Monday, December 19, 2005

Vayishlah (Haftarah)

The Vision of Obadiah

This week’s haftarah is the only one read during the regular annual cycle consisting of an entire book—albeit that term seems a bit grandiose for a document of 21 verses, perhaps 200 words in all. (The Book of Jonah is read at Minhah of Yom Kippur, but that is in any event an extraordinary day.) The Book of Obadiah is also unusual is that its subject is not one of prophecy directed toward Israel, but rather a harsh indictment of one specific non-Jewish nation: Edom. Groupings of prophecies or “oracles” to the other nations do in fact exist in the major literary prophets (Isaiah 13-24; Jeremiah 46-51; Ezekiel 25-39 with some gaps), but this is the only book that is focused entirely on one nation. This is, of course the obvious connection to the Torah portion, the first half of which is devoted to the ambiguous denouement of the drama played out between Jacob and Esau, the progenitor of the Edomite nation.

The haftarah, then, is essentially a playing out on the national level of this same fraternal conflict. Nowhere is the doctrine of Hazal, “the acts of the fathers are a sign for the sons,” more clearly manifested than in the case of Esau/Edom. Biblical Edom, as shown in this book, was known as a particular enemy of Israel. It would be instructive to examine the historical details of this point. During the Second Temple period, we encounter Edom, now called Idumeans and living in Har Hanegev in the southern part of Eretz Yisrael, as the main foreign nation against whom the tiny nascent Jewish commonwealth experienced constant friction. Finally, this title is symbolically applied to Rome (in the midrashic schema of the four kingdoms), and by extension to its cultural heir, the Christian Church.

The haftarah begins with a prophecy foretelling the downfall of Edom. Alluding to its location in the high steppes of Transjordan, Edom is told that he should not derive a fall sense of security from his dwelling in the high mountain places: “though you soar aloft like the eagle, though you make your nest among the stars, from thence will I bring you down, says the Lord.” (In an interesting secularization, this verse was taken as a kind of motto by Israel Air Force’s anti-aircraft forces, and at one time adorned the dining hall of the forces’ Training School.) The haftarah continues to portray Edom standing by, gloating and deriving malicious pleasure from the destruction of Jerusalem, behavior that is perhaps even worse than active aggression. But in the end, says the prophet, they too will get their come-uppance, and “redeemers will go up Mount Zion to judge the Mount Seir, and dominion will be the Lord’s.”

A Note on Minhag: Examining several different Humashim, I observed, not only the existence of several different customs regarding the haftarot for Vayetze and Vayishlah, but that there is even some confusion as to what is considered “Ashkenazic” and what “Sephardic.” Several editions of the Pentateuch mention Hosea 11:7-12: 12 (ve-ami teluyim lemeshuvati)—the passage immediately preceding the haftarah for Vayetze discussed last week, which refers to Jacob’s struggle with the angel—as an alternative reading. Some give it as the haftarah for Vayishlah read by the Sephardim (thus Mikra’ot Gedolot, photo edition of Warsaw 1860); or for Vayetze (thus Koren); while still others list it as the Sephardic haftarah for Vayetze, which is then read by the Ashkenazim on Vayishlah, with only the Sephardim reading Obadiah (thus the Hirsch Humash; Steinsaltz’s Ha-Siddur veha-Tefillah mentions a slight variant, in which Ovadiah is the dominant minhag for Vayishlah in both communities, with “a few Ashkenazic kehillot” reading Hosea 11:7ff. instead). Interestingly, Gunther Plaut’s The Torah: A Modern Commentary, intended for American Reform use, and which gives only Ashkenazic haftarot, prints the two haftarot from Hosea for these two weeks, without bringing Obadiah at all.

Without researching this subject in any detail, I suspect that the source of this confusion, and the adaptation of originally Sephardic customs by at least some Ashkenazim, derives from the incursion of Sephardim expelled from Spain in 1492 into various European Ashkenazic communities. My educated guess is that Frankfort am Main, which is often listed in old-fashioned Humashim as having different minhagim, was the locus of this change—but, as I said, the subject requires deeper study. All this, without going into the knotty problem of whether “Nusah Sefarad,” i.e., Hasidic-oriented synagogues, do or should follow Sephardic or Ashkenazic practice with regard to haftarot, nor how these changes penetrated eastward into Poland and Russia.


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