Haftorah: Where is it’s Place in the Jewish Bible Canon?

How the Haftorah fits into the Torah service shows its place within Judaism.

A non-Jew who attends a Shabbat morning service experiences that we have many rituals that pay respect to a book written on parchment. The book is carried through the congregation who turns towards it and often kisses the outside of it. The book is placed on a stage. A Jewish adult member of the community will read the book. In fact, core of the defining ceremony of Jewish adulthood, the Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah, is the new Jewish adult exercising their obligation to read that book to their community. As the Jewish adult reads the book, two people stand on either side following along in the text ready to correct any mistakes of meaning, whether due to pronunciation or intonation. The Jewish adult must learn to chant the book using a set of musical notation that is non-western, but rather stylized to convey intonation of the text. The congregation sings psalms of praise to God as the book is escorted to be read, and later, when it is escorted after reading. Before each section of the book that the Jewish adult reads, a Jewish adult recites praise to God (blessings) both before and after the reading of the book.

Torah: Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses

This book is the Torah (Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses). This is the Torah that Moses placed before the children of Israel, as dictated by God, and written by the hand of Moses. As the Torah is literally the word of God, our Sages consider that every verse, word, and even letter has significance that teaches us how to live. One Sage, Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph taught specific meaning learned from missing letters and/or particles and/or conjunctives. My teacher Rabbi Yoel Ben Nun is from the school of Rabbi Akiva. The reading of the book on that Shabbat morning is called the Torah portion for that Shabbat. The Five Books of Moses are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

Haftorah Reading and Reciting Blessings

The book on parchment has been read, and moved aside, but we wait in suspense before placing it back in the wooden ark. A Jewish adult who has recited praise to God over reading of the Torah, then recites a more elaborate praise to God for reading another book. That reading from that book is called the Haftorah. Each Haftorah will correspond or counterpoint to the Torah portion for that Shabbat. The practice of reading the Haftorah on Shabbat in community originated due to a prohibition on reading the Torah, issued by the Romans during the era of the Roman empire. So, the reading of the Haftorah preserved the reminder of the reading of the Torah portion, until the Torah portion reading was restored. By then, the Haftorah portion reading had become an established part of our service. The time from when the Torah is taken out of the ark, until it is replaced therein is the Torah service. The Haftorah is chanted in a minor key in contrast to the Torah portion which is chanted in a major key. Any Jew who walks in to hearing the Haftorah reading knows from the melody that it is distinct from either the Torah reading or the Writings (see below).

The Haftorah portion is a selection from the Prophets. These are the word of the Prophets who convey God’s message. Our Sages consider that every thought and message taught to us by the Prophets has significance that teaches us how to understand the Torah and apply it to life. Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph taught that every word, story, or message from the Prophets enables a deeper understanding of the meaning of the Torah. For example, a word may appear only three times in the Jewish Bible. Rabbi Akiva teaches that we can contextualize each of the three occurrences with the context of the other two occurrences. The Prophets share a common language with the Torah. The melody used for reading the Prophets is structurally nearly identical to that used to chant the Torah, so the same musical symbols perform an analogous role in each.

Haftorah Timeline

The time period of the Jewish Bible starts from creation of the world until the era of the building of the second Temple in Jerusalem. The Torah starts at creation of the world. The Ramban, a commentator, argues that the initial six days of creation correspond each to a thousand years. The book of Genesis (the first of the Five Books of Moses) ends with the death of Joseph (son of Jacob or Israel). The Torah ends with the death of Moses.

Haftorah portion where King Solomon Demonstrates his wisdom (Kings I Chapter 3)
Haftorah portion where King Solomon Demonstrates his wisdom (Kings I Chapter 3): Two Women Testify for Custody of Baby

Prophets are often split into first Prophets, the more ‘historical’ narrative, and later Prophets. The book of Joshua tells the story and miracles of the conquest of the land of Canaan. The book of Judges spans about 350 years from the conquest until just prior to founding the Kingdom. The books of Samuels start with the birth of Samuel the Prophet to his mother Chana and his being mentored by Eli, both the Prophet and a Priest. Samuel the Prophet will select and anoint Saul as the first King, and later David to replace King Saul. The books of Kings start with the succession of Solomon to the throne of King David still during King David’s life. They end with the exile into Babylon. These Books of the Prophets are Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings.

Later Prophets starts with Isaiah. During his time, we faced the conquest of the Northern Kingdom and invasion of the Kingdom of Judah by the Assyrians. The Assyrian army suffered massive losses at the gates of Jerusalem due a plague from God. Jeremiah was from the banished priestly class. He lived in the land of Israel, from the land of Benjamin (where King Saul was from). He told of the upcoming exile in the hands of the Babylonians. He prepared us for the journey. He foretold that after 70 years the Jewish people would return. Ezekiel starts his Prophesy in Babylonian exile, already five years into the exile. The view of Ezekiel is of the presence of God leaving the Temple and residing in Babylon. There are 12 ‘minor’ prophets whose texts are bound as together due to the small amount of text from them in the canon. These Prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.

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