanza constituted a part of the song, so too when we read individual stanzas from Ha’azinu on Monday and Thursday mornings, we are singing a song, not just reading pesukim.  As such, R. Soloveitchik can assert that during the week, even though we are only reading a small excerpt of Ha’azinu, we are doing so as a song and therefore we must maintain that song’s integrity.

The End of the Road

While the reading of Parashat Mas’ei separate from Parashat Matot occurs more often in Israel than in the Diaspora, it is still a fairly unusual phenomenon. Prior to this year it occurred world-wide in 2005, 2008 and 2011, but will not occur again until 2035 and even in Eretz Yisrael it will only occur four times until then. Yet, the question of preserving the unity of the masa’ot at the beginning of the Parashah can shed light on the conceptual underpinnings of keriat ha-Torah throughout the year. Speaking practically, we have seen that while there are many communities that will read Parashat Mas’ei according to the break-up of aliyot indicated in most standard chumashim, there are many poskim who strongly advocated following the words of the Tzeror HaMor and insisted on maintaining the unity of the masa’ot section. A gabbai or ba’al korei who serves in a synagogue that has no tradition with regard to this question should probably follow the standard chumashim, unless the constituency of the synagogue is well educated and might be receptive to what others might consider confusing and strange. In the final analysis, whatever the gabbai or ba’al korei decides to do, someone is going to yell at them anyway, so why not change things up a bit? At least it will give people something interesting to talk about during the kiddush.



  1. See vols. 25-26 and 35-37. One important question that they discuss is how the now archaic triennial Torah cycle which was once practiced in Eretz Yisrael fits into this discussion. Most probably, the triennial cycle represents a completely different approach to the nature of keri’at ha-Torah and works with different rules and assumptions, and therefore I will not address that question here. 

  2. Tikkun Yisakhar, 80b 

  3. Noheg KaTzon Yosef p.245. 

  4. Orchot Rabbenu v. 1, p.178. 

  5. Sha’arei Rachamim 7:26. 

  6. See also Rashash, Menachot 30a. 

  7. Ohr Yisrael v. 25 p. 189. 

  8. Shemot 12:37. 

  9. Perishah, Tur, Yoreh De’ah 275:12. 

  10. Arukh HaShulchan 428:6. 

  11. For the sake of simplicity, I will henceforth refer to “weekday readings” or “Monday and Thursday morning,” but this includes the Shabbat afternoon reading as well. 

  12. Due to the fact that there are several verses that begin with these letters there are multiple opinions how to identify the correct six sections. See She’elot u-Teshuvot Devar Avraham 1:36. 

  13. Megillah 12b.  

  14. Megillah 3:2. 

  15. Megillah section 805. 

  16. Sheyarei Keneset HaGedolah, Orach Chaim 428. See also Peri Chadash ad loc. 

  17. Sha’arei Ephraim 7:27. 

  18. Nimukei Orach Chaim 428. See also the Munkacz Siddur Minchat Elazar, 1992 which has the standard, short reading for Ha’azinu during the week, but contains the full, expanded reading for Mas’ei

  19. Nefesh HaRav pp. 140-141. See also R. Hershel Schachter, “Lesser-Known Laws of Torah Reading,” Journal of Jewish Music and Liturgy v. 7, 1985, sections 40-43. 

  20. The Talmud actually refers to “the prophets” of that generation, but Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefilah 12:1) attributes the takkanah to Moshe Rabbenu. See Kesef Mishneh ad loc. 

  21. Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 135:2. 

  22. See also Bach, Orach Chaim 685. 

  23. See Arukh HaShulchan, Orach Chaim 135:2 

  24. Hilkhot Shabbat 45. 

  25. Be’ur Halakhah s.v. Shabbat Achat.  

  26. Orach Chaim 135:7 

  27. See Mishnah Berurah 135:4 and Pitchei Teshuvah 135:2. 

  28. Op Cit. 5 

  29. Hilkhot Tefilah 13:5 

  30. Devar Avraham 1:36. 

  31. Shiurim LeZekher Abba Mari z”l. Jerusalem, 2002, v. 1 pp. 19-20 and Nefesh HaRav op cit. 

  32. The Talmud explains that Chazal preferred Parashat Balak to other portions that mention the Exodus because in in 23:24 (or according to some texts 24:9), the Torah alludes to the mitzvah of keri’at Shema.  

  33. There are three main opinions among the medieval authorities regarding the biblical commandment of keri’at Shema: to read the first paragraph, to read the first two paragraphs or to merely read the first verse. See Mishnah Berurah 63:16. According to the last opinion, R. Soloveitchik’s analysis does not apply. 

  34. See Shiurim LeZekher Abba Mari z”l. Jerusalem, 2002, v. 2 pp. 24-25 

About Moshe Schapiro

Rabbi Moshe Schapiro is a reference librarian at the Mendel Gottesman Library of Yeshiva University. He has served as rabbi of the Synagogue on the Palisades in Fort Lee, NJ and as an adjunct professor for Jewish Studies in the Isaac Breuer College at Yeshiva University.


  1. Thanks — this answers the question a number of us had at our local Chabad shul on shabbos — to wit: why was the second aliya in the afternoon so long.

  2. Elimelech Leifer wrote a book about the division of aliyot called קריאת המלך. In it he argues that whoever arranged the aliyot in the chumashim was an am ha’aretz and he brings others who have expressed similar sentiment.

    The antiquity of the minhag that the first aliyah is read during the week also has to be investigated. The Gra in Maaseh Rav says only 10 verses should be read. Much of what is recorded in Maaseh Rav is reverting back to the original Ashknazi minhag (which was changed not long before).

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