|October 8, 2009
This is not a usual weekly commentary. It will not follow the weekly-holiday calendar cycle but instead will discuss each Ashkenazic haftorah that has been linked to a Torah reading in a systematic order. In order to prevent confusion when the calendar requires a special haftorah that disrupts the normal sequential reading it will be also be included. The commentary will attempt to explain the context in which the alleged authors wrote; and on occasion, will conjecture why our ancestors selected it to accompany a given Torah reading. I will on occasion quote sources and whenever necessary will provide the historical context that I believe is necessary for a reader to relate to the text. This commentary will also attempt to raise questions that I hope will be considered when the haftorah is chanted with the hopes that it will resonate more fully with you, the reader.
Charles Simon October, 2009
The Origins of the Haftorah Blessings
How many of you have any memory of the meaning of the blessings before and after the haftorah? Don't be surprised I can't remember anyone ever explaining the meaning of the blessings. Most of us don't know anything about them. Yet if we read these blessings and consider when they were written and how they arrived in their present form we can develop a basic understanding of how Judaism adapted to a changing world. When preparing for a haftorah I think we need to ask a question that cannot always be answered but should always be considered. What can the haftorah do for me and what spiritual value does it have?
I began this task with the realization that some of what I would say about the text would be conjectural because there is still much for us to learn about the periods in question. I also felt that it is possible to suggest certain similarities between trends operating in the ancient world and those of today. It's all depends upon one's perspective.
Do you know the story of Bonte Shveig?
Bonte 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 is there anything he would like God to do? Our hero requests a crust of bread when he could have asked for world peace! The Hasidim fifty years later extolled his humility. Isaac Loeb Peretz , the author, wrote this story as an indictment of shtetl life. It all depends upon one's perspective.
The haftorot have been extracted from the books we call the Prophets and the Former Prophets. We don't read haftorot from the third part of the bible, “The Writings”. We don't read 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 them from “megillot” or scrolls.
What does the word haftorah mean?
Haftorah means to conclude. Conclude what? Could it be the prayer service? There isn't any evidence to attests to that other than perhaps even then, our ancestors felt that the Shabbat morning service was too long. Most likely it refers to the end of the Torah service.
Why do we read haftorot and when did this process begin?
Good question grasshopper. A number of theories are floating around about how the haftorot came to be. One theory suggests the haftorot were instituted by Ezra who established the Torah reading sometime between 520 and 444 BCE.
This theory is highly unlikely because when Ezra returned to Jerusalem he was greeted by the Samaritans who wished to help him rebuild the Temple. The Samaritans understood the Torah literally, like the Saduccees who lived much later, did not read from the Prophets. If you read the first blessing before the haftorah you will notice that it mentions the prophets. The Samaritans would never have accepted this as part of their worship. More likely Ezra instituted prophetic readings in the service to discourage and drive the Samaritans away. Most scholars today agree that the five books of Moses had just been canonized and it was too early for haftorah readings to be added. For those of you who recall the blessings in the daily amidah can you think of another example where a group has been specifically alienated because of the words in a blessing?
Theory number two claims that the haftorot became prevalent when the Syrians, (Antiochus) banned the Torah (Mac. 1:16). Not being able to read the Torah publicly the leaders of the time substituted thematic readings of a similar nature. The Macabeean victory was in 165 BCE.
This is a good theory but it is also most likely incorrect. The prophetic canonization took place after the Maccabee victory and the chanting of the Haftorot as we know them today, most likely didn't occur for at least several hundred years after Judah the Maccabee re-conquered and rededicated the Temple.
There are those who suggest that the haftorah was created to provide an opportunity for a d'rash. That's because the first references to people reading from the prophets in a synagogue are found in Josephus and Christian scripture where it mentions that Luke read from the prophets and then delivered a sermon. There is also a reference that indicates that Jesus read from the book of Isaiah in Nazareth. Based upon these facts the haftorot could have been instituted sometime in the first century BCE.
There is a third theory 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 had outlawed the public teaching of Torah. Akiva smuggled prophetic readings to his student that were thematically connected 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 which 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. He was later imprisoned by the Romans for openly teaching Torah in defiance of their edict but was not immediately executed. It seems that 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 desiring a ruling on the law who had to received it from the window of his cell. Finally, Akiva was tortured to death, his flesh was torn from his body with iron combs. We are told that 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 to the final theory of haftorah development.
Remember your Passover story?
The entire Haggadah can be understood as a code. If you remember a Seder took place in Bene Barak. The Talmud tells us that another Seder took place in Lod and was lead by Rabban Gamliel and it was attended by a number of merchants. They had a different kind of Seder, because Akiva's Seder was a vehicle to plan a rebellion against the Romans.
A possibility exists that the reasons the haftarot from the triennial cycle were so short was because they were written as a code. The Jews who lived in Palestine, at least most of them, understood the importance of revolution. Judaism for them was about two things, the exodus from Egypt and the 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? Sometime after the death of Akiva the concept and belief in the messiah found itself into the haftorah blessings? Read the final haftorah blessing!
Let's examine what the rabbis living after the Bar Kokba rebellion thought about the messiah?
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.
Wait a minute! I thought you just told me that our rabbis were revolutionaries? These guys are pacifists. Correct grasshopper these men lived in the aftermath of the rebellion and they were guided by Rabbis like Rabbi Judah the Prince who preached caution, shhhsh! don't rattle the apple cart. Don't upset the Romans!
I want to return to the previously mentioned idea of the Sermon, or the homilies because of their implications for today. What was the purpose of the sermon or the homily? I can assure you that a great many people all too often ask the same question today. I believe its purpose was a combination of 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 shuls today. The poetry and narratives of the haftorot that were selected could possibly have engaged and attracted people to the synagogue. The texts certainly provided the tools for an experienced orator.
There is one more piece of information that is required for us to understand the nature of the haftorot and its blessings; the Torah, as we know it today, is read over the course of one year. Originally it took three years to complete the cycle. The triennial cycle was changed to an annual cycle around the time that Simchat Torah became part of our annual calendar celebrations. When the Torah was being read triennially the haftorot were different. Some of them were only 2-3 lines. Services were shorter.
We learn in the Talmud (Baba. Mezia 29b) that the Western (Palestine) people read and completed the Torah in 3 years, some say 3 1/2 years. That means they could have used between 153-171 portions. There is a statement in the Talmud in the volume called “Shabbat” that informs us that it was common to read from the prophets at during the “mincha” or the afternoon service. There are also references that indicate 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. The Talmud prohibits some readings like the first chapter of the book of Ezekial but we read it today. In other words the selection of the haftorot went through a period of transition.
The haftorah schedule was at one time connected to the triennial reading and it was also linked to the reading of specific psalms depending upon the season. When the shift to the annual cycle occurred, the length of the service increased and the connection between the Torah, haftorah, and psalms diminished. We can assume that the haftorot were not read before the closing of the canon, that is to say, before the Bible as we know was put into its present form.
Perhaps if we understood the process of how the Torah readings came to be it would help us better understand the haftorot? 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 followed by Yom Kippur which was most likely followed by the four special Shabbatot. The haftorot for Hanukkah and Purim were added later. 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 were falling into place. But because the haftorot were originally linked to a three year cycle their continuity was disrupted or at least modified in the process of shifting to an annual cycle.
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's something to think about. How do we sanctify moments in time?
Read the second blessing the one that starts with “have compassion.” There 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 between requesting comfort and compassion? I think so.
Read the third blessing. It begins with the word samechnu and means “make us happy”, the early version of this text states, nachamenu console us. What could have stimulated a change in language from a request for comfort to one of joy?
Why do you think this happened? I believe that a sufficient period of time after the destruction of the Temple had passed and our ancestors altered the language of the blessings in an effort to acknowledge that it was time to put aside some of the grief caused by the Temple's destruction. In order to preserve the memory of the Temple, and the Kingdom of David a new interpretations were required. It was time to once again see joy and gladness in the world
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 Haftorah 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 the Prince and he explained the purpose of the mitzvoth as only being given as a means of refining men. I don't know about you but I can live with that.
The canonization of the Prophets represents the second stage in the development of the Taanach. We think it became a fixed during the middle of the third century BCE. Six hundred years prior to the haftorah becoming a normal fixtures in our liturgy. The haftorah 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.
The Unraveller will debut next Thursday, October 15
Each weekly commentary will include a link to the English translation of the weekly Haftorah portion.