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When (if ever) can you read a non-standard haftarah, and how far afield can it go?

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Years ago, in a year when US Independence Day fell on Shabbat, I was away at a kallah, a week-long retreat for people from many communities with study, social activities, and, of course, davening. During the torah service on that Shabbat, the people leading the service said that in honor of "yom tov" they were going to do a special haftarah -- and proceeded to chant parts of the Declaration of Independence in haftarah trope. This was tied to a d'var torah about the limitations on kings in torah (comparing the two lists), so it was actually connected to torah in the end. At the time I was amused and struck by the relevance, but I later wondered about the halachic issues involved. (This was not a completely-halachic gathering.)

There are special haftarot throughout the year for days, seasons, even the day before Rosh Chodesh. Replacing the regular weekly reading with another is well-established practice. And the institution of haftarot was, if I understand correctly, as a proxy for torah readings that were at the time banned by hostile governments, and then even when the bans no longer applied the tradition continued. I don't know if, today, they have a lesser degree of obligation than the torah reading, the same obligation, or, strictly speaking, are optional.

When, if ever, is a "new" haftarah reading acceptable?

  • Only if it is additive -- you read the haftarah you should read, and anything else you do isn't really a haftarah reading but, sure, feel free to read stuff? (Presumably this would be without blessings.)

  • Only if it is from Tanakh? Other writings or prophets are fine, but secular documents aren't?

  • Only if it is not done with trop, which could mislead people? (In this case it was English, but it might not always be.)

  • Never -- haftarah is for the assigned portion, not other stuff, period?

  • Something else?

Why should this post be closed?

3 comments

there is an interesting paragraph just a little down from the top (third par under "what do we read?") https://rabbikaganoff.com/tag/haftora/ rosends 29 days ago

What's a kallah? I may have a guess, but I'm sure some readers will be confused by the usage of that term robev 28 days ago

@robev thanks, edited. Monica Cellio 28 days ago

2 answers

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The haftara is recited only from the Prophets (Nevi'im), not even from the Writings (Ketuvim). This is the case as far back as the Mishna (Megilla 4:1-5). It wouldn't make sense to say the blessing for the haftara, אשר בחר בנביאים טובים ("who chose good prophets"), before reciting any text other than the Prophets.

Variation in the readings is acceptable, as, for instance, the ten haftarot for the weeks from the Shabbat before Tish'a Be'av are customarily replaced by haftarot of rebuke and consolation (the Rambam, The Order of Prayer 5:4 offers the original haftarot and their traditional replacements). But the replacements are still from the Prophets.

So reading from the Declaration of Independence is simply not a haftara, because it doesn't come from the Prophets. The question is, rather, whether a public reading from the Declaration of Independence can be inserted at that point in the middle of the prayer service.

One way to approach the question: The Talmud (Shabbat 116b) says that even reading from the Writings is prohibited (specifically at the time of study, as Rav's opinion which most or all rishonim follow) so as not to distract from the rabbi's lessons. According to this reason, I can't see any reason why it should be forbidden as part of the rabbi's speech, as it was in the case you mentioned (in some synagogues, the rabbi's speech is at that point, and the reading that you described does seem more like a rhetorical device than a haftara). However, another reason for the prohibition brought there in the name of Rabbi Nechemya is:

מִפְּנֵי מָה אָמְרוּ כִּתְבֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ אֵין קוֹרִין בָּהֶן — כְּדֵי שֶׁיֹּאמְרוּ: בְּכִתְבֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ אֵין קוֹרִין, וְכׇל שֶׁכֵּן בְּשִׁטְרֵי הֶדְיוֹטוֹת.‏

Why did they say that the holy writings may not be read? So that people will say: The holy scripture is not read, and certainly not secular documents!

Accordingly, secular documents such as the Declaration of Independence should definitely not be read in public, since it defeats the purpose of the prohibition of reading the holy writings.

Obviously, for a practical ruling, a competent authority should be consulted.

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More than a comment, less than an answer... Two data points:

  • "New" Haftarah

The Haftarah portions for Shabbos, Yom Tov, Fast Days, etc. were all set hundreds of years ago. There are some variations between Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Chabad, etc. though most weeks everyone agrees. However, there has been one Haftarah added recently: Yom Haatzmaut - Israel Independence Day - Isaiah 10:32–12:6. This is a bit controversial, along with saying Hallel and other special prayers for Yom Haatzmaut.

  • Halachos of Torah vs. Haftarah

One interesting Halacha regarding Torah & Haftarah reading is that the Gelilah, wrapping of the Torah, must be completed before the Haftarah begins. This is in contrast to weekdays where the Yehi Ratzon prayers can be recited while Gelilah is being done. The reason (citation needed) is that nobody should think that the Haftarah is possibly being read from the Torah. That is in contrast to ordinary prayers, such as the Yehi Ratzon, where there is no question that they are prayers and not scriptural readings, and therefore could not possibly be read from the Torah itself. I raise this as there may be a similar issue with avoiding confusion between a traditional Tanach-based Haftarah and any other readings.

3 comments

Worth noting that (AFAIK) no one says a ברכה on the הפטרה on יום העצמאות. msh210 29 days ago

@msh210 I admit that I don't know. The Yom Haatzmaut (and Yom Yerushalayim) extra stuff is only said in my Shul at one Minyan, and for a bunch of reasons (but not political or philosophical - I am not in any way opposed to these practices) I have never attended that Minyan. manassehkatz 28 days ago

It may be worth noting that Yom Haatzmaut's Haftarah isn't exactly new: Though reading it on Yom Haatzmaut is new, it already existed as the Haftarah for the eighth day of Pesach, outside [the land of] Israel. Tamir Evan 27 days ago

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