What Happened to Jesus' Haftarah?

Hananel Mack
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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 Pentateuch.

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 establish 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 Temples in Jerusalem), and so forth. Nonetheless, the Talmud presents no orderly 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 Testament. According to the narrative in Luke (4:16-21), Jesus returns to his 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 Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. On each of them, haftarot are read from 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, there 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 haftarot read today indicates that we are not dealing with an isolated incident, 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 Christians 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 discussion here, which was raised this past week at the 14th World Congress 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.