An Unusual Haftarah – That of Parshas Mishpatim
Question #1: A Rare Occurrence
Why is the haftarah for parshas Mishpatim read at such irregular intervals?
Question #2: Haftarah in Reverse
Why do we read the verses of this haftarah in a different order from how they appear in Tanach?
Question #3: Are We Ignoring Chazal?
How are we permitted to read this haftarah out of order, when Chazal prohibited this practice?
The section from sefer Yirmiyahu (34:8-22) beginning with the words Hadavar asher hayah leYirmiyahu discusses the laws of eved ivri, a Jewish slave. For this reason, it is an extremely appropriate haftarah for parshas Mishpatim. At the same time, as the questions above note, there are three unusual and curious aspects of this haftarah, which I will now explain.
The first question posed above is that, notwithstanding the appropriateness of Hadavar for parshas Mishpatim, in most years we read different haftaros this Shabbos. Furthermore, Hadavar is read in a fairly sporadic pattern. For example, we read it this year, and, under our current fixed calendar system, we will read it again in three years, in 5779 (2019), in 5782 (2022) and in 5785 (2025). This seems like a fairly regular schedule of every three years. However, this is followed by an interlude of ten years before we read it again — not until 5795 (2035). Why is the reading of Hadavar so erratic, when Mishpatim is read very predictably every year, the Shabbos after Yisro and before Terumah?
Driving in reverse
The second question raised above concerns the unusual structure of the haftarah. It consists of reading fifteen pesukim that begin with the words Hadavar from the book of Yirmiyahu (34:8-22) and then closes by reading two pesukim that are nine verses earlier in the sefer (Yirmiyahu 33:25-26). This is the only time that we close a haftarah by reading an earlier passage. Why do we read the passages in an order different from the order in which they appear in sefer Yirmiyahu?
Are we ignoring the Gemara?
The third question is a continuation of the previous one, although it necessitates an introduction. Chazal instituted several rules about reading the haftaros, one of which is called ein medalgim lemafrei’a, which prohibits going back to read an earlier section after we have read a later part. Thus, after reading Chapter 34 of Yirmiyahu, how are we permitted to return to Chapter 33?
Why so sporadic?
Having presented the three issues, allow me to answer these questions in the order in which they were asked. The first question was that the scheduling of this haftarah is both infrequent and sporadic. In most years, we read a different haftarah for Shabbos Mishpatim, and, occasionally, there is a gap of many years between one reading of Hadavar and the next. The reason for this is not as complicated is it sounds. Parshas Mishpatim almost always falls on the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh Adar. In non-leap years, on that Shabbos we read parshas Shekalim for maftir and, therefore, we read the special haftarah for Shabbos Shekalim which is in sefer Melachim. As a result, almost the only time we read Hadavar is in a leap year, when Shekalim is read on or immediately before Rosh Chodesh of the second Adar – since it is the month immediately preceding Nissan – and Mishpatim falls before the first Adar. (There is a very occasional common year, such as 5785, when parshas Terumah falls on Rosh Chodesh Adar and is therefore the Shabbos on which we read Shekalim. In those years, we indeed read Hadavar on Mishpatim in a common year.)
Even in a leap year, when Shekalim never coincides with Mishpatim, there are years when Shabbos Mishpatim falls either on Rosh Chodesh or on Erev Rosh Chodesh. In these instances, we read the special haftaros for Rosh Chodesh or for Erev Rosh Chodesh. As a result, at times, many years go by until we again read Hadavar.
Haftarah in reverse
The second question concerned the unusual structure of the haftarah, in which we close by reading two pesukim that are a bit earlier in the sefer. Why do we read the haftarah in an order different from how it appears in sefer Yirmiyahu?
Happily ever after
The answer to this question requires our examining an accepted custom – not to end an aliyah, a haftarah or a megillah at a negative point. This concept is already mentioned by Rashi in his last comment on Eicha, where he notes that four seforim of Tanach – Eicha, Yeshayahu, Trei Asar and Koheles – end on a negative tone, so we repeat the next to last pasuk afterwards to end on something positive. (The source for this idea is in Talmud Yerushalmi, Brachos, 5:1.)
In accordance with this approach, where the natural end of a haftarah closes on something negative, we often skip ahead a bit to find a more pleasant place to end the haftarah. The unusual aspect of Hadavar is that we do not skip ahead, but backwards, to find a pleasant ending. The reason we do this is because the next several chapters of Yirmiyahu do not include any pesukim that would be considered an appropriate ending for the haftarah. From a reader’s perspective, the most appropriate, pleasant place to stop is a few pesukim before Hadavar, which is why the custom developed of adding these two pesukim at the end.
Shuva versus Vayeitzei
An interesting related question: The haftarah for Shabbos Shuva begins towards the end of Hoshea, one of the twelve prophets whose writings comprise Trei Asar, with the words Shuva Yisroel. The final words of Hoshea are that Hashem’s ways are straight, yet sinners will stumble over them, u’poshe’im yikashlu bam. On Shabbos Shuva, we consider this to be a negative way to end the haftarah, and therefore we continue by reading elsewhere in Trei Asar in order to close with a pleasant ending. (There are many different customs how to accomplish this; I am aware of at least five.) However, the haftarah that most Ashkenazim read every year for Vayeitzei, which begins earlier in Hoshea, ends at the end of Hoshea with the words uposhe’im yikashlu bam. Why are these words considered positive enough to be an appropriate ending when we read this haftarah on Vayeitzei, but an inappropriate place to close on Shabbos Shuva? (It should be noted that the Mishnah Berurah [428:22] and many calendars published in Eretz Yisrael include reciting additional verses when this haftarah is read on Vayeitzei, in order to end more positively. However, most chumashim do not include these additional verses, and it is not the common practice in chutz la’aretz.)
I would like to suggest the following: The stumbling of the evil is not inherently a bad thing, and, for this reason, this is considered an appropriate place to end the haftarah on Vayeitzei. Nevertheless, on Shabbos Shuva, ending with u’poshe’im yikashlu bam, the sinners will stumble, is inappropriate, because the first Shabbos of the year should have a more encouraging conclusion. Alternatively, mention the sinning of the evil is an inappropriate closing during the aseres yemei teshuvah, when our entire theme is that everyone will do teshuvah.
It should be noted that there are aliyos and readings that, indeed, do end in negative places, the most obvious example being the end of parshas Kedoshim, whose closing discusses a case of capital punishment. Why are we inconsistent – ending some aliyos in negative places, yet in others skipping or repeating verses to avoid this?
It seems that ending in a negative place is, in general, not forbidden but, rather, a custom that developed to try to find a pleasant ending, wherever this does not distort the reading. However, if finding a pleasant place to end an aliyah will complicate matters, we stop at a convenient place, even though it is negative. Alternatively, the division of the parshiyos predates the custom that we not end an aliyah at a negative point, and these divisions were left in place, even after the custom developed.
We can prove that ending an aliyah in a negative place is a custom that developed, but is not halachically required, from the Gemara and early halachic authorities, in their discussion concerning the public reading of the tochachah. In two different places, parshas Bechukosai at the end of sefer Vayikra and parshas Ki Savo in Devorim, the Torah describes in great detail the calamities that befall Klal Yisroel, should we fail to observe the Torah properly. This part of the Torah is customarily called the tochachah, literally, the admonition, although the Mishnah (Megillah 31a) calls it the curses. Chazal (Megillah 31b) discuss whether one may divide the tochachah into different aliyos. The Gemara concludes that the tochachah in Bechukosai, which is the harsher of the two, may not be divided into aliyos, whereas the tochachah of Ki Savo may be divided. Thus, we see that, other than the tochachah of Bechukosai, one may conclude an aliyah at an unpleasant point.
The Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah 13:7) and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 428:6) already note that, although it is permitted to end aliyos in the middle of the tochachah of Ki Savo, the custom developed to avoid doing this. This custom was extended to include any place where an aliyah would end in an unpleasant place. However, where accommodating this practice would result in an unusual division of the parshiyos, such as at the end of parshas Kedoshim, we do end the parshah at its natural division, notwithstanding its being a negative place.
Are we ignoring Chazal?
At this point, we will discuss the third question I raised above. How are we permitted to read this haftarah out of order, when Chazal prohibited this practice? Let me explain the question.
Chazal established several rules regarding the reading of the haftarah. One beraisa provides the following directives:
One may not skip from one book of the prophets to another. However, one may skip from the reading of one prophet to another prophet within Trei Asar, provided that one does not skip from the end of the book to its beginning (Megillah 24a). I will refer to this last rule as the prohibition of ein medalgin lemafrei’a, literally, “not to skip backwards.”
Switching prophets midstream
The Gemara is ruling that although one may skip ahead within the same book of the prophets, one may not skip from the writings of one navi to another, such as from Yirmiyahu to Yeshayahu. Rashi explains that skipping from one navi to another confuses people, which is explained by the Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chayim 144:2) in the following manner: When Hashem brings the presence of His Shechinah onto a prophet, the prophet perceives a vision and a message, which he will later describe. The way the prophet experiences his vision and how he expresses himself bear the mark of aspects of his personality. This is called ein shnei nevi’im misnabe’im besignon echad, literally, “no two prophets prophesy in the identical style” (Sanhedrin 89a). If the haftarah were to shift from one prophet to another, the audience listening would be required to adjust suddenly to the style and mindset of a different prophet, which is confusing. As a result, the listeners would not absorb the full impact of what is being taught, which is why Chazal forbade switching prophets in mid-haftarah.
The Gemara continues by explaining that within Trei Asar, a book composed of the writings of twelve different prophets, Chazal permitted skipping from the writings of one navi to another. Presumably, the reason is that people expect style changes within Trei Asar, so they are not confused.
Ein medalgin lemafrei’a
Returning to the original beraisa, which states: One may not skip from one book of the prophets to another. However, one may skip from the reading of one prophet to another prophet within Trei Asar, provided that one does not skip from the end of the book to its beginning. The question is whether the rule prohibiting medalgin lemafrei’a, reading verses of a book out of order, applies only to the book of Trei Asar, or is it prohibited in any sefer navi. If it refers only to Trei Asar, then reversing direction at the end of the haftarah of Hadavar, which is from the book of Yirmiyahu, does not present any problem.
The authorities dispute which interpretation of the beraisa is correct. The Kesef Mishneh, indeed, rules that ein medalgin lemafrei’a applies only to Trei Asar and nowhere else. However, the Magen Avraham disagrees and understands that ein medalgin lemafrei’a applies to the works of any of the prophets. It is possible that our custom of skipping backwards when reading Hadavar is based on the Kesef Mishneh’s understanding of the Gemara. However, since most late authorities follow the Magen Avraham’s approach, it is unusual that common custom should conflict with his ruling. Are there other approaches to justify the practice?
Prior to presenting two other approaches to justify the practice of reading the end of the haftarah Hadavar out of order, we should examine a different controversial custom that dates back many hundreds of years. In the times of the rishonim, on the Shabbos after someone married, the haftarah was concluded by adding two or three verses from Yeshayahu (61:10) beginning with the words Sos Asis, because these verses refer to a chosson and kallah (Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 144). The problem with this custom is that whenever the week’s haftarah is from a book other than Yeshayahu, reciting Sos Asis skips from one navi to another.
There was also another, similar practice that seems to violate Chazal’s dictates. When Rosh Chodesh begins on Sunday, a special haftarah from Shmuel is usually read that begins with the words Vayomer Yonasan mochor chodesh. A custom developed that, when Rosh Chodesh fell on Shabbos and Sunday, after reading the haftarah of Shabbos Rosh Chodesh, which is from the closing words of Yeshayahu, the first and last verses of the haftarah mochor Chodesh were read as a reminder that the next day is also Rosh Chodesh. Yet this practice runs counter to the Gemara’s prohibition of switching prophets in mid-haftarah!
The Terumas Hadeshen
One early authority, the Terumas Hadeshen, suggests why these customs do not violate the takkanah. He comments that there are two disputing reasons why one may not switch from one navi to another while reading the haftarah. As we noted above, Rashi explains that the reason is to avoid confusing the listeners. However, other rishonim provide a different reason why one may not skip from one navi to another: closing one navi scroll and opening a different one, while the congregation is waiting, constitutes tircha detzibura, literally, “inconveniencing the congregation.” According to the latter approach, the Terumas Hadeshen explains why the takkanah not to switch prophets in mid-haftarah no longer applied in his day.
Although the Terumas Hadeshen lived before the invention of the printing press, he notes that, in his day, they no longer wrote the works of the prophets as scrolls but, instead, they were written as manuscript pages and then bound into books. Among the practical advantages of the bound edition is that one can place a marker in the different places from which one intends to read and then simply turn the pages at the correct time to the appropriate marker. As a result, switching to the writings of a different prophet in mid-haftarah does not involve any tircha detzibura, as opposed to closing a scroll and opening a new one, which takes far more time. For this reason, the Terumas Hadeshen contends, those who explain that Chazal prohibited switching prophets in mid-haftarah because of tircha detzibura will conclude that this is permitted when the haftarah is in book form. He concludes that this is the rationale for those who add verses from Sos Asis or Mochor Chodesh on the appropriate occasions.
However, the Terumas Hadeshen notes that, according to those who prohibit changing prophets in mid-haftarah because the style-change is confusing, it will make no difference whether one is reading from a bound book or a scroll. In both instances, switching to a different author confuses people and may not be done.
Based on this approach of the Terumas Hadeshen, we may be able to permit going back to two earlier pesukim to conclude the haftarah of Hadavar, if we assume that the prohibition of ein medalgin lemafrei’a is because of tircha detzibura.
When more is less
However, the custom is not yet out of the woods. Another aspect that impacts on this ruling is the following: When people read the haftarah from a bound volume, the heter mentioned by the Terumas Hadeshen applies. However, today many yeshivos and yeshivah-type shullen have the mehudar custom of using handwritten scrolls of nevi’m for the reading the haftarah. (An explanation for this custom is a topic for a different article.) The Terumas Hadeshen’s rationale will not permit reading Sos Asis, Mochor Chodesh or the last verses for Hadavar from a scroll at the end of a haftarah. This would result in the rather anomalous situation in which the chumra of reading the haftarah from a scroll may ultimately lead to violating a takkanas Chazal!
All is not lost, and we can still find justification, even for the scroll readers. Other authorities provide a different reason to permit reading Sos Asis after a haftarah from a different navi. They explain that these verses are not considered part of the haftarah but a concluding song after the haftarah (Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 144, quoting Nemukei Yosef; Levush ad loc. 144:2). This is true, despite the fact that these pesukim are read before the brochos of the conclusion of the haftarah. Similarly, reading the verse Mochor Chodesh after the haftarah does not violate the takkanah of Chazal not to switch prophets in mid-haftarah because this is considered an announcement and not part of the haftarah.
According to this last approach, adding some verses for a pleasant conclusion is not considered part of the haftarah, and therefore does not violate the takkanas chachamim.
As an aside, I have been told that Rav Chayim Kanievsky, shlit”a, advises people who read the haftarah from a scroll to read the last two verses of this week’s haftarah from a regular, printed chumash. This emphasizes the fact that these are not considered part of the haftarah and therefore do not violate the takanas chachamim.