Dvar Torah: Rabbinic Literature as our Haftarah (Kollot)

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 28 September 2013

Why do we read the Haftarah, the additional reading on Shabbat morning from the Prophets?
There are actually two questions there: where does the tradition of haftarah come from; and what do we do it for – what are we trying to get out of it?

The answer to the first one, is, in truth, that I don’t know.
In fact, no-one does.

One theory – the normal explanation – is that it dates back to the persecutions of Antiochus.  That there was a prohibition on the reading of Torah, so in place of Torah the people read a linked bit of Nach.
The only problem with this theory is the absence of any evidence for it.

Another theory is that the decision to introduce haftarah was made with didactic intent, so that the people had a relationship with the Tanakh beyond Torah.
Perhaps this was an internal Jewish polemic?
Perhaps it was a reaction to early Christianity which was beginning to use the rest of the bible in a different way.  Suddenly it became important that the early ‘Jew in the Pew’ was also familiar with non-Torah biblical texts.

What we do know – mainly from the New Testament, noch – is that in the period of the Second Temple, people read from the non-Torah bit of the bible in synagogue.  We know, because Jesus did it.  And we know that by the time of the codification of the Mishnahin approximately 200CE, the ritual around the ending of the Torah Portion and the reading from the Prophets had been formalised – we are told on what days it was done, for example.

Also in the Rabbinic period, we begin to get set portions – it is no longer, as in the New Testament, a personal choice of text.  Rather, the text is set.  The principle is that the haftarah is linked thematically to the Torah Portion, or it is linked to the period in the calendar – for example the haftarot around Tisha B’Av.

The choices made vary widely.  Sometimes they are a piece of interesting learning, an expansion of the Torah text, even sometimes a subversion of the text or the period – different biblical voices clashing.  Haftarah became a form of commentary, intended to enhance, embellish, subvert the Torah reading – a sort of inter-textual sermon, which stuck because it came to enhance the experience of Shabbat and Torah.  Some of the traditional haftarot choices are things of extraordinary wisdom and beauty – just think of the challenge that Isaiah gives us on Yom Kippur: Is this the fast I desire?

However, many do not resonate for us.  And that brings us to the second question.  Why do we read haftarah?  How does it add to our experience of Shabbat and Torah?
Often, it doesn’t.

From this Shabbat in Kollot we are going to try an experiment.
Each week instead of a Haftarah taken from the bible, ripped out of context, often hard to understand, we are going to take as our additional reading a piece of chazal – from rabbinic literature (chazal is an acronym for chachameinu zichronam liv’racha – ‘our Sages, may their memory be for a blessing’).
Some will be explanations, some legal interpretation, some will be attempts by the rabbis to draw morals, ethics from the text, some just the rabbis at their most wonderfully imaginative.  As we read, we will really understand the way in which the rabbis revered torah, but were also willing to be very creative with it.

In so doing, we will also be honouring the purpose of the haftarah.
We will do what good haftarah does – commentary, expansion, sometimes a touch of subversion (the rabbis were very good at that).
If the original purpose of the haftarah was didactic, we will also learn, expanding our reading and understanding of Torah, helping us to make greater sense of the work which forms the foundation of our religious lives.

And if the original purpose was polemical?  We will also be saying:  This is part of our heritage – something that we need to be familiar with as Progressive Jews, in part because other sections of the Jewish world sometimes read and interpret it very differently.  We need to know it too.

Like the classical haftarah, some of the pieces we choose might be hard work.  But it will also be fun.  We will read explanations, legal interpretation, creative rabbinic wordplay, theological explorations.  Together we will engage with the creative wonder of rabbinic literature.