A bar mitzvah’s haftorah and maftir

Translating Torah talk

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Dear Cantor Matt,

The cantor at our temple told us that our daughter would sing something called “maftir.” Isn’t she going to be doing the “haftorah?” Why is she singing both? And is the haftorah the same as the Torah reading? And is it half the Torah? I’m sorry. I’m just really confused with the Torah lingo.

—Does Not Compute

Dear Compute,

I have to agree with you on this one. It’s almost like we’re going out of our way trying to confuse everyone with those terms. However, after you finish this article, you will be able to throw those words around like a pro.

Let’s pretend we’re watching Sesame Street and it’s time to play “One of these things is not like the other…”

Here are your choices:

A. Torah

B. Haftorah

C.Maftir

Go ahead, guess which one doesn’t belong. No cheating by looking ahead.

I hereby predict that you got the answer wrong.

The answer is … A! (If you’re the one in a million who chose correctly, send me an email. I want to hear from you.)

How is that possible when the words Torah and haftorah are practically identical? In fact, it’s nothing but a strange coincidence that those two English spellings look so much alike. In Hebrew, the words Torah and haftorah have nothing to do with each other!

To get our answer, we have to look at the roots of the words. The words haftorah and maftir both derive from the same Hebrew root, which means “complete” or “finish,” because, as we will see, these two parts in the service take place when the Torah reading is finished. The word Torah, on the other hand, derives from the Hebrew root for “teaching.”

The Torah reading is divided into seven chunks every Shabbat morning. A different person is called up for an aliyah to make the blessing for each of these little pieces of reading. (And at your daughter’s bat mitzvah, you will likely get to hand out these honors to some relatives and friends.) When all seven are finished, it’s not time to wrap up the Torah and go home quite yet. Instead, we call up one more person for an extra honor. We go back to where we just left off in the Torah and read all or part of the seventh chunk again.

This is called the “maftir aliyah,” and the person who receives this honor is called “maftir.” But wait, we’re not done yet! The maftir person then sticks around and chants the haftorah.

In some synagogues, the person in charge of handing out the honors during a regular service might approach a congregant or important guest and ask, “Would you like to do maftir today?” Translated, that means, “Would you like to be called up for the maftir aliyah and then chant today’s haftorah?”

Since it’s likely that your daughter will be chanting the haftorah at her bat mitzvah, which means that she will be the maftir. So your cantor is telling you that she will first be chanting the maftir reading from the Torah, and then going on to sing the haftorah, which is an excerpt from the Prophets section of the Bible. Each week’s haftorah has a connection to the Torah portion, usually by striking a similar theme or subject.

One way to make things just a little simpler is to get in the habit of using the Hebrew pronunciation: haftaRAH (with the stress on the last syllable). That helps take away some of the confusion so it doesn’t sound so much like the word “Torah.”

See, now wasn’t that simple?

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.

Posted 12:00 am, April 30, 2014
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Reader feedback

Evelyn from Santa monica says:
Thanks for this explanation. We are Sephardi and I was trying to explain mashlim Maftir and haftarah to my granddaughter. Your explanation made it real simple.
Best
Sept. 14, 2016, 8:39 pm
Charles Berger from Santa Cruz, CA. says:
I answered "A" and my Hebrew School teacher of 60 years ago would have been proud!

My grandson will Bar Mitvah on October 7 of this year - do you know where I can obtain a recording of the haftorah he will sing?

Thank you.
April 24, 9:03 pm

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