Haftora for Shabbat HaGadol:

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Haftora for Shabbat HaGadol (Malakhi 3:4-24)

"Behold, I will send you Eliyahu the prophet..."

by Rav Elchanan Samet


A. "Shabbat Ha-Gadol" (the 'great shabbat')


We all think of Shabbat HaGadol – the Shabbat preceding Pesach – as the continuation of the four shabbatot when we read the four special parashiot; we regard it almost as the "fifth shabbat." But in truth there is a very great difference between them. The reading of the four parashiot is an ancient custom, set down in the Mishna in Megilla, and discussed at length in the Gemara. The customs pertaining to Shabbat HaGadol, in contrast – even the very existence of such a special shabbat by this name – are mentioned nowhere in the Mishna or the Talmud. The custom seems to have originated in Germany during the Middle Ages, and from there it spread throughout the Jewish world. It is only since the time of the early commentators that the customs of this special shabbat have been discussed, together with its special name.


The early commentators themselves questioned the reason for the name given to this shabbat. "People customarily call the shabbat that precedes Pesach "Shabbat HaGadol" (the great shabbat), BUT THEY DO NOT KNOW WHY it is greater than any other shabbat of the year." (Sefer Ha-Orah).


Since that period until today there have been unceasing efforts to find the reason for this name. The Maharshal suggests that the name for the shabbat is related to the haftara that is read, beginning with the words (Malakhi 3:4), "And the offering of Yehuda and Jerusalem will be sweet to Hashem," and concluding: "Behold, I will send you Eliyahu the prophet before the coming of the GREAT AND AWESOME DAY OF HASHEM."


B. The haftara of "The offering... shall be sweet to Hashem"


The reading of the special haftara is indeed the most obvious custom relating to this shabbat in the prayer service, and therefore it is logical that some connection exists between the name of the shabbat and the final pasuk of the haftara. However, just as the name of the shabbat is mentioned only from the time of the early commentators, who were perplexed by it, the custom of reading this special haftara also dates back to the same time and causes no less confusion.


Various reasons have been suggested for the reading of this haftara, and accordingly different customs have developed. The most widespread custom today among most communities is to read this haftara every year on Shabbat HaGadol. But there are some communities where it is read only when Shabbat HaGadol falls on 'erev Pesach,' and others where precisely the opposite custom is observed and it is read on Shabbat HaGadol only if it does NOT fall on 'erev Pesach.' There is also a custom according to which this haftara is not read at all.


But the very choice of this haftara itself is problematic - a haftara, by definition, is related to and complements the weekly Torah reading or the special maftir for special occasions. But on Shabbat HaGadol there is no special reading (maftir) from the Torah. Why, then, is the regular haftara that accompanies the weekly parasha for this week set aside in favor of a haftara that has no connection with the parasha?


If the haftara of "ve-arvah" hinted in some way at Pesach then we could regard its reading as a sort of declaration and preparation for the forthcoming festival. It could then be compared to the haftara read on the shabbat that falls on 'erev rosh chodesh,' when we read (Shmuel I 20:18), "And Yehonatan said to him, Tomorrow is the new month...." This is the only haftara set down in the Talmud that is unrelated to the Torah reading that precedes it. In this unique instance the haftara serves as a declaration that "tomorrow is the new month." But the haftara of Shabbat HaGadol contains no such hint at the festival of Pesach.


Mystery surrounds the custom of reading this haftara on this shabbat, a custom that perhaps gave the shabbat its name of "Shabbat HaGadol." Many learned scholars have sought the key to this mystery throughout the generations, but no clear and satisfying solution was raised until Dr. Yosef Ofer proposed his answer in his article, "The Haftora of Shabbat Ha-Gadol."


C. The haftarot according to the custom of Eretz Yisrael


The custom of those who lived in Eretz Yisrael in ancient times was to read the Torah over a period of three-and-a-half years. This custom divided the Torah into 157 "sedarim," and correspondingly there were 157 haftarot – three times the number that are read today. With time the ancient custom of Eretz Yisrael was forgotten, and it only began to be recalled by individual scholars during the past few generations. The research of this custom was made possible in the wake of the large volume of material discovered in the Cairo Geniza, part of which reflects the custom of Eretz Yisrael from the period when it was still practiced.


In 1989 Dr. Yosef Ofer published a full and updated list of all the haftarot that were read according to the three-and-a-half year custom (except for two). It would seem logical to expect to find a considerable degree of overlap between some of the haftarot from the three-year cycle and those of the one-year cycle, but almost no such overlap exists. The reason for this is that the two customs used different systems for selecting a haftara to accompany the parasha. Dr. Ofer writes the following concerning the three-year system:


"The first pasuk of the haftara includes a sort of "gezera shava" (inference by analogy) to the first (or second) pasuk of the portion read from the Torah. This usually meant two or three words common to both, and sometimes also some common content."


D. The haftara of Shabbat HaGadol


Dr. Ofer points out that the haftara of "ve-arvah" ("And the OFFERING [MINCHA] OF Yehuda and Jerusalem will be sweet") which we read on Shabbat HaGadol was the haftara for the "seder" beginning "This is the sacrifice of Aharon and his sons... a tenth of an efah of fine flour for a PERPETUAL MEAL OFFERING (mincha tamid)" (Vayikra 6:12-13).


There are therefore two possible haftarot for parashat Tzav: the original one-year haftara, "Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices" (Yirmiyahu 7:21), or the haftara of "ve-arvah," whose source is to be found in the three-year cycle. There is an echo of the "battle" between these two haftarot in the words of the Ohr Zarua (part 2, Laws of Readings for Festivals and Haftarot, siman 393):


It is written in the responsa, "Why was (the haftara of) "Your burnt offerings..." cancelled in favor of "ve-arvah"? Because the conclusion of "ve-arvah" speaks of the great and awesome day of judgment; therefore the custom was to read the haftara of "ve-arvah.


The writer of the responsum, Rabbi Menachem, noted the conflict between the two traditions. One one hand he recounts the custom of his fathers to read as the haftara "ve-arvah." On the other hand he lives in a reality where the haftara read on this Shabbat is always "Your burnt offerings...," as instructed by those who arrange the order of the haftarot. The book brought from Babylon also mentions both customs with regard to the haftara for parashat Tzav.


Rabbi Menachem suggests a "compromise" between these two customs, delineating separate occasions for each of them. But what exactly is the compromise? Here his response is somewhat opaque. At first it sounds as though the haftara of "ve-arvah" should be read only when erev Pesach falls on Shabbat. This is also the impression we get from what he says at the end, to the effect that the haftara of "Your burnt offerings" is the "usual" haftara, and there is an echo of this idea in other halakhic sources as well. But later on he says something different: If parashat Tzav falls on Shabbat HaGadol then the haftara is "ve-arvah," while if parashat Tzav does not fall on Shabbat HaGadol then the haftara is "Your burnt offerings."


Attention should be paid to the fact that at firsno mention was made of Shabbat HaGadol: the controversy concerned only the question of the proper haftara for parashat Tzav. And even when the suggestion was made that the haftara be dependent on the timing of Shabbat HaGadol, the discussion concerned only parashat Tzav. If Shabbat HaGadol fell on a shabbat when some other parasha was read, there was no special haftara.


The process of the development of the haftara through all its stages now becomes entirely clear: at first there was a "one-year" haftara for parashat Tzav ("Your burnt offerings") and a "three-year" haftara for the seder of "this is the sacrifice of Aharon" ("ve-arvah"). When the one-year cycle took over these two haftarot were left jostling for the same position. Certain customs created a compromise between them, reading "ve-arvah" only in some years: either only in regular years, when parashat Tzav was read on the Shabbat before Pesach, or only when erev Pesach fell on Shabbat. Ultimately (at a time later than the Ohr Zarua and therefore not reflected in his words) the haftara was completely disconnected from parashat Tzav and became the permanent haftara for Shabbat HaGadol – even when this involved some other parasha. It is possible, of course, that certain factors influenced and encouraged this process. Firstly, the content of the haftara "Your burnt offerings" is harsh; it is a prophecy that speaks entirely of punishment for Israel. The responsum quoted above reflects this idea where Rabbi Menachem attempts to explain why this harsh haftara cannot be read on erev Pesach, "dampening the spirits of Israel who have made their pilgrimage."


A second factor influencing the acceptance of the haftara of "ve-arvah" was the consolidation of the tradition of "Shabbat HaGadol," when the laws pertaining to Pesach are traditionally taught.


The connection with the "great (gadol) and awesome day of Hashem" mentioned in the haftara, even if noted only post facto and not explicitly mentioned, also assisted in the spread of the custom of this haftara and its eventual prevalence.


A custom, particularly when its original reason has been lost over many generations, assumes a life of its own. According to Dr. Ofer's explanation, there is no reason to read the haftara of "ve-arvah" in a leap year, such as this year, since this haftara is no more than an "alternative" haftara for parashat Tzav, while on Shabbat this week we read parashat Metzora. What connection exists between our parasha and the haftara of "ve-arvah"?


Indeed, in a different responsum that appears later on in the Ohr Zarua we read:


"It is further written in the responsa, In a leap year Shabbat HaGadol falls on (the shabbat where the parasha is) "This shall be (the law of the metzora)," and our Sages selected as the haftara "four men" (Melakhim II 7:3)."


But the power of custom is such that it spreads and expands through the course of the generations, even without any connection with its original reason, and even contrary to the custom practiced in the early generations when it was originally established.


Post facto there is a tendency to relate the custom of reading "ve-arvah" on Shabbat HaGadol with the approaching festival of Pesach. Such a connection may be found in the mysterious appearance of Eliyahu the prophet, both at the conclusion of the haftara and on the Seder night in the relatively new custom practiced in some Jewish communities of placing a "cup for Eliyahu" upon the Seder table.


E. Appearances in Tanakh after death


Let us now examine the three final pesukim of the haftara for Shabbat HaGadol.


(Malakhi 3:22) "Remember the Torhah of Moshe My servant, which I commanded him at Chorev for all of Israel; the statutes and the judgments.

(23) Behold, I shall send to you Eliyahu the prophet, before the coming of the great and awesome day of Hashem.

(24) And he will return the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their father, lest I come and strike the land with a curse."


These are the final pesukim of prophecy in the Tanakh. They conclude the period of the prophets, belonging as they do to the last of the prophets, Malakhi. They are even located at the end of all the books of prophecy, at the end of the "twelve (minor) prophets."


The Malbim explains the connection between pasuk 22 – "Remember the Torah of Moshe, My servant" - and the two pesukim that follow it, thus:


"Concerning these words with which the prophet concludes, and this is the final prophecy, after which there will be no other prophet or seer until the end of days - he is telling them that from now onwards they should not expect to attain God's word through prophecy; they should just remember the Torah of Moshe, to do all that is written therein, and it will tell them what they should do.

"Behold I will send" – until just before the coming of the great day of Hashem, when prophecy will come back to them, with the greatest of the prophets – Eliyahu – who will reveal himself at that time."


This is not the only place in Tanakh where a figure who lived and died comes back and reappears from time to time. We find that Yirmiyahu prophecises:

(Yirmiyahu 31:14) "So says Hashem, A voice is heard in Ramah, it is the bitter crying; Rachel is crying for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children for they are gone.


This, however, is most likely not a reference to the REAL Rachel. The Malbim comments: "THE IMAGERY is of Rachel, mother of her sons, crying aloud over the fact that both her sons have been exiled...."


Likewise there are other places, in the words of several of the prophets, where David's name appears in the context of the time of the final redemption:


(Hoshea 3:5) "After Bnei Yisrael will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king..."

(Yehezkel 37:24) "And My servant David will be king over them, and there will be one shepherd for them all..."


Here, again, it is clear that the prophets are referring not to David himself, but rather to one of his descendants, a "sprout from the branch of Yishai" whose name we do not know and therefore he is called after his early ancestor, the founder of the Davidic dynasty.


In contrast, in the pasuk in Malakhi in which Eliyahu's name appears the reference is neither a metaphor nor a literary image. Nor is Eliyahu the founder of a dynasty, such that his name could refer to someone who follows after him. Here the text speaks of an actual appearance of Eliyahu himself and of the specific mission with which he will be entrusted. And although this mission is related to the end of days, it nevertheless falls within the reality of human history, and it is a clear mission: "He will return the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their father." What is the meaning of this appearance of Eliyahu prior to the "great day of Hashem?" And was Eliyahu not gathered up in a great storm to heaven, at the end of his life?


D. "Did Eliyahu die or did he not?"


This question forces us to go back to the description of Eliyahu's ascent to heaven in Melakhim II, 2:


  1. "And it happened when Hashem took up Eliyahu to the heaven by a storm...

(3)...Do you know that today Hashem will take up your master from above you?

(5) ...Do you know that today Hashem will take up your master from above you?

(9) ...What shall I do for you before I am taken from you?

(10)... If you see me as I am taken from you, it shall be so.

(11)... Behold, there was a chariot of fire and horses of fire, and they parted the two from each other, and Eliyahu rose in a storm towards the heaven."


What is the point of this description of Eliyahu's ascent in a storm towards heaven, a description so different from the end of any other person's life in Tanakh? Is Eliyahu's "ascent," mentioned twice in the text, and his being "taken up," mentioned four times, simply a euphemism for his death, or are they specifically meant to describe exactly the opposite: that Eliyahu did not die?


If we wish to remain true to the text, we must admit that the text describes Eliyahu's PHYSICAL ascent to heaven: Elisha watches him ascend until he disappears and "saw him no more." The onlymaterial thing that remains after Eliyahu's ascent is the robe that had fallen from him – meaning that Eliyahu ascended bodily, with all his clothes, except for the robe that fell. The children of the prophets, who sought Eliyahu for three days around the area where he disappeared from them, did not find him (pesukim 16-17).


But if this is so, and if Eliyahu's ascent to the heaven is meant to express his transition from this world of ours to what lies beyond it, to the world of the Divine, then we are faced with a difficult and fundamental problem:


"R. Yosi said, The Shekhina never came down, and Moshe and Eliyahu did not ascend to heaven. As it is written (Tehillim 115:15), "The heavens are Hashem's heavens, and the earth He has given to man." (Sukka 5a)


R. Yosi is pointing out the clear and unequivocal distinction between the mortal and the Divine: we cannot accept any possibility of confusion between these two spheres (his words were certainly directed against the various pagan mythologies, up to and including Christianity). The Gemara answers R. Yosi with pesukim that seem to contradict what he says, with an explanation for each problem:


"Did the Shekhina not descend? It is written (Shmot 19:2), "And Hashem descended upon Har Sinai."

  • To a height of more than ten tefachim.

"And what about where it says (Zekharia 14:4), "And His feet shall stand on that day upon Har Ha-Zeitim"?

  • At a height of more than ten tefachim.

"But did Moshe and Eliyahu not ascend to the heaven? It is written (Shmot 19:3), "And Moshe ascended to the Lord."

  • (He ascended) less than ten (tefachim).

"And (what about where) it is written, "And Eliyahu ascended in a storm to the heaven"?

  • Less than ten."


"Ten tefachim" is the definition of man's domain, and what is above "ten tefachim" falls in the sphere of the Divine. Although there is mutual contact between God and man, as is proved by those pesukim quoted in the Gemara as well as many others, such contact can never represent a blurring of the unequivocal distinction between the two spheres. Only when a person's soul is separated from his body, when it leaves the world that is "under the sun" – "less than ten tefachim," then:

(Kohelet 12:7) "The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to the Lord Who gave it."


How, then, are we to explain Eliyahu's live and bodily ascent to heaven, in his mortal and material state? And how are we to understand the Talmudic explanation that this ascent was to "less than ten tefachim"?


Let us compare the interpretations of two of the commentators: Radak and Ralbag. Ralbag opens his words with a formulation of the question:


"It is impossible for the meaning to be that He took him up to the heaven, for physical bodies do not ascend there!"


The Radak comments on this pasuk as follows:


"... And a stormy wind took him up from the earth into the air; just as it lifts things that are light, so it lifted him by God's will onto the wheel of fire, which burned his clothes –except for the robe, and his flesh and his body, and his spirit returned to the Lord who gave it."


Thus in the opinion of the Radak, Eliyahu died, and only his spirit returned to God. The uniqueness of the description of his death lies in the way in which he died – a death that was different from any other mentioned in Tanakh. IN Eliyahu's ascent in a storm to heaven there was a process of separation of body and soul. The soul ascended to heaven, while the body and its clothing were consumed. Thus nothing remained for burial. Thus only the second half of the pasuk which we quoted from Kohelet was fulfilled in Eliyahu, while the first half – "the dust will return to the earth as it was" – did not happen in this instance. In this way the Radak answers the difficult problem posed by our chapter.


Does the Radak's explanation match the language and spirit of our chapter? The Abarbanel criticizes his interpretation:


"Whether Eliyahu died or not, and where he is – we have no way of establishing this through regular reasoning, but rather must rely on the tradition of our Sages and their teachings with regard to these pesukim. We find no mention in the text that Eliyahu is said to have "died," as we are told concerning Moshe and all the other prophets, which shows that his body and spirit were not parted as is generally the case when people die by natural means. And if the commentators have said that it cannot be that mortal bodies cannot dwell among the heavenly bodies or above them... we cannot believe their words that his (Eliyahu's) body and clothing were burned in that hot air, or in the element of fire that was upon him, and that (only) the spirit of the prophet was bound up in the bond of life with Hashem, like the other souls of the prophets and the righteous men of God (as explained by the Radak). For if this was so, the text would not expound on the way in which Eliyahu was taken up, and that he ascended in a storm. And why is the word "death" not mentioned there? Could we say that people who are burned do not die, as do those who are buried in the land?"


Let us now turn our attention to the interpretation of the Ralbag who, after presenting the problem ("It is impossible for the meaning to be that He took him up to the heaven, for physical bodies do not ascend there!"), solves it as follows:


"The reference is to the height of the air, as it is written (Devarim 9:1), "Great cities, fortified (up to) the heaven," and (Bereishit 11:4), "A tower, with the top (reaching to) the heaven." A wind from Hashem and His angels took him up to place as yet unknown, and he lives there, as we have explained."


The Ralbag proves further that Eliyahu did not die in his commentary on pasuk 3:


"'Today Hashem will take your master from above you" – we learn from this that he was taken up only from "above him (above his head). And Eliyahu said to Elisha (pasuk 9), "Before I am taken from you" – demonstrating that he was not taken away in the absolute sense; he was only taken from Elisha."


In the view of the Ralbag, Eliyahu lives, physically, in an unknown place, and he waits there for the day when he will return and reveal himself once more. Is this place "at the height of the air," or is it somewhere on earth? This is "as yet unknown." The exegetical innovation here, by means of which he solves the problem that he raised at the beginning, is his explanation of the word "to the heaven," indicating the place to which Eliyahu ascended. In his view the reference here is not to the Divine sphere, that which is "above ten tefachim" (as would be the reference in many other pesukim, including the one quoted by R. Yosi in the beraita: "The heavens are Hashem's heavens..."), but rather to an elevated place in our own world, "at the height of the air" but still within the human sphere – "less than ten tefachim." He even brings proof of the fact that the Torah uses this word to indicate a great height that humans are able to attain in their human sphere.


The Ralbag's explanation fits in with the Sages' comments in several places. It would seem that this is the intention of the Gemara quoted at the beginning of our discussion, that the meaning of the pasuk "and Eliyahu ascended in a storm to the heaven" is to "less than ten tefachim." The Targum Yonatan on this pasuk (as well as on pasuk 11) also seems to match the Ralbag's explanation: he translates the words "to the heaven" as "towards the heaven." There are several other similar examples in the Talmud and in the midrashim.


A sort of compromise between the two explanations – that of the Radak and that of the Ralbag – is suggested in a responsum of the Chatam Sofer: "... The truth demonstrates that Eliyahu never ascended bodily higher than ten tefachim. His soul separated from his body there (- i.e., in accordance with the Radak) and the soul ascended and performs Divine service above as one of the ministering angels, while his body thinned and remains in the lower Gan Eden, in this world. And on the day of God's tidings, may it come speedily in our days, his soul will be clothed with this holy body, and he will be like any of the wise men and prophets of Israel...."



Let us now return to the conclusion of Sefer Malakhi: It seems that we have proof as to the intention of the text in Sefer Melakhim: Eliyahu did not die. A mission still awaits him in the final days. The prophecy of Malakhi relates to the description of Eliyahu's ascent in Sefer Melakhim, it interprets it and is interpreted by it.


To these two sources we should obviously add the appearances of Eliyahu during the period of the Sages, as we find in dozens of different descriptions in the Talmud and the midrashim. This is a unique phenomenon that has no parallel in all of the literature of Chazal.


The nature of Eliyahu's revelation in this literature is very different from the nature of his actions in Sefer Melakhim: he is no longer the zealous prophet, aiming the arrows of his criticism against Israel. In his later appearances he acts as the savior of individuals from their troubles, as helping to bring appeasement between man and his fellow, but also as Israel's great advocate before the Holy One. On the other hand, Eliyahu's activity in the days of Chazal is still not a general preparation or Israel's redemption, as his task is described in the prophecy of the end of days in Sefer Malakhi.


Thus the revelations of Eliyahu to the Sages of Israel serve to fill the void of time between his ascent in a storm to heaven and his appearance at the end of days, and they also contain some element of preparation for the great change in the image and mission of the prophet.


Let us conclude our study with the question posed by the scholar A. Kaminka:


"They are like two different faces, far removed from one another and with no relation between them: Eliyahu of the Tanakh and Eliyahu of the agadah. Eliyahu of the Tanakh is the angry prophet, the great zealous one... (but) already by the time of the ancient Mishna, at the end of the Second Temple period (he was described as) a sort of angel of God... ready to bring peace throughout the world. (After bringing some examples of Eliyahu's appearances in the agadah, he once again asks) Are these really two different faces – the zealous prophet of the Tanakh... and the merciful Eliyahu of the agadah, who is good and does good and mentions only the merits of Israel? We cannot say this, for even at the end of Malakhi we find a connection between these two images in the promise that Eliyahu will come to return the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their father. There can be no doubt that it is one single personality, the historical and the agadic."


This change that occurs in this single personality of the great prophet will have to be addressed at a different opportunity.




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