The haftarah, the bane of every bar mitzvah kid, is making a comeback.
Not that it ever disappeared from the synagogue service, in which the weekly Torah portion is always followed by a short relevant passage from the books of the prophets (the word “haftarah” signifies conclusion in Hebrew).
It is just that the average synagogue-goer does not pay much attention to this reading. Some new books of commentary on the weekly haftarot (the plural of haftarah) are putting the prophets back in the spotlight, however.
The newest tome is “Mitokh Ha-Ohel: The Haftarot,” a collection of essays written by Yeshiva University-affiliated scholars, many from North Jersey, edited by Teaneck’s Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman. Sponsored by the Michael Scharf Publication Trust of Yeshiva University Press, it was released Nov. 8 by the Maggid Books imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.
This anthology is the logical sequel to the university’s “Mitokh Ha-Ohel” (“From Within the Tent”), essays by YU rabbis and professors on the weekly Torah portions. As was the case with its predecessor, this second installment encompasses a wide range of approaches, including textual analysis, homiletic exposition, legal analysis, and academic exploration.
“From our perspective, it was an opportunity to address a different part of the Torah shebichtav [the Written Torah] experience than in the first volume,” said Feldman, religious leader of Congregation Etz Chaim in Teaneck and an instructor of Talmud and Jewish Studies at the Mazer Yeshiva Program of YU’s rabbinical school.
“The message that God has filtered through his agents, the prophets, is as timeless as it was time-based,” Feldman continued. “It’s a unique type of message that has relevance to today, and a different type of encounter than in [the Five Books of Moses].”
Considering how ancient rabbis chose prophetic readings to relate to each Torah portion, a custom that dates back at least to Second Temple times, “itself opens up a whole avenue of study,” he pointed out.
“What are the hidden levels of meaning involved in the selection of each haftarah passage? This allows for a broader level of contribution.”
Not everyone has occasion to study the books of the prophets in full, but anyone who attends Shabbat services is exposed to the haftarot, lending the 700-page compilation “a degree of relevance,” said Feldman.
Contributors who live, teach, or were raised in Bergen or Passaic counties include Feldman, Chaya Batya (CB) Neugroschl, Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, Dr. Shawn Zelig Aster, Dr. Scott J. Goldberg, Rabbi Aaron Cohen, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Dr. Shira Weiss, Rabbi Menachem Genack, Shira Siev Schechter, Rabbi Ozer Glickman, Rabbi Moshe Schapiro, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, Rabbi Michael Taubes, Rabbi Ezra Frazer, and Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter.
Readers are looking for written material in less-explored areas of Jewish life, law, and liturgy, said Stuart Schnee, a former Teaneck resident living in Israel and working as a publicist focusing on Jewish books.
“Today’s book industry is allowing authors to bring a lot more material to light,” Schnee said. “There are always new things coming out, and I believe haftarah falls into that category. Books on the Torah portion are a dime a dozen, so perhaps it was time to explore something else. Men and women are more educated today and want more.”
Another new haftarah commentary distributed by Koren is Dr. Meir Tamari’s “Truths Desired by God: An Excursion into the Weekly Haftarah” (Gefen Publishing House), which came out in January. Rabbi Jonathan Shooter’s “Haftara Handbook: Lessons from the Prophets for the Contemporary Jew” (Devora Publishing) came out in November 2010.
Feldman commented that he owns several Hebrew-language commentaries on the haftarot, but few are available in English.
Some others from the past decade or earlier include “Haphtara Cycles: A Handbook to the Haphtaroth of the Jewish Year,” by Stephen Rosenberg; “The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot,” by Michael Fishbane; “The Women’s Haftarah Commentary: New Insight from Women Rabbis on the 54 Haftarah Portions, the 5 Megillot & Special Shabbatot,” by Elyse M. Goldstein; “Kol Menachem,” with haftarah text in Hebrew and English with Lubavitch commentary; “The Haftarah Commentary,” by W. Gunther Plaut; and “The Book of Haftarot: An Easy-to-Read Haftarah Translation,” by Sol Scharfstein.
“This generation, as much as any, can gain from the words of the prophets if we are attuned to do so,” said Feldman. “The readership we had in mind for our book is an educated populace interested in broadening their understanding of the words of prophets and finding value in approaching the text from different directions, as the YU faculty is capable of doing.”