Wednesday, July 20, 2005

God was not in the fire

I sent the following to the people taking my class at the NHC Summer Institute:



"A furious wind split mountains and shattered rocks in the presence of God, but God was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire, but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice." --I Kings 19:11-12

This haftarah, which will be read this Shabbat, is one of the most famous and beautiful haftarot of the year. However, it is rarely read in public. It is only read in 21% of years (in Israel and other communities that observe 1 day of yom tov), or in 11% of years (in communities that observe 2 days of yom tov)!

Why is this haftarah so rare, and what is special about this year?

The Torah is divided into 54 weekly portions, one for each Shabbat of the year. However, there are almost always fewer than 54 Shabbatot in a year, so in most years, one or more Shabbatot include a double portion, so that we can complete the whole Torah in a year.

This year is the rare exception! It is a leap year, meaning that there are 13 lunar months (for a total of 383, 384, or 385 days, which comes out to 54 weeks and change). But even in many leap years, there aren't 54 Shabbatot on which the regular Torah reading cycle is read, because if a holiday falls on Shabbat, then the holiday portion is read instead. But this year has the minimal number of holidays falling on Shabbat: e.g., Rosh Hashanah will be on Tuesday, and Yom Kippur will be on Thursday.

So we lose a Shabbat during Pesach and a Shabbat during Sukkot, but that's unavoidable since those holidays are a week long (so there is always at least one Shabbat), and no other holidays fall on Shabbat this year. That bumps the number of weeks down to 52-and-change. BUT, we get to round up, because Simchat Torah (when the Torah reading cycle ends and begins) was on Thursday (and/or Friday) this past fall, and will be on Tuesday (and/or Wednesday) this coming fall, so we "squeeze in" an extra Shabbat, bringing us to 53, and the 54th portion is read on Simchat Torah itself. Therefore, this year contains NO double Torah portions!

But what does that have to do with this week's haftarah?

We're getting there.

In years where some of the Torah portions are combined (i.e. most years, but not this one), the portions of Matot and Mas'ei are almost always combined. (They'll be read on July 30 and August 6 this year.)

During the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B'Av (Sunday, August 15 this year), there are three special haftarot of warning that are read on Shabbat, instead of haftarot related to the Torah portion. In most years, those three Shabbatot are the weeks of Pinechas, Matot-Mas'ei, and Devarim. However, this year, they'll be the weeks of Matot, Mas'ei, and Devarim (since Matot and Mas'ei aren't combined).

Therefore, Pinechas (the portion for this Shabbat, July 23) falls outside of the Three Weeks this year. Usually it gets taken over by the special haftarah of warning, but this year (as in 21% or 11% of years) we get to read the "regular" haftarah for Pinechas, the one about the "still, small voice"!!!!

At the Institute, we'll look at other calendrical reasons why this year is unique.

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