Saturday, 27 January 2018

Torah and Haftarah linked through the Wisdom of our Sages

Anyone who is slightly familiar with Torah (The first 5 books of Moses) knows that it is divided into 52 weekly portions. These portions are read on Shabbat at the synagogue.

However, it is not the only part that is read from the Tanach on Shabbat. Jews also read a section from the other part of the Tanach, namely, the prophets, after the weekly reading of the Torah portion. It is called Haftarah. Haftarah is also read on certain holidays. We should add that only selected passages from the Prophets make it into the Haftarah.

The word, ,הפטרה Haftarah, comes from the Hebrew root פטר, meaning “take leave,” “conclude.” The practice of reading the Haftarah probably started by 100 C.E. although the Talmud mentions that a Haftarah was read in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. Hyrcanus lived in 70 C.E.

The Haftarah section was selected because it relates to the Torah portion of that week. In many cases, the connection is obvious. In others, it is hinted and is contingent on a word or two. It is also important to note that, unlike the Torah, which is read from a handwritten scroll, the Haftarah is read from a printed book.

What were the origins of the practice of reading the Haftarah?

There are a few explanations to it. The most common one, however, is the one suggested by Chabad and other scholars.

According to them, it started around 168 B.C.E. when the Jews were under the rule of the infamous king Antiochus IV (the one we know from the Channukah story). Antiochus decreed that Jews were not allowed to observe Shabbat, perform Brit Milah (circumcision) and study the Torah which, as stated above, includes only the five Books of Moses. No such decree was issued against reading the other parts of the Tanach.

Jewish brilliance and an unrelenting urge for survival by our Sages instituted that a section of the prophets be read instead, a section that included an idea which was related to the Torah portion of that week.

The practice, evidently, resumed even after it became safe again to read from the Torah.

 In his article dwelling on this subject, Rabbi Peretz Rodman teaches us that “The Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 29b) suggests that a Haftarah should “resemble” the Torah reading of the day. The Haftarah is, in fact, usually linked to a theme or genre from the Torah reading. For example, on the week when the Torah reading features the song sung by the Yisraelites when they witnessed the parting of the Red Sea at the exodus (Exodus 15), the Haftarah includes the Song of Deborah sung in response to the military victory of the Chieftain Deborah and her commanding general, Barak (Judges 5).” Rabbi Rodman brings other examples as support to his claim.

What such a practice boils down to is that Torah is more than the words on parchment.  Torah means “instruction”. And in their wisdom, our Sages, made an addition, the Haftarah, to illuminate, the “instruction”, so that we would better understand the lessons.

While our Sages at one point in history, seeing Jews scattered and being concerned about the consequences of dispersion, allowed the translation of the Torah, they made it very clear that the only authentic version was the Hebrew language one.  That tradition was extended to the writings of the Prophets and the rest of the core library of Jewish tradition.  They understood how translation under the influence of cultural environments could lead to misinterpretation, dilution and distortions of meaning.  The role of the Haftorah, then, became more important as a tool to reinforce the lessons of Torah, to guide our people to seek and grasp the original meaning, important for Jewish cultural survival.

Today, we appreciate the validity of the somewhat prophetic concern of our sages.  We see other religions taking our Jewish literature, translating it, losing up to 30% of meaning, interpreting it in terms of their own cultural outlooks and beliefs, distorting it in doing so. They attach their own source from THEIR gospel to “compliment” the Torah and its related Haftarah, as one can clearly see here,, even though their citation has nothing to do with the original sources.

Furthermore, and that is the real issue, we see Jews accepting these non-Hebraic and non-Jewish interpretations as if they are authentic, in some faulty almost desperate effort to find commonality, to see and define Judaism and Jewish culture in terms of currently fashionable cultural trends. Zionism, for instance, becomes, 20th Century Jewish national liberation and no longer a 3400-year yearning for what is uniquely Jewish while Judaism itself becomes just another belief, another “church of the land” sharing some ill-defined universal values, rather than a special, unique, humane, ethic culture. 

So, as our Sages knew, perhaps it is time to go back to the lessons, to the instruction, to the Torah and the Haftarah, reinforcing one another,  teaching us, in the original language, what we are, what we need to be, to be the “light unto the nations”  in a world that seems to be losing all moral standards.

This article was written jointly by Roger Froikin and Bat-Zion Susskind

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