Every week, on Shabbat, a portion of the Five Books of Moses is read in synagogue. This portion is known as the parasha. In addition to the parasha, a section from the Prophets (Neviim) is also read each Shabbat, immediately after the conclusion of the Torah Reading Service. This reading is known as the Haftarah.
While there is no definitive source that confirms when this custom actually began, it is speculated that it commenced during the Syrian-Greek occupation of Judea ( the Chanukah story). King Antiochus prohibited the study of the Torah. Because the prohibition was specific to the five Books of Moses, the Jewish people chose to read aloud a section from the prophets that somehow related to the weekly portion. After the victory over Antiochus, although the regular Torah reading was renewed, the custom remained.
Haftarot are read on Shabbat and festival mornings and during the afternoon service on fast days. (On Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, a haftarah is read during both the morning and the afternoon service.) The final person called to make the blessing over the Torah (the aliyah) is known as the baal maftir, the extra. In addition to making the blessing over the final Torah verse recited, the baal maftir also recites the blessings over the haftarah.
On the whole, the basic content of the haftarah is the same throughout the Jewish world. There are, however, some differences in the choice of readings between Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities, and even between other smaller communities within this divide (for instance, the community of Frankfurt-on-Main, Germany).
Unlike the reading of the Torah, the reading of the haftarah does not need to be chanted from a scroll, although it often is. The haftarot also have a separate and distinct trope (tune) from the Torah reading.
Did you know: The haftarah for Shabbat Across America and Shabbat Across Canada, which will be celebrated on March 5, 2010, is Ezekiel 36:16-36.
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