Understanding the Haftarot

A new book from FJMC places the weekly prophetic readings into historical and philosophical context

by Tom Sudow

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What if you read the story of the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) without the narrative leading up to that moment? Without knowing the story’s context and framework, your reading certainly would not have the same meaning or impact.

What if you were to read President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address without knowing about the actual Battle of Gettysburg or indeed, without any knowledge of the Civil War or its causes? It would read much differently and it certainly would not have the same impact as when understood within the context of the history of that time.

Yet every Shabbat we are asked to do exactly that during the weekly reading of the haftarah. These readings are either connected to the Torah portion or connected to events in the Jewish calendar. The haftarah reading often has messages, both obvious and hidden, but the reader is left to decode the meaning and understand the context without much guidance. One week it can be one prophet and the next week, a different one from a totally different period; there is no continuity from Shabbat to Shabbat.

In my personal study of the weekly readings in the synagogue I often feel lost in trying to both decode and understand the message of the prophet and place it in a historical context. As a result, my weekly study of the haftarah almost became an afterthought.

Late in 2012, FJMC Executive Director Rabbi Charles Simon published Understanding the Haftarot: An Everyperson’s Guide. I now sit with this book as my weekly companion. Rabbi Simon’s teaching develops the backdrop to the story. It helps decode what I am reading. The book is organized by the different prophets but it highlights each individual haftarah reading. This way I am able to place the haftarah within its historical framework and understand how different haftarot can be pieced together.

For the first time my eyes are open to the haftarah reading and my Shabbat is more meaningful.

Here is an excerpt from Rabbi Simon’s introductory material:

A few years ago, I was sitting in shul on the first day of Sukkot, preparing to read the haftarah which was excerpted from the book of Zechariah. I flipped the pages forward and noticed that the haftarah chanted on the following (intermediate) Shabbat of Sukkot was excerpted from the book of Ezekiel. “Isn’t it strange?” I  thought. “Zechariah lived approximately fifty years after Ezekiel concluded prophesying. Ezekiel’s contemporary was Jeremiah. Wouldn’t it have made sense for the haftarah to be excerpted from Jeremiah?

Then it hit me. It was possible that Ezekiel and Jeremiah knew one another or at least knew of one another! And was possible, actually probable, that they knew of Gedaliah, the last ruler of Israel.

At that moment, on some level, my understanding of the Prophets changed. They were transformed from literary figures to actual people. People who had families and who lived and struggled just like we do every day of our lives. At that moment, on some basic level, I became a more connected Jew.

This was when and why I began to write.

In order for the haftarot to be meaningful, it is necessary to read them through two lenses. The first lens is to understand the time in which the haftarot were allegedly written. In addition to learning Jewish history, this provides the context to understand why a specific text was chosen. The second lens challenges the reader to view the text from the point of the view of the rabbis who selected them to serve as haftarot.

It has always been my belief that knowledge of the past, specifically of one’s people’s past, impacts the way one thinks, comes to view oneself, and can impact how one makes decisions. This was most likely the case for the rabbis, who actually must have wrestled with one another when they were deciding which selections from the prophets would be considered haftarot. I think that they selected these haftarot with a goal and

in the hopes that understanding and relating to the messages of the prophets could shape the future of the Jewish people. The lessons they intuited from the texts of the prophets challenged them to actively try to shape our people’s future.

The Yom Kippur liturgy says, “Prayer, repentance, tzedakah overturn the severe decree.” What was the severe decree? It was the burden that people felt after the Second Temple’s destruction. They believed they were responsible both individually and collectively for the behaviors of their predecessors.

It was Rabbi Johanan ben Zaccai, the first person to be called “rabbi”, who taught that individual behavior could avert the severe decree. He abrogated the guilt of our ancestors and transformed Jewish life from what was viewed as a burden to one that embraced the ability of people to make a difference. The rabbis living a few hundred years later, the ones who selected the prophetic passages to serve as haftarot, were a product of that change. They were extremely careful to accentuate the positive and not the negative, making certain that all prophetic readings ended on positive or hopeful notes.

This book attempts to suggest a context to understand and find meaning and value in the passages selected to serve as haftarot by the rabbis, our spiritual ancestors, some two thousand years ago.

Tom Sudow is the fundraising chair and a member of the FJMC board of directors. He served as the first chair of the FJMC Foundation for Jewish life. He is a member of Park Synagogue (Cleveland, Ohio) and past president of the congregation’s men’s club.