Question: Why do we read four special Torah sections between Purim and Pesach. Also, why do we call each of the four Shabbatot on which we read these sections by a special name – such as Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor etc.?
Answer: Last week we discussed the origin of weekly Torah readings and the additional arba parshiyot sections that we read beginning on the Shabbat preceding the first of Adar through the Shabbat preceding the first of Nissan. The four Shabbatot are Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat Parah, and Shabbat HaChodesh.
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Let us examine each of the arba parshiyot, and what our Sages have said about them. The first of the four parshiyot is Parshat Shekalim, which deals with the half-shekel coin given by every Jewish male of a certain age. The Torah (Exodus 30:11-16) states that this served two purposes. First, it served to count the Jewish people in an indirect fashion (since counting them directly may have caused the evil eye to plague them [Rashi ad loc.]). Second, it served as an atonement. Rashi (ad loc.) explains that some of that money was used for the communal sacrifices offered on the altar throughout the year.
The first mishnah in J.T. Shekalim (1:1) states, “On the first day of Adar [the bet din] would announce the shekalim contribution…” The Gemara asks, “Why on the first day of Adar?” It answers: “So that they will bring their shekalim in the proper time.”
The Rivan (Rabbenu Yehuda b. Binyamin HaRofeh) explains in his commentary (ad loc.) that the “proper time” is Rosh Chodesh Nissan, as the Gemara (B.T. Megillah 29b) explains concerning the verse (Numbers 28:14), “Zot olat chodesh bechadsho – This is the burnt offering sacrifice of each month in its month” – meaning the first of the month. Read this sentence as follows: “Chadesh – renew” from a new terumah (collection) the tamid and mussaf sacrifices brought on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. Acquire them with the new shekalim coins.
The Rivan then points out that the Gemara states (Pesachim 6a) that we should study the laws of Pesach 30 days before Pesach. He argues that we always should always prepare 30 days in advance. Therefore, since the shekalim collection was scheduled for Rosh Chodesh Nissan, we announce it 30 days prior, on Rosh Chodesh Adar. Hence, Parshat Shekalim is read on, or immediately prior to, Rosh Chodesh Adar. We may no longer have a Holy Temple, karbanot or a shekalim collection, but we still we read Parshat Shekalim to commemorate them.
Second on the calendar is Parshat Zachor, on which we read the verses in Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about Amalek: “Zachor et asher asah lecha Amalek baderech betzet’chem mimitzrayim – Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you were leaving Egypt.” What did this nation do? The verse explains: “Asher karcha baderech va’yezanev becha kol ha’nechshalim acharecha ve’ata ayef ve’yage’a, velo yarei Elokim – He met you on the way and struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weak ones at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear Hashem.”
The verse then instructs us, “Vehaya behani’ach Hashem Elokecha lecha mikol oy’vecha misaviv ba’aretz asher Hashem Elokecha noten lecha nachala lerishtah, timcheh et zecher Amalek mitachat hashamayim, lo tishkach – When Hashem your G-d has given you rest from all your enemies all around, in the land that Hashem your G-d gives you for an inheritance to possess it, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; you shall not forget.”
Tosafot (Berachot 13a s.v. “b’lashon hakodesh ne’emra”) rules that the public reading of Parshat Zachor is a biblical requirement. Indeed, the Mechaber (Orach Chayim 685:7 citing “yesh omrim – some authorities”) codifies this as the halacha.
One might ask why Amalek deserves such a unique and severe punishment? Were there not other mortal enemies who fell upon our people? And yet, it is only Amalek that we are instructed to totally eradicate.
The answer is rather simple. Other nations that fought with us in the course of our entry into the land of Canaan were nations whom we were to displace when we entered the Promised Land. They fought us because they viewed their battles as a matter of survival. However, Amalek, a grandson of Edom (Esav), had no need to attack us. Hashem had commanded us not to conquer or harm Edom, Moab and Ammon since they were the children of Esav (Abraham’s grandson) and Lot (Abraham’s nephew) and their lands were their own by right of inheritance. Nonetheless, Amalek attacked us and thus sealed their destiny – eventual destruction and obliteration.
A mishnah (in Megillah 29a) explains that if Rosh Chodesh Adar falls on a Shabbat, we read Parshat Shekalim on that Shabbat. However, if rosh chodesh falls in the middle of the week, we read Parshat Shekalim on the Shabbat preceding rosh chodesh. The next week we don’t read any additional Torah section, and we resume with Parshat Zachor on the Shabbat after that. Rashi s.v. “Umafsikin le’shabbat haba’ah” explains that we endeavor to read Parshat Zachor on the Shabbat just before Purim in order to connect the eradication of Amalek with the downfall of Haman.