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Haftarah Parshat Pinhas

Haftarah Parshat Pinhas (Jeremiah 1:1-2:3)
July 15, 2017 / 21 Tammuz 5777

Special Haftarah for the beginning of the “Three Weeks before Tisha B’Av”

There is a mahloket (a dispute) over when the period of mourning over the destruction of the Temple begins. According to Rabbi Joseph Karo, the foundational decisor for Sfardim and author of the Shulhan Arukh, it only begins at the start of the month of Av: “When the month of Av arrives, one diminishes one’s joy”. (Orah Hayim 451:1) Rabbi Moshe Isserles, Karo’s contemporary and the Ashkenazi authority, however, ruled that it is the custom for Ashkenazi Jewry to begin their mourner with fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th day of Tammuz), three weeks before Tisha b’Av (the 9th of Av), the day which memorializes the destruction of both the first and second Temples. (Orah Hayyim 452:2)

This dispute offers us an opportunity to learn a little about what lies behind the decision-making processes of these two sages. Rabbi Joseph Karo, by and large, hones closely to the language of the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud, where, in fact, we read the precise words of his legislation: “When the month of Av arrives, one diminishes one’s joy.” (M. Taanit 4:6; Taanit 26b) The origin of Isserles’ decision is less straightforward. The three weeks mentioned above are known by the idiom, “bein hametzarim – between the straits”, a phrase known to us from Eicha – the book of Lamentations (1:3). This association is first known to us from Eicha Rabbah, the rabbinic midrash on Eicha (1:29): ‘between the straits’ – days of troubles, from the 17th of Tamuz through to Tisha b’Av, for on them destruction is found”.

How do we know that this period was marked off distinctively? This is where we come to this week’s haftarah. The earliest reference known to us that this period was marked off liturgically is found in a midrash known as Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, an Eretz Yisrael midrash from the period of the Talmud. This book is distinctive among midrashim in that it is not organized around a specific biblical book; instead it is organized according to special biblical readings for different occasions. It is here we learn that the three Shabbatot preceding Tisha b’Av (the Tlata d’Puranuta – the three [Shabbatot] of punishment) are marked by special haftarot as are the seven Shabbatot after Tisha bAv (Shiva d’Nehamta – the seven [Shabbatot] of consolation). The first two of these haftarot are taken from the first two chapters of Jeremiah, the prophet of the destruction, and the third from the first chapter of Isaiah.

Note the difference between Karo and Isserles here. Karo’s decision is grounded in the Babylonian Talmud. Isserles’ decision, on the other hand, is based on what became normative practice in his community or custom. Today, in practice, Ashkenazim have key mourning practices during the three weeks while Sfardim do not begin their mourning until the beginning of Av (and for some not until the week of Tisha b’Av itself.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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