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The Haftarah (Heb. ?????????) is a selection from the Prophets read after the reading from the Torah on Sabbaths, festivals, and fast days. On Sabbaths and festivals it is read during the morning service, on fast days at the Minchah service only (with the exception of the Day of Atonement and the Ninth of Av when there is a haftarah after the Torah reading in both the morning and the afternoon service). There is, however, evidence that during the talmudic period a haftarah was read at Minhah on Sabbaths (see Shab . 116b and 24a, and Rashi and Tos. ad loc.) and in some places the custom continued until the end of the geonic period (Sefer ha-Ittim, para. 181), but it is unknown today.

Unlike the Sabbath reading from the Pentateuch, which consists of a continuous reading of successive portions of the Five Books of Moses without any omission, the haftarah is a portion from a book of the Former or Latter Prophets. Only two prophetic books are read completely as haftarot: the Book of Obadiah, which consists of only 21 verses (for the portion Va-Yishla? (Gen. 32:4–36:43), according to the Sephardi custom and that of Frankfurt on the Main), and the Book of Jonah, which is the haftarah for the Minchah service of the Day of Atonement. There were two criteria which determined the selection of a particular haftarah. When no other considerations prevailed, the choice was determined by the similarity of the contents of the prophetic portion to those of the portion of the Pentateuch read. Thus the haftarah to the portion Be-Shallah (Ex. 13:17–17:16), containing the Song of Moses, includes the Song of Deborah (Judg. 4:4–5:31); and to Shelah (Num. 13:1–15:41), describing the incident of the 12 spies sent by Moses, it is Joshua 2:1–24, concerning the spies sent by Joshua; and so on.

For about one-third of the haftarot, however, this criterion is abandoned, and the choice for those Sabbaths is determined either by the calendar or by historical circumstances. For ten successive weeks, from the Sabbath before the 17th of Tammuz until the Sabbath before Rosh Ha-Shanah, the haftarot consist of the three haftarot of tribulation (pur'anut) and the seven of consolation (those from Isaiah 40–66). Special haftarot are read on a Sabbath which is also Rosh Chodesh, on the Sabbath which falls on the day before Rosh Chodesh, on the Sabbath before Passover, on the Sabbath of the Ten Days of Penitence, and on the Sabbath (or Sabbaths) of Chanukah. The choice of the haftarot for the Four Special Sabbaths depends on the special additional portion read on these days, and not on the ordinary Sabbath portion.

On festivals and fast days the haftarah, like the Torah reading, consists of a portion appropriate to the festival. For Minchah on fast days (apart from the Day of Atonement) it is always Isaiah 55:6–56:7. In a few cases the haftarah is not a continuous portion (cf. Meg. 4:4).


The origin of the custom of reading a portion of the prophets after the Torah reading is unknown. The most plausible suggestion (dating from not earlier than the 14th century) is that the custom was instituted during the persecutions by Antiochus Epiphanes which preceded the Hasmonean revolt. According to this theory, when the reading of the Torah was proscribed, a substitute was found by reading a corresponding portion from the Prophets; and the custom was retained after the decree was repealed. Buechler, however, was of the opinion that it was instituted against the Samaritans, who denied the canonicity of the Prophets (except for Joshua), and later against the Sadducees.

The earliest reference to the actual reading of a haftarah is found in the New Testament. Acts 13:15 states that after the reading of the law and the prophets Paul was invited to deliver an exhortation. Another reference (Luke 4:17) states that during the Sabbath service in Nazareth the Book of Isaiah was handed to Jesus, and when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, the passage being Isaiah 61:1–2. Unfortunately, the Greek word used there meaning found does not make it clear whether the passage read was fixed beforehand or whether it was chosen at random.

The earliest reference in talmudic literature to the specific selection of a haftarah is in Tosefta, Megillah, 4 (3): 1, which gives the haftarot for the Four Special Sabbaths. A baraita in Megillah 31a, which has later additions by the Babylonian amoraim who add the haftarot for the second days of the festivals (and who sometimes change the order of the haftarot as a result) – gives the haftarot for every one of the festivals, including their intermediate Sabbaths, as well as a Sabbath which is also Rosh Chodesh, the Sabbath which immediately precedes Rosh Chodesh, and Chanukah. However, nowhere in the Talmud are the haftarot given for ordinary Sabbaths, which were not fixed until after the talmudic period. The only other mention of the matter in tannaitic literature is the prohibition against the reading of certain prophetic passages: the haftarah on the Merkavah (Ezekiel 1) according to the anonymous Mishnah (but permitted by R. Judah, and in fact it is at present the haftarah for Shavuot; cf. Meg. 31a), and Ezekiel 16:1ff. according to R. Eliezer (Meg. 4:10), which, despite his strong disapproval, was read in his presence (Meg. 25b). The same Mishnah (Meg. 4:10) permits the reading of II Sam. 11:1–17 (the story of David, i.e., and Bathsheba), and the story of Amnon (ibid. 13:1ff.) providing the Targum is not read (see below). These passages would seem to indicate that in mishnaic times the choice of the haftarah was generally not determined, and as late as geonic times different haftarot were in vogue in different localities. Even some of the haftarot mentioned in the Talmud are not those established at the present time, and to this day there are certain variations of choice, mostly between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, but also between different Ashkenazi rites (particularly that of Frankfurt on the Main).

The most interesting is the haftarah for Simhat Torah. According to the above-quoted passage in Megillah 31a, the haftarah for Shemini Atzeret (which in Israel is also Simhat Torah) was I Kings 8:54ff. and for the next day (Simhat Torah in the Diaspora) I Kings 8:22. The universal custom today, to read Joshua I on Simhat Torah, is attributed either to Hai Gaon (Tos. ad loc.) or the savoraim (Or Zaru'a, II 293). When the Triennial cycle was in vogue in Eretz Israel, there was naturally a haftarah to each portion, and the number must therefore have been about 150. They are, to some extent, reflected in the Pesikta Midrashim. Similarly, there are haftarot for the second day of each festival in the Diaspora which are not read in Eretz Israel, where the second day is not observed.

Various suggestions have been made as to the connotation of the word haftarah. One opinion is that it corresponds to the Latin word demissio, since in Temple times the service ended with the haftarah. Abudarham regards it as meaning taking leave of, i.e., of Shaharit, when one, so to speak,  “takes one’s leave”  of the scriptural reading.   

Regulations and Customs

The person who reads the haftarah is called the maftir since he is also called to the reading of the last part of the weekly portion from the Torah. As he is not included in the minimum obligatory number of seven persons who have to be called up on the Sabbath (Meg. 32a), the custom later arose for the concluding passage of the portion to be read a second time for the maftir (see Tos. ad loc.). On festivals, Rosh Chodesh, and the Four Special Sabbaths, however, the maftir is called to the reading of the special additional portion for those days from the second scroll. With the completion of that reading, the Sefer Torah is raised and rolled up (see Hagbahah and Gelilah) and only then the maftir reads the haftarah, preceding it with two blessings and concluding the reading with three blessings, to which, on Sabbaths and festivals, a fourth blessing is added, the formula of which is changed according to the nature of the day. The text is given in Soferim 13:9–14, with slight variations from the text as established today. The haftarah is sung with a special cantillation, and the custom has developed for the introductory blessings to be chanted with the same cantillation. The Sabbath haftarah has to consist of a minimum of 21 verses (Meg. 23a), but for the festivals 15 suffice (Rema, Oh 284:1).

It is not obligatory for the haftarah to be read from a manuscript scroll, but may be read from a printed book. In some congregations, however, especially in Israel, the haftarah is read from a scroll of the Prophets. Despite the general prohibition against committing to scroll writing only sections of the Prophets, in contrast to the complete Book of the Prophets, an exception was made in the case of a book containing only the haftarot; such a book is, in fact, mentioned in the Talmud (Git. 60a). Since the maftir was not included in the seven called to the reading of the Torah, a minor is permitted to be called to that portion (Meg. 4:5). The custom has become almost universal, however, to reserve the reading of the haftarah for a bar mitzvah boy, but this is largely in order to provide him with an opportunity to show his prowess. Some haftarot, however, are regarded as being of such importance that a minor, and in some places even a bar mitzvah, is precluded from reading them. They include the Merkavah (Ezek. 1) on Shavuot, the Song of David on the seventh day of Passover, the haftarah on the Sabbath of the Ten Days of Penitence, and the haftarah of Shabbat Zakhor, in this last case because the Torah reading of the maftir is considered obligatory by biblical law.

During the talmudic period, when the biblical reading was accompanied by its translation into Aramaic, the translation of the Torah reading was given verse by verse, but that of the haftarah after every three verses (Meg. 4:4), unless each verse constituted a separate paragraph. Isaiah 52:3, 4, 5 is quoted as an example (Meg. 24a). The person who read the haftarah was invited to pores al shema (Meg. 4:5), a phrase to which different interpretations are given, but in the context it appears to mean to continue as the reader of the service which follows.

[Note: The order of chapters three and four in the Mishnah Megillah is reversed in the Babylonian Talmud. The mishnaic references given are therefore to be changed accordingly when their discussion in the Talmud is given.]


A. Buechler, in: JQR, 6 (1893), 1–73; Elbogen, Gottesdienst, 174–84; L. Rabinowitz, in: T.W. Manson (ed.), Companion to the Bible (1939), 14–16; J. Mann, The Bible as Read and Preached in the Old Synagogue, 2 vols. (1940–66), introduction and passim; ET, 10 (1961), 1–32; J. Heinemann, Ha-Tefillah bi-Tekufat ha-Tanna'im veha-Amora’im (19662), 143ff.

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.