Jerrold Landau
Genealogical and Translation Services

Haftarah of Devarim – Shabbat Ḥazon

               The Haftarah of Devarim comes from Isaiah 1:1-27. This Shabbat is the third of the three weeks before Tisha B’Av. It is known as Shabbat Ḥazon – the Sabbath of the Vision – based on the opening words of the Haftarah: “The Vision of Isaiah the son of Amotz.”  Although this is the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah, it is not the opening prophesy of Isaiah. Isaiah’s call to prophecy is recorded in Chapter 6, and is included in the Haftarah of Yitro.

               Given the significance of the prophecy, the heavens and earth are called as witnesses. This is reminiscent of the opening verse of the song of Ha’azinu, just prior to the death of Moses. Gd states that He has raised children, but they rebelled against Him. The land is about to be destroyed. The scope of destruction will resemble Sedom and Amorah, except for the fact that some survivors who will remain due to Gd’s mercy. Once Sedom and Amorah are mentioned, the next verse refers to the people as “Captains of Sedom and the Nation of Amorah.” Gd states that He has no need for their sacrifices, and accuses them of trampling in His courtyards. Their religious gatherings on Shabbat, Rosh Ḥodesh, and festivals have become burdensome to Gd, given the evil behavior of the people. They are urged to wash and purify themselves, and mend their ways. They are accused of loving bribery, and failing to treat the widow and orphan properly. The common prophetic message of the worthlessness of ritual service in the absence of basic human decency is echoed clearly in this Haftarah.

               The entire Haftarah is chanted in the melody of Eicha (Lamentations), except for two verses in the middle (18-19) that mention the possibility of the people changing their ways and avoiding disaster; as well as the final two verses that promise a restoration after the destruction. Jerusalem will then be called the City of Righteousness and the Faithful City. Zion can only be redeemed with justice and righteousness. Even as we are about to observe the somber day of Tisha B’Av, we do so with some words of comfort and hope.

 

 

Haftarah of Va’etḥanan -- Naḥamu

               The Haftarah of Va’etḥanan comes from Isaiah 40:1-26. Va’etḥanan is read on the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av. This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Naḥamu (the Shabbat of Comfort) based on the opening word of the Haftarah. This is the first of seven Haftarot of comfort, read on the Shabbatot between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah.

              The opening word of the Haftarah, Naḥamu, is repeated for emphasis. The next verse states that Jerusalem has received a double share of punishment for its sins. Indeed, the length of time that we focus on comfort is just over double the length of time we focus on the impending destruction. The three Shabbatot of warning between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av are followed by seven Shabbatot of comfort. It is interesting to note that the Teshuva [repentance] period of our calendar begins half way through the seven week of comfort, with the advent of the month of Elul. The message seems to be that the contemplation of the national tragedy of Tisha B’Av leads naturally to a period of introspection of our individual relationship with Gd. The national and the individual concepts are inseparable. If each individual mends their own ways and strengthens their relationship with Gd and other people, the long-awaited comfort for the national tragedies marked on Tisha B’Av can be hastened.

              The 40th Chapter of Isaiah marks a change in the book. The early part of the book is characterized by warnings, visions on various topics, and historical interludes. The latter part is characterized by lyrical prophecies of comfort. The name of the prophet is never mentioned in the latter part. Some Biblical scholars have speculated that these prophecies were authored by a different prophet and appended to Isaiah. It is no less plausible that Isaiah himself was the author of these prophecies. As Isaiah was envisioning the upcoming destruction, he was simultaneously painting a graphic portrait of the glorious period of restoration, as a testimony to the eternity of the People of Israel.

              The Haftarah concludes with the rhetorical question: “Whom can be compared to Gd?” The response is that Gd brings forth all creations, has names for them all, and preserves them all with his abundant strength. The Jewish people may have suffered, but they can continue to count on their benevolent Gd to see them through to their historical destiny.

 

 

Haftarah of Eikev

               The Haftarah of Eikev, the second of the seven Haftarot of comfort, comes from Isaiah 49:14-51:3. The Haftarah opens with the complaint of Zion, “Gd has forsaken me, and Gd has forgotten me.” Gd then assures Zion that just as a woman cannot forget her baby, Gd cannot forget Zion. Further on, Gd states that there has been no bill of divorce between Gd and Israel. Gd has punished Israel for its sins, but also has the power to redeem and rescue.

               It has been noted that the opening words of the seven Haftarot of comfort form a sort of dialogue between Israel and Gd: 1) Be comforted be comforted my nation; 2) Zion has said that Gd has forsken me; 3) You are like a storm-tossed ship that has no comfort; 4) I, indeed I am your comforter; 5) Sing, oh barren one who has not given birth; 6) Arise and shine, for your light has arrived; 7) I will surely rejoice with Gd. Gd promises comfort, but the afflicted nation does not believe that redemption is possible. Finally, after the dialogue, the nation accepts the assurance of Divine protection.

               One can hear echoes of the Tisha B’Av kinot [dirges] in this Haftarah. Several times, Gd, through the prophet, addresses Zion directly in the female second person singular suffix: ayich. This is reminiscent of the Odes to Zion in the latter part of the kinot service of the morning of Tisha B’Av. There, the greatest poets of the Jewish people express their longing for Zion by addressing it as if it were a person. The most famous of these kinot was written by Judah HaLevi of Spain in the 10th century: “Zion will you not inquire about the wellbeing of your prisoners…”  The final verse of this Haftarah is used to conclude both the evening and morning kinot services with a promise of redemption: “For Gd will comfort Zion, comfort all of its ruins. He will make its deserts into Eden, and dry places like the garden of Gd. Joy and gladness will be found therein, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.”

               The prophet urges those who wish to pursue righteousness to study their history and look back at the rock from which they were hewn. They are asked to contemplate Abraham their father and Sarah who bore them, and to recall Gd’s promise to bless them and grant them numerous descendants. Gd may have had to punish Israel, but the original promises will ultimately be fulfilled.

 

 

Haftarah of Re’eh

               The Haftarah of Re’eh, the third of the seven Haftarot of comfort, comes from Isaiah 54:11-55:5. This brief, twelve-verse Haftarah is replete with promises of redemption and restoration. Gd addresses Zion as a storm-tossed ship that has no comfort, and promises to to lay its foundation with sapphires. Her windows will be made of rubies, her gates of garnets, and her entire borders will be precious stones. Not to dwell merely on the physical, Gd promises that all of Zion’s children will be students of Gd, and will enjoy much peace.

               A call is then made to the people of Zion to keep away from oppression, and preserve themselves through righteousness. A promise is made that any weapon raised against Zion will not succeed. Anyone who is thirsty is summoned to go find water, and even those lacking money will be able to purchase food, milk, and wine. In short, the Jewish people can look forward to a future of abundant prosperity coupled with spiritual flourishing.

               If the eve of Rosh Ḥodesh Elul falls on Sunday, the regular Haftarah is read, with the first and last verses of Maḥar Ḥodesh added. If Rosh Ḥodesh Elul falls on Shabbat, many communities replace the regular Haftarah with that of Shabbat Rosh Ḥodesh. The displaced Haftarah is not omitted completely. In such years, it is appended to the Haftarah of Ki Teitzei two weeks later. The two Haftarahs follow each other chronologically, and can form one unit. Indeed, the two Haftarot of Rani Akara (Ki Teitzei), and Aniya Soara (Re’eh) in combination form the Haftarah of Noaḥ.

 

 

Haftarah of Shoftim

               The Haftarah of Shoftim, the fourth of the Haftarot of comfort, comes from Isaiah 51:12-52:12. The Haftarah opens with Gd reminding us that He is our comforter. Like the Haftarah of Shabbat Naḥamu, the opening word is repeated, reinforcing this message to a nation that had suffered more than its share of tribulations. In this Haftarah, a doubling of words of redemption occurs four times, bringing a sense of poetic urgency to the message of comfort.

               The Lecha Dodi hymn, composed by the kabbalist Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz in the Ottoman Empire before he moved to Safed, and sung as part of the Kabbalat Shabbat [Welcoming the Sabbath] service, draws many of its phrases from this Haftarah. Lecha Dodi begins and ends with a greeting to the incoming Shabbat, but its middle stanzas summon Jerusalem to rise and reclaim its former glory.  Shabbat is considered to be a taste of the World to Come, and it is natural to contemplate the restoration of the Holy City as we welcome Shabbat. Within this Haftarah, the following phrases addressed directly in the second person to Jerusalem: “Hitoreri, Hitoreti” – “Awaken yourself, awaken yourself;” “Uri, Uri” “Wake up; wake up;” “Livshi Bigdei Tifartech” – “Don your garments of glory;” “Hitnaari, meafar kumi” – “Shake yourself off and arise from the dust.”

               The final stanza of the Maoz Tzur hymn, sung after the lighting of the Ḥanukah candles, draws its opening words from this Haftarah: “Ḥashaf Hashem Zroa Kodsho” – “Gd has bared His holy arm.” It is worded as a statement in the Haftarah, and as a request in Maoz Tzur.

               Sometimes, excessive commentary detracts from a message. Perhaps the words of this Haftarah are not meant to be over-interpreted, but rather put to song. The authors of Lecha Dodi and Maoz Tzur certainly felt so. So have modern songwriters, who composed songs around the following two verses: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the footsteps of the herald, speaking peace, heralding good, proclaiming salvation, saying to Zion: Your King has ruled. The voice of your scouts rise up, singing together, for every eye witnesses the return of Gd to Zion.” 

               Shoftim is always the first Shabbat of Elul, the final month of the Jewish year. As the mood of comfort blends with thoughts of repentance, we envision songs in our prophetic readings as we anticipate the holiest time of year, when the synagogue services will be marked by an abundance of hymns. Comfort, redemption, thoughts of a better future, of personal improvement and of greater spirituality, all merge as we move away from the sadness of Tisha B’Av, and toward the repentance and renewed faith of the Days of Awe.

  

 

Haftarah of Ki Teitzei

               The Haftarah of Ki Teitzei, the fifth of the seven weeks of comfort, is taken from Isaiah 54:1-10. At ten verses, this joins the Haftarot of Kedoshim (nine verses), and Re’eh (twelve verses) as the shortest of the yearly cycle. In years when Rosh Ḥodesh Elul occurs on Shabbat, and the Haftarah of Re’eh was displaced, the Haftarah of Re’eh is appended to that of Ki Teitzei. This reflects the ordering of these sections in the Tanach. The combination of these two Haftarot also form the Haftarah of Noaḥ.

               The Haftarah opens with a call to the barren one to break out in song, for the children of the desolate city will outnumber those of inhabited cities. Jerusalem is called upon to expand its borders to accommodate all her offspring who will inherit the nations and settle desolate cities. Jerusalem is told to forget the shame of her youth and widowhood, as better times lie ahead. All ten verses of this Haftarah are addressed directly to Jerusalem.

               Although much of the inspiration for the Lecha Dodi hymn comes from the previous Haftarah of Shoftim, echoes are seen in this Haftarah: “Yamin Usmol Tifrotzi” – “You shall spread out right and left;” “Lo Tevoshi… veal Tikalmi” – “You will not be ashamed… and you will not be humiliated.” The Haftarah ends with an assurance that whereas mountains and valleys may move and falter, Gd’s kindness and covenant of peace will never fail.

 

 

Haftarah of Ki Tavo

                The Haftarah of Ki Tavo, the sixth of the seven weeks of comfort, comes from Isaiah 60:1-22. Like several of the other Haftarot of comfort, the prophet addresses Zion directly, predicting a brilliant and peaceful future. Zion is asked to “Arise and shine, for your light has come.” She is bidden to lift her eyes and see that her sons and daughters have returned. Any nation that does not serve Zion shall perish. Even those who oppressed Israel in the past will now call it, “The city of Gd, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.”

               A Messianic vision of a peaceful period with no violence, robbery or destruction is foreseen. The people, all righteous, shall inherit the land forever. The Haftarah concludes with the statement “I am Gd, in its time I will hasten it.” The commentators have noted that there is a contradiction between these two terms. If the redemption is to come in its right time, how can it be hastened? The contradiction is resolved by proposing two paradigms for redemption. If the Jewish people are worthy, the redemption will be hastened. If they are not, there is a Divine deadline by which the redemption will arrive in any case. The comforting thought is that the Messianic redemption is assured whether or not the people are worthy. Throughout the Tanach, the prophets of Israel call upon the Children of Israel to conduct themselves in a manner that would make Gd want to hasten the arrival of the Messianic era of peace and tranquility, which will resolve all the conflicts and tribulations of Jewish history.

               Although the seven Haftarot of comfort as well as the preceding three Haftarot of warning do not necessarily connect to the weekly portion, the Haftarah of Ki Tavo does have such a connection. The major theme of Ki Tavo is the blessings and curses. The section of the curses that will afflict the Jewish people if they do not follow the Torah, known as the tochacha [reproof], occupies a significant part of the Torah portion. The tochacha is very detailed, and harsher than the earlier tochacha in Beḥukotai. The Haftarah, with its depiction of the glowing Messianic era of peace and tranquility, serves as an antidote and comfort to the curses that have just been read in the Torah. A similar theme can be found in the Haftarah of Beḥukotai.

 

 

Haftarah of Nitzavim

               The Haftarah of Nitzavim, or Nitzavim-Vayeilech when the portions are doubled, comes from Isaiah 61:10-63:9.  This is the final of the seven Haftarot of comfort. In the first verse, Zion finally accepts the comfort, stating “I will surely rejoice with Gd, and my soul shall be glad with my Lrd, for He has clothed me in the garments of salvation…”  Chapter 62 continues the theme of the previous Haftarot, where Gd is addressing Zion directly, promising restoration and hope. Gd promises that He “will not be silent for the sake of Zion and will not rest for the sake of Jerusalem, until her salvation burns like a torch.” Zion will no longer be called abandoned and desolate, but rather the place of Gd’s desire.

               A stirring scene is portrayed at the end of the Haftarah. A Divine figure is seen coming forth from Edom, “stately in appearance but with soiled garments.” The figure is rhetorically asked why His clothes are soiled. The Divine figure responds that He has been treading the winepresses alone, trampling the nations who have oppressed Israel, and His garments have become stained with their lifeblood. “For a day of vengeance was in My heart, and the year of redemption has arrived.” This figure is an anthropomorphic representation of Gd at a time when justice will be exacted from the nations of the world. The scene is charming in its innocence, with Gd is explaining to the onlookers the reason for his dirty clothing.

               This image has made its way into several Shabbat hymns. In Dror Yikra, we beg Gd to “tread the winepresses of Botzrah,” and in Baruch Hashem Yom Yom, we look forward to the day when Gd “will come forth from Edom with crimsoned garments, after the slaughter in Botzrah.” (Botzrah is a city in Edom.)

               One might find these images of vengeance and slaughter disturbing. As Jews, we should be proud that we leave our hopes for revenge in the hands of Gd, rather than taking matters into our own hands. Perhaps these graphic images have helped sustain the Jewish people with hope throughout the long centuries of persecution and oppression. I have personally witnessed a group of elderly men, many of whom were Holocaust survivors, gathered together at Seuda Shlishit [the third Shabbat meal] singing these songs with gusto. I am not sure if they understood the exact translation of their words, but their enthusiasm was a testimony to their personal survival, and an assurance that the Jewish people will outlive its enemies.

 

 

Haftarah of Vayeilech – Shabbat Shuva

               The Haftarah of Shabbat Shuva consists of a selection of three readings from Trei Asar [the Twelve Minor Prophets]: Hosea 14:2-10, Joel 2:15-27, and Micah 7:18-20. Although this Haftarah is attributed to Vayeilech, this is only the case in those years when Nitzavim and Vayeilech are separated. When combined, as they are in most years, the Haftarah of Nitzavim is read for the double portion on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah, and this Haftarah is read on Ha’azinu, which is Shabbat Shuva.

               The selection from Hosea opens with the famous call to repentance, giving the Haftarah and the Shabbat its name: “Return O Israel [Shuva Yisrael] to the Lrd your Gd, for you have stumbled in your sin.” The next verse states that “we will replace our bulls with our lips” – highlighting the idea that sacrifices are meaningless without sincerity. It hints to a future time when sacrifices will no longer be offered, and Jews will approach their Gd through prayers uttered by their lips and stemming from their hearts. This section concludes with a cryptic thought, “The paths of the Lrd are straight, the righteous will walk on them, while sinners will stumble on them.” We are all familiar with the outwardly religious person, who maintains all the trappings of piety while trampling on others. This verse tells us to not blame the religion for such a situation. The ways of Gd are perfect, but are subject to twisting and misinterpretation by imperfect humans.

               The selection from Joel follows a description of a horrific locust attack in the Land of Israel. The people are exhorted to “Blow a shofar in Zion, dedicate a fast and proclaim an assembly.” Young and old are called to pray for mercy and deliverance. When read on Shabbat Shuva, this section foreshadows the upcoming Yom Kippur fast. Incidentally, this is the only selection of Joel used for a Haftarah.

               The Haftarah concludes with a brief, three-verse selection from Micah, beginning with “Who is a Gd like you, forgiving sin and overlooking transgression.” It describes Gd covering up our sins and casting them into the depths of the sea. This section is also appended to the Haftarah of Yom Kippur afternoon, and forms the main body of the Tashlich service on Rosh Hashanah.

               The concepts of repentance and reconnection to Gd form an overriding theme throughout the non-historical sections of the Neviim [Prophets] section of the Tanach. Given the large number of sources from which to select a reading, it is no surprise that the Haftarah chosen for the Shabbat of Repentance is a medley of readings rather than a single selection.

 

 

Haftarah of Ha’azinu

               The Haftarah of Ha’azinu comes from II Samuel, 22:1-51. It is also the Haftarah of the Seventh Day of Pesaḥ. This Haftarah is only read when Ha’azinu falls on the Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. In a small majority of years, either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur occurs on Shabbat, and there is no Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. In those years, Ha’azinu will be Shabbat Shuva, and the regular Haftarah is displaced.

               In the Mechilta [Midrashic commentary on the Book of Exodus] we are told that there are ten significant songs recorded in Tanach, each marking a significant historical event. Actually, there are nine. The tenth is the song that will be sung at the time of the future redemption. The song of Ha’azinu, given over to the Children of Israel at the end of their sojourn in the desert, is one of these songs. The song occupies all but the last few verses of the Torah portion. It is only fitting that the Haftarah of Ha’azinu consists of another of these nine songs, sung at the end of King David’s lifetime. Although both songs mark a transition of leadership, they are thematically different. Ha’azinu is a song of theology and prediction, whereas the Song of David is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from enemies. Thus, the theme of the Song of David is more closely related to its status of the Haftarah of the Seventh Day of Pesaḥ, when Shirat Hayam [the Song of the Sea] is read from the Torah, than it is for Ha’azinu.

               In a Tanach, the Song of David is written in the same style as Shirat Hayam. The lines alternate with three columns upon two, forming a brick-like appearance. Ha’azinu, on the other hand, is written in two columns.

               For further thoughts on this Haftarah, see the entry for the Seventh Day of Pesaḥ.

 

 

Haftarah of Vezot Habracha / Simḥat Torah

               The Haftarah of Vezot Habracha comes from Joshua 1:1-18. Vezot Habracha, the final Torah portion, is the only portion not associated with a Shabbat. It is read on Simḥat Torah, the day when we celebrate the conclusion and new beginning of the annual Torah reading cycle. In Israel, where Shemini Atzeret and Simḥat Torah coincide, the Torah readings and Haftarah for Simḥat Torah are read that day.

               The sixteenth-century sage Maharal [Rabbi Yehuda Low of Prague] interpreted the annual festival cycle as a repeating circle. Every year, Pesaḥ is an auspicious time for freedom, Shavuot for appreciating the gift of the Torah, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for forgiveness, and Sukkot for joy in Divine protection. To mark the recurring cycle, upon concluding the Torah on Simḥat Torah, we immediately begin the cycle anew with a reading from Bereshit.

               The spiritual cycle not only resembles a circle, but it also moves forward in time. World and Jewish history advance in a progression from Creation to the Messianic Era. When the forward progression is combined with the annual recurring cycle, we have with it a coil of special occasions repeating annually throughout history. The reading from the end of the Torah, immediately followed by a reading from Bereshit, focuses on the recurring aspect. The Haftarah marks the forward progression. Moses has died, and it is natural that we choose to conclude the readings of the day with the beginning of the leadership of his successor, Joshua. Joshua reminds the people that the Torah of Moses should not depart from their mouths, and that they should toil in Torah day and night. Joshua continues the onward saga of the Jewish people, ensuring that the forward motion is firmly rooted in the past.

               The theme of blessings that is integral to Shemini Atzeret and Simḥat Torah is also expressed in this Haftarah. The blessing to be strong and persevere [Chazak Veematz] is repeated three times. The first two times, Gd blesses and encourages Joshua as the successor of Moses. The third repetition of this phrase, in the final verse of the Haftarah, is the blessing of the people to their new leader. This blessing of strength and perseverance is a most appropriate message as we take leave of the spiritual heights of the Yom Tov season and move to a more mundane period of the annual cycle.

 

 © 2019 by Jerrold Landau

 

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