A long-sighted view

A guide to the ‘haftarot’ is a valuable entry point into the oft-neglected books of the prophets.

ezekiel 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia)
ezekiel 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia)
Most people educated in religious schools emerge with poor knowledge of Nach – the latter two sections of the Hebrew Bible, comprising Nevi’im, the prophetic books, and Ketuvim, a collection of different texts traditionally viewed as not of prophetic origin.
Unfamiliarity with the bulk of the Jewish biblical canon is widespread, but it is more pronounced among boys – for whom religious education soon comes to focus on the Oral Law, and primarily Talmud. It is far more pronounced in the Diaspora than in Israel. Thus, for large numbers of Jews in the English-speaking world who received a strong Jewish education, the sad truth is that most of the Bible is terra incognita. As for the much larger number who have little or no Jewish education, the situation is obviously much worse.
Yet any Jew traditional enough to attend synagogue on Shabbat mornings has a weekly encounter with the prophetic writings, via the haftara – an addendum to the weekly Torah reading, which covers the Pentateuch in the course of a year. The haftara is a reading from Nevi’im (never from Ketuvim), in most cases linked to the foregoing Torah section, but for part of the year linked to the religious season: Prior to Tisha Be’av the theme is divine punishment; from then until Rosh Hashana the theme is consolation and redemption, and during the High Holy Days the readings focus on repentance.
Taking into account all the holidays and fasts, the annual number of haftara readings exceeds 60, drawn from all the main books of Nevi’im – Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings and the three dominant “later prophets,” Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel – as well as some selections from the shorter books of the “minor prophets.”
The existence of the haftara therefore creates an opportunity – some might even regard it as an obligation – to belatedly get to know this critical but often ignored component of Jewish sacred literature.
However, even the narrative haftarot require considerable background knowledge to fully understand, let alone appreciate them. The complex poetry of some of the prophetic visions, especially those of Isaiah and Zechariah, are almost impenetrable without guidance.
For the English-speaking Jew, whose familiarity with biblical Hebrew is limited, these obstacles can be daunting, as well as frustrating. The alternative, all too often, is to tune out of that part of the service and chat with one’s neighbors in the synagogue.
That’s where Meir Tamari’s new book, Truths Desired by God: An Excursion into the Weekly Haftarah, comes to the rescue.
Tamari – a former senior economist in the Bank of Israel, now well-known for his books and lectures on Jewish business ethics – defines his goal as being to promote the study of Nevi’im, which he views as necessary but neglected. Rather than write a commentary – his own, or an anthology of others – on entire books, he chose to draw the potential student into this field via the haftara, which he/she encounters in the Shabbat service.
To my mind, this is a wise choice – a range of English-language translations and commentaries on Nach exist, of varying orientations and emphases, but they are unlikely to have a significant impact on the widespread ignorance surrounding these texts. Addressing the specific haftara readings has a better chance of success – but it is more difficult.
In each stand-alone analysis, Tamari must provide historical and literary background, some textual analysis and explanation of the content (especially with regard to readings containing prophetic visions), and also discuss the connection between the haftara and the Torah portion to which it is attached, which is not always clear-cut.
On the whole, Tamari meets this challenge successfully. The book is best read as it is designed – one haftara at a time.
Reading several together can be confusing, because they typically come from different prophetic books and historical periods, but read individually, they considerably expand the reader’s knowledge of the book from which the haftara is drawn, the protagonists of the specific section and the background of their words and actions. In many cases, they also summarize the views of the classic Jewish commentators on the text.
The book’s main weakness actually stems from its structure as a collection of stand-alone chapters. The editors at Gefen Publishing have let down both the author and his readers by not “networking” the whole book, so as to eliminate repetitions that become tedious for the reader who remembers the content of earlier chapters. Use of footnotes to cross-reference chapters and, arguably, a short “further reading” list at the end of each chapter would have made for a smoother and richer reading and educational experience.
These aspects can be addressed in a second edition. Meanwhile, Truths Desired by God (the title is a quote explained in the preface) is a valuable and efficient tool for anyone seeking to gain entry into the world of the haftarot and the corpus of biblical literature that lies beyond.