Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 7 June 2008 / 4 Sivan 5768

Haftara, Half-Torah?

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Marge in Louisville, KY

Dear Rabbi:

In anticipation of our son Sam's bar mitzvah, I was wondering why he won't be reading from the Torah, but rather from the haftara. In general, I guess I'm wondering what’s the source for the haftara reading as well. Thank you for your insights.

Dear Marge,

First, let me wish your family a heart-felt mazal tov on Sam’s upcoming bar mitzvah.

For reasons I’ll explain shortly, it has become customary to read from both the weekly Torah portion and a thematically relevant portion from the Prophets each Shabbat. Of course, the Torah portion is primary, while the haftara is of secondary importance.

All communities have a bar mitzvah boy called up to the Torah on public reading days [not necessarily Shabbat] as a way of introducing the boy as a new adult member of the community. Most do so on Shabbat. Of those who call the boy up on Shabbat, some do so on the Shabbat before his actual birthday, while others do so on the Shabbat after his birthday. Herein lies a practical difference.

If the boy makes his “aliya” (going up to the Torah) on the Shabbat before he turns 13, he is not yet eligible to be included in the primary Torah reading and therefore reads the secondary haftara. If his aliya is on the Shabbat after he’s turned 13, he’s called up as one of the seven for the actual Torah reading. [If the birthday itself is on a public Torah reading day other than Shabbat, such as Monday and Thursday, some do the aliya then, and not necessarily on Shabbat, since he becomes privileged with the mitzvot on that very day.]

Regarding the source for the haftara reading in general, the Talmud relates that during the second century B.C.E, the Syrian-Greek rulers over Israel prohibited Jews from reading the Torah. Since only reading of the Five Books of Moses was prohibited, selections from the prophets that were thematically similar to some aspect of the weekly Torah portion were read instead. Eventually the decree was nullified and the Torah reading was reinstated, but the selection from the Prophets continued to be read after the conclusion of the Torah portion.

This is probably the source for the term “haftara” which means either “that which comes after” or “conclusion”. The person called for haftara also reads what’s called “maftir” which is a repetition of the last few verses of the Torah portion. This is done to honor the haftara person with a symbolic reading from the Torah while serving as a transition between the Torah and haftara portions.

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