October 9, 2010
1 Heshvan 5771
Haftarah Commentary for Parshat Noah – Shabbat Rosh Hodesh (Isaiah 66:1-24)
This week Shabbat coincides with Rosh Hodesh (Heshvan). When this occurs, we read a special haftarah for the occasion from the last chapter of Isaiah. This haftarah was chosen, ostensibly, because the penultimate verse in the prophecy mentions both Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh: \”And new moon after new moon, and Sabbath after Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship Me, said the Lord.\” (verse 23) In context, this verse refers to messianic times where the righteous of all nations will recognize God and come up to Jerusalem every Shabbat and every Rosh Hodesh to pay homage to Him. The wicked, however, will be destroyed (more on this later). Liturgically, the concurrence of these two days in the verse provided sufficient reason to read this prophecy as the haftarah.
The verse mentioned above is followed by a verse which vividly describes the awful fate of the wicked: \”They shall go out and gaze on the corpses of the men who rebelled against Me (God). Their worms shall not die nor their fire be quenched. They shall be a horror to all flesh.\” (verse 24) Obviously this verse is meant to contrast the reward for the righteous with fate of the wicked in the most radical terms to offer people clear options. (Incidentally, since the very unpleasant verse is the last verse of the prophecy, when we read this section liturgically we repeat verse 23 after this verse to end on a positive note.)
The Mishnah records a debate between two sages on a related issue – the length of time the wicked are punished after death: \”So he (Rabbi Akiva) used to say: …The judgment of the wicked in Gehinom (the nether world) is twelve months, as it is written: \’And new moon to new moon\’. Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri said: From Pesah until Atzeret (Shavuot) [fifty days], as it is written: \’ \’And a new moon until that new moon appears again\’. Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri said: From Pesah until Atzeret (Shavuot) [fifty days], as it is written: \’And from Pesah (which is called Shabbat in Lev. 23:15) until Shavuot (which is seven Sabbaths after Pesah)\’.\” (adapted from Eduyot 2:10)
This mishnah took the juxtaposition of these two verses to establish limits on the divine punishment of the wicked. Rabbi Akiva understood \”new moon to new moon\” to refer to a period of a year while Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri understood \”Sabbath to Sabbath\” to refer to the period of time between two major holidays (Pesah and Shavuot) of the Jewish year or a period of 50 days.
This mishnah also had halachic/liturgical ramifications. When the Kaddish prayer was established as an act of mourning and atonement for the dead, the time period for its recitation for a parent was set according to Rabbi Akiva\’s opinion. The normative Askenazi custom is to recite Kaddish for a period of eleven months for a parent since it was not considered honorable to think of one\’s parent as being wicked. (Rama, Yoreh Deah 376:4; Goldman, MeOlam ve\’ad Olam, p. 132) Others recited it for the full twelve months. (Goldman, p. 132; RA Responsum) The Sefardic practice is to finish eleven months, stop for a week and then continue until the end of the twelfth month. (Yalkut Yosef, Avelut 30:5; M. Eliahu, Tzror HaHayim 263)
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.
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