The custom in many communities is to read a special haftarah when the day before Passover coincides with Shabbat.1 The reason for this reading is rooted in an important but less-known observance attached to the eve of Passover.

The agricultural cycle in the land of Israel is made up of seven-year units, the seventh year being the Sabbatical (Shemittah) year. During the first six years of the cycle a farmer is obligated to give a portion of his crop (called terumah) to the kohen, and then ten percent (called maaser rishon, “the first tithe,” or simply maaser) to the Levite. He then has to separate another ten percent of what is left, but the use of this percentage varies in different years. In the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the cycle it is called maaser sheni (“the second tithe”), and it (or its cash value) would be taken by the owner to Jerusalem and enjoyed there. In the third and sixth years of the cycle this tithe is given to the poor and needy, and is called maaser ani (“the tithe of the poor”).

As the Torah puts it, the third year of the cycle is “the year of the tithe,”2 since then “you have finished every tithe of your produce,” having given both maaser sheni and maaser ani. At this time, says the Torah, a declaration should be made before G‑d. This is called vidui maaserot (“the confession of the tithes”). The text of the declaration is in the Torah itself (Deuteronomy 26:13–15), and it is a statement that all the requirements concerning the tithes were fulfilled and nothing was left out. It ends with a prayer: “Gaze down from Your holy abode… and bless Your people Israel…”

Often, a farmer might store up his terumah and maaserot for some time (for example, if there were no kohanim or Levites nearby). Before Passover of the fourth and seventh years of the cycle, though, he is required to have taken care of all of his outstanding terumah and maaser: giving the respective tithes to the kohanim, the Levites and the poor, and arranging for maaser sheni (or food bought with its cash value) to be consumed in Jerusalem. Once that was done, he would recite vidui maaserot on the eve of Passover of those years.

(It is important to note that the obligations of terumah, maaser rishon, maaser sheni and maaser ani are still in effect today, but not in all of their details. (For example, maaser sheni is not taken to Jerusalem, since the Temple is not standing.) Since we are unable to do these mitzvot in their original, intended fashion, several authorities maintain that we do not recite the “confession of tithes” today, although others maintain that it is said nonetheless.3)

Because the day before Passover had this significant mitzvah attached to it, the custom developed to read a special haftarah, which speaks of this mitzvah, on or close to this date.

“New Age Prophecy”

The haftarah is taken from the book of Malachi. Malachi was one of the last biblical prophets of Israel, and his book is the last of the Prophets division of the Bible. Our haftarah reading is actually the final verses of the book of Malachi itself.

Malachi lived at the time when a relatively small number of Jews returned from the Babylonian exile to Israel to build the Second Temple and re-establish a Jewish presence in the land. These were watershed years in the spiritual history of our people. Life as it was in biblical times, when there was direct communication from G‑d via the prophets, was phasing out, and life as we know it was setting in. Understanding this, a convention of sages and prophets at the time went about canonizing and finalizing what we know today as the Tanach (Bible).

Reflecting this new order, the social problems of which Malachi speaks are “modern” in their nature. One example is the subject of ritual.

Many of the prophets in earlier centuries had admonished the people for ignoring the spirit of the mitzvot and observing them only as empty rituals. Divine worship and service were popular in those days, and the prophets had to constantly contend with idolatry in its most literal sense.

In Malachi’s time, however, this was all radically changing. The Jews seemed to be engaged in pursuit of material success and pleasure, the mitzvot being of little or no relevance in their lives. Bringing the sacrifices in the proper manner was costly and inconvenient. Marrying Jewish was not terribly “cool” either… On top of all this, in the most typical of fashions, the people saw no fault in any of these actions or the lack thereof. “What wrong have we done?” is a key phrase Malachi repeats over and over again, capturing their attitude.

One of the more neglected mitzvot at the time was maaser, the tithe for the Levites.4 This, said G‑d, was akin to theft, for the people were holding back the rightful property of those who did G‑d’s work.

Generally speaking, the Torah prohibits “testing” G‑d. In a time when open miracles were getting rarer, the last of the prophets announced that the mitzvah of maaser is a resounding exception to the “no testing” rule. “‘Test me now on this!’ says G‑d. ‘See if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour down for you blessing without an end.’”

Although the verse speaks specifically about maaser, the consensus of most halachic authorities is that this dictum applies to all forms of charity as well. A Jew is permitted—and even encouraged—to “test” G‑d regarding the reward for giving charity.5

Hold On, Hold Tight

In the next part of the reading, Malachi grapples with the people’s general apathy. The mitzvah of charity remains the exception as to when we may test G‑d, but the rule is that the reward for doing good and the punishment for doing the opposite is somewhat less obvious… It was this attitude which underpinned the neglect of the mitzvot at the time: “What gain is there for us that we have kept His watch, and for going about in anxious worry because of the L‑rd of Hosts?"

This seemed to be everyday street talk, or at least the prevalent thought process of many. This apathetic attitude, says G‑d, was the most difficult for Him to bear.

From the very dawn of existence, the righteous had bitterly protested and demanded why this world seems so unjust. Time and again G‑d responded in various ways, mostly pointing at the deficiency of human understanding compared with the infinite and ultimate vision of G‑d. But Jews continued to protest—and actually, that is the way it’s meant to be. But this generation of Jews decided to simply walk away… And that hurts.

The prophet reassures the people that the day of reckoning will yet come. The giants of faith themselves had indeed grappled with such questions of faith, and all the while, G‑d was listening in… The righteous would be forever remembered, and on the great day of Moshiach’s coming, their strength of character will pay off.

“Remember the Torah of Moses my servant,” instructs Malachi. For the foreseeable future there would be no more prophets to deliver the direct and up-to-date word of G‑d. Thus it would be the Torah, and only the Torah, to which the Jews could cling during their long journey ahead.

G‑d is good, and before the coming of Moshiach, Elijah the prophet will be sent to bring the Jews back to their heritage. In this way, after doing teshuvah, every Jew will have the privilege of being part of the messianic era.

May we see it speedily in our days.