As Purim and Pesach approach four special Torah and Haftarah readings are added to the weekly reading of the Torah. They are called the Arba Parshiyot (four Torah portions).
- This week 2/25/17 is the first of these special Shabbatot - Shabbat Shekalim. This special reading is read on the Shabbat prior to or on Rosh Hodesh Adar. We read of the census in the Wilderness of Sinai conducted by Moshe by means of each Israeli giving a half Shekel for the building of the mishkan. (Shemot 30:11-16). In later times the half Shekalim were used for the purchase of the communal sacrifice offered morning and evening and Shekalim had to be collected before Rosh Hodesh Nissan. An announcement to this effect had to be made at least a month before to give time for a successful collection. The Rabbis in Megillah 13b connected the half-shekel collection to Purim and stated: “It was known to Hashem that Haman would one day pay Shekalim for [the annihilation of] the Bene Yisrael, so He made sure that the yearly Shekalim given by the Jews would precede those of Haman...”
- On 3/11/17 the second Shabbat portion - Zakhor (Devarim 25:17-19) is read on the Shabbat preceding the holiday of Purim: “Remember what Amalek did unto you by the way as you came out of Egypt. How he met you by the way, and killed your stragglers, all that were weak in your rear, when you were faint and weary: and he did not fear Hashem. Therefore it shall be, when Hashem has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land which the Hashem gave you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.” The tie-in to Purim is obvious, Haman was a descendent of the cruel Amalekites, and is also connected to the special Haftarah from Shmuel 1: 15:2-34 King Shaul makes war on the Amalekites and captures their King Agag. In megillat Esther read on Purim, the villain Haman is referred to as “The Agagi” a descendant of the king of the Amalekites. To blot out the remembrance of Amalek whenever Haman’s name is mentioned in the reading of the Megillah the custom is to drown out the hearing of his name.
- On 3/18/17 is the third special Shabbat Shabbat Parah about the purification ceremony using a Red Heifer. (Bemidbar 19:1-22). This needs to be read on the Shabbat prior to Shabbat HaHodesh which is either on Rosh Hodesh Nissan, or the Shabbat prior to it. The Torah reading for Shabbat Parah, deals with the red heifer whose ashes were combined with water to ritually purify anyone who had been in contact with a dead person. Since only people who were ritually pure could eat from the Pesach sacrifice, a public announcement right before Nissan reminded everyone to purify themselves before making the Pesach pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
- On 3/25/17 is Shabbat HaHodesh usually on the last Shabbat of Adar. The special Torah reading is Shemot 12:1-20. In it Moses and Aaron are told that the numbering of the months of the year is to start with Nissan. It also includes the laws for Pesach as it was observed in Egypt. This Torah portion anticipates Pesach, which is only a few weeks away. We also read a special haftarah on Shabbat HaHodesh, taken from the book of Ezekiel. In the haftarah, Ezekiel explains a new paschal offering that will be sacrificed in the future, in the time of the third Temple. Once again there is a difference between the haftarah as it is read by Sefardim and Ashkenazim. Sefardim read Ezekiel 45:16-46:15 Ashkenazim read Ezekiel 45:18-46:18. These differences in the haftarot go back to the different customs of the Yeshivot in Israel and Babylon.
These four special readings have a message for us all:
Shekalim refers to the mitzvah of Tzedakah – of giving to worthy causes; and chessed being kind to others. The half shekalim went to support the building of the Mishkan and eventually the purchase of korbanot that symbolize tefillah – prayer. We all need to strengthen ourselves in these areas of tzedakah, tefillah and chessed.
Zachor – Remember the past, we need to continually remember who we are, our history and our deeds to enable us to continually strengthen our Jewish identity and improve our deeds.
Parah – Purify ourselves spiritually through teshuvah to be ready for a deeper connection to Hashem on Pesach.
Hachodesh – Through the above processes we will be worthy of a month of renewal and new beginnings, change and promise and ‘hithadshut’.