Joseph H. Prouser
Joseph H. Prouser

A haftarah for Christmas

As any bar or bat mitzvah celebrant can explain, the haftarah is a passage (or passages) selected from among the prophets, and chanted on Shabbat, holy days, and festivals, following the prescribed Torah reading of the day.

There always is a thematic, literary, or theological reflection to connect it to the corresponding Torah reading or calendrical observance in the haftarah text. While no less a scholar of Jewish liturgy than Ismar Elbogen (1874-1943) says that “the connection can be quite loose, sometimes no more than a single word,” more commonly there is a complex connective tissue between parashah and haftarah, demonstrating the profound care and remarkable erudition with which the prophetic texts were chosen, the abiding bewilderment of countless 13-year-olds and many of their uninitiated elders notwithstanding!

The origin of the practice of haftarah is lost to history. Familiar folk wisdom (dating at least to the sixteenth century) asserts that chanting scriptural selections from the Hebrew prophets was instituted during a time of persecution — specifically during the time of the Maccabees — when the Syrian-Greeks banned the public reading of the Torah. This is unconvincing and without compelling historic corroboration. (See, however, I Maccabees 1:56ff.) After all, the persecutors of Hasmonean Jews just as easily could have banned all scriptural readings. Indeed, it would take a Syrian of extraordinary linguistic sensitivity and multicultural literacy to distinguish between a biblical text chanted from, say, the Book of Genesis, and a chapter of prophetic literature — especially one similarly read from a scroll and specifically selected for its literary and linguistic parallels to the “illicit” Pentateuchal passage! Not likely.

This popular legend, furthermore, reflects a preoccupation with the history of anti-Semitism and persecution. It’s a reflexive recourse to the dark and the negative, instead of seeing the haftarah as celebrating the sages’ wise counsel about scripture: “Turn it over and over again, for everything is in it. Examine it carefully, grow old with it, and never part from it. You will find no better portion than it.” (Pirkei Avot 5:22.)

It does seem clear that the chanting of Prophetic passages in synagogue worship is an ancient practice, first applied to major holy days and extended to the Sabbath only significantly later. In Luke 4:17, the New Testament describes the Christian savior being handed a scroll of Isaiah, from which he read to fellow worshippers on a Sabbath morning in a Nazareth synagogue. Acts 13:15 also testifies to the reading from the prophets as a fixed adjunct to the weekly Torah reading. The Mishnah and the Tosefta likewise attest to the haftarah’s early origins. (See Megillah 4:2.)

While we can only speculate as to what motivated the sages to select the various haftarah texts, such studious inquiry leads us to a deeper appreciation of how our early forbears and religious leaders understood the Torah, and how they prioritized the lessons offered by the weekly Torah reading. Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, it remains a valuable method of Bible study.

For the most part, Jewish communities around the world chant the same haftarah readings, just as they are united by the single shared calendar of weekly Torah readings (with rare and notable exceptions). On seven Sabbaths during the annual cycle, however — and more frequently on holy days — Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities maintain divergent customs about the haftarah. One such occasion is Shabbat Parashat Vayetze. That Sabbath’s Torah reading, Genesis 28:10-32:3, describes how Jacob, who has fled the revenge anticipated from his brother Esau, dreams of the ladder of angels, labors for and then marries Leah and Rachel, and begins to raise his quickly growing family. At both the parasha’s opening and closing verses, God appears to Jacob. This year, parashat Vayetze was read on December 10.

For Ashkenazim, the prophetic complement to this Torah portion is Hosea 12:13-14:10. Sephardim also turn to Hosea, though customarily they read the preceding 17 verses, 11:7-12:12. Both these passages include explicit references to Jacob and Esau, accounting at least superficially for their selection that week. The chapter the Sephardim read includes: “The Lord … punished Jacob for his conduct, requited him for his deeds. In the womb he tried to supplant his brother; grown to manhood, he strove with a divine being, he strove with an angel and prevailed…” (12:3-5). The Ashkenazi haftarah begins: “Then Jacob had to flee to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, for a wife he had to guard sheep…

It is entirely possible that the Ashkenazi reading has been maintained for an additional educational message it offers, which is absent from the Sephardi rite. Hosea 13:4 implores the listener, “You have never known a true God but Me, you have never had a savior other than Me.” Hosea’s prophecy continues, in 13:13: “The babe is not wise, and this is no time to tarry at the birthstool of babes.”

Parshat Vayetze and its accompanying haftarah are read at the beginning of the month of Kislev, often coinciding roughly (this year, precisely) with the month of December. For Ashkenazi Jews, who come from communities historically located in Eastern Europe — that is to say, from Christian-majority cultures — the reading of these verses from Hosea necessarily evoked the season’s theological challenges. As the Christian majority prepared to celebrate the birth of the Christian savior (and as the accompanying religious triumphalism predictably intensified), the Jewish community of Christian Europe restated a fundamental theological principle distinguishing them from the Christian faithful: “You have never had a Savior other than Me.” And particularly not “the babe,” who is Christendom’s focus at this very season.

For the Jewish people in the areas of Ashkenazi settlement, particularly during this season, this is no time to tarry — to become preoccupied with or theologically distracted by the birth of the infant celebrated by Christmas.

Such a creative application and re-purposing of Hosea’s prophecy, which by no means addressed or engaged Christianity’s theological claims in its original context — it was written several centuries before Christianity — was entirely unnecessary for Sephardi Jews. They lived in the Iberian peninsula, the Mediterranean rim, and North Africa, in Jewish communities in Muslim-majority countries.

Thus the divergent haftarah texts for parashat Vayetze.

The Ashkenazi haftarah chanted as the Christmas season approaches seems to offer historic evidence that the “December Dilemma” is by no means a modern American Jewish innovation or discovery. Jews living in Christian-majority cultures have struggled with the implications of the Christian liturgical calendar ever since a period so long ago that its history is shrouded in speculative folklore. I submit that no matter what the original motivation behind the selection of the Ashkenazi haftarah for parashat Vayetze, it was maintained and repositioned as an articulate theological and communal response to the social and religious conditions uniquely experienced in the countries of Ashkenaz. That theological response — so cogent in historic Poland, Lithuania, Germany, and beyond — offers considerable wisdom to today’s American Jewish community, if we will but hearken to its counsel.

Hosea 12:13-14:10 first asserts the conviction that it is the descendants of Jacob — the Jewish people — who have an abiding role as God’s covenantal partners. This message was especially clear to our distant forbears through the Middle Ages, for whom “Esau” (and the analogous “Edom”) was synonymous (at least in homiletical texts) with the Christian church.

The Ashkenazi haftarah for parashat Vayetze goes on to articulate those theological and doctrinal principles that fundamentally distinguish Judaism from Christianity, the religious tradition of the cultural majority.

Finally, Hosea conveys his message not by attacking the religious tenets of non-Israelite believers, nor by lamenting the people Israel’s diminutive numbers or minority status, but by asserting the need for Jews to rededicate themselves to our own pattern of piety and faith. “When Ephraim spoke piety, he was exalted in Israel” (13:1). It can be no accident that the Ashkenazi haftarah concludes with a passage familiar from yet another prime time haftarah, the prophetic text prescribed for congregational reading on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath preceding Yom Kippur: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God… Return to the Lord… He who is wise will consider these words, he who is prudent will take note of them.” (Hosea 14:2ff.)

For centuries, Ashkenazi practice has insisted that December presents no real dilemma. Instead, it is a precious spiritual opportunity. The designation of Hosea 12:13-14:10 as the haftarah for parashat Vayetze reminds us that we wisely spend these weeks fully embracing the covenantal mission of the Jewish people, carefully articulating and reflecting on our theological distinctiveness, and — undistracted by the “Holiday Season” in full gear around us — contemplating the quality of our own relationship to God. It’s just what we do — fortified by the very same words of Hosea — during our own most sacred season.

“Those who are wise will consider these words, those who are prudent will take note of them.” Hosea’s “haftarah for Christmas” has served Ashkenazi Jews well for many centuries. His prophecy — retooled and repurposed — was never more timely nor more urgent than it is today.

About the Author
Joseph Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.
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