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At the 2009 FJMC Convention in Philadelphia, Rabbi Charles Simon, Executive Director of the FJMC, mentioned that he planned to do a weekly mailing on the weekly Haftarah. Along the lines of the weekly parsha e-mails you would get from JTS or AUJ (or others), this will be on the Haftarah, itself.
Each week, Rabbi Simon will either write or edit an interpretation of the Haftarah, giving us insight into the prophetic reading. There is nothing like this available, and it should be a great way to add to our knowledge, especially since the FJMC has been involved in the Sefer Haftarah project for the past 5 or so years.›
The Haftarah has been part of Jewish liturgy since Roman times. They were introduced in order to counter a Roman decree that forbade the reading of the Torah in public assemblies. During the 9th Century CE, the Ben Asher family developed the system of cantillation and punctuation (trop and k'tiv). From that time onward, it became traditional for the haftarot to be chanted. It was common during the Middle Ages to have books of the prophets in the Ark next to the Torah scrolls. When it became time to read from the Haftarah, a scroll was taken out of the Ark and the Haftarah was chanted. Books of haftorot in scroll form have been in use for more than a century but have almost been totally eclipsed by the printing press. The Haftarah, unlike the Torah, does not have to be chanted from a scroll (though many of us feel it would enhance the spirituality of the act if it were read from a scroll instead of a book).

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The Unraveller
Background: The Origins of the Haftarah Blessings
By Rabbi Charles Simon, Executive Director, FJMC

How many of you have had a bar or bat mitzvah?

Did you chant from the haftarah?
Good, do you have any memory of the meaning of the blessings before and after?
I didn't think so. Most of us don't know anything about them we just chant them. Yet if we look at these blessings and how they arrived in their present form we can develop a basic understanding of how Judaism adapted to a changing world. I suggest that being sensitive to that process can provide insight into some of the needs for change that we are experiencing today. When preparing for a haftarah I think we need to ask a question that cannot always be answered but always needs to be considered. What does the haftarah do for me? What is the potential spiritual value for us? That is one the questions that I hope to be able to respond to in this haftarah commentary.

In order for me to write a haftarah commentary I as the author and you as the reader need to understand some of the basic premises. Some of what I believe about the text cannot be proved or disproved. We simply do not know enough about that period and can only speculate. I see some fascinating trends operating in the ancient world that are not too dissimilar from what is occurring today. It's all depends upon how one looks at it.

Do you know the story of buntsher shveig?
Buntsher Shveig is a story written by about the eastern European shtetl life. It basically tells the story of a man who was so humble he never committed a sin. His entire life was a disaster. His wife left him, he failed in business etc etc etc and he never complained! The story begins after his death when he is approaching the heavens and the angels are celebrating. This man was so famous, that Elijah dusted off his horn and a special meeting with the Holy One Blessed He was arranged. The Holy one and our hero finally meet and God asks him is their anything he would like? Our hero requests a crust of bread. He could have asked for world peace! The Hasidim fifty years later extolled his humility. Shalom Aleichem our author wrote this story as an indictment of shtetl life. It all depends upon how one looks at it.

In order to begin a commentary it's important for you the reader to know some important facts about the haftarah
The haftorot have been extracted from the books of what we call the Prophets and the Former Prophets. We really don't read haftorot from the third part of the bible, the writings. We don't have haftorot from the Psalms or Proverbs, as a matter of fact we only read from those books on holidays like Purim or the Sukkot or Passover, Shavout, and the 9th of Av. And then we read from megillot or scrolls.

What does the word haftarah mean or refer to? Haftarah means to conclude. Conclude what? The service? There is any evidence that attests to that. The Torah service? Yes.

What purpose it serves? Aaah good question grasshopper. A number of theories are floating around about how the haftorot came to be. It's possible that each theory could shed some light on the purpose of the development of the haftarah. The first one is: when the Syrians, (Antiochus) banned the Torah (Mac. 1:16) the leaders of the time substitute thematic readings of a similar nature. The Macabeean victory was in 165 b.c.e. According to this theory haftorot began to be read in synagogues a bit earlier.

It's a good theory and provides us with a starting point to date the text. The prophetic canon most put into a final form after the Maccabeen victory but we are not certain and we lack any definitive evidence.

There is another theory about the origins of the haftarah that states it was enacted by Ezra who established the Torah reading sometime between 520 and 444 b.c.e. Highly unlikely.

When Ezra returned to Jerusalem he was greeted by the Samaritans who wished to help him rebuild the Temple. The Samaritans understood the Torah the same way that the Saduccees who lived later on did. They understood the Bible literally and did not read from the Prophets. Look at the first blessing before the haftarah. It mentions the prophets. The Samaritans would never have accepted this as part of their worship. Could Ezra have instituted prophetic readings to discourage and turn off the Samaritans? Yes but this today most scholars agree that the five books of Moses had just been canonized and it was too early for haftarah readings to be accepted. For those of my readers who read the amidah can you think of another example where a group is specifically alienated because of the words in a blessing? P.S. This is a hint to when the blessings were formalized.

Let's return to the blessings. How many of them are there? Count! There is one introductory blessing and four concluding blessings. Look at the last blessing. What is it attempting to do? I think it is attempting to sanctify a moment in time. That something to think about. How do we sanctify a moment in time?

There are those who suggest that the haftarah was an opportunity for a d'rash.
Because the first references we have of people reading from the prophets are in Josephus and in Christian scripture that mention mentions that Luke read from the prophets and then gave a sermon. We have another reference that Jesus read from the book of Isaiah in Nazareth.

I want to talk about the Sermon, or homily for a moment because of the implications it has for today. What was its' purpose? I believe its purpose was teaching, stimulating people and entertainment. The Sermon was ancient theater. It was entertaining and designed to attract and engage people. It makes a statement about what should happen in shul today. The poetry and narratives of the haftorot could possibly engage and attract people. The texts most certainly provides the tools for an experienced orator.

There is one more fact that you need to understand before we begin discussing individual haftorot. The Torah as we know it today is read over the course of one year. Originally it took three years to complete the cycle but that was changed to an annual cycle around the time that Simhat Torah appeard. When the Torah was being read on a triennial cycle the haftorot were different. Some of them were only 2-3 lines. Services were shorter.

We learn in Talmud B. Mezia 29b that the Western (Palestine) people read completed the Torah in 3 years, some say 3 _ years. They could have used between 153-171 portions. There is a statement in the Talmud in the volume called “Shabbat” that speaks of reading from the prophets at mincha or the afternoon services. There are references that the Jewish community in Cairo was reading triennially up to the 11th century and other communities were still reading this way until around 1670. Some readings were originally prohibited in the Talmud like the first chapter of the book of Ezekial but we read it today. In other words the haftorot went through a period of transition.

It is likely that the haftarah schedule was connected with the triennial reading and was also linked to the reading of specific psalms depending upon the season. When we shifted to an annual cycle, the length of the service increased and the connection between the Torah, haftarah and psalms lessened and of course our services became longer and dull.

We can assume that the haftarah was not necessarily read before the closing of the canon, that is to say, before the Bible as we know was put in its present form.

There is a third story that attempts to explain the how the haftorot were instituted. It is the story of Rabbi Akiva who had been placed in jail by the Romans for preaching rebellion. The Romans according to legend, outlawed the public teaching of Torah. Akiva smuggled prophetic readings to his student that had similar themes to the weekly readings. This is a wonderful story the only problem is that at that time our ancestors were reading the Torah on the triennial cycle resulting in connections were most likely even more problematic.

Let me tell you a little about Rabbi Akiva. Akiba was born in the year 50. We know he set up his own school at Bene Barak. In 132 a full scale revolt against Rome broke out under the leadership of Bar Kokba. Akiva's part in this is unclear. He undoubtedly greeted the revolt enthusiastically since he recognized Bar Kokba as the long awaited Messiah who would liberate Israel from its oppressors. Akiva was later imprisoned by the Romans for openly teaching Torah in defiance of their edict. He was not immediately executed but it seems his imprisonment was not too rigorous, since he was allowed visitors from time to time. This privilege was apparently withdrawn because we have references to a disciple of his desiring a ruling on the law who had to receive it from the window of his cell. Later he was tortured to death by having his flesh torn from his body with iron combs. He died with the shema on his lips. We read about his death in the martryology on Yom Kippur. It is nearly inconceivable that Akiva could have instituted the reading of the Haftorot which leads me to the final theory of haftarah development/

Remember your Passover story? The entire haggadah can be understood as a code. At least for some people. If you remember a seder took place in Bene Barak and the Talmud tells us another seder took place in Lod and was lead by Rabban Gamliel and attended by a number of the merchants. They had a different kind of seder, because Akiva's seder was a vehicle to plan a rebellion against the Romans.

There is a possibility that the reasons the haftarot were so short was that they could be used as a code to remember the rebellion. Everything during the historical period was symbolic of something else. The Jews who lived in Palestine, at least most of them, preached revolution. Judaism for them, was about two things, the exodus and experience at Sinai. Judaism for them was a call to activism it was about fighting for freedom!

Akiva obviously believed in a messiah? One wonders would he still have believed in the Messiah after the failure of the rebellion? Look what the haftarah blessings say at the end? Sometime after the death of Akiva the concept and belief in the messiah found itself into the blessings?

Let's examine what the rabbis living after the Bar Kokba rebellion thought about the messiah?
Sources Talmud Sanhedrin Chapter 10 page 97a
“It has been taught: R. Nehorai said: In the generation when Messiah comes, young men will insult the old, and old men will stand before the young to give them honor. Daughters will rise up against their mothers and daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law.
It has been taught. R. Nehemiah said: In the generation of Messiah's coming impudence will increase, esteem be perverted, the vine yield its fruit, yet shall wine be dear. And the Kingdom will be converted to heresy with none to rebuke them. The son of David will not come until the whole world is converted to the belief of the heretics.
Another interpretation: Until scholars are few. Until the redemption is despaired.
R. Hama b. Hanina said: The son of David will not come until even the pettiest kingdom ceases to have power over Israel.
The son of David will not come until there are no conceited men in Israel
The son of David will not come until all judges and officers are gone from Israel
Rabi Johanan (250-290 Israel) also said, The son of David will come only in a generation that is either altogether righteous or altogether wicked.
R. Joshu b. Levi (first half of the 3rd century Israel) said, If they are worthy.
These guys aren't revolutionaries they are pacifists!
And then there were the others like Rabbi Judah the Prince who lived later who preached caution, shhhsh! don't rattle the apple cart.

Let's return to the haftarah. This could have been a tool to preach revolution. Perhaps if we understood the process of how the Torah readings came to be it would help us better understand the haftarot? The Torah readings most likely were first instituted on Shabbat and possibly at the same time on Mondays and Thursdays because they were market days. The first Shabbat readings took place on the festivals, Rosh Hashana was probably the first one. Then Yom Kippur which was most likely followed by the four special Shabbatot. Following this special Torah readings were added for Hanukkah and Purim. Eventually all special days had a special Torah reading. This process took several hundred years.

It is possible that the haftorot were added around the same time that the Torah portions became fixed. This is what I call the theatrical theory of Jewish liturgical development.

Why should it be difficult is it to discern the relationship between the Torah and haftarah? Let's return to the haftarah blessings because there are a few items I want to share with you that reveal the influence of time. Look at the second blessing the one that starts with “have compassion” their actually is an earlier form of that blessing that reads a little differently. Instead of using the word rahem, have compassion it says, “nahem, comfort us. Is there a difference?

Look at the third blessing. It begins with the word samechnu and means “make us happy”, the early version of this text states, m'nachem zion console us in Zion.

Finally, look at the words vlaloovat nefesh And take vengeance on behalf of the sorrowful (miserable) . Well it used to say Vlaloogoomot nefesh tnakem… save us from affliction of spirit. Once again a change in emphasis.

Why do you think has occurred? I would suggest that sufficient period of time had passed for our ancestors to get beyond the grief and desire for vengeance after the Temple's destruction and they began to see joy and gladness in the world. In order to preserve the memory of the Temple, and the Kingdom of David a new interpretation was required. I can't help but seeing parallels between the community's response to the destruction of the Temple more than one hundred years later and our communities response to Yom Ha Shoah today. Surely if we wish the memory of the Holocaust to be preserved we need to teach new generations to remember it differently.

In conclusion the blessings before and after the Haftarah were most likely finalized around 300 AD by Rav a person who is referred to as the Teacher of the entire Diaspora. Rav was born in Babylonia from a distinguished family moved to Israel and studied with Rabbi Hiyya. He joined the academy of Judah ha Nasi and he explained the purpose of the mitzvoth as only being given as a means of refining men. I can live with that.

The books of the Prophets did not receive canonical status at the same time or immediately after the Torah was canonized. We think it became a fixture in the middle of the third century b.c.e. six hundred years before the haftarah became normal fixtures in our liturgy. The haftarah blessings most likely became accepted in the 3rd century A.D. and the haftorot themselves went through a process of acceptance and most likely didn't achieve their current status until several hundred years later.

I realize that this is a long introduction to a commentary on the haftorot but I need to add one additional item. The haftorort that will be posted will follow the order of the Torah portions and will not be concerned with the special portions like Rosh Hodesh or holidays. Those haftorot will be addressed separately if I get there.

Finally, the purpose of the explanations to challenge you the reader to figure out a way to make the message that our ancestors selected, for whatever reasons, resonate with you.

About the FJMC Sefer Haftarah
The Sefer Haftarah Project had its birth in Florida at the 2003 International Convention of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. Written in Israel, the Sefer Haftarah includes all the Haftarahs and is unique with the addition of vowels and troupe and individual parsha dedications.
Over the past 6 years the FJMC Sefer Haftarah has traveled throughout the United States and Canada and is in a different shul every Shabbat of the year.›The club receives the Sefer Haftarah on Wednesday and should be ready on Monday morning to go on to the next club.› This schedule gives a Bar or Bat Mitzvah time to practice with the Sefer prior to their big day.›There is no cost to a club as travel expenses are paid by the FJMC. All it takes to be eligible to host the Sefer Haftarah is that the club must make a reservation. ›
On Shabbat morning many clubs parade into their sanctuary with the Sefer Haftarah at the start of the Torah service presenting the Sefer to the Rabbi. The morning's Haftarah is read from the FJMC Sefer Haftarah. Following the service it may be rolled out on tables for congregants to come and get a closer look at the calligraphy and parsha dedications.› On Sunday morning many clubs arrange with their religious school to show the unique Sefer to the students.›
FJMC regions are welcome to have the Sefer Haftarah at their retreats. With over 260 member clubs, and only 52 weeks in the year, scheduling priority will be given to clubs who have not had a recent visit from the Sefer Haftarah.›Our current schedule is set through June 26, 2010, however,›we will be opening a new reservation system in the new year to enable clubs to directly bid on a visit.›
The FJMC can also supply complete copies of the Sefer Haftarah as a fundraising tool along with individual Haftarah portions which are appropriate gifts to mark significant occasions and milestones.
For further information on the FJMC Sefer Haftarah please contact ›Dave Gerstein @ gerstein1@verizon.net, or 972-596-2034.

Each issue of The Unraveller will include "Where is the Sefer Haftarah this week"

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