Truths Desired by God
An Excursion into the Weekly Haftarah
By Dr. Meir Tamari
Gefen Publishing House, 2011, 338 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 15, 2011
Dr. Meir Tamari is interested in economics and morality and the biblical books of the prophets. His book presents the historical, geographical, political, and social contexts, as well as the spiritual lessons – the "truths desired by God" - of all the Haphtarot that are read in synagogues weekly and on special occasions.
The word haphtarot, the plural of haphtarah, also spelt haftarah and haftarot, is the name given to the portion from the prophets that is read in synagogues on Sabbaths and holidays after the Torah reading from the five books of Moses. The Torah reading is an ancient practice designed to assure that all people, not only priests and later rabbis, are acquainted with the Torah. According to tradition, the Sabbath readings began during the days of Moses. The practice was, according to tradition, was expanded during the time of Ezra, when many Jews returned to Israel after their exile in Babylon, to include Mondays and Thursdays. Mondays and Thursdays were when people came to town. They were market days and the times when the courts were in session.
Tamari recognizes that neither the rabbis nor scholars have any certain idea what the word haphtarah means or when or why the practice began to chant a portion of the prophets. The popular view is that when Jews were persecuted and ordered not to read the Torah, they read parts of prophetical writings that had a similar message to the weekly section of the Torah, to continue the age-old practice of reading Torah in a modified form. Later, this view supposes, when the persecution stopped and Jews were allowed to study Torah, they continued reciting the prophetical portion as well.
Tamari tells some of the ways the haphtarot are read, such as even allowing a boy under bar mitzvah age to do it, and not starting the recitation until the Torah scroll had been removed from the platform and wrapped, and using a different melody than the one used for the Torah. These acts may have been instigated to highlight that the prophetical section is not as significant as the Torah. He also describes other interesting practices, such as the custom to end every selection with a verse that reflects a positive attitude.
Yet, the haphtarot were the words of prophets and have significant messages. Tamari gives readers insights into these teachings and informs them of the history of the prophet, his time, the social and geographic context of what he said, and the spiritual message the prophet wanted to impart. He does so by frequent reference to classical commentaries.
An example is Tamari's discussion on the haphtarah for the portion Tetzaveh, Ezekiel 33:10-27. Tamari states that Ezekiel lived after the destruction of the second Temple in 586 BCE and before the Judeans, later called Jews, returned from their exile in Babylon to build a second Temple. Ezekiel is the only prophet who "makes clear what form the future Jewish state will take and what its institutions will look like." Ezekiel describes the dimension and shape of the future Temple and its vessels, as well as the future social and political life in Judea when the people would return from their exile. He says that the new Temple would never be destroyed.
Tamari admits that it is not at all clear what Temple Ezekiel is talking about. When the people returned, they did build a second Temple, but it didn't resemble Ezekiel's prophecy. Neither did the social description that he predicted transpire, and the second Temple that the people built was destroyed in 70 CE, and the description he gives about the Temple priests do not match the reality of the second Temple period. How, he asks, should readers understand this prophecy?
Tamari describes the various answers from the Talmud, Radak, Maimonides, Rashi, Nachmanides, and Abrabanel. Some of the commentators say that Ezekiel is speaking of the third, not the second Temple. Tamari also discusses the history of the period, and the concept of teshuvah, "repentance," chesed, "loving kindness," and shows how these concepts apply to Ezekiel's message.
In sum, Dr. Tamari explains each of the haphtarot by offering his readers a wealth of relevant and interesting information about the times and messages of the prophets as seen by Judaism's premier Bible commentators.