Shabbat and The Haftarah Readings

December 25, 2015

Every week, Jody Hirsh, the JCC's Judaic Education Director, provides a Judaic message that is featured at the top of the JCC's weekly email newsletter. Below is the Shabbat message for Friday, December 25, 2015.

Shabbat and The Haftarah Readings

I know, I know... the common Askenazi pronunciation of HaftarAH is “HafTORah;” but, contrary to a common misconception, Haftorah does NOT mean “half Torah.” Every Shabbat (and holiday), after the Torah reading, a section from the section of the Bible called “The Prophets” is read. The word Haftarah actually means “conclusion,” and the prophetic reading, in some way, concludes the scriptural reading which is part of Sabbath and Holiday liturgy. This Shabbat, for example, the Torah Portion, the last section of the Book of Genesis, is called “VaYichi,” which means “And he (Jacob) lived,” and is actually about the death of Jacob and his blessings for his sons. It begins “and Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years...” Jacob’s blessings for his sons are complex and full of symbolic imagery, and come at the very end of the Book of Genesis. The Haftarah concludes the readings with a parallel passage in the book of Kings, with the death, not of Jacob, but King David, and his blessing of his son Solomon, who becomes King Solomon.

 “So,” you might ask, “when did reading the haftarah start? Why did it start? Who started it? And here’s the definitive answer: No one knows! There are theories, of course. One of my favorite theories is that the reading of the haftaroth happened around the time of the Maccabees and King Antiochus of the Hanukkah story. (It probably didn’t happen that way, but I like the explanation.) According to this theory – the evil King Antiochus outlawed the reading of the Torah, and the clever Jews substituted the readings from the prophets with parallel themes to the Torah readings. Nice. Another theory is that a breakoff sect from Judaism, the Samaritans, refused to accept the Bible other than the Torah as holy. (Those were the “Bad Samaritans.”) Therefore, the Jews purposely included the public readings from the books of the Prophets to conclude the reading from the Torah. In any case, the reading of the haftarah grew over time. The readings by now are fairly standard – with some differences in different communities. Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazic Jews don’t always read the same things, for example.

And the Haftarah reading is different than the Torah reading. It’s shorter, for one thing, and there are different blessings before and after the reading. The Torah reading is broken into seven different parts on Shabbat – each of the seven parts are blessed by different people, and each section could be read by a different person. But whenever the Torah is read on Shabbat morning in the synagogue – no matter what kind of synagogue – the haftarah always concludes the reading.

Shabbat Shalom.