Four Special Sabbaths
Judaism does not allow Passover to catch us by surprise. Long before its arrival, while the ground is still covered with snow, the Jewish calendar alerts us to its coming. A series of four special sabbaths prior to the month of Nisan (Passover begins on the full moon of the 15th of Nisan) picks up the liturgical pace of the synagogue service. After a long and largely monotonous winter, the pace quickens as we are brought to anticipate the renewal of nature and the redemption of Israel. In the words of our tradition, “With the coming of Adar (the month before Nisan), we indulge in more merrymaking.” The last month of the year (Nisan is the first) goes out in a flurry of festivity which transcends the celebration of Purim.
This week’s Shabbat is the second of the series, and like the rest bears its own special name, Shabbat Zakhor, the Sabbath of Remembrance. It always falls on the sabbath before Purim and is marked in the synagogue by the reading of a short passage from the book of Deuteronomy which begins with the word zakhor and ends with al tishkah, “do not forget (Deut. 25:17-19).” The text implores Israel, when once firmly settled in the promised land, to eradicate every trace of its arch-enemy Amalek, from whom Haman is descended, and hence the choice of this passage before Purim.
However, my intention here is not to speak of Amalek or Purim or even anti-Semitism, but rather of the entire cluster of four preparatory sabbaths. Just how do they ready us for Passover, other than signaling its approach? They are first prescribed by the Mishnah in a section that deals with the Torah readings for holy days other than Shabbat. But the Mishnah does not elaborate on the individual reason for these four sabbaths related to Adar nor on any collective rationale that might link them into a single ritual unit.
I would like to suggest that in fact these four special sabbaths are an integrated script designed to reconstitute the Jewish people as an undivided nation. Passover commemorates our moment of national birth. Redemption transformed Israel from a motley throng of slaves bent on survival – every man for himself – into a unique nation bound by a sense of universal mission. Passover is our most national of holy days. It celebrates the power and beauty of community. Individual meaning derives from being part of something larger than ourselves. The subliminal message of the seder plays on Hillel’s admonition: “Do not withdraw from the community.”
Springtime is a glorious season of rebirth. Many an ancient civilization reveled in the comeback of nature, the return of fertility, and the profusion of life. For the Torah this was a muted theme. In its fight against paganism, it chose to identify this season of renewal with the formation of Israel, the debut of a saving nation on the stage of world history. Nature gave way to history as the leitmotif of rebirth was played in a new key.
The four special sabbaths prior to Passover articulate the basic components of Israel’s nationhood. During the winter months the fabric of community has frayed. Traditionally Hanukkah was always a minor holiday without benefit of a tractate in the Mishnah. The absence of any major holiday between Succot and Pesah has allowed individual concerns to take precedence. Before the seder can work its magic we need to reaffirm the centrality of Judaism’s communal spirit. To relive the exodus experience, Israel must first reassemble itself as a nation. The preparation for Passover is mental as well as physical with the former preceding the latter.
And so we began last week with Shabbat Shekalim. The special reading (Ex. 30:11-16) covered the first census in the wilderness carried out by collecting a half shekel from each male above the age of 20. By the time of the Second Temple, this assessment had become a precedent for an annual tax paid by Jews in the Diaspora as well as in Israel to defray the costs of the daily communal sacrifices in the Temple. Collected during Adar, the revenue would be expended beginning with the new year in Nisan.
To my mind, the abiding lesson of the tax is that no nation can long survive if its citizens are not imbued with a sense of communal responsibility. Its welfare is their welfare. Jewish law frowns on individuals who are indifferent to the fate of the community, especially in times of danger. It deems the giving of charity to be the highest of Judaism’s positive commandments precisely because the act moderates our innate tendency toward selfishness. Shabbat Shekalim reminds us of yet another sample of Hillel’s wisdom: “If I am for myself alone, what am I?”
Shabbat Zakhor sensitizes us to the cohesive force of sacred history. Much of Judaism consists of remembering and transmitting the record of God’s intervention, the experiences of national degradation, the treasures of revelation. Moses’s parting words to Israel fix the pattern: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; ask your father, he will inform you, your elders, they will tell you (Deut. 32:7)” History and not nature is the arena in which Israel witnesses the awesome presence of God. And in turn a shared past, forever retold, defines the character of the people.
No less defining is the third component of Israel’s peoplehood – its distinctive ritual system symbolized by Shabbat Parah. The additional reading for that day treats of a ritual detergent made from the ashes of an unblemished red heifer and used to cleanse Israelites contaminated by contact with sources of impurity (Numbers 19:1-22). The passage is meant to warn those rendered unclean of the proximity of Passover and the need to be purified. But one ritual stands for many, and no community can exist without boundaries, sacred venues, or rites of passage.
Finally, Shabbat Ha-Hodesh just before the new month of Nisan signals the growing immediacy of Passover. The special reading (Ex. 12-1:20) declares that henceforth Nisan is to be counted as the first month of the calendar, giving Judaism effectively two new years, Nisan in the spring and Tishrei in the fall, one devoted to the welfare of the nation, the other to the welfare of the individual. Beyond the specifics, however, Shabbat Ha-Hodesh highlights the formative role of the calendar in the shaping of national identity and culture.
By reaffirming the fundamental building blocks of Judaism – individual responsibility for the common good, national history, religious ritual, and sacred time – these four sabbaths recast our mental state and fortify ties loosened by inattention. They meld a disparate multitude into a holy assembly ready to relive the moment of national redemption.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,