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Haftorah – Source for the Custom

What is the source of the custom to read from the Prophets on Shabbat and other occasions after reading from the Torah? Is it a recent custom?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for raising the interesting topic. On many days on which the Torah is read – Shabbat and the major festivals, as well as on fast days in the afternoon (at the Mincha prayer), a short selection from the Prophets is read, on a topic relating to the Torah reading and/or the occasion. It is known as the haftorah (sometimes written haftarah in English). A blessing is recited beforehand and blessings are recited after. Preferably the haftorah should be read from a scroll, written in a manner similar to a Torah.

As an aside, it isn’t that clear what the word “haftorah” actually means. (Note that although the word looks like “Torah”, the ‘t’ sound in it comes from the letter ‘tet’ – unlike “Torah” which is spelled with a ‘tav’.) The root of the word is “patar” – which might mean to exempt or dismiss (common in Rabbinical Hebrew; see also I Samuel 19:10, II Chronicles 23:8), or to open/begin (Exodus 13:2, Psalms 22:8, Proverbs 17:14).

Some suggest that haftorah relates to “exempt” because it was instituted at a time when the Greek authorities forbade Torah study (see below). Since the Jews were “exempt” from reading the Torah in the synagogue due to the danger, they read from the Prophets instead (Avudraham, Seder Shacharis Shel Shabbat; Levush 284:1).

An alternate suggestion is that it relates to “dismiss” because the congregation was then “dismissed” from the earlier part of the service – the Torah reading – now continuing with the Prophets and then the Mussaf prayer (Avudraham, Hirsch Siddur).

A third suggestion is that it relates to “open” – likewise because it marked the start of a new part of the services – possibly to distinguish between the more significant Torah and the words of the Prophets (Aruch HaShulchan 284:1).

It is not known exactly when the practice of reading the haftorah was instituted, but it is definitely an ancient custom, from well before the period of the Mishna (put in final form in the early third century CE, based on the teachings of several generations of rabbis, spanning from the late Second Temple era). The Mishna makes ample reference to such a custom (see esp. Megillah Ch. 3) – which was clearly already in practice in virtually all its detail. In addition, the fact that we recite blessings both before and after reading the haftorah indicates that it is a universal and Rabbinically-sanctioned practice, rather than an optional custom.

(There are actually two probable references to the synagogue reading of the Prophets found in the New Testament (Acts 13:15 and Luke 4:17), implying the practice dates from at least the Second Temple period.)

What selection from the Prophets is read for each haftorah? The Talmud (Megillah 31) lists all of the special haftorah readings, such as for the holidays. For ordinary Shabbats, though, there is no ancient established tradition. The general rule is that the haftorah should been on a topic in some way related to the Torah reading (Shulchan Aruch 284:1). Beyond that, different segments of Israel have different customs (Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Yemenite, Italian, Polish, German, etc.). There is much overlap between the various customs, but there are many discrepancies as well.

What is the basis for reading the haftorah? No reason is given in any Talmudic-era source. The most well-known suggested reason is that during the era of Greek oppression (leading up to the Chanukah story), the public reading of the Torah was forbidden. In place of it, Jews began reading from the Prophets instead. Later, the decree was relaxed, but the Jews maintained their new custom to read from the Prophets as well. (Many authorities quote this reason. The earliest mention of it I found was in Sefer Avudraham, a commentary on the prayers written by R. Dovid Avudraham in the early 14th century.)

Another early source states that reading from the Prophets was a part of the decree of Ezra the Scribe to read from the Torah on various occasions (Sefer HaMachria 31, by R’ Yeshaya di Trani, of 13th century Italy). A more recent suggestion is that it was instituted in response to heretical sects such as the Samaritans, which denied the sanctity of the prophetic books (R. Hirsh, R. Reuven Margolios).

Before reading the haftorah an extra section from the Torah is read, called maftir. On Shabbat and holidays, this is not one of main aliyot – the 5-7 people called for reading the Torah. It is an additional section read immediately before the Prophets, instituted by the Sages to indicate that the words of the Prophets are not as central as the Torah itself (Talmud Megillah 23a). On a typical Shabbat, the last few verses of the weekly portion are reread. On special Shabbats and on holidays, a special reading is read, relevant to the occasion.

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