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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Isaiah - Introduction

ISAIAH IS PERHAPS THE BEST‐LOVED of the prophetic books. It is cited more than any other prophetic text in rabbinic literature, and more haftarot are taken from Isaiah than from any other prophetic book. (Haftarot are the prophetic readings chanted in synagogue on the Sabbath, holidays, and fast days.) In Ashkenazic practice outside the land of Israel, nineteen haftarot are from Isaiah (twenty, if one follows Reform practice by assigning Isaiah 60.1–22 as the haftarah for Yom Ha‐‘atzma’ut [Israeli Independence Day] in the Diaspora); by contrast, only nine are from Jeremiah and ten from Ezekiel. Second place goes to the books of Kings, which contributes sixteen haftarot. Isaiah is a major source of prooftexts for some of Judaism's main tenets, such as messianism, the centrality of Jerusalem, and economic and social justice. Not only rabbinic Judaism but also Christianity and Western culture have emphasized the book of Isaiah. First‐time readers of Isaiah are often surprised to find that a well‐known expression, a famous quotation, or even a favorite song comes from or is based on Isaiah. See, for example, 2.2–4; 6.3; 9.1; 9.5; 11.6–9; 12.3; 22.13; 32.17; 35.10; 40.1; 40.3; 52.2; 53.1–13; 56.7; 60.1; 62.5; 62.6; 66.10 . (Some of these verses will be more familiar to people who attend synagogue, some to people who attend Sabbath meals, some to people who attend performances of Handel's Messiah.)

Most of the texts in this book are poetry, often of a highly complex and elusive sort. It is sometimes not clear where a particular prophecy begins and ends, and, especially in the first half of the book, one can sometimes debate whether a passage intends to comfort or castigate the nation. In many cases, verb forms are ambiguous, and we cannot be sure whether the passage predicts crucial events that will take place in the future or meditates on events that have already come to pass. As a result of all this, one cannot read quickly through Isaiah the way one might read a biblical book that tells a story, or even a book whose poems or sermons are demarcated in a fairly clear manner (such as the book of Psalms or Jeremiah). A reader will need to read slowly, and as a rule it will be necessary to read a text several times before one can even begin to understand it. It will probably not be helpful to read the whole book from beginning to end the way one reads, say, a novel. Rather, it is best to approach the book as a collection of texts or an anthology, in which each passage demands careful attention, thinking, rereading, and contemplation. Keeping in mind the historical setting of each prophecy will also aid the reader greatly.

The book of Isaiah is one of the most complex prophetic books. It contains at least two distinct sections, dating from two entirely different eras. Chs 1–39 are, in large part, the product of a prophet who lived in Jerusalem during the 8th century BCE. As early as the Middle Ages, however, the great rabbinic commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra recognized that chs 40 and following reflect another setting altogether, which he identified as the Babylonian exile of the 6th century. Similarly, Shadal (Samuel David Luzzato, a rabbinic exegete who lived during the 19th century) maintained that chs 40–66 were addressed to the Judean exiles in Babylonia and were not published until some time after 586 BCE (though Shadal still claimed that the 8th‐century Isaiah had written them). All modern scholars share a perspective similar to Ibn Ezra's and believe that chs 40–66 (and also 34–35 ) were composed during and after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century. It will be necessary to address chs 1–39 and 40–66 separately in the introductory comments below.

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