Haftarah: Familiar Practices For Unfamiliar Reasons

By Samuel N. Hoenig

After the required aliyot are read, Kaddish is recited and the maftir is called up to the Torah. Several verses of the previous aliyah are repeated. The Torah scroll is lifted and rolled up. The designated section from the Prophets is now chanted.

The above scenario, performed every Shabbat and Yom Tov, seems simple and routine. However, this is far from the case. The practice of reading from the Prophets subsequent to the Torah reading abounds with ambiguities. For example, why is the reading of the section from the Prophets called haftarah?1 Why is maftir an added aliyah and not the last of the required seven aliyot? Furthermore, why is an aliyah leTorah necessary, why can’t there just be an aliyah leNavi, i.e. call up the maftir and let him immediately commence with the reading of the Prophets? What factors determine the selection of the haftarah? Finally, why is a portion from the Prophets read altogether?

Popularly speaking, maftir along with shlishi and shishi (the third and the sixth aliyot on Shabbat) is a coveted aliyah. Boys on their Bar Mitzvah,2 young men celebrating their aufruf3 and relatives commemorating yarhtzeit 4 are all honored with the aliyah of maftir. Similarly, on specific Shabbatot, maftir is reserved for the rav. 5 However, the popularity of maftir is a relatively new phenomenon. According to the Talmud (Megillah),6 maftir is not such an honorable aliyah since even a minor may receive it. In Talmudic times, therefore, the maftir was compensated by receiving the additional honor of serving as the shaliach tzibbur (leader of the services).7  Furthermore, according to the Talmud,8 maftir is not considered an obligatory aliyah.


The reason maftir is read from the Torah before the chanting of the haftarah is because of kavod haTorah—if one were to read from the Prophets without first reading from the Torah, it would appear as if the Books of the Prophets were on the same footing as the Torah. (In order to satisfy the kavod haTorah requirement, it is sufficient to repeat several verses from the previous Torah aliyah.9) But why is the reading from the Prophets necessary at all? In order to appreciate the significance of the haftarah, we need to understand the meaning of the word. 10 Haftarah, which comes from the root petar, has multiple meanings. According to some,11 haftarah means completion or conclusion, as in the well-known phrase, “ein maftirin achar haPesach afikomen,”12 (after eating the karban Pesach one does not “end” the meal with afikomen). Similarly, the reading of the haftarah marks the “end” of the Shacharit service. Others maintain just the opposite,13 that haftarah means the beginning, referring to the beginning of the reading from the Navi (Prophets). Rabbeinu Tam14 believes that haftarah is related to peter as in peter rechem—to open. Haftarah, in this sense, signifies that as long as the Torah is being read, one is not allowed to converse, even concerning halachic matters. However, once the reading of the haftarah commences, one may “open” his mouth and speak, i.e. a devar halachah.

An intriguing explanation is offered by Rabbi David Abudraham15 (14th century Spain). Abudraham sees the word haftarah as stemming from patur—to be exempt: Abudraham explains that the haftarah was instituted in lieu of Kriat HaTorah (the Reading from the Torah) due to persecutions forbidding the public reading of the Torah. The sages thus instituted that a portion, thematically similar to the censored Torah portion, be read from the Prophets. By reading the haftarah, one exempts himself from Kriat HaTorah. Abudraham does not indicate the precise date of this takanah. However, according to Rabbi Eliyahu Bachur16 (1469-1549), Abudraham is referring to the religious persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes (168-165 bce). Indeed, the author of the Book of Maccabees, when listing the Epiphanic decrees, states:17

And wherever they found the Books of the Law, they tore them up and burned them, and if anyone was found to possess a Book of the Agreement or respected the Law, the king’s decree condemned him to death.

Maccabees’ references to the “Books of the Law” (Torah) explain why the ban was not extended to the Prophets as well: The persecutors did not view the Prophets as a threat to their assimilationist policies in as much as they do not constitute the “Books of the Law.”

According to the above theory, it is clear why the halachot of the haftarah are patterned after those of Kriat HaTorah. These halachot include:

  • The haftarah reading must contain a minimum of 21 verses, corresponding to the three-verse minimum for each of the seven Torah aliyot.18
  • The haftarah must be thematically connected to the sidrah.19
  • Similar to Kriat HaTorah, a minyan must be present during the reading of the 20
  • A total of five blessings are recited before and after the haftarah (one before and four after), corresponding to the “five” Books of the Torah.21
  • Just as the Torah reading in Talmudic times was orally translated into Aramaic by a meturgaman (translator), the haftarah was orally translated into Aramaic.22
  • According to some authorities, the haftarah must be read from a scroll that was written in accordance with the halachot governing the writing of a sefer Torah.23

By establishing these halachot, the institutors of the haftarah were highlighting that the haftarah reading served as a substitute for the banned Torah portion.

It is unclear why even after the Epiphanic decree on public Torah reading was repealed, the haftarah reading was retained24 alongside the Torah reading. Nevertheless, certain halachic requirements were instituted to set-off the haftarah reading, which is of rabbinic origin, from Kriat HaTorah, which is of Mosaic origin.

  • Unlike Kriat HaTorah, even a minor may be called up to the haftarah; 25
  • The reader of the haftarah must read from the Torah as well;
  • The aliyah of maftir is not an integral part of Kriat haTorah, but an “added” aliyah
  • According to most authorities,26 unlike Kriat haTorah, the haftarah need not be read from a parchment scroll.

All of the above made it possible to retain the takanah of the haftarah while at the same time stressing its secondary status.

There are at least two other theories as to the origin of the haftarah found in the writings of the Rishonim. According to Rabbeinu Tam, as quoted by Rabbi Isaiah of Trani,27 the reading of the haftarah is attributed to Ezra the Scribe. As is well known, Ezra is responsible for instituting many takanot, including the reading of the Torah on Shabbat afternoons (Minchah) and the reading on Mondays and Thursdays of three aliyot (totaling a minimum of ten verses.)28 Though Rabbeinu Tam does not explain the rationale behind Ezra’s takanah, it would seem that Ezra wished to emphasize the unity of Torah and Prophets and therefore appended various prophetic texts to the Torah portion.

A most fascinating theory, found in Sefer HaPardes,29 an important collection of laws and responsa from the school of Rashi, maintains that the reading of the haftarah on Shabbat and Yom Tov is a relic of an old abandoned practice. In earlier times, upon the completion of the weekday morning service, time was set aside for the study of Mikrah (Tanach), Mishnah and Gemara.30 Portions of the Prophets were also read (studied). In later times, when people were pressured to devote more time to earning a living, the practice was abandoned. Subsequently, they fulfilled their Torah and Ketuvim “quota” with the recital of Shema and Pesukei deZimra respectively, and the Mishnah and Gemara requirement with the readings of various texts found in the Karbanot section of the siddur, all of which are part of the Shacharit service. But what of Neviim (Prophets)? To satisfy this requirement, the custom of reciting two verses from the Book of Isaiah (59:20-21on the future redemption and the Torah covenantwas established. This was later expanded into the familiar Uva leTzion prayer. However, the original practice of reading a selection from the Prophets on Shabbat and Yom Tov, when people are not rushing to work, was retained.

As noted above, the choice of a particular haftarah was determined by the content of the weekly sidrah. The Talmud emphasizes that the haftarah should be, in some way, similar to the sidrah.31 This is true of all the haftarot from Bereishit through Pinchas (when Matot and Masei are read separately). Beginning with the period of the “Three Weeks” prior to Tishah B’av and continuing for seven weeks from after Tishah B’av until Rosh Hashanah, the haftarot, independent of their respective sidrot, concentrate instead on the themes of suffering and consolation, reflective of the pre and post Tishah B’av moods.32

During Talmudic times there were no fixed haftarot for each sidrah. The only fixed haftarah texts found in the Talmud are for special Shabbatot, e.g. the four parshiyot, Shabbat Chanukah and the Yomim Tovim.33 This accounts for the diverse minhagim as to the choice of haftarot during the rest of the year. 34

A careful study of the haftarot will reveal that not only are they thematically

connected with the sidrah, but they contain analogous words and phrases as well. No doubt, these parallel expressions and words played a significant role in the “matching” of a haftarah with its respective sidrah. Textual similarities between the haftarah and the sidrah are especially significant according to Abudraham’s view that the haftarah was to serve in times of persecution as a substitute Torah reading. These analogous words and phrases not only reminded one of the respective Torah portion but also created a textual as well as thematic substitute for the banned sidrah.35

My hope is that these insights will serve to make the practice of reading the haftarah a more meaningful experience.

Rabbi Dr. Hoenig is associate professor of Judaic Studies and chair of the Department of Judaic Studies at Touro College, Women’s Division.


  1. Although “haftarah” is the grammatically correct spelling and pronunciation,

haftorah” is found in both Hebrew and English transliteration. See The Haptoroth:

Translated and Explained by Dr. Mendel Hirsch (London, 1966), l; The Pentateuch and                     Haftorahs, edited by Dr. J.H. Hertz (London, 1967); The Living Torah, Rabbi Aryeh

Kaplan (NY, 1984), 1051-1375. See also Rabbi Alcalay, The Complete Hebrew

English Dictionary (Israel, 1990), 560.

  1. J.D Eisenstein, Ozar Dinim U’Minhagim (NY, 1928), 50.
  2. B. Adler, Seder haNesuim keHilchatam (Jerusalem, 1985), vol. 1, 193.
  3. Rema, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 376:5.
  4. J.D Eisenstein, op. cit. p.246. See also Magen Avraham, Shulchan Aruch, Orach

Chaim 282:14.

  1. 23a.
  2. Megillah 24a and comment of Rabbi Nissim (Ran).
  3. Ibid, 23a.
  4. However, see Tosafot, Megillah 23a, s.v. kevan that in Tannaitic times the maftir did

not repeat the last verses of the seventh aliyah, but actually was the concluding aliyah of

the sidrah.

  1. As already noted, the more correct form is haftarah. The more common usage

haftorah probably evolved from the fact that it is read after the “Torah” reading–thus


  1. Sefer Abudraham haShalem (Jerusalem, 1963), 173.
  2. Mishnah, Pesachim 10:8.
  3. Aruch haShulchan, Orach Chaim 284:
  4. Sefer Abudraham. loc. cit. See also Levush, Orach Chaim 284:1. See Tehillim 22: 8

and Rashi & Ibn Ezra. loc. cit, Pesikta Rabbati 37 and Derech Eretz Rabbah 2.

  1. Op.cit. p. 172.
  2. 16. Sefer Tisbi. “patar,” also Tosafot Yom Tov, Megillah 3:4.
  3. 17. 1 Maccabees 1:56-57.
  4. Megillah 23a.
  5. Ibid, 29b.
  6. Ibid, 23b.
  7. Sefer Abudraham haShalem, 172.
  8. Megillah 24a.
  9. Levush, Orach Chaim 284:1 and Mishnah Berurah 284:1.
  10. For similar occurrences, see Tosafot, Rosh Hashanah 32b s.v. beSha’at.
  11. Megillah 23a.
  12. Magen Avraham, Turei Zahav, Shulchan HaRav and Mishnah BerurahShulchan

Aruch, Orach Chaim 284.

  1. Sefer HaMachriah (Jerusalem, 1998), 162.
  2. Yerushalmi Megillah 4:l, Bava Kamma 82a.
  3. Sefer Pardes haGadol (reprint of 1870 edition), cf. Siddur Rashi (Jerusalem, 1963),

37, Shibbolei haLeket (Jerusalem, 1962), 37-38.

  1. Kiddushin 30a.
  2. Megillah 29b.
  3. Tosafot, Megillah 31b, s.v. rosh chodesh, Sefer HaManhig (Jerusalem, 1961),

Hilchot Shabbat, sect. 33.

  1. Megillah 23a, Tosefta Megillah 3. See comment of Kesef Mishnah, Hilchot

Tefillah 12:12.

  1. For a complete list of variant haftarot readings see Encyclopedia Talmudit, v. 10,


  1. See my forthcoming article “Haftarah-Sidrah: Mirror Images” in the Lander


This article was featured in the Fall 2002 issue of Jewish Action.