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: Let’s examine each of the arba parshiyot, the verses in the Torah that apply to them, and what our Sages have said about them.
The first of the arba parshiyot is Parashat Shekalim, which deals with the half-shekel coin. The Torah (Exodus 30:11-16) states that this coin served two purposes. First, the Jews were counted indirectly through it so that the evil eye wouldn’t plague them (Rashi ad loc). Second, through it, the Jews received atonement. Rashi explains that some of the money was used for communal sacrifices to be offered on the altar throughout the year.
The first mishnah in Meschet Shekalim (Jerusalem Talmud 1:1) states, “On the first day of Adar, [beit din would] announce the shekalim contribution…” The Gemara asks, “Why on the first day of Adar?” The Gemara answers, “So that they’ll bring their shekalim in the proper time.”
The Riv’van explains (ad loc.) that “the proper time” is Rosh Chodesh Nissan. The Gemara (Megillah 29b) cites Numbers 28:14: “Zot olat chodesh bechodsho – This is the olah sacrifice of each month in its month,” i.e., the first of the month. It states that at this time, “chaddesh” – we should renew – i.e., we should take from a new terumah [collection] the tamid and mussaf sacrifices brought on Rosh Chodesh Nissan.” They were acquired with the new shekalim.
The Riv’van notes that the Gemara (Pesachim 6a) says we should study the laws of Pesach 30 days before the chag. If so, it stands to reason that the shekalim collection scheduled for Rosh Chodesh Nissan should be announced 30 days in advance on Rosh Chodesh Adar. That’s why Parshat Shekalim is read on, or immediately prior to, Rosh Chodesh Adar.
Second on the calendar is Parshat Zachor (Deuteronomy 25:17-19): “Zachor et asher asah lecha Amalek baderech betzet’chem mimitzrayim – Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you were departing Egypt.” The verse explains: “asher karcha baderech va’yezanev becha kol ha’nechshalim acharecha ve’ata ayef ve’yage’a, velo yarei Elokim – that he met you on the way, and he 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 G-d.”
The Torah 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 – It shall be 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 heaven, you shall not forget.”
Tosafot (Berachot 13a s.v. “b’lashon hakodesh ne’emra”) maintains that reading Parshat Zachor (publicly) is a biblical requirement, as does the Mechaber (Orach Chayim 685:7, citing “yesh omrim”).
One might ask why Amalek deserves such a severe punishment. Were there not other mortal enemies who fought wars with us? Yet, none of them received such a harsh punishment.
The answer is rather simple. Other nations that fought us did so as a matter of survival. However, Amalek, a grandson of Edom (Esav), had no need to attack us. We had been told that Edom, Moab, and Ammon were not to be conquered or harmed in any way as they are the children of Esav (Abraham’s grandson) and Lot (Abraham’s nephew) and live on the lands of their inheritance. Yet, Amalek treacherously fought us anyway and thus sealed its fate of destruction and obliteration.
The Mishnah (Megillah 29a) states that we read Parshat Shekalim on Shabbat if Rosh Chodesh Adar falls on that day. However, if Rosh Chodesh falls in the middle of the week, we read Parshat Shekalim on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh; we then wait two weeks before reading the next of the arba parshiyot, Parshat Zachor.
Rashi (s.v. “Umafsikin le’shabbat haba’ah”) explains that we endeavor to read Parshat Zachor on the Shabbat before Purim to connect the eradication of Amalek with the downfall of Haman, who is descended from Amalek.
The third of the arba parshiyot is Parshat Parah (Numbers 19:1-22), which discusses the unblemished red heifer, the parah adumah, that Moses was commanded to hand to Eleazar the priest for sacrificial purposes. The verses detail the entire procedure, which the Torah calls a chok – a law whose rationale we don’t know.
Rashi (Megilla 29a s.v. “parah adumah”) explains that the red heifer was sacrificed to warn the Jews to purify themselves of any ritual defilement in order to be able to participate in the Pascal sacrifice in a ritually pure state. That’s why we read this parshah in the weeks before Pesach.
Rashi (s.v. “Ba’revi’it hachodesh hazeh lachem”) quotes the Jerusalem Talmud, stating that in actuality Parshat Parah should be the fourth of the four parshiyot because on the first of Nissan the Mishkan was erected (Exodus 40:2) and on the second of Nissan the red heifer was burnt (cf. Gittin 60a-b and Rashi 60b s.v. “u’parashat parah adumah”). However, Parshat Parah was made the third of the four parshiyot because the parah adumah is crucial to the purification of Israel.
According to the Mechaber (Orach Chayim 685:7, in the name of “yesh omrim”), reading this parshah is also biblically required.
Finally, the last of the arba parshiyot is Parshat HaChodesh (Exodus 12:1-20). This concerns Rosh Chodesh, the first commandment given to the Children of Israel, upon which our Jewish calendar and the dates of the festivals are based, and the first festival we celebrated as a nation of course was Passover. This section also contains the commandment of the paschal sacrifice.
This parshah is read on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh Nissan unless Rosh Chodesh occurs on Shabbat, in which case it’s read on that day. Rashi (Megillah 29a) writes that the Mishnah instructs us to read it at this time since it contains the laws of Pesach.
Thus, we see that all arba parshiyot are very appropriately designated to be read on these four specific Shabbatot. May we merit the speedy arrival of the Moshiach so that we may once again fulfill the obligations that these arba parshiyot represent, speedily in our days.