February 27, 2013
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The meaning behind Hebrew words

Torah, haftarahs, and fedoras

for The Brooklyn Paper

Dear Cantor Matt,

What exactly is the haftorah? Is it half the Torah?

—Completely confused

Dear Confused,

I hope not, since half the Torah would be a lot to ask some poor kid to chant at his bar mitzvah.

In order to clear up this particular mystery, we have to take a closer look at the Bible and some Hebrew words.

You may think that the word “Torah” is just the Hebrew way of saying Bible. In fact, the Torah is just one small part of the whole Bible.

The Hebrew Bible (also known as The Old Testament, mostly by non-Jewish people) is made up of three distinct sections. In Hebrew, they are: Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). If you take the first three Hebrew letters from each of those sections, you get something that sounds like T N K. Put those sounds together and you get the Hebrew acronym Tanakh, which is the Hebrew word for Bible.

Now, notice that the “Torah” is just the first section, which is made up of the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

These are the books that most people are familiar with and I bet that every story and character you can think of comes pretty much from these five books. Adam and Eve, Abraham, Noah and the flood, Joseph and his brothers, Moses, Pharaoh, the crossing of the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments — they all take place within the Torah.

But there’s a ton of stuff that happened afterwards as well, and that’s when the prophets came into play. The prophets have books written about them as well — many of them have funny names like Zachariah and Habakkuk (how would you like to go through school with names like those?).

A couple thousand years ago, the rabbis decided to match up an excerpt from one of the books in the Prophets section with each week’s regular Torah portion. They figured that since they were already reading material from the Torah during services, they might as well add a regular reading from some of the other, lesser-known parts of the Bible as well — it would be a great way to teach the complete Tanakh. The part we read from the Prophet portion is called a “haftarah.”

Think of a haftarah as a fine wine which pairs perfectly with a meal (or the Torah portion).

And would you believe there’s absolutely no connection between the Hebrew words “Torah” and “haftorah”? They both come from completely separate roots and mean different things. It’s just a fluke that the words sound so similar and the two things are bound together in the service —which coincidentally enough — is kind of like trying to figure out what the rabbis had in mind when they matched up a Torah portion to a haftarah. It might be a mention of a character or holiday, or possibly a shared theme. One of the bar or bat mitzvah kid’s challenges is to try to work that connection into a d’var Torah or speech — and sometimes solving that mystery can be even more challenging than literally singing half the Torah.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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