Some sabbaths have special Torah readings
A handful of Shabbatot (plural for Shabbat)
deserve special mention. These Shabbatot have special Torah readings associated
with them. The most noteworthy of these special Shabbatot are known as the Four
Parshiyot (the Four [Torah] Portions).
The Four Parshiyot
The Four Parshiyot are special Torah readings
added to regular weekly Torah readings in
preparation for Pesach (Passover). These
additional readings come from a different portion of the Torah than the regular
weekly reading, and ordinarily require a separate Torah scroll, or at least a
strong person to roll the scroll to the extra reading and a patient
congregation to wait while he does it! The additional reading is read after the
regular weekly reading, and is referred to as the maftir portion. These four
Shabbatot are the only ones (other than
holidays and Rosh
Chodesh) that have an extra Torah portion.
Shabbat Sheqalim recalls the census taken in the wilderness, described in
Exodus 30:11-16, which is the maftir portion. The people are to donate a
half-shekel (a silver coin) as a tax to provide for the maintenance of the Tent
of Meeting and its service, and the coins are counted instead of the people.
There are many lessons to be learned from this brief passage. The fact that
both rich and poor contribute the same amount reminds us that both rich and
poor are equally valued in the eyes of the Divine. The fact that we count coins
instead of people reminds us that people are not to be thought of as mere
numbers on a ledger. The fact that the census contributions are used to
maintain the Tent of Meeting reminds us of the importance of contributing to
the upkeep of the synagogue (a favorite theme
On Shabbat Sheqalim, we also read a haftarah
portion from II Kings 11:17-12:17, which also makes reference to the census
money and the use of it for Temple maintenance
(see II Kings 12:5-6).
Shabbat Sheqalim occurs on the Rosh Chodesh of
the month before the month of Nissan (that is,
the Rosh Chodesh of Adar or Adar II in
leap years), or on the last Shabbat before that
Rosh Chodesh. Nissan is the month when Pesach
(Passover) occurs. Sheqalim is read at this time because, according to
tradition, the half-shekel census was taken on the first of Nissan, and the
reading is meant to be a reminder of the upcoming census.
The reading for Shabbat Zakhor is very troubling for many Jews: a passage
commanding us to remember (zakhor) the treachery of Amalek and to blot out
their memory. (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). The Amalekites were a tribe of people who
came upon the Israelites shortly after their flight from Egypt and attacked
them from behind, preying upon the weakest of an exhausted group of people. See
Exodus 17:8-16 and Deuteronomy 25:17-19.
Many find this commandment troubling because, in ordering us to "blot out the
remembrance of Amalek," it appears to advocate genocide, killing people because
of their race. Shabbat Zakhor's corresponding
haftarah portion (I Samuel 15) is even more
explicit on this point, ordering Saul to kill the men, women, children and
cattle of Amalek.
The sages have long understood the commandment in
Parshat Zakhor as a command to blot out the type of people that
Amalek represents: those that prey upon the weak, those who do not believe in
justice, those who hate without reason. The sages use the term "Amalek" as a
shorthand for vicious, evil people who behave like mad dogs, in much the same
way that many people today casually toss around the term "Nazi" to refer to
anyone they disagree with rather than to Germans or members of the National
Socialist party. It is these evil people that we are commanded to destroy, the
sages say, not any specific ethnic group. This understanding of the term is
quite clear in 15th century Sephardic commentary Me'am Loez, which said, "In
every generation Amalek rises to destroy us, and each time he clothes himself
in a different nation."
In addition, many scholars have suggested that the best way to "blot out" these
evil people is to turn them away from their evil. If an Amalekite were to
accept basic principles of morality (see The Seven
Laws of Noah), the sages say, he would cease to be an Amalekite and would
not be someone whose memory we are commanded to blot out. Likewise, someone who
chooses to behave in this way becomes an Amalekite whether he is born to that
nation or not, as Me'am Loez said.
For further discussion of whether Amalek is a racial designation and this is a
commandment to genocide, see
A Question of Race on
Shabbat Zakhor occurs on the Shabbat before Purim,
because Haman, the villain of the Purim story, was an Amalekite. The Book of
Esther describes Haman as an "Agagite," that is, a descendant of Agag, King of
the Amalekites, who was spared by Saul contrary to Divine commandment in the
Shabbat Parah occurs on the Shabbat following
Purim, and marks the beginning of formal
preparations for Pesach (Passover). The special
Torah reading, Numbers 19:1-22, discusses a
ritual of purification involving a red heifer (in Hebrew, parah adumah).
Specifically, the ritual purifies people from the ritual impurity that comes
from contact with the dead. At the end of the ritual, the people are purified,
but the person who performed the ritual becomes temporarily impure.
The rabbis speak of the ritual of Parah Adumah as
the greatest of mysteries: it makes the impure pure, and makes the pure impure.
This proves that the rabbis were all men, because any woman knows that when you
clean a house, you start with a clean sponge and a dirty house and you end with
a dirty sponge and a clean house, and there is no great mystery in this!
The passage is chosen for this time because of the need to purify oneself for
Pesach, in preparation for pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the
Temple. The corresponding
haftarah portion is Ezekiel 36:16-38, which
also talks about purification.
The last of the Four Parshiyot is Ha-Chodesh, Exodus 12:1-20. With one simple
line, it establishes the Hebrew calendar: "This
month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the
first of the months of the year." (Ex. 12:2).
This portion is read on Rosh Chodesh
Nissan or on the last Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh
Now, you may be wondering: why are we reading about the first month of the year
in the spring? Isn't Jewish New Year in the fall?
On the Hebrew calendar, months are counted from Nissan in the spring, but year
numbers change in Tishri (the seventh month) in the fall. The month that is the
beginning of months referred to above is Nissan, and this is quite clear from
the passage in Exodus, which goes on to talk about preparations for
Pesach (Passover), which begins on Nissan 15.
The corresponding haftarah portion is Ezekiel
45:16-46:18, which also talks about the first months and the offerings at that
Other Special Shabbatot
A few other Shabbatot receive special notice on the calendar. These Shabbatot
have special haftarah readings or have special
significance to their standard readings. Unlike the Four Parshiyot
above, these Shabbatot do not have special Torah readings
and do not require an additional Torah scroll.
Shabbat Ha-Gadol is the Shabbat before Pesach
(Passover). Traditionally, this was one of the few times of the year that a
rabbi gave a lengthy sermon (in modern times, we
get one every week). The sermon was usually about preparations for Pesach, and
this special Shabbat commemorates a preparation for the original Pesach in
Egypt. Shabbat Ha-Gadol (The Great Sabbath) commemorates the 10th day of
Nissan, when the Hebrew slaves took the lambs that they were going to offer for
Pesach and tied them up outside their homes, to keep until they offered it on
the 14th (Ex. 12:3-6). According to tradition, this was a dangerous thing to
do, because Egyptians worshipped sheep, but miraculously, instead of
slaughtering the Hebrews, the Egyptians instead fought with each other over
whether the Hebrews should be sent away already.
The special haftarah reading for this Shabbat is Malachi 3:4-24. This messianic
prophecy regarding the end of days and the return of the prophet Elijah is read
at this time because it is believed that Elijah will return at Pesach. This is
why we include a cup for him in our seder rituals.
Unlike the other special Shabbatot, Shabbat Shirah does not have an additional
reading, but rather is dictated by the presence
of a standard reading. Shabbat Shirah is the Shabbat when we read Parshat
Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), which is the Torah portion that includes the
Song at the Sea.
Tradition teaches that there are only ten true Songs (Shirot, the plural of
Shirah) in the history of the world. These true Songs are not mere melodies;
they are expressions of the harmony of creation and mark monumental transitions
in history. Another of these Songs appears on the
haftarah portion for the week (Judges
4:4-5:31): the Song of Deborah. The Song of Songs is, of course, one of the Ten
Songs. Interestingly, the Tenth Song has not yet been sung: it is the Song of
the coming of the Mashiach, which will be sung
at the End of Days (see Isaiah 26:1).
Shabbat Hazon means "Sabbath of Vision," and refers to Isaiah's vision of the
destruction of the Temple, which is the
haftarah reading for the week (Isaiah 1:1-27).
The Torah reading cycle is structured so that
the parshah with this haftarah (Parshat Devarim) will occur on the Shabbat
preceding Tisha B'Av, a fast day commemorating the
destruction of the Temple.
Shabbat Nachamu means "Sabbath of Consolation." Shabbat Nachamu is the first of
seven haftarot starting with the Shabbat after
Tisha B'Av and leading up to
Rosh Hashanah. These readings are meant to console
us after the destruction of the Temple and
reassure us that it will be built again. As with Shabbat Hazon, the cycle of
Torah readings is structured in such a way that these readings will occur on
the appropriate weeks.
Shabbat Shuvah literally means "Sabbath of Return," but it is also a play on
the phrase "Shabbat Teshuvah" (Sabbath of Repentance). It is the Shabbat that
occurs between Rosh Hashanah and
Yom Kippur and is a time for reflection
leading up to the atonement of Yom Kippur. Shabbat Shuvah has two special
haftarah readings, one dealing with the
importance of heartfelt repentance (Hosea 14:2-10) and one praising the
Creator's mercy (Micah 7:18-20).
© Copyright 5765-5771 (2005-2011), Tracey R Rich
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