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Question I would like to know why there are four special readings of the Torah during the period between Purim and Pesach. Also, why do we call each of those four Shabbatot by a special name, such as Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, etc., which we don’t do otherwise?

Celia Gluck
Via E-mail



Answer: The four readings you refer to take place after the Sabbath shacharit prayer from the Sabbath preceding the first of Adar through the Sabbath preceding the first of Nissan. This year, the 25th of Shevat, Shabbat Parshat Mishpatim, was Shabbat Shekalim; Shabbat Parshat Tetzaveh on the 9th of Adar was Shabbat Zachor; the 23rd of Adar, Shabbat Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei, is Shabbat Parah; and Rosh Chodesh Nissan, Shabbat Parshat Vayikra, will be Shabbat HaChodesh. These four special Sabbath readings, collectively, are referred to as the “Arba Parshiyot.”

We do have other Sabbaths referred to by special names, such as Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath after Tisha B’Av; Shabbat Shuva (also known as Shabbat Teshuva), between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur; Shabbat Shira, the name given to the Sabbath on which we read Parshat Beshalach (which this year was also Tu B’Shevat); and Shabbat HaGadol, which is always the Sabbath preceding Pesach.

On these Shabbatot we do not have any special extra Torah reading in addition to parsha of the week, but their special names denote another significant factor that distinguishes them from a “regular” week. For example, on Parshat Beshalach, the week’s Torah portion includes Shirat Hayam, lit., the songs or praises at the [Red] Sea, sung by Moses, Miriam, and the men and women of Israel; thus its special name. Likewise, the other Shabbatot we mentioned have some significant factor to denote their special status and name.

However, the Arba Parshiyot are different in that they have special Torah readings, as you noted. We will now address why we have these special Torah readings at this particular time of year.

The Gaon Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zt”l, discusses this in his work HaMoadim BaHalacha (Jerusalem, 1956, p. 188), stating as follows:

“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 already noted (Megillah 29a, Mishna). However, in both the Mishna and the Tosefta we find no mention of the names of the weekly parashiyot (nor the requirement to read Parashat HaShavua).

“The requirement to read the Torah every Shabbat (in a congregation of ten) actually dates back to the time of Moses” (Bava Kamma 82a).

[The Gemara (ibid.) enumerates the 10 enactments of the prophet Ezra; among them was the public reading of the Torah on Shabbat at Mincha, as well as on the following Monday and Thursday, a cycle repeated every week. The Gemara then questions whether this was an enactment of Ezra and proves that the enactment to read the Torah on Shabbat as well as on Monday and on Thursday, dates back to Moses’ time, derived from the verse ” 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” (Exodus 15:22).

The Gemara cites another verse (Isaiah 55:1), “Everyone who is thirsty, go for water.” Water is a term often used to refer to the Torah. Thus, one cannot go three days without thirsting for Torah and therefore we have a Torah reading three times during the week (Monday, Thursday, Sabbath).

The Gemara solves the apparent inconsistency by explaining that Ezra’s enactment was to upgrade from reading a total of three verses to reading 10 verses, and calling up three people – a Kohen, a Levi, and a Yisrael, each reading a minimum of three verses of the Torah.]

Rabbi Zevin continues, “But the dividing of the Torah reading into 54 [weekly] parashiyot [each read on a Shabbat] came at a much later time. We find (Megillah 29b) that the Bnei Ma’arava in Eretz Yisrael, (as opposed to the Diaspora – the Bnei Bavel), used to conclude a Torah reading cycle every three years.”

The Mechaber (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 669:1) clearly states that on the second day of Shemini Atzeret, we in the Diaspora read in the first Torah scroll “Vezot HaBeracha, the last parasha of the 54 in the Torah, until the conclusion. Then we read in the second scroll from Parashat Bereishit, the beginning of the Torah, until “Asher bara Elokim la’asot,” and in the third scroll we read the Maftir, “Bayom hashemini atzeret,” as on the first day.

It is obvious that since the Gemara states that the Bnei Ma’arava (those in the West – Israel) would complete the Torah once every three years, we might infer that the Bnei Bavel (in the Diaspora) completed the Torah every year – even though the Gemara here does not specifically say so. Yet we do find that R. Yirmiyah (infra 30b) rules that the four parshiyot’s Torah readings only cause a change in the Haftara, and on the succeeding Sabbath we resume the reading of the usual weekly Haftara (see Rashi sv. “l’seder haftarot…”), additionally the Gemara (infra 31a) states that on the last day [of the Chag – Shemini Atzeret – Simchat Torah in the Diaspora] they would read “Ve’zot Haberacha” (Deuteronomy 33:1 – 34:12). Thus, these Gemarot serve as the source for the Mechaber and the Rema regarding that halacha.

Thus we have answered your second question [first]; we see that the division into parshiyot that we have today is inferred from these two statements in the Gemara. The Arba Parshiyot, however, and the time we read them, is clearly mentioned in the Mishna (Megillah 29a) by name. Therefore, the Shabbatot on which one of them is read, as the Mishna delineates, are referred to by their specific names.

(To be continued)


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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.