Author Archives: Michael Fishbane

Michael Fishbane

About Michael Fishbane

Michael Fishbane is the Nathan Cummings professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago. His research spans the spectrum of biblical and Jewish studies and he has written numerous books in Jewish Studies.

Why Jeremiah?

This article is excerpted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot.  It is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The selection of Jeremiah 31:2-20 as the haftarah for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is already mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (B. Megillah 3Ia), and in his commentary Rashi provided a thematic explanation for this tradition-suggesting that the prophetic unit from Jeremiah was chosen "because of [the phrase in v. 20] ‘My thoughts would dwell on him’ [zakhor ‘ezkerenu], [and also] ‘I will receive him back in love [rakhem ‘arakhamenu]?" It would appear that by stressing the theme of remembrance (zikaron) and mercy (rakhamim) in the haftarah, Rashi wishes to allude to the designation of Rosh Hashanah as a day zikhron teruah (commemorated with loud blasts [Leviticus 23:24]), when God would judge all creatures (M. Rosh Hashanah 1:2).

Since ancient rabbinic times, as attested by the Mishnah, three groups of biblical verses were recited in connection with the shofar blasts during Rosh Hashanah (M. Rosh Hashanah 4:5). The first group is known as Malkhuyot, since the passages deal with God’s "Kingship?’ The second collection is known as Zikhronot, since the passages deal with God’s merciful "Remembrance" of His covenant. And the last unit is known as Shofarot, since the biblical passages deal with "Trumpet Blasts" (at the Revelation, and heralding Redemption). The Mishnah adds that ten verses were selected for each unit from the Torah and Prophets; however, according to R. Yohanan b. Nuri,"1f one recited three verses for each [one of the three groups], he has fulfilled the obligation" (M. Rosh Hashanah 4:6).

Medieval sources preserve a custom of reciting three triads of citations (from the Torah, Writings, and Prophets-in this sequence) for each of the three groups; namely, the Malkhuyot, the Zikhronot, and the Shofarot. A climactic tenth verse for each group is taken from the Torah and incorporated into a final petition. While the verses and their order vary, it is notable that Jeremiah 31:20 is commonly adduced in these lists-and in the traditional Ashkenazi machzor (holiday prayer book), it occurs as the ninth biblical citation in the Zikhronot cycle. This position is rooted in an old tradition and can be traced back to the siddur of Rabbi Saadiah Gaon (ninth century) and even to a Rosh Hashanah piyyut composed by Yose ben Yose (fifth-sixth century, Israel). As the context of Yose’s prayer makes clear, Jeremiah 31:20 was the last of nine biblical citations invoked to plead with God to remember His saints and people for good during the period of divine judgment on Rosh Hashanah.

Why Joshua?

This article is excerpted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot. It is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.
The selection of a haftarah for Simchat Torah has clearly evolved. According to the Talmud, ancient Babylonian practice concluded the annual Torah lectionary cycle on the ninth day of the Sukkot festival season (the second day of Shemini Atzeret) with a haftarah from I Kings 8:22ff. (B. Megillah 31b)–thus correlating Moses’ blessing before his death (in the Torah’s final parashah, Ve-zot Ha-berakhah) with Solomon’s blessing at the dedication of the Temple.
By geonic times, some Babylonian-influenced communities took their haftarah for this festival day from Joshua 1, and this selection is authorized in the work Halakhot Gedolot attributed to R. Yehudai Gaon. Some early medieval European communities practiced a compromise–either reciting three verses from Joshua I prior to reading I Kings 8:22ff., or reciting the initial verses from I Kings 8:22ff. prior to Joshua 1.
The Rokeach; (R. Eleazar of Worms) authorized the sole recitation of Josh. 1:1-18, which became normative among Ashkenazim (see Tur,  Orach Hayyim 669). Sefardim recite Josh. 1:1-9, following the practice advocated by Abudarham.
The most likely reason for the choice of Joshua 1 as the haftarah for this occasion springs from an ancient custom (preserved among modem Jews of Babylon and Kurdistan) to read the Prophets and the Writings concurrently with the Torah cycle–and to conclude all three sections of the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible] simultaneously. Just as it is now customary to read from the opening portion of Genesis on the festival immediately after the conclusion of Deuteronomy, we may presume a simultaneous custom of reading from the opening verses of Joshua (the first book of the Prophets) on the festival after concluding the Book of Malachi (the final book of the Prophets).
Over time, this practice took on a life of its own, becoming the official haftarah for Simchat Torah in many communities. In short, it appears that the reading from Joshua 1 was initially intended to parallel the added lection from Gen. 1:1-2:3, rather than being seen as related to the end of Deuteronomy.

Spirituality of Texts

Judaism is a text culture that always has been nurtured by study and interpretation. The interpreter and the text interpenetrate in dynamic ways. The individual finds and realizes that the layers of his or her deepest self have been “textualized” by study, so that the sacred texts provide the language for ongoing life experience and inspiration. The text, on the other hand, reveals itself through the accumulated readings of its many seekers and learners. In a profound reciprocal way, every renewal of the self is simultaneously a renewal of the text, while every deadening of human sensibility is a simultaneous deadening of the life breath of the text.

The biblical text is a shaping of the divine spirit by the human breath of Moses and the prophets; but it may speak now only through the spirit and breath of its interpreters. Martin Buber [the 20th-century Jewish philosopher] once said that the task of the biblical translator is to overcome “the leprosy of fluency,” a disease of the spirit that can lead us to imagine that we already know what we are reading, causing us blithely and triumphantly to read past the text.

The effective translator must, therefore, reformulate the word or the words of the text to produce a new encounter with its language and thus facilitate a new hearing and a new understanding. The spiritual task of interpretation, likewise, is to affect or alter the pace of reading so that one’s eye and ear can be addressed by the text’s words and sounds–and thus reveal an expanded or new sense of life and its dynamics.

The pace of technology and the patterns of modernity pervert this vital task. The rhythm of reading must, therefore, be restored to the rhythm of breathing, to the cadence of the cantillation marks of the sacred text. Only then will the individual absorb the texts with his or her life breath and begin to read liturgically, as a rite of passage to a different level of meaning. And only then may the contemporary idolization of technique and information be transformed, ad the sacred text restored as a living teaching and instruction, for the constant renewal of the self.

Reprinted with permission from Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (Jewish Publication Society).

Isaiah 40-66: Return and Restoration

The second half of Isaiah speaks to a people despairing at the “loss” of their God, since their relationship with the deity had always presumed an intimate relationship with the land. These chapters, a lifeline to the exiles, are crucial in the development of Jewish theology, and most of the haftarot (synagogue prophetic readings) from Isaiah are drawn from them.

This article is excerpted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot and is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The Commentators’ Puzzle

The Book of Isaiah as a whole (chapters 1‑66) constitutes the first of the three large collections of prophetic books in the received Hebrew Scriptures: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The opening superscription to the book dates the Prophetic mission of Isaiah ben Amoz from the reigns of Kings Uzziah and Ahaz, in the mid‑eighth century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1:1). Since Isaiah 40‑66 does not begin with any new chronological reference, the prophecies in the last half of the book were presumably understood by the ancients as part of the predictions of Isaiah ben Amoz.

The abrupt shift in the Isaianic corpus from oracles of doom to themes of consolation (beginning with Isaiah 40) has long drawn the attention of commentators –particularly since the prophecies of exile announced to King Hezekiah (in the first part) refer to the eighth century B.C.E., while the prophecies of return from exile (in the second part) refer to a historical reality two centuries later.

Splitting the Collection

Isaiah 40‑66 is an ensemble of several units that have been variously subdivided over the centuries.A broad consensus of scholarly opinion distinguishes three parts:

Isaiah ben Amoz: Political Prophet (Isaiah 1-39)

In this article, Michael Fishbane illuminates, from the text, the details of the political life of one of the most central prophets in Jewish religious thought and practice. This article is excerpted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot, and is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

Why Isaiah is Such an Important Prophet

Isaiah son of Amoz towers among the giants of classical biblical prophecy — repeatedly challenging the nation and its leaders with the ethical and religious will of God, and providing instructions and visions of moral renewal and universal peace. In such ways, he both dramatizes the engagement of a prophet with the social and political events of his times and expresses an impassioned concern for a life governed by covenantal values.

For Isaiah, deceit and dissembling, like moral blindness and greed, corrupt the religious spirit and are anathema to God. The ancient covenant is thus no abstract teaching, but a concrete challenge for rectitude and justice in daily life. Intensely alive in the troubled times of Judah in the late eighth century B.C.E., Isaiah’s words and deeds have became a model for a life of prophetic witness to divine demands.

How Political and Cultural Turmoil Shaped Isaiah’s Vision

Isaiah’s prophetic career was enmeshed in the political and cultural turmoil of the times. According to the superscription to the book, this career spanned the last half century of the eighth century B.C.E. ‑including all or part of the reigns of the Judean kings Uzziah (769 -733), Jotham (758‑743, regent), Ahaz (743‑733 B.C.E., regent; 733‑727 B.C.E.), and Hezekiah (727‑698 B.C.E.). According to the date provided in Isaiah 6:1, Isaiah experienced an awesome vision of the Lord in the year that King Uzziah died (733 B.C.E.). If this experience was his commission to divine service, then his prophetic career began with the death of the monarch. Alternatively, the vision marks a renewal or redirection of his prophetic career begun sometime earlier (and not otherwise indicated).

Joel: Misplaced Prophet of the Locust Plague

This article is excerpted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot, and is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The Book of Joel is the second work in the collection of the Minor Prophets known as Trei Asar, or “The Twelve,” and is ascribed in the superscription to Joel son of Petuel. There is no further information either in the superscription or from indications in the text regarding the time or place of the prophet. 

Why the Book of Joel is Second in the Order of the 12 Minor Prophets

Overall, the sequence of books in “The Twelve” conforms to the historical periods of the prophets, beginning with Hosea and Amos from the mid-eighth century B.C.E. (as the first and third in the list) and concluding with Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi from the late sixth to early fifth centuries B.C.E. The occurrence of Joel between Hosea and Amos puts this prophet earlier than any scholarly reckoning (see below), and many have suggested that his place in the sequence may be due to verbal and thematic considerations.

joel and the locust plagueFirst, some of the final words of Joel (Joel 4:16) rally with the opening words of Amos (Amos 1:1), and an arranger might have brought them into conjunction. Second, the Book of Joel refers repeatedly to the “day of the Lord” as a time of doom and terror (Joel 1:15; 2:11), as does Amos (Amos 5:18, 20). And finally, one may observe that the central horror of the Book of Joel is a plague of locusts, one type of which is called the gazam (cutter [Joel 1:4‑]), whereas the prophet Amos reports how God brought about a plague of gazam (Amos 4:9), among other disasters, in order to bring the people to repentance ‑ all to no avail.

Part 1:  The Locust Plague’s Ravaging of the Land and the Repentance of the People

Part 1 (Joel 1‑2) presents a detailed and graphic depiction of an unprecedented locust plague, which attacks like a raving enemy that wipes out the food supply of the people (1:2-­7,10‑12, 16‑19). The prophet exhorts the people, the elders, and the priests to don sackcloth and beseech God’s mercy through repentance, fasting, and prayer. He tells the people to rend their hearts and “turn back” to their gracious Lord‑for out of compassion He may “turn and relent” (2:12‑14). For their part, the priests are urged to weep and cry out a liturgy of anguish, that the Lord may “spare” His people (2:17).

Why Read Ezekiel on Shavuot?

In relating Ezekiel’s vision to the Sinaitic revelation, an implicit connection is made between prophecy and revelation. Ezekiel’s vision is taken to be a collective vision at Mount Sinai, where every Jew was able to see God’s presence. This implies that every Jew was a prophet and could become as great as Ezekiel. This article is excerpted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot. It is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

Given the content of the haftarah [prophetic reading], it may be wondered why Ezekiel’s vision was chosen for recitation on Shavuot–the festival celebrating the Giving of Torah. What is the link between his experience and the public revelation at Sinai? 

One ancient teaching provides a clue, suggesting that rabbinic tradition found a parallel between the events. Beginning with the verse stating that “God’s chariots [rekhev]are myriads upon myriads, thousands upon thousands; the Lord is among them as in Sinai in holiness” (Psalms 68:18), it was taught that “there descended with God (on Mount Sinai) 22,000 chariots, each one like the chariot [merkavah]that Ezekiel saw” (Midrash Tanhuma Yitro [Buber] 14).

A similar tradition is found in an anthology of teaching for the festival of Shavuot (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Ba-hodesh, piska 12:22), and elsewhere (Midrash Shoher Tov, on Psalm 68:18). The upshot of this is that Ezekiel’s theophany was long preceded by a national precedent (preserved in Psalm 68:18), when God descended upon Sinai to make a covenant with all Israel. Indeed, according to rabbinic midrash, a mystical theophany occurs in the course of the Sinaitic revelation. Ezekiel’s experience was thus anything but unique. To the contrary, his throne vision is a personal expression of an ancient pattern.

A further connection between Sinai and Ezekiel’s vision can be noted. It is based on a spectacular account of Moses’ ascension on high to receive the Torah. According to a tradition preserved in Pesikta Rabbati 20 (Piska Matan Torah), we learn how Moses rose through the throne world of God like any mystical voyager depicted in the Merkavah tracts. Passing the guarding angels of destruction, Moses is told that even the angels that serve the throne do not know God’s place–for they say “Blessed is the Presence of the Lord, from His place” (Ezekiel 3:12); and he is also graced with a vision of the crowning of God, while the angels that serve the throne repeat the word “Holy” three times (Isaiah 6:3). At the apex of his ascent, all the cosmic vaults are opened to Moses, and he sees the majesty of God. But not only Moses!

The Lesson of Habakkuk

This article is excerpted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot. It is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

According to an old rabbinic tradition (Talmud, Megillah 31a), two alternative readings are recorded for Shavuot. "Habakkuk" is the haftarah [prophetic reading] to be read in conjunction with Deuteronomy 16:9ff. ("You shall count off seven weeks"), whereas "The Chariot" (Merkavah) account in Ezekiel 1 is to be recited with Exodus 19:1ff. ("On the third new moon"). The talmudic passage continues, "But now that there are two days [of the festival], we do both [sets of readings], but in reverse [sequence]." That is, Ezekiel 1 and its Torah portion are read on the first day of Shavuot, Habakkuk 3 and its portion on the second.

Commenting on the talmudic reference to the Habakkuk selection, Rashi [the medieval commentator] says, "For it speaks of the Giving of the Torah; ‘God comes from Teman’ [Habakkuk 3:3]–with the Giving of the Torah." In this explanation, Rashi follows the Targum and an old midrashic tradition (Sifre Deuteronomy 343).

But in his commentary to the biblical verse itself, Rashi goes further. He alludes to a tradition whereby God went to the other nations to see if they would accept the Torah, but they refused. Significantly, these homilies make their point through exegetical use of Habakkuk 3:6, "When He stands, He measures [moded] the earth; when He glances, He unlooses [va-yatter] nations." According to [midrash] Leviticus Rabbah 23:2, God took the measure of the mountains, but found only Sinai "worthy" for the revelation; and He took the measure of the earth, but found only the Land of Israel "worthy" for His people. He thereupon gave the Israelites a dispensation (hetter) with respect to the other nations and permitted (hittir) the nations a certain leniency in their ritual life. According to another version, God took the measure of the nations to see if they would accept the teachings of the Torah, but this "unloosed" the nations and caused them to "jump back" [yatter] in rejection ([Midrash] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Ba-Hodesh 5).

Habakkuk 3 thus proves central in ancient homilies attempting to explain or justify why Israel alone received God’s revelation. In one view, Israel was singled out because of its special worthiness; on the other, the revelation was offered to all nations, but the responsibilities demanded by it caused the other peoples to withdraw. An intermediate position has Israel cower in fear as well, but then God raises Sinai over their heads and threatens them with death if they do not accept the Torah (Talmud, Avodah Zarah 2b). For all its mythic concreteness and irony, this midrash penetrates an aspect of the rabbinical understanding of the mystery of Israel, for it teaches that Torah is Israel’s sacred destiny and the source of its national and spiritual life. This truth is reconfirmed on the festival of Shavuot, when the community of Israel stands before the spiritual reality of Sinai and "renews" it "in these years" (Habakkuk 3:2).

How The Shemini Atzeret Haftarah Was Chosen

This article is excerpted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot. It is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The recitation of 1 Kings 8:66 ("On the eighth day he let the people go") as the haftarah for Shemini Atzeret is mentioned in the Talmud (B. Megillah 31a). Rashi’s explanation ("because of the eighth day he let the people go") is tautological; it simply connects the festival day with the notice of an eighth day at the end of the Sukkot season. The Rabbis understood this "eighth day" to be the festival of Atzeret itself, when the people performed their rites in the Temple and departed for home.

Scripture says little about this holiday. According to Leviticus 23:36, "eighth day from onset of Sukkot is marked off as a "sacred occasion" (mikra’ kodesh)–thestandard expression for a festival day in this calendar; but it is also called an atzeret (or "solemn gathering"), without further explication.

The list of festival sacrifices in Numbers 28-29 likewise uses the term mikra’ kodesh to designate holidays, but it does not do so for the eighth day of the Sukkot season, which is only called an atzeret (Numbers 29:35). Significantly, the cycle of sacrifices prescribed for the Sukkot week is drastically curtailed on that day. This fact, along with the references to the time as a mikra’ kodesh and atzeret, gave the impression that the "eighth day" was an independent holiday–the very last of the three pilgrimage festivals beginningin Nisan(with Passover).

The Sages thus said: "The last holiday [yom tov]of the Festival [Sukkot] has its own [priestly selection by] lottery; its own [benediction for the sacred] Occasion [zeman]; its own [distinction as a] Pilgrimage Day [regel]; its own [distinct] Sacrifice; its own Psalm; [and] its own Blessing–as Scripture says, "On the eighth day he let the people go, and they blessed the king [1 Kings 8:66]" (Tosefta Sukkot 4-:17). In further elaborating the ritual and theological significance of the day, rabbinic homilies paid special attention to features found in Numbers 29:36 and I Kings 8:66.

In their attention to detail, the Rabbis noted that according to Numbers 29:36 only one ram was offered on Shemini Atzeret–whereas 70 rams were offered during the prior festival week. This fact, along with the designation of the atzeret as being "for you" (a locution not used on the other days), stands behind a midrash wherein "God said to Israel, ‘On all seven days of the festival of Sukkot, you were busy with sacrifices for the 70 nations of the world; whereas now, [just] you and I shall rejoice together, and I shall not burden you overmuch, just one bull and one ram: When Israel heard this, they broke into praise of God and said, ‘This is the day that the LORD has made [special], let us exult and rejoice [ve-nismechah] on it!’ (Psalm 118:24)" (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Shemini Atzeret 9). This point was celebrated by synagogue poets, as well. For this reason, Shemini Atzeret came to mark an occasion of special intimacy between God and Israel.

The conclusion of the haftarah notes that the people departed from the Temple "joyful [semechim] and glad of heart" (I Kings 8:66). This theme was repeated in hymn and homily. For example, the ancient poet Yannai exulted: shillum simchah hi’ kol simchah; ve-tosefet simchah sason ve-simchah. By this he meant that the "completion" (shillum) of the Festival of Joy (Sukkot) is the "sum" (kol) of all joy (simchah); whereas the "supplementary" (tosefet) joy of Shemini Atzeret adds "gladness" (sason) to this "joy" (simchah).

But Yannai also implies here that the "reward" (shillum) for joy on Sukkot is the "added measure" (tosefet) of joy experienced on Shemini Atzeret. According to one ancient sermon, the people received an "extra" token of heavenly grace on this day; another states that the Day of Atzeret gave the people further occasion to request rain in the coming season. One midrash even proves that God hinted at this possibility in Scripture itself.

How Zechariah Relates to Sukkot

This aricle is excerpted  from The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot. It is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

Recitation of Zechariah [chapter]14 on the first day of Sukkot is ordained in [the Talmud,] Megillah 31a, though the reading may originally have extended only through verse 19 (as attested by the Machzor Romania which preserves old customs of Eretz Yisra’el [the land of Israel]). Present custom is to conclude the haftarah with verse 21 (mentioning the sacred vessels and the end of foreign traffickers in the Temple).

Rashi comments that this reading was selected because "it is written in it ‘to celebrate the festival of Sukkot’" (verses 18-19)–Israelites and all the nations alike. The prophet thus envisages a universal pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It is a practical consequence of his prophecy of a universal monotheism. "And the LORD shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one LORD with one name" (verse 9).

The haftarah shows an old connection between the festival of Sukkot and rituals for rain. The pronouncement "Any of the earth’s communities that does not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to bow low to the King LORD of Hosts shall receive no rain" (verse 17) is categorical–excluding only Egypt (a land not dependent upon rainfall), though promising it an appropriate scourge. Rain rituals associated with water libations and the four species taken on Sukkot (Leviticus 23:40) are mentioned separately in such early rabbinic sources as Tosefta Sukkot 3:18 and Talmud, Ta’anit 2b, respectively. Rashi combined them in his comment on Zech. 14:17.

Some of these rituals may derive from early biblical times, but it was only in the course of the Second Temple that they seem to have been integrated into a multilevel service of celebration and supplication. Hopes were intense, for until the rains came, the community’s livelihood and sustenance were held in the balance. "On the festival [of Sukkot the people] are judged in regard to water" (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:2). The anxiety of this time is poignantly expressed in a practice whereby the people hoped to divine in the last traces of the festival ritual some sign of their physical fate. In a tradition reported by R. Isaac b. Abdimi: