The Essence of the Torah and HaphtarahOne of the primary tasks of a Jewish child as he or she reaches maturity is to take part in the Shabbat service on the first Saturday after his birthday. This is the first worship service the child is required to attend as an adult. Together with the presence of the parents and the rest of the family members, this occasion is considered to be a meaningful family affair.
It is during this religious Shabbat service that the new status of the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah is recognized by the family and the whole Jewish community. The celebrant is given the highest honor in the synagogue through an aliyah or going up to the Torah and is given the privilege as well to lead in certain parts of the service and read from the Torah (five books of Moses).
Before this important day, a child is tasked to undergo several months of study focusing on the Jewish religion and his mature obligations spiritually and legally. It is also at this period when the bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah prepare a speech and for the reading of the passages from the Torah. Ideally, the speech is supposed to emphasize an individual’s acceptance of his new status in the adult world and the relevance of the selected passages in his future life as a Jewish adult.
The tradition of Torah readings in public can be traced to the time of Ezra the Scribe in 444 B.C.E. and after the Jewish people returned from exile in Babylon. The Torah reading is a form of reenactment of the events that transpired in Mount Sinai. It contains stories, law, history and poetry and symbolizes the sacred things that are valuable to Jews.
Torah literally means “teaching” or “direction.” It is composed of the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Eventually, the Torah was divided into 54 weekly portions called parasha or sidra which are read in synagogues following the Hebrew calendar.
Most of the Orthodox Jews do not allow a woman to publicly read the Torah nor lead prayer services while there is a quorum of 10 males or a minyan. However, in Modern Orthodox Judaism and Haredi Judaism, while women are not allowed to do these tasks, they can lecture instead on a Jewish topic to celebrate their coming of age, learn a book of Tanah, and recite verses from other texts (Book of Esther and Book of Psalms) or prayers from the siddur.
Apart from the Torah, a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah also reads passages from the Haphtarah (selections from the books of Prophets or Writings). The Haphtarah passages should be in line with the Torah portion.
The reading of the Haphtarah had its beginnings during the reign of the Syrian-Greek ruler Antiochus IV in the empire where Judea belonged. This ruler prohibited the reading of the Torah prompting the Jewish people to read instead from other portions of the Hebrew bible which were still related to the Torah portion supposed to be read. After the Jews gained their religious freedom, they decided to continue the custom of reading the Haphtarah after the Torah.
The Torah and Haphtarah are what should guide the Jewish adults throughout their journey in life. These are the perfect resources that can nourish their spiritual life.
Read more articles on the subject: Bar Mitzvah Traditions Still Being Observed Today