A passage from the Prophets recited after Torah reading.

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Whatever the origin of the haftarah, it became, as Professor Michael Fishbane notes in the introduction to his Haftarot commentary volume (Jewish Publication Society, 2002), one of the three components of the public recitation of scripture in the ancient synagogue. This public reading reflected three sources of authority: the Torah, which is the ultimate source of law; the haftarah, which presents the words of the Prophets, who provided moral instruction and uplift; and the sermon or homily, which drew on the authority of the Rabbis to interpret and legislate.

How Were Haftarah Passages Selected?

It may be that haftarah passages were originally selected arbitrarily, by randomly opening a scroll of one of the prophetic books and reading whatever one happened to find, or at least the choice was not predetermined by tradition. So it would appear from a story in the Gospel of Luke (4:16ff.), in which Jesus, visiting a synagogue in Nazareth on a Shabbat, is handed a scroll of Isaiah and asked to open it and read from it. Jesus is reading a haftarah, it seems, and some scholars interpret the verses to mean that the place at which the reader was to begin and end was not indicated to him. (Büchler disagrees, and Ismar Elbogen, in his authoritative history of Jewish liturgy, despairs of ever answering the question definitively.)

Later, traditions developed of reading a particular passage with each weekly Torah portion. The Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 29b) suggests that a haftarah should "resemble" the Torah reading of the day. The haftarah is, in fact, usually linked to a theme or genre from the Torah reading. For example, on the week when the Torah reading features the song sung by the Israelites when they witnessed the parting of the sea at the Exodus (Exodus 15), the haftarah includes the Song of Deborah sung in response to the military victory of the chieftain Deborah and her commanding general, Barak (Judges 5). When the Torah reading relates the story of the 12 scouts sent by Moses to spy out Canaan, the haftarah (from Joshua 2) focuses on the two spies sent by Joshua to Jericho in advance of his campaign to conquer that city.

The haftarah for a given holiday is either linked closely to a core theme of the holiday's jonah whaleobservance or captures something of its later echoes in the Bible. Thus, the theme of God's readiness to forgive sin underlies the choice of Jonah for the afternoon of Yom Kippur, and the observance of Sukkot in the idyllic future, as related by Zechariah, serves as the haftarah for the first day of that holiday.

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Rabbi Peretz Rodman

Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based rabbi, teacher, writer, editor, and translator. He was a founding editor of MyJewishLearning.com.