Study Guide to the JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot

Study Guide to the JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot

Study Guide to the JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot

Study Guide to the JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot


This supplement is perfect for individuals seeking greater understanding of the haftarot as independent literary entities and in the larger context of the Torah cycle and Jewish life; for leaders of adult education groups who wish to focus their study on the haftarot; and for b'nai mitzvah students preparing their divrei Torah.


Why Study the Haftarot?

Compared with the attention given to the Torah, the haftarah may seem like a pious afterthought. Each week in synagogue, the reading of the Torah forms the centerpiece of the Shabbat service. The Torah scroll itself is beautifully adorned, lovingly handled, and carefully read or chanted. The weekly teaching—whether a brief derash (a short interpretive homily) or an extended sermon—typically focuses on the Torah portion. Jews who are able to read from the scroll, which lacks punctuation or even vowels, receive praise for their skill. Honor accrues to those who recite the blessings before and after the reading. People feel privileged to lift the Torah before the assembled community for all to behold. Congregational leaders show esteem for guests by asking them to dress the scroll, gird it, and open the doors of the ark in which it is kept.

These rituals properly celebrate the central place the Torah holds in Judaism. Reading from the Torah may be the most public, tangible manifestation of the ancient covenant between God and Israel, a rite that can be traced to watershed moments in Jewish history. Despite the fact that the words of the text are fixed, it is the task of each generation of Jews to find its own meaning in the Torah and in its traditions of interpretation. The text of the Torah is ancient yet timeless; its significance is acknowledged and renewed in each generation. Thus the sage Ben Bag Bag said, “Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it” (M. Pirke Avot 5:22). The physical scroll of the Torah and its attendant rituals occupy a central place within the synagogue; they represent Judaism’s living heart.

And then, when we are done reading from the Torah scroll, what do we do? We read the haftarah—not from a scroll, but from a book, and with hardly any pomp and circumstance. True, a haftarah has its own blessings and melody, but few other trappings. The cycle of haftarot . . .

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