“From the seventeenth of Tammuz onwards we recite three haphtaroth of retribution [followed by] seven of comfort and two of repentance. The three of retribution are “The words of Jeremiah” (Jeremiah 1:1-2:3); “Listen to the word of Hashem” (ibid, 2:4-28, 3:4, 4:1-2) and “The vision of Isaiah” (Isaiah 1:1-27). The seven of comfort are: “Comfort, comfort My people” (Isaiah 40:1-26); “Zion said: The Lord has forsaken me” (ibid 49:14-5:3); “Afflicted, storm-tossed one” (ibid 54:11-55:5); “It is I, I who am your Comforter” (ibid 51:12-52:12); “Sing, barren one, who did not give birth” (Ibid 54:1-10); “Arise, shine, for your light has come” (Ibid 60:1-22) and “I will be gladdened in the Lord” (ibid 61:10-63:9). [The two of repentance:] on the fast of Gedaliah at Mincha, we read, “Seek the Lord when He is found” (ibid 55:6-56:8) and on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we always read “Return, Israel, to the Lord your God” (Hosea 14:2-10, Joel 2:11-27 and Micah 7:18-20).” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 428:8)

The choice of haphtarah, the reading from the prophets that follows the Torah reading on Shabbat, festivals and fast days, is governed by this principle: it must relate to the subject matter of the Torah reading (ibid).   This is true for most Shabbatot of the year but there are exceptions. Occasionally, the haphtarah relates not to the parshat hashavua but to the time of the year in the Jewish calendar. This is the case during the three weeks of mourning, the seven weeks that follow them and the Ten Days of Repentance that follow them. The themes of the haphtaroth during the three weeks are retribution, destruction and rebuke. The themes of the haphtaroth of the seven weeks following the ninth of Av and leading up to Rosh Hashanah are comfort and consolation. All seven haphtaroth are taken from Isaiah, the prophet laureate of the Jewish people. The haphtaroth that follow, on the fast of Gedaliah (the day following Rosh Hashanah) and on Shabbat Shuva, focus on the concept of teshuva, return to God.  

The great Chassidic leader, Rabbi Zadok HaCohen Rabinowitz of Lublin (1823-1900 in Pri Tzadik, Pinchas #8) has a fascinating observation about the three haphtaroth of retribution. He notes that the first begins with the power of speech: “The words of Jeremiah”; the second, with the sense of hearing, “Listen to the word of Hashem” and the last, to the gift of sight, “The vision of Isaiah.” Citing Kabbalistic sources, Rabbi Zadok explains that these weeks provide us with the opportunity to correct sins of speech, hearing and seeing.  He explains that this is done in an ascending order with sins of the eyes being the most heinous transgressions.   This is quite unusual because the Sages generally held that sins of speech are the most serious.  For example, they equated lashon hara (harmful speech) with the three cardinal sins of idolatry, immorality and murder (Arachin 15b) and they labelled a person who gossips regularly as a heretic (ibid). Why then does Rabbi Zadok place sins of the eyes at the top of the list?

Perhaps we can explain this with a teaching of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel in the modern era. Rav Kook notes than in the Babylonian Talmud, when a question is asked, the sages will suggest an answer and will begin their suggestion with the words tah shema, “come and hear’. In the Jerusalem Talmud, the expression is tah chami (or chazi), “come and see”.  Moreover, the discussions in the Babylonian Talmud are long and protracted, whereas those in the Jerusalem Talmud are extremely terse. Rav Kook explained thus (from the book Sapphire from the Land of Israel, adapted from Igrot HaRe’iyah vol. I pp. 123-124, letter 103 (Tevet 5668) and Orot pp. 89-90): “The different approaches of the two Talmuds originate in the limitation of prophecy to the Land of Israel. The Torah of Israel benefits from prophetic influence, and this affects its style and fundamental nature. Since the Torah of the Land of Israel is rooted in prophetic knowledge and insight, elaborate discussions are superfluous. The scholars of Israel arrive at legal decisions through an intuitive insight into the underlying principles. This explains the terse style of the Jerusalem Talmud, where subtle hints are often sufficient in order to reach the final Halachic decision. The Babylonian Talmud, however, lacked this prophetic input. The Babylonian scholars engaged in intricate discussions, using complex legal reasoning to clarify the Halacha. Thus, unlike the expression commonly found in the Jerusalem Talmud, “Tah chazi” or “Tah chami” (“Come and see”), the Babylonian Talmud uses the expression “Tah shema” (“Come and hear”). “Tah shema” indicates a greater distance from the source, analogous to the difference between the clarity of that which is seen as opposed to that which is only heard.”

Using this line of reasoning, we might suggest that sins of the eyes are worse because they indicate a greater closeness to the person. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 25b) notes that if members of a court witnessed a crime with their own eyes, there is no need for them to hear testimony in order to reach a verdict because “hearing should not be better than seeing.” In other words, if a court is permitted to rule based on the testimony of witnesses which by nature is second-hand information, then they may certainly rule based on what their eyes behold. Consequently, if the Sanhedrin sighted the new moon, they can declare that it is Rosh Chodesh. They do not have to wait for witnesses to come forward.

More than any other era in history, we need to atone for sins of the eyes. Previous generations were influenced largely by auditory stimuli. Travellers from far-off lands would come to town and share stories of exotic places, people and animals. News was spread from person to person, from mouth to ear. The invention of the radio in the late 19th century allowed information to be broadcast across great distances, but this paled into insignificance when television appeared in 1927. Now images accompanied sound.  However, even this was limited because the average person could not broadcast his own images. All of this changed with the internet. Today, anyone, anywhere in the world can view or send almost any image on a computer, Smart TV, cellphone or tablet device. These images can be violent, sexual, racist and highly inappropriate in a number of ways. There are virtually no filters and no censorship. Young children can watch images that their parents only saw well into their twenties or thirties, if at all.  And all of it is free-of-charge. Is it any wonder that the Torah (in the section of the curses, Devarim 28:34) predicted that, “You will go mad from the sight of your eyes that you will see”?

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you a Good Shabbos!  Rabbi Liebenberg


Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha: 



*Tuesday night 18 & Wednesday 19 July – Rosh Chodesh Av

Rosh Chodesh Av (also called ‘Menachem Av’) is the start of the Nine Days of mourning that culminate in the fast of Tisha B’Av. (See Three Weeks of Mourning newsletter for details). The Talmud states that we decrease our joy when Av begins. After the Fast, we begin to look forward to the month of Elul and the High Holy Days. The month also contains the 15th Av, an ancient quasi-festival that commemorates many joyous events. The Molad (appearance of the new moon) is on Tuesday 18 July at 04h20 and 16 chalakim (a chelek, literally a “portion”, is a Talmudic measure of time equal to one-eighteenth of a minute, or 3 and 1/3 seconds).

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