Thoughts on the Haftarah and Its Blessings

Updated: Nov 1, 2021

Jewish Scripture is divided into three sections, the Torah, the Prophets (Nevi'im), and the Writings (Ketuvim). Taken together they are referred to by the acronym derived from the Hebrew names, Tanakh. Over the course of a year, beginning on the Shabbat following Simchat Torah, we read the entire Torah, the Five Books of Moses, from Genesis through Deuteronomy, one or two portions (parshiyot or parashot) each week unless the regular reading is pre-empted by a special holiday reading. The fifty-four portions take us through the year until the final section, the last chapters of Deuteronomy, V'zot Habracha, is read on the following Simchat Torah.

In addition to the Torah readings, we also have a haftarah, an additional concluding reading, taken from the Nevi'im, the Prophets, read each Shabbat and also on Festivals. These selections don't come close to covering the entire corpus of prophetic writings. We take very few passages from the early prophets, the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Nearly half of the readings come from the book of Isaiah, among the later, literary, prophets. There are also selections from Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the two other “major” prophets, and from nine of the twelve so-called “minor” prophets, those with shorter books, comprising one to fourteen chapters. These readings are chosen because of some connection is found between an aspect of the Torah reading and something mentioned in the prophetic writings. Sometimes it is a reference by the prophet to a specific passage in the Torah, mention of a name or an event, or a similar theme that appears in both works. Though sections of the Ketuvim, the Writings, particularly the Psalms, are included in many places in the liturgy, the only books from Ketuvim that are read during the service are the Megillot, the five scrolls, designated to be read on five holidays during the year. There are some references in rabbinic writings to a haftarah taken from the Writings that used to be read at the minchah service on Shabbat afternoon after the reading of the Torah, but there is little information about that ancient custom which is no longer practiced.

It is not at all clear exactly when the practice of reading the Torah each week began or when and why the haftarah was added. Tradition connects the Torah reading to the time of Ezra in the 5th century B.C.E. and dates the haftarot to the time of the Maccabees, three centuries later, when King Antiochus forbade the reading of the Torah and the sages suggested selections from the prophets to take the place of the forbidden Torah reading. There is no supporting historical evidence for these traditions however. Some scholars see this reading from the prophets, the haftarah, as a protest against the Samaritans who did not accept the teachings of the prophets in addition to the Torah.

We do know that the practice of Torah reading in the congregations in the land of Israel followed a different system from that in Babylonia. While the Jews in Babylon read through the entire Torah over the course of a year and apparently invented the Simchat Torah practices for the second day of Shemini Atzeret to mark the end of a cycle, in Israel, the Torah was read in a three year or three-and-a-half year cycle, a triennial cycle. The triennial cycle followed nowadays by many Conservative congregations is quite different from that cycle however. The modern version maintains the same weekly portion as do those on the annual cycle, but only one third of each portion is read each week, the first third in year one, the second in year two, and the third in year three of the cycle. A number of years back, the Rabbinical Assembly set the first year so as to standardize the practice within the Conservative Movement. In the ancient version of the Triennial cycle, congregations in Israel read selections that were generally one third of each portion read consecutively over a three week period..

We know of some variation in the choice of readings for the haftarah over the centuries. With a triennial cycle there must be many other readings that we no longer can identify. Even today, there remain a few variations between the readings done in Ashkenazic congregations and those in Sephardic ones. Sometimes it is a question of how much to read of a given selection, with the Sephardic tradition often going with a shorter reading. The rabbis established that haftarot should be at least 21 verses long (equivalent to the seven aliyot with a minimum of three verses each read from the Torah) and most haftarot are about that long or longer. However there are a number of exceptions where the desired passage is shorter than 21 verses and that is acceptable. There are two haftarot that have only nine or ten verses, and they are often sought out by bar or bat mitzvah students in need of a shorter portion.

In order to show deference to the Torah, the person designated to read the haftarah is called to the Torah for a concluding aliyah, the maftir. The maftir is generally a repeat of the final verses of the Torah reading for that Shabbat. Following the rules for dividing up the reading, the maftir reading will be from three to five verses long. When there is a second (or occasionally, a third) scroll taken out for a holiday or other special occasion, the maftir is read from the last Torah scroll and can be as long as 20 verses as on Parashat Parah and Parashat HaChodesh, prior to Passover.

After the maftir is read, the Torah is lifted and wrapped and the haftarah reader (also known as the maftir) waits until the Torah is wrapped before beginning the blessing before the prophetic reading. Together with the blessings before and after the aliyah to the Torah, there are five blessings for the haftarah, one before and four after, making a total of seven blessings, equal to the number of aliyot to the Torah on Shabbat.

While there exist scrolls for the reading of the haftarah or individual scrolls of the books of the prophets, most congregations read the haftarah from a printed volume, thus making it easier for a lay person to read the text him or herself. Torah scrolls contain only the consonantal text and require practice in order to read accurately, while printed volumes add the vowel points and the tropes marks facilitating the reading of a haftarah without much preparation. The tropes marks on the haftarah are the same as on the printed texts of the Torah, however, traditionally they are sung to a different melody. Different groups of Jews around the world have their own melodies. Here we may hear the Eastern European tune most often, though occasionally we get to hear the lovely melody used by Western European Jews. The late composer Leonard Bernstein, took the Eastern European melody of the haftarah and jazzed it up a bit in his First Symphony, the Jeremiah, which also includes a solo from the book of Lamentations, sung in the original Hebrew. Our custom is to chant the opening blessing, preceding the haftarah, to the melody of the haftarah tropes.

The opening blessing starts in the usual manner, Praising the Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who chose “nevi'im tovim” good prophets (the Bible does know of some bad prophets who led some of the later kings astray), “and was pleased with their words, spoken in truth.” The brachah goes on to say, “Blessed are You , Lord, who chose the Torah, His servant Moses, His people Israel, and the prophets of truth and righteousness.” Some commentators note the duplication of the mention of the prophets and suggest that this indicates that we may learn not only from their words but also from their actions, thus including haftarot from the early books of the prophets which do not contain much in the way of prophetic writings.

The reader then proceeds to chant the haftarah designated for that occasion. When there are two or three scrolls read on a given Shabbat, the rule is that the reading associated with the most frequent event is read first, followed by the next most frequent, and then the least frequent reading. For example when Shabbat Chanukah falls on Rosh Chodesh, the new moon, we first read the weekly Shabbat portion, then the monthly Rosh Chodesh reading, and finally the special reading designated for Chanukah. Since there are three possible haftarot to choose from on such an occasion, we take the one connected to the last reading, the haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah in this case. Some congregations add to the Chanukah reading the opening and closing lines of the reading for Rosh Chodesh or even for Machar Chodesh, the day before the New Moon. However that is not our practice.

As mentioned, following the haftarah, the reader chants four concluding blessings. These are not read to the melody of the tropes but to various traditional tunes. When I teach the melody I know to bar or bat mitzvah students, I always call it the “babbling brook” melody since it sounds to me like water bouncing off of pebbles in a riverbed.

The first blessing is primarily in praise of God's faithful fulfillment of His word. Having heard the words of the prophets taught in God's name, we offer thanks for His faithfulness, The word “ne'eman” faithful, is repeated five times in this blessing to hammer home that point. God is referred to as “Tzur kol ha-olamim” the rock of all eternity or the rock of all the universe. Both translations are possible since “olam” has both a spatial and temporal meaning. The blessing includes phrases we saw in the Baruch Sheamar blessing which precedes the P'sukei d'zimrah prayers earlier in the service. God is “ha-omer v'oseh, ham'daber um'kayim” He says and does, speaks and fulfills. It also includes an idea found in the book of Isaiah which affirms that none of God's words come back empty, i.e. none are spoken in vain. Some suggest that even when they are not fulfilled precisely, they still have an impact on the listeners, as was the case with Jonah's prophecy to the people of Nineveh which brought about their repentance rather than the predicted destruction of the city.

This first blessing is often printed with a break in the middle which confuses some students and congregants who think that that midpoint is the end of a blessing and they want to answer “Amen.” The usual melody also leads to that conclusion. I had thought, myself, that it was just a printing convention, but it turns out that there used to be a custom of the congregation crying out at this point to affirm the words of the reader. He would get to “Shekol d'varav emet vatzedek” all of His words are true and just, and the congregation would then reply, “Ne'eman atah hu Adonay Eloheinu v'neemanim d'varecha, ne'eman chay v'kayam tamid timloch aleinu l'olam va'ed.” Faithful are You, Lord our God and faithful are Your words, Faithful One, living and enduring, may You always reign over us forever and ever.” Jews in Palestine would stand as they recited this line and Jews in Babylonia had the tradition of remaining seated. Over the generations, this custom faded away and is no longer followed at all. However its absence is noted and bemoaned at length in the commentary to the Siddur Yavetz by the 18th century rabbi, Jacob Emden.

These blessings appear in a number of early works in a variety of versions. We find them in the Tractate of Sofrim, one of the minor tractates of the Talmud, assumed to date to the 8th century C.E. The version in Soferim is very similar to our version today and includes the congregational response in the middle of the first blessing that I mentioned as well as the differing customs associated with it. The blessings appear in the Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon from the 9th century and in a shortened version in the Siddur of Rav Saadia Gaon in the following century.

There are some theories that the blessings following the haftarah may have served originally as a kind of proto-Amidah, since many of the same themes appear in them as appear in the Amidah as well as in the Birkat HaMazon, the blessings following a meal. After the initial blessing praising God's faithfulness, the second blessing, recognizing that many of the haftarot speak about Jerusalem, is a prayer on behalf of Zion. “Rachem, have compassion on (or in an alternative version, nachem, comfort) Zion, for it is the source of our life (literally the house of our life), and save the one grieved in spirit (aluvat nefesh or, in another version, agumat nefesh) swiftly in our days.” The blessing ends with a blessing familiar to us from the seven wedding blessings, “M'sameich Tziyon b'vaneha, Blessed are You, Lord, who makes Zion rejoice with her children.”

The third blessing speaks of the messianic hope, the establishment once again of the House of David, to be announced by the arrival of the prophet Elijah. “May he soon come and make our hearts glad. May no stranger sit on his [David's] throone and may others not continue to inherit his glory. You promised him by Your holy name that this light would never be extinguished.” The current conclusion is “Magen David, Praised are You, Lord, the shield of David.” In Soferim the ending is closer to a prayer from the Amidah, “Matzmiach keren yeshuah l'amo Yisrael.”Who makes the glory of salvation flourish for the people of Israel.”

The blessings end in the fourth blessing with words of thanksgiving to God for the Torah, the worship service, the prophets, and for the Sabbath day. “For all these we thank and bless You, Lord our God, and may Your name be blessed by the mouth of all that lives, continually, forever and all time. Blessed are You, who sanctifies Shabbat.” This blessing is completed with a flourish and when it is a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah reading it, the conclusion may bring a shower of candy with wishes of mazal tov and sweet life to the celebrant.

This current version of the blessings is found in the Machzor Vitry, pretty much as we have it today and has been maintained over the centuries. Thus when we read from the prophets we see it as an opportunity to reaffirm our faith in God and in His ultimate redemption of the people of Israel, restoring us to our land, returning the House of David to the throne and bringing salvation to those here described as “aluvat nefesh” or “agumat nefesh” both terms reflecting the bleak and wretched lives of the Jewish people too often in their history. The haftarah brings light and hope to our people and to a troubled world, week after week, as we turn to the words of the prophets of ancient Israel, addressed to people thousands of years ago, yet still continuing to speak words of hope to us many generations later.

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