One of the great treasures of our tradition is the messages of the prophets who lived in Israel more than 2,500 years ago and, through the power of speech, exhorted our people to live lives of faith and morality. These messages have been passed down to us in written form and comprise the middle section of the Jewish Bible. Every Shabbat and festival day, we read the “Haftarah,” a selection from the Nevi’im (prophetic section of the Bible). The reason for reading from the prophets is shrouded in mystery, though a leading theory is that centuries ago when the Romans prohibited the public reading of the Torah, the Rabbinic sages substituted a reading from the prophets, which was not considered threatening. When the ban on reading the Torah was lifted, the additional reading was retained and remains part of our liturgy to this day. Specific selections from the prophets, thematically connected to the weekly Torah reading, were assigned to each Shabbat and festival by the Talmudic sages.
It’s unfortunate that the power and passion of the weekly prophetic message are usually lost. The Haftarah is chanted in Hebrew, which is not understood by most people. The traditional melody is slow and somnambulating. People might be quietly reading the English translation from the Humash while the Haftarah is being chanted in Hebrew, or more likely, may simply disconnect from the service during that time. It’s a shame that the powerful message and voice of the prophet is missing.
One remedy for this dilemma is a new approach known as “The Voice of the Prophet,” a project launched by Rabbi Jan Uhrbach at the Jewish Theological Seminary that blends the chanting of some of the Hebrew verses with a dramatic English reading of the text. Samples can be heard or downloaded by clicking here.
Our Religious Affairs Committee has decided to present the Haftarah using this creative method during Shabbat morning services. We have chosen portions from the literary prophets, those passages in which a prophet’s message is conveyed rather than the narrative sections of this section of the Bible. The “Voice of the Prophet” will be heard once a month from January through June, on the following dates:
January 26, Parashat Yitro
- Preview the text: Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6
February 16, Parashat Tetzaveh
- Preview the text: Ezekiel 43:10-27
March 30, Parashat Shemini
- Preview the text: Ezekiel 36:16-38
April 13, Parashat Metsora
- Preview the text: Malachi 3:4-24
May 25, Parashat Behar
- Preview the text: Jeremiah 32:6-27
June 8, Parashat Bemidbar
- Preview the text: Hosea 2:1-22
I am confident that this new approach to reading the Haftarah will make the message of the prophets more accessible and compelling. Please be sure to join us especially on the Shabbat mornings when the Voice of the Prophet rings out. I will be very interested in your thoughts and reactions.