Question: Why there are four special Torah readings between Purim and Pesach? Also, why do we call each of those four Shabbatot by a special name, e.g., Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor etc.? Additionally how did the division of weekly parshiyot we read every Shabbat come about?
Answer: The four readings you refer to actually take place between the Sabbath preceding Adar and the Sabbath preceding Nissan. This year, the 29th of Shevat, Shabbat Parshat Mishpatim, was Shabbat Shekalim; Shabbat Parshat Tetzaveh on the 13th of Adar was Shabbat Zachor; the 20th of Adar, Shabbat Parshat Ki Tissa, will be Shabbat Parah; and the 27th of Adar, Shabbat Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei, will be Shabbat HaChodesh. These, collectively, are referred to as the “Four Parshiyot.”
These are not the only Sabbaths referred to by special names. We also have Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath after Tisha B’Av; Shabbat Shuvah (also known as Shabbat Teshuva) between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur; Shabbat Shirah, the name given to the Sabbath on which we read Parshat Beshalach; and Shabbat Hagadol, which is always the Sabbath preceding Pesach.
On these Shabbatot we do not read anything extra in addition to the parshat ha’shavua, but their special names highlight other significant factors that distinguish them from “regular” weeks. For example, “Shabbat Shirah” highlights the Shirat Hayam – the songs sung by the men and women of Israel, led respectively by Moses and Miriam – which appears in Parshat Beshalach. As another example, “Shabbat Nachamu” highlights the haftarah read that Shabbat, which begins with the famous phrase, “Nachamu, nachamu, ami.”
Concerning the Four Parshiyot, the Gaon Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zt”l, writes in his HaMoadim BaHalacha (Jerusalem, 1956, p. 188):
“The unique importance of these parshiyot is found in Rabbinic literature. Even before the parshiyot of the Torah were divided among the Shabbatot of the year, the requirement to read the Four Parshiyot was already noted [Megilla 29a]. However, in both the Mishnah and the Tosefta we find no mention of the names of the weekly parshiyot [nor the requirement to read the parshat ha’shavua]. The requirement to read the Torah every Shabbat actually dates back to the time of Moses” (Bava Kamma 82a).
The Gemara (ibid.) enumerates 10 enactments of the prophet Ezra. Among them is reading from the Torah publicly on Shabbat at Minchah, as well as on the following Monday and Thursday, a cycle repeated every week. The Gemara, however, points out that this enactment was made by Moses according to tradition. (The Torah [Exodus 15:22] states: “vayelchu sheloshet yamim bamidbar velo matz’u mayim – and they traveled three days in the desert and they did not find water.” Isaiah 55:1 states: “Hoy kol tzamei le’chu lemayim – Everyone who is thirsty, go for water.” “Water” refers to the Torah. These two verses in conjunction teach us that one cannot go three days without thirsting for Torah. Therefore, we have a Torah reading every third day of the week.) The Gemara solves this apparent contradiction by explaining that Moses made the original enactment while Ezra legislated that we read 10 verse every reading, not merely three, and that we call up three people for aliyot, a Kohen, a Levi, and a Yisrael, each of whom reads a minimum of three verses.
Rabbi Zevin writes further: “But the dividing of the Torah into 54 weekly parshiyot [to be read on 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 reading the Torah every three years.”
The Mechaber (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 669:1) writes that on the second day of Shemini Atzeret, we in the Diaspora read Vezot HaBeracha, the last parshah in the Torah, and then Parshat Bereishit from a second scroll until “asher bara Elokim la’asot.” (From a third scroll we then read the maftir, “Bayom hashemini atzeret.”) Since the Gemara states that the Bnei Ma’arava would complete the Torah every three years, the Bnei Bavel (in the Diaspora), by implication, completed the Torah every year – even though the Gemara does not specifically say so. This passage thus serves as the source for the Mechaber and the Rema’s statement on this topic.
(To be continued)