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eBook JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot
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Publisher:  Varda Books
Original Publisher:  The Jewish Publication Society
Published:  2004
Language:  English
Pages:   505

Prepared to work interactively with JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh (Scholar PDF edition), which can be purchased separately.

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ISBN: 1-59045-737-4

About the Book -- JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot

A National Jewish Book Award Finalist

The haftarot are an ancient part of Hebrew liturgy. These supplemental readings are excerpted from the Prophets (Nevi'im) and accompany each weekly Sabbath reading from the Torah as well as readings for special Sabbaths and festivals.

Noted Bible scholar Michael Fishbane introduces each haftarah with an outline and discussion of how that passage conveys its meaning, and he follows it with observations on how it relates to the Torah portion or special occasion. Individual comments--citing classical rabbinic as well as modern commentators--highlight ambiguities and difficulties in the Hebrew text, which appears in concert with the JPS translation. The haftarot are also put into biblical context by a separate overview of all prophetic books (except Jonah) that are excerpted in the haftarah cycle.

This commentary, which breaks a new ground in modern Jewish biblical scholarship, is intended for scholars, rabbis, and Jewish lay people seeking a demanding intellectual experience. In addition to detailed commentaries on specific passages, the book is noteworthy for its attention not only to Talmudic and standard midrashic texts but also to other medieval works that illuminate the process leading to particular biblical texts selected as haftarot, and the reasons for their selection. 
The book also includes fine overviews of those prophetic books from which haftarot are drawn and contains a wealth of material for biblical scholars.

About the Book



An Excerpt from the Book -- JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot

Haftarah for Lekh Lekha


For a discussion of the prophecies and traditions in Isaiah 40–66 and a consideration of their historical setting and theological concerns, see “The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40–66” in “Overview of Biblical Books Excerpted in the Haftarot Cycle.” See also the remarks on the several haftarah readings taken from this collection (listed in “Index of Biblical Passages”).

This haftarah is an appeal to the nation, seed of Abraham, to “trust in the LORD” and return from exile to their homeland. The exhortations were delivered in Babylon, sometime in themid-sixth century B.C.E. God’s power and providential guidance are emphasized in order to assuage the nation’s fear that their “way” is hidden from God. Through their faithful response, the people would thus renew a redemptive journey undertaken by their ancestor Abraham a millenium earlier.
Isaiah 40:27–41:16 is composed of several passages of confidence and support. Read as a sequence, there is an incremental progression from a divine word encouraging the renewal of trust to bold promises of triumph against oppressors.

The divine word seeks to counter the people’s sense of despair and abandonment. The nation is asked why they say, “My way is hid from the LORD.” This rhetorical question is answered with a bold assertion that the LORD is the creator “from of old”—great in wisdom, who “never grows faint [lo’ yi‘af] or weary.” Thus even youths who “may grow faint [ve-yi‘afu] and weary” may be renewed through “trust in the LORD”—and “not grow faint [ve-lo’ yi‘afu].”

a. Isaiah 41:1–4 This speech is addressed to all the nations, who are challenged to state their case against God’s superior dominion. For indeed, He has “delivered up nations” to a “victor from the East,” the one he has “summoned . . . to His service [le-raglo]” proceeds “unscathed; no shackle is placed on his feet [be-raglav].” The last verse recoups the theme of God’s universal power “He who . . . was first and will be with the last.”
b. Isaiah 41:5–7 The nations respond with fear at the advent of God’s victor and take courage through recourse to idols of their own making.

PART 3. GOD’S GUARANTEE (Isaiah 41:8–16)
a. Isaiah 41:8–13 The fear of the nations is countered by an oracle of confidence to Israel. God promises the “Seed of Abraham My friend” His help and support against its enemies. This promise of doom to Israel’s foes (v. 11–12) is encased in God’s repeated word of protection (“Fear not” [v. 10]; “Have no fear” [v. 13]).
b. Isaiah 41:14–16 A second oracle of confidence repeats the exhortation not to fear and the promise of divine aid. Israel’s victory over her enemies is pictured in images of threshing and winnowing. The haftarah concludes with the promise of joyful celebration “in the LORD.”

Utilizing distinct styles and concerned with diverse themes, the oracles of the haftarah were presumably uttered at different times. They were anthologized together on the basis of external verbal links. For example, the language of God’s proclamation to Israel in part 1, calling upon them to “renew their strength” (yahalifu koah) through trust in the Lord (Isa. 40:31), is repeated more ironically in part 2, where this call for renewal is part of a challenge to the nations (41:1).1 Similarly, parts 2 and 3 are linked by references to God’s “summons” or “call” (kara’) (41:2, 4, 9); by diverse uses of the verbs “strengthen” (hazak) (41:6, 9, 13) and “help” (‘azar) (41:6, 10, 13, 14); and by repetitions of the noun “victory” (tzedek) (41:2, 10). These two parts are also characterized by the repeated self-reference of God as “I” (41:4, 10, 13–14).

Read as part of a larger whole, these verbal connections take on thematic substance. Thus, the repetition of the term for “summons” brings into association the themes of God as creator and redeemer—who “announces” the generations from the beginning (Isa. 41:4), “summons” His victor from the East (v. 2), and “calls” Israel from the ends of the earth (v. 9). Similarly, the recurrence of the verb “strengthen” ironically contrasts the folly of the idolators (41:7) and God’s support and restoration of Israel (v. 9, 13). And finally, the repetition of the phrase ketzot ha-’aretz in parts 1–3, alternatively describes God as creator “of the earth from end to end” (40:28); the foreign nations themselves (“ends of earth”), who behold God’s victor in fear and trembling (41:5); and God’s act of liberation of Israel from “the ends of the earth,” to be His servant (41:9). In the repetition of this phrase all the themes of the haftarah are encapsulated—God as creator, victor over the nations, and redeemer of Israel.

A deeper psychological sequence can also be discerned among the parts. Beginning with Israel’s statement of despair and the prophetic encouragement that God will renew the nation’s strength, the speeches go on to announce how God uses history for His own ends. Starting from the depths of impotence, hope is emboldened by the promise that God will unilaterally initiate a triumph over the nations. From there the stress is put on divine support for Israel in the triumph over her enemies and her restoration to the homeland. The final vision returns to the imagery of destruction and envisions Israel as a threshing board that will winnow the mountains: “the wind shall carry them off; the whirlwind shall scatter them” (Isa. 41:16).

The haftarah moves progressively from the realism of despair to a near surreal vision of victory. In the process, Israel’s speech moves from lament to exhilaration. Israel’s opening words, “My way is hid from the LORD” (Isa. 40:27), and the final divine promise, “but you shall rejoice in the LORD” (41:16), mark these two poles. In between is formulated the proof: God will arouse a victor (Cyrus the Mede, according to Ibn Ezra) who will destroy the nations and thereby help prepare the fulfillment of the divine promises. The initial cry of disbelief is countered with reasons for trust, offering encouragement to the weary and forlorn among the exiles and promising that God will help them and bring their enemies to ruin.

In an attempt to motivate the people, the prophet alludes to earlier moments of divine support. In the opening oracle, the sense of being forgotten in exile is countered by the promise that the faithful will renew their strength and soar homeward like eagles (Isa. 40:31). This promise echoes the people’s redemption from Egypt, when God first “bore you [the Israelites] on eagles’ wings” (Exod. 19:4). “Like an eagle . . . did He spread His wings and take [Israel], bear him along on His pinions” (Deut. 32:11). An even earlier event of divine guidance is alluded to in the reference to the nation as the “Seed of Abraham My friend” (Isa. 41:8). As this patriarch faithfully followed God and was promised the blessing of the land for his “seed” (Gen. 15:5), so may Israel, “the Seed of Abraham” confidently anticipate its own restoration to the homeland. The special status of the na-tion is also underscored by its designation as God’s “servant” whom He has “chosen” (41:8–9).

Isaiah 40:27. “My way is hid from the LORD” This is a quote from a communal lament, bemoaning the lack of divine knowledge. Hence the prophet counters that God’s “wisdom cannot be fathomed” (v. 28). This allegation of hiddenness is different from the theological motif that God deliberately hides His face from His creatures as an expression of anger or rejection (cf. Deut. 31:18; PS. 44:25). Rashi’s view—that God has hidden from His eyes how Israel has served Him—blunts the force of the lament.

28. Do you not know? The questions introduce a glorification of God as creator, and a subsequent section mocks idol making (Isa. 41:6–7). Note the similar cluster of elements in 40:18–25 (anti-idolatry; the question “Do you not know?”; God the creator). This is part of a pattern of rhetorical elements characteristic of the prophet.

31. new plumes Alluding to a popular belief that eagles regain their youth when they molt; compare Ps. 103:5: “your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” [Transl.].
Isaiah 41:2. Who has roused a victor from the East The syntax is difficult. The cantillation notes divide the phrase so that the first words (mi he-‘ir mi-mizrah) imply the arousal by God (“Who”) of a champion (“from the East”), and the word tzedek refers to his deeds (i. e., “victory”). Rashi follows this reading. Another interpretation construes the phrase to indicate God’s arousal of a “victor” from the East who is “summoned” to divine service. The Targum follows this approach, interpreting tzedek (victor) as an epithet of the “righteous one” (tzaddik) aroused from the East. An ancient midrashic tradition identified this individual as Abraham. The Targum, Kimhi, and Abravanel continue this tradition. Ibn Ezra understood the passage to refer to Cyrus the Mede (conqueror of Babylon), who is mentioned explicitly in Isa. 45:1. He who announced the generations The prophet stresses God’s knowledge of all events “from the start” (me-rosh). This is a common motif. Compare Isa. 41:25–26, where again God speaks of rousing a victor to battle and asks, “Who foretold this from the start [me-rosh]?”6 Control of history and foreknowledge of events are crucial elements in Isaiah’s theology. Israel’s history is living testimony to God’s prophetic power (43:9–10).

An Excerpt from the Book


". . . without a doubt, the finest commentary on the Haftarot I have studied."

-- David L. Lieber, President Emeritus University of Judaism,
Skovron Distinguished Service Professor of Biblical Literature and Thought, Senior Editor of
Etz Hayim

"While I have often studied and chanted the texts Fishbane discusses, I must confess that before reading this commentary I missed crucial points about some of them, and I muddled together various readings without quite realizing how different they were....

Indeed, I venture to propose that this commentary is one of the few genuine works of canon criticism that any modern biblical scholar has ever written. Members of our guild will profit from it greatly."

Benjamin D. Sommer, Director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies, Northwestern University


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