The haftorah is the section from the Prophets read on Shabbat at the conclusion of the weekly Torah reading, as well as after the Torah reading on certain holidays and fast days.

The origins of the haftorah reading are somewhat vague, and several theories have been suggested:

  • The most common explanation is that in 168 BCE, when the Jews were under the rule of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (of Chanukah infamy), they were forbidden to read from the Torah. The decree, however, was limited to the Five Books of Moses, so the sages instituted that a section of the Prophets be read instead, usually an idea that was related to the Torah reading that should have been read that week.1 This custom stuck even after it became safe to read from the Torah again.2
  • One of the earliest explanations suggested is that originally Jews would stay in the synagogue every day after the morning prayers and study sections from different parts of the Torah, one of them being the Prophets. In financially trying times, when they could no longer afford this luxury of extra time spent in the synagogue, they cut it down to saying a few verses from the Prophets in the Uva l’Tzion prayer at the end of the weekday service, but held on to the custom of reading a longer part of the Prophets on Shabbat.3
  • An alternative explanation, offered by some more recent Jewish scholars, is that the haftorah reading was instituted to combat the influence of those sects that viewed the Torah as consisting only of the Five Books of Moses.

Certainly, the haftorah was read4 as far back as Mishnaic times (c. 1st century CE), as the Talmud discusses how the haftorahs were read before some of the early scholars of the Mishnah. Some accredit the establishment of the haftorah reading to Ezra the Scribe (c. 350 BCE).5

Best wishes,
Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson