Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Haftara - A Brief Historical Review

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

Readers are no doubt familiar with the Haftara, the additional reading from the prophets, which is chanted immediately following the reading of the Torah portion on Shabbat and holiday mornings. The word "Haftara" itself is an Aramaic derivative meaning "conclusion", referring to its role in concluding the reading of Scripture at public services. Although no longer practiced, there used to be a custom of reading a Haftara on Shabbat afternoons, as well.

While not inherently connected to a bar-mitzvah in any way, common custom is to have a bar-mitzvah boy read the Haftara on the Shabbat of his bar-mitzva. The source for this may be that the reading of a Haftara, which requires much preparation, study, and skill, was considered an appropriate medium for the bar-mitzvah boy to show his competency for entering the learned adult community.

The Haftara was likely solidified as a public practice in the Maccabean era when the ruling Syrian-Greek authorities forbade Jews from studying or teaching the Torah itself. In order not to completely loose touch with Scriptural studies, the sages of the time introduced a public reading, and by extension, study of the Jewish prophets. Oddly enough, these authorities didn’t seem to have a problem with Jews studying the prophets – it was the Pentateuch alone that seemed to bother them. Even when the decree forbidding Torah was lifted, the Haftara remained a mandatory component of the service.

To further highlight the importance of this reading, a blessing was instituted to be recited before it is read, along with an additional four blessings at its conclusion. Historically, the congregational rabbi would deliver a sermon to the congregation following the Haftara reading, a sermon whose theme was often taken from the Haftara itself.

The one who is honored with the reading of the Haftara is known as the "Maftir" and, correspondingly, would receive the last Aliyah of the weekly Torah reading. The "trop", tune, in which the Haftara is chanted is a unique one reserved for the reading of the prophets. Although in disuse today, there are other books of Tanach with their own distinct cantillation. Unfortunately these trops have been forgotten throughout the ages. The only trop which remains with us today are those for the Torah, Haftara, and the five Megillot.

By the time the Talmud was completed, the inclusion of the Haftara in the Shabbat service was already mainstream. Although it seems that according to halacha, any selection from the prophets relating to the weekly Torah portion may be chosen as the Haftara for that week, the sages decided to legislate a specific Haftara for each Shabbat of the year to ensure that Jews worldwide would be reading the same Haftara each Shabbat.

Unfortunately, marginalizing and belittling of the Haftara is common (cf. kiddush clubs). Make no mistake; every congregant is obligated to follow along the Haftara reading. Whether it is through talking or leaving the sanctuary, mistreating the Haftara is a serious error. The Haftara's place within the liturgy is legislated in the Shulchan Aruch, and its history and teachings should be a source of weekly inspiration.

This post is a work-in-progress. Readers are welcome to share other halachic/historical tidbits on everything related to Haftara.

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