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Haftarah

Haftarah refers to an additional selection of text from the Neviim (Prophets), the second division of books of Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), read after the parashah (Torah portion of the week). The haftarah is thematically tied either to the parashah or events on the Jewish calendar. Seeking out the thematic connection is one of the pleasures of encountering the weekly haftarah.

Haftarah is pronounced haf-tar-AH in Sefardi/Israeli pronunciation (plural: haftarot) and haf-TOR-ah in Ashkenazi pronunciation (plural: haftoros), comes from the Hebrew root p-t-r, which carries the meaning of “to exempt, dismiss, take leave of.” (In modern Hebrew, it is the root of the words for “to be laid off,” as from a job, and “to pass away,” as in to die, softening the harshness of these things with a gentler euphemism, similarly to the English terms). It is called a haftarah because with it we “take leave of” our weekly Torah portion.

Haftarot are read at the Shabbat morning service and on holidays. On Yom Kippur and Tisha beAv, haftarot are read at the afternoon Minhah service as well, and on minor fast days, during Minhah only. In addition, the haftarah for a given parashah might change if it coincides with another occasion, such as a special Shabbat.

The blessing for the haftarah

When the haftarah is read publicly, there are special berakhot (blessings) that come before and after it. They are slightly different in the Ashkenazi and Sefardi traditions, and the closing can also be different depending on the date, so it is best to consult your siddur (prayerbook) and/or the sha”tz (prayer leader) for the correct version. They are said in the same trope (cantillation or chanted melody) used for the haftarah.

Where to find the haftarah

You can of course turn to the haftarah section in any standard Tanakh. But if you use a Humash intended for weekly study or a Mikraot Gedolot (Torah with commentaries), it will generally be divided into parashot followed by the (standard) haftarot printed right after (like in the photo above). Because, again, haftarot sometimes change depending on the current year’s calendar, it’s always worth checking.

The role of the haftarah in bnei mitzvah ceremonies

The harftarah is traditionally read by those who become bnei mitzvah (of majority age for assuming responsibility for Jewish mitzvot) on the Shabbat after they come of age. On the one hand, the language of the Neviim tends to be more difficult to understand than the language of the Torah, since it is poetic in its expression. Paradoxically, it is easier to chant in that it may be read from a vowelized text, however, unlike the Torah, which can only be read from an unvocalized, ritually handwritten scroll. This makes the haftarah particularly suitable for a bar mitzvah, who is new to leyning (Yiddish for “reading,” referring to traditionally chanting Tanakh). The bar mitzvah usually reads the last aliyah of the parashah, called the maftir (from the same Hebrew root and called this for the same reason), as well as the haftarah. Most people who’ve had bnei mitzvah ceremonies will instantly recall their parshah and haftarah. However, nothing is required to become bnei mitzvah; it’s simply something that comes with turning 13.

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