Question: I would like to know why there are four special readings of the Torah from the beginning of Adar until Pesach. Also, why do we call each of those four Shabbatot by a special name? Finally, when did the practice of reading a parshah every week start?
Answer: The four readings to which you refer are read on Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat Parah, and Shabbat HaChodesh. These four special readings collectively are referred to as the arba parshiyot.
We have other Shabbatot known by special names – such as Shabbat Nachamu, Shabbat Shuvah, Shabbat Shirah, and Shabbat HaGadol, but we don’t read anything additional on these weeks. Rather, they possess special names because of a different factor. For example, the week we read Parshas Beshalach, is called Shabbat Shirah because of the shirat hayam (the song that was sung at the Red Sea after G-d saved the Jews from the Egyptians) that appears in that parshah.
The Gaon Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zt”l, discusses why we have four special Torah readings between the beginning of Adar and Pesach in his work HaMoadim BaHalacha (Jerusalem, 1956, p. 188). He writes: “The unique importance of these parashiyot is found in rabbinic literature. Even before the parashiyot of the Torah were divided among the Shabbatot of the year, the requirement [to read] the arba parshiyot was noted [Megillah 29a]. However, in both the Mishnah and the Tosefta we find no mention of the names of the weekly parashiyot.”
As for the requirement to read the Torah every Shabbat: That dates back to the time of Moses (Bava Kamma 82a). The Gemara enumerates 10 enactments of the prophet Ezra; among them is reading the Torah publicly on Shabbat at Minchah, as well as on the following Monday and Thursday. But the Gemara subsequently proves that the enactment to read the Torah on Shabbat and Monday and Thursday dates to Moses’ time.
It makes its case based on Exodus 15:22: “Vayasa moshe et yisrael miyam suf vayetz’u el midbar shur vayelchu sheloshet yomim bamidbar ve’lo motz’u mayim – Moses brought the Children of Israel from the Red Sea and they went out toward the Desert of Shur and they traveled three days in the desert and they did not find water.” Now, Isaiah 55:1 states “Hoy kol tzamei le’chu lemayim… – Everyone who is thirsty, go for water…” and water is often a metaphor for the Torah.
So, just as a person cannot go three days without water, similarly one cannot go three days without Torah. And that’s why we read the Torah three days a week (Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat).
What Ezra added was an “upgrade” to the reading. Whereas before, the reading could contain just three verses, after him it had to include 10 verses with a Kohen, Levi, and Yisrael called up to read a minimum of three verses each.
We return to Rabbi Zevin: “But the dividing of the Torah reading into 54 parashiyot came at a much later time. We find (Megillah 29b) that the Bnei Ma’arava [i.e., those who lived in Eretz Yisrael] used to conclude a Torah reading cycle every three years.”
Since the Gemara states that the Bnei Ma’arava completed the Torah every three years, evidently everyone else completed it in a single year. Indeed, Rashi (30b, sv “d’maski oraysa”) is emphatic as can be in his commentary on the Gemara that the practice of the Bnei Ma’arava does not reflect our own.
The Mechaber (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 669:1) clearly states based on the Gemara that on the second day of Shemini Atzeret, we in the Diaspora read Ve’zot HaBeracha, the last parshah, from one scroll and then start reading Parashat Bereishit, the first parshah, from a second scroll, thereby beginning a new annual cycle.
Thus, we have answered your second and third questions.
(To be continued)