A passage from the Prophets recited after Torah reading.

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Spotting the connection, sometimes very subtle, between the Torah reading and haftarah is part of appreciating the artistry of Jewish liturgy. Identifying that correlation can be a source of intellectual and esthetic enjoyment for synagogue-goers, and is the subject of considerable commentary.

Many weeks, though, the Shabbat morning haftarah bears no relationship to that day's Torah reading, but is instead a haftarah (or one of a series of haftarot) geared to nearby events on the Jewish calendar. On the Shabbat before Purim, for example, when the Torah reading ends with an extra passage on the destruction of Amalek, the haftarah (from 1 Samuel) recounts the tale of the Amalekite king spared by Samuel. The first word of that haftarah, "Zakhor" ("Remember") lends its name to the day: Shabbat Zakhor.

Such is the practice on other occasions as well. The haftarah on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the first word of which, "Shuvah," lends its name to Shabbat Shuvah) issues a call for repentance appropriate to the 10-day period in which it falls. The haftarot of the three Shabbatot that precede Tisha b'Av sound a warning of impending disaster appropriate to the upcoming observance of the anniversary of the Temple's destruction. For fully seven Shabbatot afterward, the haftarot offer consolation and encouragement, as if the destruction were a current event.

Not all Jewish communities share the same selections of haftarah for each Shabbat or holiday. The customs of major Jewish ethnic groups vary from each other, and even within a given group--Ashkenaz, Sefarad, Yemen, etc.--there are local variations.

Different Literature, Different Music

Just as the Torah is traditionally chanted, not merely recited, haftarot are sung according to the traditional notation system for biblical books, called ta’amei ha-mikra or, among Ashkenazim, trop. A haftarah, unlike a Torah reading, is chanted with a separate trop in a minor key that yields a more plaintive, nuanced melody.

The person who is to read the haftarah is called to the Torah for a last, additional aliyah called "maftir." The term (of which "haftarah" is a noun form) is related to the verb "to depart" and stems from the fact that this aliyah is an addendum to the Torah reading. Several verses at the end of the last aliyah of that day's Torah reading are repeated in the aliyah read by or for the maftir.

Although there is no essential link between bar/bat mitzvah and the haftarah, it has become common practice for an adolescent becoming bar/bat mitzvah to take on the task of chanting the haftarah and associated blessings. In this way, perhaps, the haftarah has emerged from the shadows, where it formed merely an addendum to the “main event” of Torah reading, into the liturgical spotlight, where it is given the full attention that, one might argue, it deserves.

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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.