Jerrold Landau
Genealogical and Translation Services

THOUGHTS ON THE ANNUAL HAFTARAH CYCLE

 HEGYONEI YESHAYAHU al HaHAFTAROT

 By Jerrold Landau

 © 2019 by Jerrold Landau

 

I am pleased to publicize this set of my thoughts and ideas on the yearly cycle of Haftarot (the prophetic portions read on Sabbaths and festivals as part of the synagogue service). The concept for this work stemmed from introduction to the weekly Haftarah that I often present at my local synagogue. Originally, these Divrei Torah were intended to be part of a print publication, along with various types of content, including a significant art component. Given the difficulties and delays in producing a printed version, I have decided to publicize my commentaries on my personal website as a free e-book.  An expanded, print version may still be in the offing for the future.

 The origin of the the Haftarah within Jewish liturgy is unclear.  One theory places it at the time of Greek persecution in the second century BCE, when the reading of the Torah was forbidden.  Another theory regards it as a reaction to sects such as the Sadducees, who believed that the Jewish Bible consisted only of the Torah. A third theory looks at it as the formalization of the study of sections of the prophetic section of the Tanach.  In the earlier days, the section chosen for the Haftarah was left to the choice of the reader. In later times, the sections have been formalized, although different communities still retain varying customs.  The Haftarot cover about 5% of the Neviim section of the Tanach. Selections come from all books of the Neviim, with the exception of three (in Israel, four) of the books of the Twelve Minor Prophets [Trei Asar].

 In the Mishnah, Megillah 4:5, we are told that the person who reads the Haftarah also has the rights to lead the service.  If he as a minor, his father would lead the service. From here, the commentators learn that the reading of the Haftarah is considered as a lesser honour than a regular aliya. The person who receives the honour is given the rights to lead the service as a consolation prize. We also learn that the aliya that accompanies the Haftarah may be given to a child below the age of Bar Mitzvah.  This is unlike any of the other aliyas during the Torah reading.  On the other hand, the reading of the Haftarah is considered as an honor with higher status in current times.  The privilege of reading the Haftarah is given to a youth celebrating his Bar Mitzvah.  As well, it is often considered to be the right of a person who will be observing yahrzeit in the upcoming week.  Later commentators have noted that the reading the Haftarah, accompanied by its seven blessings, is nowadays considered to be a significant honor, perhaps even more significant than a regular aliya

 What are the seven blessings of the Haftarah? The aliya itself, known as maftir, is the reading of a short passage of the Torah, accompanied by the customary two blessings. A single blessing then precedes the reading of the Haftarah, in which we thank Gd for choosing good and true prophets.  The Haftarah is followed by a series of four blessings, on the truth of the Divine Word, on the hope for the redemption of Zion, looking forward to the return of the return of Elijah the Prophet and the restoration of the Kingdom of David, and noting the holiness of the day.  On the afternoon of fast days, the final blessing is omitted.

 The study of the Prophetic sections of the Tanach often takes a secondary importance in the traditional Jewish curriculum. The reason for this are unclear.  Some feel that this was a reaction to the Haskalah movement, which stressed the study of Tanach over and above Talmud and Jewish law.  Another theory is that the content of the Prophets is often uncomfortable. The historical sections of the Books of the Prophets do not gloss over the negative aspects of Jewish history from the time of Joshua through the destruction of the First Temple.  The prophetic portions have no shortage of warnings and accusations. Furthermore, the poetry of the prophetic portions is clouded in metaphor, and is often difficult to understand in a straightforward manner.  The state of Jewish scholarship is far poorer for its neglect of the study of these portions of the Tanach. It has been said that without a knowledge of the words of the prophets, we don’t know where we are coming from, and we don’t know where we are going. The books of the Prophets indeed clarify our past and open our eyes to our future destiny.

 Although I have gleaned my inspiration from a variety of sources, most of the ideas presented in these Divrei Torah are my own original thoughts.  I note the following works that I have used as reference material: The Stone Chumash, The Hertz Chumash, the Soncino Chumash, “A Synagogue Companion, Insights into Torah, Haftarot, and Shabbat Morning Prayer Services” (Hayyim Angel), and traditional Biblical commentaries.

 Although most Haftarot are common between all segments of Jewry, the Haftarah selection at times varies by community. Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Chabad, Yemenites, and some other communities may have their own customs for the Haftarah selection for a specific Shabbat or Yom Tov.  This book follows the standard Ashkenazic custom. Often, but not invariably, I make note of the differing customs. 

 The Jewish calendar has many complexities that affect the Haftarah cycle. Some Haftarot are read every year, or even multiple times a year, and others are skipped in some years. There are a few that are quite rare.  I have made note of the reasoning for this variance in my commentary. A reader who is not interested in the nuances of the Jewish calendar can gloss over these details.

 I would like to thank my many rabbis, teachers and religious mentors over the years, during my early years in Ottawa, my many years as part of the Toronto community, and during my Yeshiva studies in Israel.  Special expressions of gratitude go to those congregations in Toronto who have offered me the opportunity to present my thoughts during services. I must especially note the Mizrachi Bayit and Rabbi Yakov Kerzner, who have invited me to present a Dvar Torah prior to the reading of the Haftarah on a regular basis. Rabbi Aaron Katchen, the current rabbi of this synagogue, now known as Beit Tzion, has allowed me to continue in this tradition.  I express my gratitude to my friends, relatives, and colleagues who have reviewed and commented upon my drafts for this book:  Ira Walfish, Joyce Field, Avraham Fast and my dear daughter Hadassa. Lastly, I express my sincere gratitude to my dear wife Tzippy and my family for allowing me the luxury to pursue my research and writing.

 In an effort to make this work more accessible to those not schooled in traditional Judaism, I have opted to use Anglicized forms of personal names. Those with a more traditional bent may find that naming format somewhat awkward. Both groups, however, should find some benefit in the content.

 If anyone wishes to contact me regarding the content of this work, or for any other reason, you can do so through my email or my social media presence. I would be happy to hear any comments regarding this work.  You are free to use this work for any purpose, but I do ask that you respect the copyright, and provide appropriate citation, as per the adage in Pirkei Avot 6:6 “Whoever cites something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world.”

 It is my hope that this volume will whet the reader’s appetite for further study of the Tanach, and will enhance the reader’s appreciation for a significant, yet often underappreciated part of our synagogue service.  May this volume contribute to the furthering of the Jewish destiny, leading to the coming of the Messiah speedily in our days.

 

Jerrold Landau   /  Yeshayahu Avraham ben Isser Landau

Toronto, Canada

30 Marcheshvan (Rosh Chodesh Kislev) 5780    /   November 28, 2019

jerrold@jerroldlandau.com

 © 2019 by Jerrold Landau

 

Bereishit - Genesis (12)

Shemot - Exodus (11)

Vayikra - Leviticus (10)

Bamidbar - Numbers (10)

Devarim - Deuteronomy (11)

Yamim_Tovim - Festivals (15)

Special Days (12)

Additional Notes