What is the Haftarah?

Image: Ezekiel’s Vision of a Chariot, in St. John the Baptist Church in Kratovo, Macedonia, 1836. Artist unknown, public domain.

“Haftorah?” asked a puzzled student, “So where is the other half?”

Haftarah (pronounced haf-tuh-RAH, or haf-TOH-rah) is a word that puzzles many people who hear it. It is not “half-Torah” as the Ashkenazi pronunciation seems to hint. Haftarah is a reading from the books of the prophets, the Nevi’im.

Nevi’im (neh-vee-EEM), the second part of the Jewish Bible, includes:

Former Prophets (sometimes called “Histories”):

  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • Samuel I & II
  • Kings I & II

Major Prophets (“major” for length, not for pre-eminence)

  • Isaiah
  • Jeremiah
  • Ezekiel

The 12 Minor Prophets (“minor” for length, not importance)

  • Hosea
  • Joel
  • Amos
  • Obadiah
  • Jonah
  • Micah
  • Nahum
  • Habakkuk
  • Zephaniah
  • Haggai
  • Zebediah
  • Malachi

Unlike the Torah readings, which include, over the course of the year, every word from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the Haftarah readings are only from selected portions of the prophetic books. The readings always have some link to the Torah reading, although sometimes it takes study to perceive the link.

We do not know for sure when or why the Haftarah readings became part of the Shabbat Torah service. For some interesting speculation on that subject, read What is the Haftarah and Why Do We Read It? by Rabbi Peretz Rodman.

Haftarah is usually read or chanted in Hebrew from a book or printed page, not from a scroll.

The Haftarah reading have its own set of blessings, before and after, like the Torah reading. It is chanted to a distinctive trope [melody] used only for Haftarah. For an example of Haftarah trope, watch this video of (now Rabbi) Michael Harvey chanting the Haftarah to Parashat Noach:

 

Shabbat Shalom! Acharei Mot

Acharei Mot, “After the death,” is the name of this week’s Torah portion. It picks up just following the death of Aaron’s two eldest sons in a terrible burst of fire from the Tabernacle. We read this portion in the late spring, as we are doing now. Many congregations also read it on Yom Kippur as well. It covers a wide range of topics, so there’s plenty for our darshanim to cover:

In Defense of Cultural Judaism by Rabbi David Kasher

Bringing the Entire Community Together by Rabbi Michael Safra

The Mothers of the Priests by Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson

Acharei Mot by Rabbi Amitai Adler

Parenting by the Parsha: Acharei Mot by Rabbi Eve Posen (VIDEO)

The Land of Israel: Holy or Not? by Rabbi Neal Gold

On Loving Our Neighbors by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Milestone Survey

Image: An odometer. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

This is the 1000th entry on this blog.

I started this round of blogging in August of 2011, with this entry. 1000 posts later, there is still lots more Basic Judaism to learn and to teach.

Here are some questions, as I begin the next thousand entries. Answer one or all of them in the comments.

  1. Do you have a favorite article on this blog? Which one? Why?
  2. What topic would you like to learn more about?
  3. Is there a topic you’re tired of me covering?
  4. If I were to self-publish a collection of articles from the blog about the Jewish Holidays, for instance, would you be interested enough to purchase it?
  5. Is there a social media platform where you wish I would list new posts?
  6. What Jewish experience has been the most moving in your life?
  7. Which Jewish experiences did you feel were overrated?

I look forward to getting to know you better.

 

Why Call It The Shoah?

Image: Barbed wire fence at Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. Photo by Barak Broitman via pixabay.com. Public domain.

The murder of six million Jews and many others (Roma, homosexuals, disabled persons, and others) in the 1930’s and 40’s in Europe are often referred to in English as “the Holocaust.” Some Jews, myself included, prefer the Hebrew word “Shoah.” Here’s why:

The word “holocaust” is the Anglicization of a Greek word, ολοκαύτωμα [complete combustion.] It appears in some English Bibles (for instance, the Douai – Rheims Catholic translation) as the translation for עֹלָה [oh-LAH, meaning offering that will be completely burnt.] An example:

Isaac said to his father: My father. And he answered: What wilt thou, son? Behold, saith he, fire and wood: where is the victim for the holocaust? – Genesis 22:7, Douay-Rheims translation)

Here is the same verse, in the Jewish Publication Society translation:

Isaac then said to Abraham his father, “Father!” He answered: “Here I am, my son.” And Isaac said, “Here is the firestone and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt-offering?” – Genesis 22:7, JPS translation

Later, the word “holocaust” was adopted by English writers to mean “complete destruction by fire.” It first appeared in reference to the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis in a British newspaper, the News Chronicle of December 5, 1942. From there the use spread until today, when that has become the primary definition of the word.

So why use “Shoah” instead?

“Holocaust” entered the English language as a term for a sacrifice, specifically for the sacrifices asked of the Jews by God. For anyone who grew up using a Douai-Rheims Bible, that still is a primary meaning of the word. It therefore implies a particular understanding of the events in Europe: that the murder of the Jews was a sacrifice acceptable to God. For many of us, this is a blasphemous implication.

That’s why I always use “Shoah” unless I am talking or writing to someone who is likely not to know the word. Even though “Holocaust” is generally in use as a term for the Nazi “Final Solution,” it still has the power to suggest that there was something acceptable to God in those events.

My own understanding of the Shoah is that it was the culmination of centuries of antisemitism in Europe, purely the actions and intentions of human beings, not anything wanted by the Holy One. That’s why I and many others prefer the term “Shoah.”

What do Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi mean?

Image: Four women complete the Sargeant-First-Class Course for the IDF Infantry Corps in 2007. We can’t tell whether they are Ashkenazi, Sephardic, or Mizrahi Jews by looking at them, but all are Jewish. Photo by the IDF, some rights reserved.

If you are around the Jewish world long enough, you’ll hear a mention of the terms “Ashkenazi” and “Sephardic.” Hang around a bit longer and if you are lucky you’ll hear the term “Mizrahi.” These are three different groups of Jewish traditions, each with their own ancient roots.

Mizrahi Jews – These are the oldest of the Diaspora communities of Judaism: Jews from the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean) North Africa and Central Asia. It includes Moroccan Jews, Iranian (Persian) Jews, Iraqi (Baghdadi) Jews, Egyptian Jews, Libyan Jews, Bukharan Jews, Yemenite Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Syrian Jews, Jews from Lebanon and Tunisia.

Most Mizrahi Jews no longer live in the lands that were their homes for centuries. Most now live either in Israel or in North America but many have retained their cultural heritage. One great source of information about the Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa is JIMENA, (“Jews of the Middle East and North Africa.”)

Sephardic Jews – These Jews are descendants of the Jews of the Iberian peninsula, present-day Spain and Portugal. In 1492 (Spain) and 1497 (Portugal) the monarchs of those countries offered a cruel choice: convert to Christianity, leave immediately and forever, or die. Thus began the Sephardic Diaspora, the scattering of these people across the globe from Amsterdam to Brazil, from Greece to India.

Because Arab countries were generally more hospitable than Christian nations at the time of the Dispersion, many of the Sephardim settled in cities with existing Mizrahi communities. In some of those locations, Sephardic liturgical customs became dominant. That is the reason that you will sometimes hear the two terms “Sephardic” and “Mizrahi” conflated, although that is not really quite accurate. Sephardic Judaism is not a monolith; it encompasses many different Jewish cultures and heritages, all going back to the flowering of culture known as Golden Age Spain.

Nowadays the thing that unites Sephardic Jews worldwide is their minhag, their customs regarding worship and details of Jewish Law.

Ashkenazi Jews – Ashkenazi Jews are the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. Unlike the other two groups, most of their history they lived in countries where Christianity was the dominant religion. They include the Jews of Poland and the Pale of Settlement as well as the Jews of Germany. The majority of Jews in Canada and the U.S. are of Ashkenazi descent; their ancestors arrived in the great immigration from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and very early 20th century. Many (but not all) of the founders of the State of Israel were from Ashkenazi families, which is why Ashkenazim have been dominant in Israeli politics.

In case you are wondering: converts to Judaism take on the traditions of the Jewish communities into which they convert. As with many other Jewish matters, these three are not so much a matter of DNA as of heritage and context.

One Question: Light Dawns!

Image: a cartoon light bulb by ElisaRiva via pixabay.com.

Today, teaching a class about Sephardic Judaism, I was burbling along with the usual lecture about the Golden Age of Spain when a student asked me a brilliant question:

So, all this had to be in private, right?

Earlier I had outlined the rules under which dhimmis operated in Islamic Spain. One of those rules was that all Jewish or Christian religious activity had to take place in private – no public menorahs, no creche in front of Town Hall. So the question made perfect sense: if Jewish religious activity had to take place in private, wasn’t all Jewish activity private?

If I were a cartoon, I would have had a light bulb over my head at that moment. Suddenly I understood why it was that so much of Sephardic cultural accomplishment took place in the secular realm. The Sephardic Golden Age saw accomplishments in love poetry, in music, in mathematics and medicine.

The religious accomplishments of the culture were mostly scholarly – things that could happen in a quiet private space. Also, while there is a deep spirituality in Sephardic Judaism, it too is private: much of it is mysticism and of that, much was secret.

So my answer to the question was that no, only the religious accomplishments were private. The rock star poets of the Golden Age circulated their secular poetry in the public sphere, keeping their religious poetry for the synagogue. Science and mathematics are purely secular. And philosophy deals with even religious subjects at arm’s length.

It was a moment in history when Jews were welcome to participate in the secular culture. Jews could excel in the secular realm, because the surrounding culture didn’t force us into a religious straightjacket.

One question opened up a whole aspect of Sephardic history to me.

This is why I love teaching. This is why we never finish learning Torah.

 

Chronic Pain: One Jewish Perspective

 

Image: Woman walking through a cactus greenhouse. Photo by Unsplash on pixabay.com.

Jewish tradition has a lot to say about suffering. The discussion begins with the book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses tells the people again and again that if they keep the commandments, all will be well, and if they sin, they will suffer for it.

As a person with chronic pain, my reaction to those texts ranges from annoyance to rage. If suffering is a punishment for sin, why didn’t [insert name of Bad Person here] live in agony? What did I do that was bad enough that I feel like this?

The ancient rabbis recognized the ridiculousness of a claim that all pain is deserved by the sufferer. Their answer to this puzzle came in the form of narrative:

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba had fallen sick. Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him, and asked, “Are these afflictions dear to you?” Rabbi Chiya replied, “Neither they nor their reward!” Rabbi Yochanan said, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Chiya gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan revived him. Later, Rabbi Yochanan was ill, and Rabbi Chanina went to see him. He asked the same question. Events proceeded exactly as in the first story: Rabbi Chanina asked, Rabbi Yochanan replied, “Neither they nor their reward,” Rabbi Chanina asked for his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan was revived. [The text then asks why Rabbi Yochanan needed help, since he had been able to revive Rabbi Chiya. The answer:] “A captive cannot release himself from prison.” – a paraphrase of Berakhot 5a

The rabbis have a problem. Their theology assumes an omnipotent personal God, a God who assents to every person’s suffering, since it is in the power of God to fix anything that is undeserved. The rabbis knew good, decent people who had terrible suffering – hence, a problem.

Someone among them cooked up the idea of yisurin shel ahavah, “sufferings of love,” the idea that God loves some people so much that He (they thought of God in masculine terms) gave them suffering, perhaps as a vehicle for self-improvement. I can hear, between the lines, that many of the other rabbis thought this idea was just plain stupid: who enjoys suffering? But instead of the Talmud text saying so (thereby shaming the rabbi who came up with this plan) we get little stories that point out that not everyone welcomes this so-called gift.

In this series of stories, there is no discussion of whether there had been sin to provoke the affliction; rather, the rabbis assume that these are yisurin shel ahavah, “sufferings of love,” a gift from God. In other words, they assume the best about the patient. The suffering rabbis reject the proffered “gift” of pain: if the affliction is a gift from God, they don’t want it or any presumed benefit from it. Then the visiting rabbi asks for the hand of the sick rabbi, and revives him.

At the end of the second story, we get the punch line: what relieves the suffering of the rabbis is not something from God but the touch of a human hand.  They are saying to us, “Maybe there are (a few) people who can grow from suffering. Maybe there are others who receive miracles from God. But for most people the only relief that will come is from other human beings.”

What do I get from this passage as a person who has chronic pain?

  • I feel understood by my forebears: they get it that I do not deserve this.
  • I feel permission to say, “If this is a gift from God, no thanks.”
  • They offer a model for something that can sometimes help: human contact.

Their model is a visitor who:

  • accepts that the pain is real
  • asks sincere questions about the sufferer’s state of body and mind
  • listens to what the sufferer says
  • does not offer advice
  • does not offer diagnoses
  • does not talk about themselves
  • touches only after asking

I have not yet been miraculously healed by a visitor, nor do I expect to be. I am fortunate to have people in my life who treat me with respect, who listen without advice-giving and who ask before they touch. This text reminds me to value those people as the sages they are.

I also know people who tell me that it is in my head, that if I went to their doctor / lost weight / took their snake oil / had more surgery / etc. it would all go away (so it is actually my own fault that I have the pain.)  This text reminds me that those people are NOT sages, they don’t talk or act like sages. In other words, feel free to ignore them.

This is only one of many Jewish perspectives on suffering. I am grateful to Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, who introduced me to this text. I hope to write about more texts on the subject in future posts.

May each of us find relief, temporary if not permanent, small if not large, partial if not full today and tomorrow. May each of us eventually reach a refuah shleimah, a complete healing. Amen.