Torah and the haftorah

The role of the scroll

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Dear Cantor Matt,

We know that our son will be doing his Torah reading right from the Torah scroll. Is there a haftorah scroll too?

—Just Out for a Scroll

Dear Scroll,

This would be a great time to learn all the different parts of what goes into the Hebrew Bible and where each one fits in for your son’s bar mitzvah.

The most familiar term, “Torah,” is often translated as Bible or sometimes “The Old Testament.” In fact, the Torah is only one small part of the entire Bible. A better Hebrew translation for Bible would be the rather strange sounding word “Tanakh.”

The Hebrew Bible is divided up into three different sections:

Torah (sometimes called the Five Books of Moses)

Nevi’im (Prophets)

Ketuvim (Writings)

If you read down the first letters of each word, in bold print, you get a word that sounds like Tanakh, which in fact is the acronym for these three sections. Together, the Torah, Prophets, and Writings make up the entire Hebrew Bible.

I would guess that you, your son, and probably all the people you know are most familiar with the first and shortest section, the Torah. Pretty much all of the well-known stories and characters take place within these five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Any character that you’re liable to name — Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses — are found right here.

When you go to temple and open the ark, you will see a number of Torah scrolls inside. Each scroll consists of these five books, or the Torah, and the text is written on parchment, using a fancy calligraphy and having no vowels or other punctuation markings. Therefore, a person who reads the Torah must have that reading and its melody completely learned and memorized. (That’s an important heads-up in case you were planning on asking anyone else to read Torah at the bar mitzvah.)

Now what about the rest of the Bible? How do you read the haftorah?

Each week, there is an additional reading from somewhere in the Prophets section that accompanies the Torah reading. The prophets (guys with funny sounding names like Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Nehemiah) were people who lived after the Torah was written, communicated with God directly, and then passed along God’s instructions to the people.

A long time ago, rabbis linked one story or excerpt from the Prophets to each week’s Torah reading. They figured this would be a great way to make these lesser-known stories more familiar and have the Jews study parts of the Bible outside of the Torah while they were already sitting in synagogue. They probably didn’t realize they would be sentencing later generations of hapless b’nei mitzvah kids to months of practicing.

The good news is that there’s no corresponding scroll for the Prophets. Each haftorah, the weekly excerpt from the Prophets, is written down in a plain, old regular book, complete with vowels, markings, and punctuation.

Your son will be able to chant directly from whatever copy he gets from his cantor.

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, May 14, 2014
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