Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Torah and Haftarah in the Roman Liturgy (Part 1)

On the Jewish calendar, the civil New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is the first day of the month of Tishri, but for religious and liturgical purposes, the first month is Nisan, and Tishri the seventh. Because this calendar is lunar, this day falls on the solar Gregorian calendar within a range from September 5th to October 5th. The tenth of Tishri is Yom Kippur, “the day of atonement”; these two feasts together are often called “the High Holy Days.” On the 15th occurs Sukkot, the feast of Tabernacles, which goes on for seven days, the last of which is Hoshanah Rabbah, “the great supplication.” The next day, the 22nd, is a kind of supplementary feast originally known as “the eighth (day) of assembly” (Shemini Atseret), but nowadays often called “Simchat Torah – the joy of the Law.” This is the day on which the annual cycle of readings from the Law of Moses ends with the last part of Deuteronomy, and restarts with the beginning of Genesis. It is traditionally marked by a procession in which the Torah scrolls are removed from the arks in which they are kept, and carried around the synagogue by people as they dance.

The Celebration of Simchat Torah in the Synagogue of Livorno, Italy, 1850, by the English painter Solomon Hart (1806-81), the first Jewish member of the Royal Academy of Art. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Rome is home to the oldest Jewish diaspora community in western Europe, dating back to at least the second half of the 2nd century B.C., and of course, many of the early converts to Christianity in the city were of Jewish origin. Even as late as the early decades of the 5th century, the distinction between Jewish converts and gentiles was evidently still felt. The mosaic dedicatory inscription on the counterfaçade of the Roman basilica of St Sabina, made around 425 AD, has a symbolic figure of “the Church from the circumcision” on the left, and another of “the Church from the gentiles” on the right.
Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.
It should therefore be no surprise to find that these ancient Jewish feasts had some influence on one of the most ancient features of the Roman Rite, the Ember Days, with which they often overlap. Pope St Leo the Great, the first author known to us to speak of the latter, says several times in his sermons about them that they were taken from the Old Law. For example, in his seventh sermon on those of September, he writes, “we take up the fast of the seventh month from the preaching of the old doctrine, for the purification of our souls and bodies, but we do not therefore subject ourselves to the burdens of the law, but rather, we embrace the usefulness of that temperance which serves the Gospel of Christ.”
In the liturgical texts of the September Ember days, there are two very explicit references to the Jewish High Holy Days. The more obvious is the pair of readings from Leviticus 23 on Saturday, which describe the celebration of the Day of Atonement and the feast of Tabernacles. The other is the Introit of Ember Wednesday.

Introitus, Ps. 80 Exsultáte Deo, adjutóri nostro: jubiláte Deo Jacob: súmite psalmum jucundum cum cíthara: cánite in initio mensis tuba, quia praeceptum in Israël est, et judicium Deo Jacob. V. Testimonium in Joseph posuit illud, cum exíret de terra Aegypti: linguam, quam non nóverat, audívit. Gloria Patri … Exsultáte Deo... (The Introit begins at 2:45 in this recording of the Mass celebrated last year at the church of St Eugène in Paris, sung by our good friends of the Schola Sainte Cécile.)

Introit, Psalm 80 Rejoice to God our helper: sing aloud to the God of Jacob. Take up a pleasant psalm; blow the trumpet at the beginning of the month, for it is a commandment in Israel, and a judgment unto the God of Jacob. V. He ordained it for a testimony in Joseph, when he came out of the land of Egypt: he heard a tongue which he knew not.

“The beginning of the month” refers to Rosh Hashanah, and “the trumpet” to the musical horn known as the shofar, which figures prominently in the celebration of it and other observances. The words “for it is a commandment in Israel” refer to the fact that these feasts are all kept in obedience to specific precepts of the law of Moses.
The mosaic floor of a synagogue, dated from the 5th to the 7th century, in the town of Beth Shean, Israel. The torah ark in the middle has a menorah to either side; under each menorah is a shovel for incense and a shofar. ~ This motif is often accompanied by what Jewish tradition calls the Four Species (a citron fruit, a frond of a date palm, a bough of myrtle and a branch of willow), which are carried during the rites of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, in fulfillment of Leviticus 23, 40, “And you shall take to you on the first day the fruits of the fairest tree, and branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God.” Their absence here may indicate that this was a Samaritan synagogue, since their use was associated with the rites of the Jerusalem temple, which the Samaritans rejected. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 
The Hebrew Bible is traditionally divided into three parts, the Law (Torah), the Prophets (Nevi’im) and the Writings (Ketuvim). From these divisions comes the acronym “Tanakh”, the common Hebrew term for “Bible.” The Prophets are then subdivided into two groups, Former (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) and Latter (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve, but not Daniel as in the Christian tradition.)

In the Jewish liturgy, the Torah is divided into sections called “parashoth – portions”, such that going from Sabbath to Sabbath, the whole of it is read over the course of a year. Each parashah is followed by a reading from the Prophets called a “haftarah – leave-taking.” (Despite the similarity between “torah” and “haftarah” in English transliteration, the two words are completely unrelated.) This custom is very ancient, and several different systems of haftaroth are attested.

Compared to a typical Mass lesson in the Roman tradition, the individual parashoth are quite long, since they need to cover 187 chapters at 52 services, an average of more than 3½ per week. The first, for example, ends at Genesis 6, 8, a total of 144 verses. (And in fact, many synagogues have in modern times adopted a three-year reading system to shorten them… sigh…) It would be impossible to cover the whole of the Prophets (almost 340 chapters) at the same time, and so the haftarah readings are selected to match the parashoth thematically, and rather shorter (although also mostly rather longer than a typical reading of the Roman Rite.)

A page of the Aleppo Codex, a Hebrew Bible copied out ca. 920 AD. The blank line in the upper part of the right-hand column indicates a break between two parashoth. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 
It seems that this tradition had some influence on the ancient Roman lectionary, since there are several occasions when readings from the Law and the Prophets are likewise thematically paired. St Leo also refers to this union in his Ember Day sermons a number of times, for example in the ninth on those of September. “The love of neighbor is the love of God, who established the fullness of the Law and the Prophets in this union of two-fold charity, so that no one might doubt that he offers to God what he shall have given to man”, (i.e., by fasting, and therefore not spending money for food on himself.)

By definition, such pairings would be found on days which have more than one reading from the Old Testament, most of which are Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays. For example, on the Ember Wednesday of the first week of Lent, the first reading, Exodus 24, 12-18, ends with Moses fasting for forty days and forty nights, and the second, 3 Kings 19, 3-8, ends with the prophet Elijah fasting for forty days and forty nights.

But if the compilers of the Roman lectionary were in fact inspired by the Jewish liturgical tradition, they did not always copy it exactly. On the Ember Wednesday of September, the first reading is the last three verses of the book of the prophet Amos, chapter 9, 13-15. This is paired with a reading which is not from the Law, but about it, Nehemiah 8, 1-10, in which Ezra, Nehemiah and the Levites read and interpret it to the people. It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that in one tradition of the haftaroth, a longer section from Amos 9 (verses 7-15) is read with a parashah which begins with Leviticus 16, explaining the ritual of Yom Kippur.
A portrait of Ezra as a scribe in the Codex Amiatinus, the oldest complete copy of the Vulgate Bible, ca. 700 AD. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 
The reading from Nehemiah ends with the words, “And he said to them, ‘Go, eat rich meats, and drink sweet wine, and send portions to them that have not prepared for themselves: because it is the holy day of the Lord, and be not sad: for the joy of the Lord is our strength.’ ” The reading of Amos refers to the richness of the land from which the rich meats and sweet wine come: “Behold the days come, saith the Lord, when the ploughman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed: and the mountains shall drop sweetness, and every hill shall be tilled.” The importance of this second reading is highlighted by the fact that it provides the text of the Communio, which is normally taken from a Psalm or the day’s Gospel. In the context of the Mass, the “rich meats and sweet wine” then come to mean the species of the Holy Eucharist.
The text of the Offertory is taken from Psalm 118, the great praise of the Law, and the longest psalm in the Psalter. And perhaps the double occurrence of “commandments” was chosen as another reference to the “Law and the Prophets”, and the double occurrence of “I have loved” to the two precepts of charity. “Meditabor in mandatis tuis, quæ dilexi valde; et levabo manus meas ad mandata tua, quæ dilexi. – I will meditate upon Thy commandments, which I have loved, and I will lift up my hands unto Thy commandments, which I have loved.” “I will meditate” would therefore be a reference to the contemplative life, and “I will lift up my hands” to the active.
Lastly we may note the second gradual, taken from Psalm 32, 12: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he hath chosen for his inheritance”, a text which originally meant the Jewish people alone. The second part, however, goes back to verse 6: “By the word (Verbo) of the Lord the heavens were established; and all the power of them by the spirit (spiritu) of his mouth.” This combination of the Lord, the Word and the Spirit was naturally understood by the Church Fathers as a reference to the Trinity. God’s people and inheritance thus become all those who are baptized in the name of Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in fulfillment of Christ’s Great Commission to make disciples of all nations.

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