[b-hebrew] What happened to Jesus' haftarah ?

Yigal Levin leviny1 at mail.biu.ac.il
Sat Aug 13 16:28:20 EDT 2005

An intersting item off Agade:

Yigal Levin

>From <http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/611676.html>

What happened to Jesus' haftarah?

By Hananel Mack

The custom of reading a chapter from the Prophets section of the
Bible in public in the synagogue  is an ancient one, although we do
not know when precisely it was instituted, who introduced it and
what the circumstances were surrounding its introduction. Even the
very meaning of the term haftarah that is used with reference to
this reading is not sufficiently clear. The Hebrew word maftir
apparently refers to someone who completes the public reading from
the Holy Scriptures, whereas, according to the concept expressed by
the parallel Aramaic term, ashlamta, the maftir is perceived as
someone who complements the order of the public reading from the

The Mishna (Megilla 4) recognizes the principle of the haftarah as
an integral part of the Jewish liturgy on Sabbaths and holidays,
but does not disclose anything regarding the history of the
haftarah's introduction into the liturgy. Additionally, the Mishna
does not estab! lish which chapters from the Bible are appropriate
for public reading in the synagogue on Sabbath, holidays and other
special days in the Jewish calendar, but does present two passages
in the Book of Ezekiel that should not be read in public: the first
chapter on the merkava (chariot), and the 16th chapter, on
Jerusalem's abominations. In practice, however, and, in
contravention of the Mishna's prohibition, the chariot chapter is
traditionally read in all synagogues on the festival of Shavuot
and, in some synagogues, the chapter on Jerusalem's abominations is
included in the haftarah readings.

The Tosefta, a Tanaic work that appeared after the Mishna, lists
the haftarot to be read on four Sabbaths during the year, while the
Talmud broadens the discussion and presents the haftarot to be read
on holidays, on Sabbaths that fall during the intermediate days of
Passover and Sukkot or during Hanukkah, on the fast of Tisha B'Av
(which marks the destruction of the two Temple! s in Jerusalem),
and so forth. Nonetheless, the Talmud presents no ord erly list of
haftarah readings for most Sabbaths during the year; the
establishment of these readings gradually developed over the
generations. Even today, we know of alternative practices
concerning certain haftarah readings and the points at which they
begin and end. Despite this, it can be said with confidence that
the basic customs regarding haftarot have remained reasonably
stable over the centuries, and that the replacement of certain
customs has become an accepted practice and has been well
documented for many generations.

Different customs
In accordance with the today's customs, the weekly Torah readings
follow an annual cycle in which the Five Books of Moses are divided
into portions whose number is roughly equivalent to the number of
weeks in the year. This tradition is referred to as the Babylonian
custom and it has been the accepted practice in Jewish communities
throughout the world for hundreds of years. However, during the
Talmudic period and ! for many years afterward, it was customary in
Palestine and in other countries, especially Egypt, to read the
Torah in accordance with a cycle lasting approximately three and a
half years. In line with this practice, the Torah was divided into
sedarim, whose number vastly exceeded the number of portions that
are read in accordance with the current custom. At least one
haftarah was selected to match each Torah reading. Obviously, the
number of haftarot traditionally read in Eretz Israel was far
greater than the number read according to the other custom. To
these haftarot, we must, of course, add those read on holidays and
"special" Sabbaths. We know of most of these haftarot from the
lists that emerged from the Cairo Geniza. It, however, is not the
only source of the information we have on haftarot being read
according to the ancient custom practiced in Eretz Israel, which
was discontinued in the Middle Ages.

The earliest source we have on that custom is the New Testa! ment.
According to the narrative in Luke (4:16-21), Jesus returns to h is
hometown, Nazareth and, on the Sabbath, he goes to the synagogue
where he reads from the Torah. He is then given the Book of Isaiah.
Jesus opens the book and reads the passage that begins "The Spirit
of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me"
(Isaiah 61:1). Following the haftarah, he delivers a sermon in
which he argues that in that reading, the verse was fulfilled in
the ears of the congregants in other words, the prophet's words
about a mortal anointed by God are realized in the person of Jesus.

It is unclear from this Christian source why the book is opened at
this particular passage: Does Jesus open it at that specific point
or does the hazan (cantor), who was in charge at the synagogue,
deliberately open it at this chapter? Devout Christians are of
course free to interpret this incident as a miracle whereas
scholars interested in the Jewish tradition of haftarot will
conclude that the reading of a passage from the Prophets after the
Torah portion on the Sabbath was an accepted custom in Nazareth
several decades before the destruction of the Second Temple, and
that it's thus possible that the custom also existed elsewhere.
Similar evidence can be found in Acts (13:15) where the narrative
refers to a Jewish community in Asia Minor (in the vicinity of
Antalya in Turkey).

Deliberate exclusion
A perusal of the list of haftarot read today reveals that the
chapter that Jesus recited in the synagogue in Nazareth is not read
on any of the days in the Jewish calendar on which a haftarah
follows the Torah reading that is, on none of the Sabbaths nor on
any of the major holidays or fast days. This statement also holds
true for the "special" Sabbaths during the year that is, when the
Sabbath coincides with rosh hodesh (the first day of the month),
Hanukkah, one of the intermediate days of Passover or Sukkot, etc.
This point is especially blatant with respect to the seven Sabbaths
between Tisha B'Av and Ro! sh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. On
each of them, haftarot are read f rom the chapters of consolation
in the Book of Isaiah (chapter 40 onward). Is this merely a
coincidence? Apparently, Isaiah 61:1 is deliberately not read in
the synagogue, but it is difficult to determine when and where the
decision was made to exclude it. The heads of Jewish communities,
who had some familiarity with Christian faith and literature,
preferred to refrain from reading the same chapter Jesus read in
the synagogue in Nazareth, which he claimed corroborated his divine
mission on earth. When the customs concerning the fixed haftarah
readings were formalized, the abhorrence felt toward this chapter
remained and is reflected in its exclusion from the list of
haftarot in use today. This point is especially noteworthy given
the fact that the chapters preceding and following that problematic
passage chapter 60, and the end of chapter 61 and chapters 62 and
63, respectively are read each year in public as haftarot.

As we can learn from the lists in the Geniza, th! ere were some
communities where chapter 61 was indeed read as a haftarah,
although it should be recalled that the Jews of the Geniza period
lived in Egypt, which was under Muslim rule. They were not very
familiar with or troubled by Christians' faith and customs,
although the source of many of the traditions outlined in the
Geniza is the Holy Land, whose Jewish inhabitants were very
familiar with Christianity. It should be pointed out that the
reading of this chapter as a haftarah is documented in a single,
old prayer book, reflecting a custom in the Balkans before the
traditions of the Jews banished from Spain and Portugal became
dominant at the turn of the 16th century. Nonetheless, this custom
is a marginal phenomenon in the history of Jewish culture and, in
any event, was followed by communities, according to their prayer
books, that lived in the shadow of Islam in the Ottoman Empire.

'Christological' passages
An additional perusal of the list of haftar! ot read today
indicates that we are not dealing with an isolated incid ent, but
rather a general trend. Perhaps we should view this unreported
trend as a sort of addendum to the limitations in the Mishna that
were mentioned above. Generally speaking, Jews excluded from the
haftarot those verses on which Christians based the principles of
their religious faith. Thus, all of the customs related to the
haftarah readings omit the passage in Isaiah whose focus is the
well-known verse, Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son"
(7:14), because it is the foundation of the Christian belief in the
concept of the Virgin Mary and the virgin birth of Jesus. The term
"virgin" is translated as such in the Septaguint and that is how
Christians explicate the verse to this very day.

Another crucial passage in Christian doctrine is the text that
opens with "Behold, my servant shall deal prudently" (Isaiah
52:13), which depicts the servant who personally suffers for the
sins of humanity and whose greatness and stature are eventually
recognized by all! . This chapter as well is not read in any
synagogue; the same holds true for Isaiah 42:1-4, which, although
not generally recited, are documented in a few rare traditions.
Their exclusion is due to their appearance in Matthew (12:18-21).
The same principle is applied in the case of the "Christological"
passages outside the Book of Isaiah. On the second day of Rosh
Hashanah, the haftarah that is read is one of the most wonderful
chapters in the Prophets Jeremiah 31. It stops at the famous words
that have become part of the Jewish liturgy today: "Is Ephraim my
dear son? Is he a pleasant child? For since I spake against him, I
do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled
for him; I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the Lord"
(Jeremiah 31:20). It is no mere coincidence that the haftarah ends
here and does not continue with the next few verses, to the promise
that Jeremiah utters regarding the new covenant that God will draw
up in the future with his! people one of the most commonly quoted
passages in the New Testament. The only exception to the
prohibition on reading those verses is a source that is on the very
margins of the old, peripheral Balkan custom.

Similarly, the haftarah list excludes Hosea 11:1: "When Israel was
a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt," because
Matthew uses that verse to explain why the infant Jesus is taken to
Egypt and then brought to the Holy Land at his heavenly father's
summons. Another passage that is not read is Micha 5:2, which
refers to the election of the youth from Bethlehem (see also
Matthew 2:6 and John 7:42). Also excluded is Zechariah 9:9:
"behold, thy king cometh unto thee: he is just, and having
salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal
of an ass." That verse was manifested, according to Christian
belief, when Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem leading a group
of his disciples and riding a colt (see also Matthew 21:5 and John
12:14-15). The same treatment was given to Zechariah 12:13, which
Chr! istians interpret as a prophecy concerning the 30 shekel coins
in return for which Judas betrays Jesus (see Matthew 26:14-15 and
Mark 14:10-11).

Another passage that has been excluded is Malachi 3:1: "Behold, I
will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me"
(see also Matthew 11: 10, Mark 2:2, Luke 7:27 and John 3:28). And
one could think of more examples. The verse in Malachi is
apparently included in Maimonides' list of haftarot, however, but
not in the Geniza list. In this case, too, the deliberate Jewish
tendency toward exclusion is obvious because on Shabbat Hagadol,
the Sabbath immediately preceding Passover, most synagogues
customarily open the haftarah with the verse that comes afterward
(Mal. 3:4): "Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be
pleasant unto the Lord." The haftarah is documented in the Geniza
as belonging to another Sabbath in the Jewish calendar year, and
there as well it opens with this verse.

The subject under d! iscussion here, which was raised this past
week at the 14th World Cong ress of Jewish Studies, held in
Jerusalem, calls for continued research on such topics as a more
effective definition of the "Christological" verses in the Old
Testament; a precise categorization of the various customs of
haftarah readings, their sources and dissemination; and a critical
discussion of the sources of these customs. Nevertheless, it would
appear that the phenomenon is not mere coincidence and that the
trend discussed in the above examples and in others that have not
been mentioned, was consciously implemented. Although Jews tended
to omit certain passages from the Prophets in their haftarah
readings, no Jewish scholar ever considered avoiding discussing and
studying them as an integral part of the Jewish Scriptures. Another
research study might reveal that the very verses and chapters and
not just those appearing in the Prophets which occupied a
distinguished status in Christian eyes, were extensively explicated
by Jewish Torah scholars intensively involved in! the education and
religious training of the Jewish community, and unwilling to
exclude any passage in the Bible from their consideration.

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