Haftarah for Shabbat Rosh Chodesh

The New Moon is a symbol of the feminine, and a time when all creatures will come together to praise God.

The haftarah selection is from Isaiah 66:1-24.

When Shabbat coincides with the beginning of a new Hebrew month (Rosh Chodesh) we read a special maftir about Rosh Chodesh sacrifices at the end of the Torah reading, and chant a special haftarah taken from the book of Isaiah.

This haftarah touches on several themes, from the typical–God as creator of the world, God’s omnipresent majesty–to the more extraordinary, including an extended prophecy in which God is represented as a midwife helping Zion to give birth to her son. There are also themes of universal worship, in which all people of the world will recognize God’s glory, and Jews around the world will be brought to Jerusalem to become Levites and priests.

The haftarah begins with a reference to building a new temple:“Where could you build a house for Me?” 66:1). This establishes the prophecy as taking place after the exiles from Judea had been granted the right to return from Babylon to their homeland in 538 BCE. God proclaims His universal majesty, so great that it cannot be contained in any building. The people are then reminded that God is not impressed with improper sacrifices and will not grant atonement to those who bring offerings and quickly return to their abominable deeds.

God as Midwife

The middle of the haftarah contains a section in which Isaiah imagines Zion as a pregnant woman and God as the midwife who delivers the son of Zion. The delivery is miraculous because it comes without any pain at all. The Jewish people and the city of Jerusalem are literally reborn and redeemed, and Isaiah tells the people to, “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, All you who love her!” (66:10) When Zion suckles her child, milk of consolation comes from her breast. This sustenance will strengthen the people and instill in them a deep faith in God. The feminine imagery in this section in striking, evoking a sense of divine maternity that is unusual for the Bible, in contrast to its more typical metaphors of God as a father.

A Universal Ingathering of Nations

Isaiah then describes a day when all of the nations of the world will be given a sign and will come together to recognize God’s glory. The Jews that are spread out across different lands will be brought back to Jerusalem, “on horses, in chariots and drays, on mules and dromedaries,” as a pure offering to God (66:20). Some of these emissaries will be chosen to be Levites and priests.

Finally, Isaiah prophesizes that these universal changes will be permanent: “And new moon after new moon, and Sabbath after Sabbath, All flesh shall come to worship Me” (66:23). Connection to the Calendar There are two thematic threads connecting this haftarah to Rosh Hodesh. The prominent feminine imagery supports a well-known tradition linking women with the new moon. This tradition likely stems from the fact that women’s bodies operate on a monthly cycle that parallels the monthly lunar cycle. It can also be traced to a midrash that explains that God designated Rosh Chodesh for the women of Israel because they did not contribute their jewelry in the making of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:3, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 45).

Additionally, the new moon is referenced explicitly in the section that discusses God’s enduring legacy of universal grandeur. This emphasizes that, unlike most of the Jewish holidays that only concern Jews, the new moon will be a holiday shared with the peoples of the world. Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh are both celebrations based on universally shared experiences–the moon hangs in the sky over all of us, and we all can mark the passage from one week to the next. As such Isaiah predicts that everyone will join together and use these times to praise the God that created the heavens and earth.

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