In the Hebrew calendar, certain Shabbats are designated with special names to commemorate events in the history of the Jewish community. These Sabbaths may include some additions to the liturgy as well as additional readings from either the Torah or the Prophets. Of the 13 “Special Sabbaths,” four of them have traditionally been assigned special readings during the Torah service. The following are seven of the more important “Special Shabbats.”
Shabbat Shuvah – “Sabbath of Repentance”
Haftarah: Hos 14:2–10
This is the Shabbat that occurs during the Ten Days of Awe, the days between Yom Teruah (Rosh HaShanah) and Yom Kippur. The name is derived from the special haftarah reading assigned for this Shabbat, i.e, Hosea 14:2 which begins “Return, O Israel, unto the Lord.”
Shabbat Shekalim – “Sabbath of the Shekels”
Torah: Exo 30:11–16
Haftarah: 2Ki 12:1–17
Shabbat Shekalim is the first of the four special Sabbaths, which are also called Arba Parashiyyot, “the four pericopes”, since an additional parashah is added to the readings on these Shabbats. Likewise, all four of these special Shabbats occur in the Spring. Shabbat Shekalim is observed on the Shabbat immediately preceding the month of Adar (in a leap year, Adar II). Exodus 30:11–16 is read, which includes the commandment regarding the donation of the half-shekel for the maintenance of the Tabernacle/Temple. In ancient times, special messengers were dispatched to all Jewish communities to collect these donations (m.Shekalim 1.1).
Shabbat Zachor – “Sabbath of Remembering”
Torah: Deu 25:17-19
Haftarah: 1Sa 15:2-34
Commentary: Shabbat Zachor (PDF, 175 KB)
The second of the four special Shabbats, this is the Shabbat immediately before Purim. The name derives from the addition Torah parashah added to the readings (Deut 25:17–19) which commands that Israel remember what Amalek did to them when they came out of Egypt. Since Haman was a direct descendant of Agag, the king of the Amalikites, the commandment is fulfilled in the celebration of Purim in which the name of Haman is drowned out during the reading of the Megilah, the book of Esther.
Shabbat Parah — “Sabbath of the Red Heifer”
Torah: Num 19:1-22
Haftarah: Eze 36:16-38
Commentary: Shabbat Parah (PDF, 232 KB)
This is the third of the four special Shabbats and is the Shabbat immediately preceding Shabbat HaChodesh (see next entry below). The additional Torah portion is Num 19:1–22 that describes purification by the ashes of the red heifer. Since participation in the Pesach festival required ritual purity for each individual, and since it was presumed that everyone had most likely contracted corpse impurity, Shabbat Parah was a reminder to plan one’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem to give sufficient time for the purification ritual (which required eight days).
Shabbat HaChodesh — “Sabbath of the First Month”
Torah: Exo 12:1-10
Haftarah: Eze 45:16-46:18
This is the last of the special Shabbats, and it precedes or falls on the first Sabbath of the first month, that is, the month of Nisan, in which Pesach occurs. The additional Torah parashah is Ex 12:1–10, which reminded the Jewish community of the significant events that would shortly take place in their celebration of Pesach in Jerusalem. This special Shabbat, then, was a final reminder to be fully prepared for the upcoming Festival.
Shabbat HaGadol — “The Great Sabbath”
Haftarah: Mal 3:4-24
Apostolic: Mat 26:17-30
Commentary: Shabbat HaGadol (PDF, 235 KB)
Shabbat HaGadol is the Sabbath immediately preceding Pesach. It is the Sabbath on which final details regarding the observance of the Passover were discussed and taught. Thus, it was not uncommon that the teaching on Shabbat HaGadol became long, and some even jokingly have remarked that the reason it is called “great” is because it refers to the length of the rabbi’s sermon!
Shabbat Nachamu – “Sabbath of Consolation”
Haftarah: Isa 40:1–11
This is the Shabbat immediately following the Ninth of Av (Tisha b’Av), the day we remember and mourn the destruction of both the first and second Temples, as well as other calamities that have come upon our people. After the fast and mourning that characterizes Tisha b’Av, an additional Haftarah reading is added to the next Shabbat, a reading which promises comfort to the people of Israel. This additional reading is from Isaiah 40, which begins “Comfort (nachamu), Comfort my people.”