June 23, 2024
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We just finished celebrating Simchat Torah, which begs the question: should there also be a holiday called Simchat Haf-Torah? Should we also be dancing around with the Tanach? Should we be singing Nevi’im-based niggunim? Should the Haf-Torah get more respect?

For the record, the term “Haf-Torah” actually is a commonly-used spin on the proper Hebrew term “haftarah,” which means “parting” or “taking leave.” (For purposes of this article, the terms Haftarah and Haf-Torah will be used interchangeably.). The “Haftarah” is read on Shabbat and certain holidays following the Torah reading and thus marks the conclusion (taking leave) of the Torah-reading portion of davening. In this way, the reading of the Torah and then the Haf-Torah is the opposite of most rock & roll concerts which typically begin with the opening act and end with the main attraction. Here, however, the main act (the Torah reading) precedes what should be the opening act (the Haf-Torah). It’s like starting with The Beatles and ending with Bon Jovi.

Does this mean that the Haf-Torah should be ignored or treated like a second-class citizen? Certainly not, especially when you consider its origins. Some scholars believe that the Haf-Torah came into fashion in times when those in power prohibited the reading of the primary text, the Torah. Other scholars argue that the Haf-Torah was created when Torah scrolls were either destroyed or ruined. In either case, Jews substituted Torah readings with those from Nevi’im (Prophets). Once it became legal and safe to resume Torah readings, the Haf-Torah was retained and made part of the weekly service. Does this mean that before the advent of the Haf-Torah, most synagogues were both nonprofit and non-prophet organizations? Discuss.

Nowadays, when a person is called up to read the Haf-Torah, he does so using a Tanach or Chumash, both of which include nekudot (vowel signs). Some communities, however, insist that the Haf-Torah is to be read from a scroll sans nekudot. This can be quite an unpleasant shock for the unsuspecting reader who intended to rely on the printed nekudot for guidance. So, before you agree to read the Haf-Torah at a particular shul, find out their Haf-Torah custom ahead of time. Warning: For the uninitiated, reading from a nekudot-less text can be more difficult than performing Hagbah on a Torah scroll made out of osmium.

Rest assured, you can find the Haf-Torah mentioned in the Talmud: “Rabbi Tanḥum says that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: The one who concludes with a reading from the Prophets [Haf-Torah] must first read several verses from the Torah. And Rabbi Tanḥum says that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: The one who concludes is not permitted to conclude with a reading from the Prophets (Haf-Torah) until the Torah scroll is furled.” (see, Sotah 39.b.6.) So, you should always read the Torah before the Haf-Torah just like the rabbi’s sermon should always precede kiddush. While the Torah scroll also should be furled before the Haf-Torah ensues, other things in life should never be furled, including a pull-out couch on which your Bubbie or Zeidi is still sleeping.

The Talmud, in Sotah 39.b., has more to say about how the congregation should behave after the Torah reading: “And Rabbi Tanḥum says that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: The congregation is not permitted to leave the synagogue after the Torah reading until the Torah scroll has been taken and prepared to be returned to its place… out of respect for the Torah scroll.” Decorum also requires congregants to avoid having conversations during davening, but getting congregants to stop talking in shul is almost as hard as getting a shul president to keep the announcements short and sweet.

No discussion of the Haf-Torah would be complete without addressing Maftir (the “concluder”), the last aliyah given during the Torah reading. Usually, the person honored with Maftir also reads the Haf-Torah. In this way, when the gabbai calls up the Maftir aliyah, it is like when a baseball manager calls up the closing pitcher. Believe it or not, it is possible to have a double Maftir. It occurs when, for example, Shabbos Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh coincide. In such a case, would there also be a double Haf-Torah? No. To be clear, a double Maftir does not also mean a double Haf-Torah just like a joint wedding does not also mean a joint honeymoon.

Final thought: Reading the Haf-Torah does not mean one should read half of the Torah. Similarly, allspice should not be used to season all types of food. Send comments or insults to [email protected].

By Jon Kranz

 

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