It has been common practice for millennia to refer to most Shabbatot (plural of Shabbat) by the name of the Torah portion read that week. The Shabbat on which we read B’reisheet is called Shabbat B’reisheet, etc. But throughout the year some Shabbatot are given additional significance through a special name – for instance, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return or Repentance, based on the opening word of the Haftarah, or prophetic reading for that day.
It just so happens that during the months of Adar and Nisan, roughly corresponding to March and April, there are more of these specially named Shabbatot than in the entire rest of the year. March 2nd is known as Shabbat Shekalim, the Sabbath of Shekels. In traditional congregations an additional Torah reading, describing the annual obligation of each Israelite to contribute a half shekel to the maintenance of the tabernacle, is added to the weekly Torah reading. The half shekel tax was collected at the beginning of the month of Adar; hence Shabbat Shekalim always falls on the 1st of Adar or the Shabbat immediately preceding it. In a leap year, such as this year, Shabbat Shekalim and the other specially named Shabbatot for Adar occur in Adar 2 rather than Adar 1.
Two weeks later, on March 16, comes Shabbat Zachor, or the Sabbath of Remembering. The name is taken from the additional Torah reading reminding the Israelites never to forget the treachery of the Amalekites, who attacked the weakest of the Israelites at the rear of their ranks. Shabbat Zachor always occurs immediately before Purim, as Haman was described as a descendant of the Amalekites.
March 30th is Shabbat Parah, the Sabbath of the Cow (no, it has nothing to do with the names of Chinese New Years). The additional Torah reading on this Shabbat describes the ritual of the parah adumah, or red heifer, whose ashes were used to purify those in an impure state. This ritual was necessary to perform before Passover on anyone in a state of impurity, or that individual would not be able to perform the mitzvah of eating the Paschal lamb on Pesach.
The next week, April 6, is Shabbat Ha-Khodesh or the Sabbath of “This Month.” It is read on the Shabbat coinciding with or immediately before the first of Nisan. The additional reading refers to the month of Nisan, the month in which Pesach is celebrated, and begins with “This month shall be the first of the months for you.” This serves as a reminder that Pesach is fast approaching.
Finally, on April 13, the Shabbat immediately before Pesach begins, comes Shabbat Ha-Gadol – the Great Sabbath. The name comes from the Haftarah read on that day in which the prophet Malachi proclaims, “I will send the Prophet Elijah to you before the great (ha-gadol), awesome day of the Lord,” foreshadowing the role of Elijah in the Pesach seder as a harbinger of the future redemption. Historically, Shabbat Ha-Gadol was given added significance, as it was one of only two occasions when rabbis gave sermons – on Shabbat Shuvah to remind the people of the laws of Teshuvah, or repentance, in preparation for Yom Kippur; and on Shabbat Ha-Gadol to review the intricacies of the removal of chametz and the laws of Pesach.
Each of the specially named Shabbatot in the coming months serves as a signpost and reminder of the holidays of Purim and Pesach, reinforcing the importance of the Jewish calendar and the holidays in Jewish memory, identity and continuity. Elisha joins me in wishing all of you a joyous Purim and a happy and memorable Pesach.
Rabbi Tracy G. Klirs