- Although there are many theories, no one knows when and why the practice of the Haftarah was instituted.
The ArtScroll Siddur includes the following statement: “The practice of reading from the Prophets …was introduced during the reign of the infamous Syrian-Greek king Antiochus…[who] forbade the public reading of the Torah.” But this statement is very misleading. The idea that the Haftarah started during a period of prohibition of the Torah reading is merely a suggestion first made by the Abudarham in the 14th century. Most people who think seriously about this suggestion have trouble accepting the idea that the persecutors would have made a distinction between a reading from the Torah and a reading from the Prophets. The ArtScroll Siddur should have presented the “origin in the period of Antiochus” idea as a mere theory. A much fairer presentation is made in the Hertz Chumash, p. 20: “We possess no historical data concerning the institution of these Lessons.” The Hertz Chumash then presents the “origin in the period of Antiochus” explanation as merely a statement by a “medieval author on the Liturgy.” (The period of Antiochus’ persecution was 167-164 B.C.E.)
- With regard to the earliest references to the practice of reading a haftarah, the practice is mentioned several times in the fourth chapter of Mishnah Megillah. But we cannot tell from these mishnayot whether the practice existed already before the churban in 70 C.E. (See also the story at Megillah 25a involving a haftarah read in front of R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. This story could perhaps have occurred before the churban, but it cannot be precisely dated. R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was an early Tanna who was a teacher of R. Akiva.)
Fortunately, the New Testament helps us with regard to dating the Haftarah practice. Acts 13:15 states that “after the reading of the law and the prophets” on the Sabbath, Paul was invited to deliver an exhortation. (See similarly Acts 13:27.) Paul died a few years before the churban in 70 C.E.
A few decades earlier than this, Jesus is mentioned as reading (at least) two verses from Isaiah out loud in synagogue. See Luke 4:17. This also seems to be a reference to a haftarah reading in its earliest form.
- The earliest reference in rabbinic literature to specific haftarah selections is at Tosefta Megillah, third chapter. Here, the haftarot for the four special Sabbaths are given (shekalim, zachor, parah and ha-chodesh). Also, a baraita at Megillah 31a gives the haftarot for Chanukah and for all the festivals, and for other special occasions. All of this does not mean that the practice of holiday haftarot preceded the practice of haftarot on a regular Shabbat. Rather, it only means that the idea of a fixed reading for the holiday haftarot preceded the idea of a fixed reading for the haftarot on a regular Shabbat.
Nowhere in the Talmud are the haftarot given for ordinary Sabbaths. Very likely, there was no fixed haftarah for each ordinary Sabbath parsha in Talmudic times. A fixed haftarah for each ordinary Sabbath parsha was a later development and, as we all know, has only been partially accomplished. Variations in custom still exist between Ashkenazim and Sephardim and within each of these communities.
It is well-documented that in the Amoraic and Geonic periods in Israel, the widespread practice was to read the Torah on a cycle that took approximately 3 ½ years (loosely referred to as the “triennial cycle”). Accordingly, in Israel they had over 150 different Torah reading sections. As a consequence, many more haftarot were in use in Israel in those periods than are in use today. From documents discovered in the Cairo Genizah, we can now reconstruct the haftarot that they were using on this triennial cycle.
An interesting fact is that the haftarah that we read today on Shabbat Ha-Gadol, “ve-arvah…minchat yehudah,” started out as the haftarah on the triennial cycle for a section of Parshat Tzav (6:12) that had to do with a mincha offering! When the triennial cycle began to fall out of use in the period of the later Geonim and early Rishonim, ve-arvah nevertheless managed to survive as a haftarah because it evolved into becoming a haftarah for Shabbat Ha-Gadol. (As evolutionists will tell you, adaptation is the key to survival!)
- Now I would like to engage in some speculation as to the origin of the practice of reading a Haftarah.
One possibility is that the Haftarah reading was originally enacted to exhort us to improve our conduct. The Neviim were perhaps a better fit for this than the Ketuvim. Another possibility is that the goal of the enactment was simply to increase our study of Nach. But since it was also felt that the readings should match the parsha, the readings were limited to the Neviim; there were more opportunities for such matchings in the Neviim. An alternative idea is that the primary goal of an enactment to read the Prophets was to provide honor to the deceased individual prophets.
Another theory is that the Haftarah was instituted after some act of persecution or other disaster in which Torah scrolls were destroyed or ruined. It was forbidden to read the Torah portion from any but a ritually fit parchment scroll, but there was no such requirement about a reading from the Nach. The temporary substituted practice then remained. (Again, perhaps the Neviim were chosen, rather than the Ketuvim, due to the better matches to the Torah portion.) All of these theories have been suggested, and many more. For a collection of many of these theories, see the article by S. Weingarten in Sinai 83, 1978.
I think that a different theory that has been suggested is the likeliest one. Today, we have a formal reading of a relatively large section with a special Haftarah blessing. But this was probably not how the practice started. Rather, it probably started with a short drasha after the Torah reading, where a few verses from the Neviim were read and discussed, in an effort to elucidate the parsha. (As suggested earlier, the Ketuvim do not match the parsha in the same way that the Neviim do.) Then, over time, the practice slowly evolved into a formal reading of a larger section, with an introductory blessing.
- As to the meaning of the words “Haftarah” and its synonym “Maftir,” most likely they mean something like “conclusion/end.” (This is similar to its meaning in the famous passage “ve-ein maftirin achar ha-pesach afikoman.”) Theoretically, the reference could be to the conclusion of Shacharit, the conclusion of the reading sections (Torah and Haftarah) or the conclusion of the entire synagogue service. As I began to investigate this, I realized that the meaning “conclusion of the entire synagogue service” is the most likely one. The Haftarah originated in the pre-70 C.E. period. Scholars now understand that, in this early period, synagogues were places of studying and of Torah reading, but not usually places of formal prayer. According to most scholars, there was no Amidah at all in this pre-70 C.E. period, neither Shacharit nor Musaf. See the article by Allen Friedman in Tradition 45:3, 2012. (Alternatively, even if there was an Amidah pre-70 C.E., it was only for limited occasions and perhaps only in limited areas.) Thus, in the pre-70 C.E. period, after the reading of the Torah and the Prophets, the “service” in the synagogue was typically concluded. (This is also evident from Acts, chapter 13.)
Many other interpretations of the words “Haftarah” and “Maftir” have been offered, but they are all much less likely.
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy.” He can be reached at [email protected] He looks forward to the discovery of a new Dead Sea Scroll that might shed light on the origin of the Haftarah.