Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Devarim

 Shabbat Hazon 5765/ August 13, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




Torah and Haftarah


 Prof. Moshe Tzippor


Department of Bible



The Subject of the Haftarah

The haftarah passages from the Prophets that are read on Sabbaths (which do not coincide with a festival) are generally chosen from material that relates either to the weekly Torah reading or to a specific date. Examples of readings tied to a date are:   Rosh Hodesh or the eve of Rosh Hodesh, Hanukkah, Purim, the “Four Parshiyot” that are associated with the first of Adar (Shekalim), with Purim (Zakhor), with the first of Nisan (Ha-Hodesh), and one more reading associated with Passover but read on the Sabbath preceding Ha-Hodesh (Parah).   On all these occasions, after the reading of the weekly Torah portion a Torah passage dealing with the specific day is read for maftir, save for Sabbaths which fall on the eve of Rosh Hodesh.  

There are another ten consecutive Sabbaths on which the haftarah deals with the particular day and not with the weekly Torah portion.  These are the three Sabbaths preceding the ninth of Ab, on which three passages foretelling disaster are read (shalosh shel pur’anut), and the seven Sabbaths immediately following the ninth of Ab, on which seven passages of consolation are read (sheva shel nehamah).   On these ten Sabbaths there is no special reading from the Torah concerning the subject of the day. [1]

The special haftarah readings associated with the calendar do not necessarily fall in conjunction with a specific portion from the Torah, since the order of weekly readings depends on the length of the year (whether a regular year or a leap year; whether the months are short, long, or regular) and on the day of the week on which the various festivals and New Months fall.

The Three of Disaster

According to the prevalent custom, the haftarah readings foretelling disaster are read in the following order:   “The words of Jeremiah” (Jer. 1) on the Sabbath after the 17th of Tammuz; “Hear the word of the Lord” (Jer. 2) on the next Sabbath, even if it falls on the first of Ab, as happened last Shabbat; “The prophecies of Isaiah” on the third, preceding the ninth of Ab or falling on the ninth of Ab itself.  According to another custom, “The prophecies of Isaiah” (Isa. 1) is read on the second of these three Sabbaths, and on the third the haftarah is begun with “Alas, she has become a harlot” (Isa. 1:21).  An ancient custom is mentioned by Rav Huna (Megillah 31b):

When Rosh Hodesh Ab falls on the Sabbath, the haftarah is read from “Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing; they are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them” (Isa. 1:14)…   On the ninth of Ab itself what is read?  Rav said:   “Alas, she has become a harlot” (Isa. 1:21), …  Abaye said:   It is customary in the world today … “I will make an end of them” (Jer. 8:13). [2]

Devarim and Destruction

These three haftarah readings, as well as the seven readings of consolation that immediately follow them, are exceptional.   All the other special haftarah readings for particular days are not tied to a specific Torah portion, rather sometimes they occur with one weekly reading, sometimes with another.  In contrast, the third Sabbath foretelling disaster, Shabbat Hazon, always coincides with Parashat Devarim , and accordingly the first two readings of disaster coincide with Matot and Mas’ei , [3]   and when these two portions are read together the first reading of disaster coincides with Phinehas. [4]   Likewise, the continuation of these special readings:  Nahamu, the first haftarah of consolation, is always read on Parashat Va-Et’hanan; Va-tomer Zion on Parashat Ekev , and so on.

This might seem natural.  According to the gemara (Megillah 31b), the passage of admonishment and curses in Parashat Ki-Tavo must be read before the New Year, in accordance with the idea of tikhleh shanah ve-kileloteiha (may the old year, with its curses, come to an end), and it is customary for another Sabbath to intervene between the reading of the curses and the New Year.   Similarly, the admonishment in Behukotai is read before the Feast of Weeks (the festival of receiving the Torah, since this festival as well marks a New Year, because the fruit of the trees is determined or judged then), and at least one other Sabbath intervenes.  These general rules about Torah readings and the holidays have been given various mnemonic devices:   Menu ve-itzru, kumu ve-tik’u (“Count and hold assembly, arise and sound a blast”):  the Feast of Weeks (Atzeret, or “assembly”) always falls after the reading on the census (Parashat Be-Midbar), and the New Year (on which we sound the shofar) always falls after Parashat Nitzavim (which means “standing,” hence kumu ).  For this to work out, the weekly portions are either combined or read separately.  The result is that Parashat Devarim is read on the Sabbath preceding the ninth of Ab or on the ninth of Ab itself, when that falls on the Sabbath.   Aside from this, the pairing up of readings in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy seems also to be aimed at Parashat Devarim being the one that concludes the three readings foretelling disaster.  This, too, has a mnemonic device:  Tzumu ve-tzelu (“fast and pray”):  Parashat Va-Et’hanan (in which Moses entreats the Lord) comes after the fast of the ninth of Ab. [5]


What is the reason for this?  Darshanim have pointed to the exclamation, “How” (Heb. eikhah), [6] said by Moses in Parashat Devarim :  “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering?” (Deut. 1:12); this word is repeated in the haftarah from Isaiah (1:21), as an exclamation of lament:  “Alas (Heb. eikhah ), she has become a harlot, the faithful city,” and occurs a third time in the beginning of Lamentations, customarily read on the ninth of Ab : [7]   “Alas (Heb. eikhah)!   Lonely sits the city once great with people!  She that was great among nations is become like a widow” (Lament. 1:1).  These occurrences of the word can be viewed as measure for measure, [8] one cry of “how” or “alas” leads to another cry of “alas.”   Having become like a harlot, she is destined to become as a widow, “all her allies have betrayed her, they have become her foes” (Lament. 1:2).  Also “the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering” of which Moses complains reverberate in the haftarah (Isa. 1:11).   The bitter sense of isolation expressed by Moses in the word “unaided” (levaddi ) also echoes in Lamentations:   “Alas, lonely (badad) sits the city ...  There is none to comfort her of all her friends.  All her allies have betrayed her.”  These associations are drawn together by the custom to read this verse in Deuteronomy as well as the harsh words of the haftarah in the melody of Lamentations.

Aside from the linguistic connection between this week’s Torah reading, the haftarah , and Lamentations, there is also a close connection between the subject matter of Devarim and the theme of the ninth of Ab.   At the beginning of the Torah reading Moses tells about the spies, who brought on the decree that the generation brought out of Egypt would have to perish in the wilderness and not enter the promised land.   According to tradition, this occurred on the night of the ninth of Ab (see Ta’anit 29a).   Numbers 14:1-4 recounts:   “the people wept that night...   ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt, ... or if only we might die in this wilderness!  Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword?’” etc.   The people cried unnecessarily, and therefore it was determined that this night would be a night that would be bemoaned for all time.  The mishnah in Tractate Ta’anit (4.6) lists five tragic things that happened on this date, including the destruction of Jerusalem, of which Lamentations (1:2) says:  “Bitterly she weeps in the night.”

Between Parasha and Haftarah

There is yet another connection between the Torah reading and the haftarah .  The haftarah contains a lament depicting the destruction and desolation of the daughter of Zion, remaining “a wasteland as overthrown by strangers,” and only the remnant that survives sets the fate of Zion apart from the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (Isa. 1:9).  To this complaint the prophet responds:  You give voice to that which befell you; but you do not give voice to that which you did! [These are not the words of the prophet, but rather the thrust of his words:]   You yourselves are “chieftains of Sodom, ... folk of Gomorrah” (verse 10).  At this point the prophet proclaims the Lord’s word concerning the proper hierarchy of values:   you take pride in your sacrifices and in celebrating the Sabbaths and Festivals, but what need have I of all your sacrifices?   The prophet accuses the people of perverting law and justice, and does not shrink at using even harsher language:   “Alas, she has become a harlot, the [once] faithful city, that was filled with justice, where righteousness dwelt!”

Now the idea of doing justice and the need to establish a legal system that will function according to the Torah’s vision of morality appears as early as Moses’ first oratory in Parashat Devarim .  Moses sets up a court system and instructs the judges strictly:   “Hear out your fellow men, and decide justly...  You shall not be partial in judgment:  hear out low and high alike” (Deut. 1:16-17); for the mere existence of a court system is not a guarantee of justice.  The expression, “hear out low and high alike,” was viewed by the Sages as also reflecting the principle that “a suit over one perutah [a small sum] is to be heard the same as a suit over one hundred zuz [a large sum].”   This contrasts with the idea of “wasting the court’s time.”  The Sages maintained that even for a judge to say, “wait until I finish my drink,” is a denial of prompt justice (to see just how far this was taken, see Mekhilta Mishpatim , Tractate de-Nezikin , ch. 18).

The haftarah describes the opposite state of affairs from that which Moses commanded.  The Torah views justice as upholding righteousness, and so too Isaiah describes Zion as once having been a place “that was filled with justice, where righteousness dwelt.”   In contrast, Zion in the prophet’s day, when it ruled by “chieftains of Sodom,” is described by the prophet as follows:  “They do not judge the case of the orphan, and the widow’s cause never reaches them.”   In other words, a formal system of justice exists, but it does not answer the needs of the weak and oppressed; the strong and able easily receive legal recourse, whereas the weak are told to give in, to settle for a compromise, since it would take years for their case to come to court.  The verse can also be elucidated as follows:  when a widow sees that “they do not judge the case of the orphan,” she concludes that clearly “the widow’s cause will never reach them” – so she does not turn to the court.   The prophet accused the leaders both of taking bribes and of being greedy for their own gain.   This calls to mind the legends about the life and justice in Sodom and Gomorrah, with their satirical depictions of the perverted system of justice that had nothing to do with righteousness.   It seems that a society can be ruled by “chieftains of Sodom” only if the society itself is a “people of Gomorrah.”   Lamentations (4:6) also presents a similar comparison of Israel’s behavior and fate with that of Sodom.

The haftarah concludes with words of hope and faith that Zion will once more be called “City of Righteousness, Faithful City” (Isa. 1:25-27).   This will happen when the Lord restores our judges as of old, according to the ideal presented by the Torah.

[1] For reading in further depth on the various customs that have emerged to the present day regarding the haftarah, see the entry “Haftarah,” Encyclopedia Talmudit, 10, pp. 1-31, and the appendix, “Reshimat ha-Haftarot le-Shabbatot ha-Shanah le-fi ha-Mekorot ve-ha-Minhagim,” pp. 702-723.   A brief summary on haftarot and how they were chosen, as well as a selected bibliography can be found in Rabbi Judah Shaviv, Bein Haftarah le-Parashah:  Al ha-Kesharim bein ha-Haftarot le-Parashot ha-Shavu’a u-le-Mo’adei ha-Shanah, Jerusalem 2001, pp. 7-9.

[2] See Tos. loc. sit. s.v.Rosh hodesh Ab,” on the change in this custom.  On other customs, see the editor’s notes in Sefer ha-Manhig le-Rabbi Abraham be-Rabbi Nathan ha-Yarhi, Isaac Rappel ed., Jerusalem 1978, p. 284, s.v.hazon Yeshayahu.”

[3] In which case the haftarah for parashat Phinehas is about Elijah at Mount Horeb, which is a subject related to the weekly reading (“Elijah is Phinehas”; see Yalkut Shimoni, Part I, par. 771).

[4] On whether certain weekly readings are combined or read separately, in accordance with the length of the year and the portion, see Siddur Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, Davidson, Asaf, and Yoel, eds., Jerusalem 1971, pp. 363-366.

[5] In truth, this need not be the case.  For example, for the years 1984, 1997, 2011, 2014 and others, if we were to combine the readings for Behar and Behukotai (which are read separately) and were to read separately Nitzavim and Va-Yelekh (which are combined), then Va-Et’hanan would be read on the Sabbath preceding the ninth of Ab.  We would read “ The prophecies of Isaiah” on the Sabbath of parashat Va-Et’hanan , and the haftarah, “Nahamu ,” which is the first of the haftarah readings of consolation, on the Sabbath of parashat Ekev .  The same would be the case for 1994 and 2011, were we to combine Matot and Mas’ei .  In actual practice, however this is not done, perhaps because Nitzavim—Va-Yelekh are not considered two separate weekly readings which are combined when necessary, but rather a single parashah which is split in two when necessary (i.e., when there is an intervening Sabbath between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, on which Ha’azinu is read).  See Siddur Sa’adiah Gaon , loc. sit.

[6] The use of eikhah, eikh or eikhakhah as introducing words of lamentation or complaint is quite common in Scriptures.

[7] The custom of reading Lamentations on the ninth of Ab is mentioned in Masekhet Soferim 18.5.  As for how it is read, see Y. Tabori, Mo’adei Yisrael be-Tekufat ha-Mishnah ve-ha-Talmud, third edition, Jerusalem 2000, p. 401.

[8] These types of associations are common in the midrash.   For example:  “They sinned by [wanting to] ‘head’ [back to Egypt] (Num. 14:4), and they were punished by the ‘head’ (see Isaiah 1:5).”  Cf. Lamentations Rabbah, ch. 1.57, s.v.tavo kol ra’atam” and parallel texts.