Counting the Sabbaths before Pesach

Rabbi Lane Steinger

By Rabbi Lane Steinger

Throughout the Jewish year there are several Shabbatot/Sabbaths which have an added significance. This week will end with one: Shabbat Parah (the Sabbath of Parah Adumah/the Red Heifer), one of a series of special Shabbatot which lead up to Passover.

The first of this sequence, the seventh Sabbath before Pesach, is Shabbat Shekalim/the Sabbath of Shekels. Shabbat Shekalim precedes the month of Adar, and traditionally on this Sabbath in addition to the “regular” weekly Torah Portion, there is an additional Reading, Exodus 30:11-16, from a second scroll. This parashah authorized the half shekel head tax, the proceeds of which went to maintain the Tent of Meeting, the portable wilderness sanctuary. The Haftarah for Shabbat Shekalim recalls an episode during the reign of King Yehoash when the collection of funds for and repairs to the First Temple—both of which had been neglected—were carried out (see II Kings 12:5-17).

The next special Sabbath, the one before Purim, is Shabbat Zachor (the Sabbath to Remember). The name is taken from the extra reading, Deuteronomy 25:17-19: “Zachor et asher-‘asah l’cha ‘amalek ba’derech/Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey after you left Egypt—how they ambushed all the stragglers at your rear who were tired and weary…So you must blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven; don’t forget!” (According to tradition, Haman, the villain of the Purim story, was a descendant of the Amalekites: we drown out Haman’s name during the Megillah reading, but we erase the memory of Amalek when we advocate for and assist the weak and the vulnerable.)

This week is Shabbat Parah. The traditional added Torah reading, Numbers 19:1-22, prescribed the ritual of the Red Heifer, the ashes of which were to be used for purifying a person after contact with a corpse. In the Haftarah, Ezekiel, the Priest and Prophet of the Babylonian Exile, proclaims the purification which will be part of the national restoration and renewal of the Israelites (see Ezekiel 36:24-28). These biblical lections are reminders that the paschal offering could be eaten only by those in a state of ritual purity (as mandated in Numbers 9:1-13).

The next Sabbath will be Shabbat Ha’chodesh (the Sabbath of the Month), the one prior to Nisan. Nisan not only is the month in which Passover occurs, but also is the first month of the year (Exodus 12:2; recall that Rosh Hashanah/the Head of the Year is the first of the seventh month), a time for a new beginning. The traditional second Torah reading is Exodus 12:1-20, the depiction of the prelude to the first Passover. In the Haftarah, Ezekiel articulates the divine plan for the future observance of Pesach in the restored land and rebuilt Temple (see Ezekiel 45:21-24), thus emphasizing the themes of rebirth and renewal.

The last of the succession, the one prior to Passover, is Shabbat Ha’gadol (the Great Sabbath). There isn’t an extra Torah reading, but in the Haftarah the post-exilic Prophet Malachi looks both back and ahead when he pronounces the divine promises that, “The offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Eternal as in days of yore and years gone by” (Malachi 3:4), and that, “Look, I am sending you Elijah the Prophet before the advent of the great and awesome day of the Eternal” (3:23).

I don’t take these special Sabbaths or their biblical selections literally. Rather, I understand them as figurative exhortations to prepare for Pesach. Just as the seven weeks following the first day of Passover are marked by the counting of the Omer and summon me to get myself ready for Shavu’ot and to stand, so to speak, at Sinai, so the seven Sabbaths which precede Pesach are highlighted by the special Shabbatot, which call me to get myself ready for Passover in diverse ways that are practical (as represented by Shabbat Shekalim), ethical (Zachor), and spiritual (Parah, Ha’chodesh and Ha’gadol).

Will Passover be all that it can to and for me? It depends on how I prepare myself for the Festival which celebrates the birth of our people Israel and of our commitment to the ennoblement and elevation of all peoples as free human beings, which not only is a commemoration of the past, but also an orientation for the future. Shabbat Parah, like the other special Sabbaths which point me to Pesach, plays a special role in the process.