Special Shabbatot

Sabbath services throughout the year highlight upcoming holidays.

Part of this article addresses the additional Torah reading chanted on special occasions. Many liberal congregations that do not read from an additional “maftir” Torah scroll will still note the special Shabbatot of the year by reading the appropriate haftarah, prophetic reading, for the occasion.

The spiritual cycle of the Jewish year depends on an interaction among the flow of holidays, the marking of Rosh Chodesh (the new month) and the weekly Shabbat (Sabbath) observance. The holidays and fast days sometimes permeate the surrounding Shabbatot (plural of Shabbat) with holiday themes. These special Shabbatot may create the mood for an upcoming festival, reflect or enhance festival themes, or ease the transition from a festival back into the weekly flow of Shabbatot.

A special Shabbat usually includes a special Torah or haftarah [prophetic] reading that either replaces the standard weekly reading or is read in addition to it. The Torah reading on a Shabbat morning is chanted in seven sections [in traditional congregations], each introduced and closed by blessings of a congregant during an aliyah–literally a “going up” to the Torah. After these seven aliyot is a maftir or final, aliyah, which usually repeats a short section from the end of the portion. However, on holidays and certain of the special Shabbatot, the maftir is an additional reading that reflects the day’s theme and is usually read from a different Torah scroll.

Rosh Chodesh

Although not designated as “special Shabbatot” per se, the Shabbatot surrounding Rosh Chodesh do have distinctive titles and readings. Shabbat Mevarkhim, the Sabbath of the Blessing of the New Moon (for the upcoming month), is the last Shabbat of the previous month. During the Torah service, a special “blessing for the new month” identifies the new month by name, specifies the day or days on which it begins, and asks God for a life of blessing during the upcoming month.

If the new month actually begins on a Shabbat, that Shabbat is called Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, and the special maftir reading, Numbers 28:9-15, describes the special Rosh Chodesh offerings; the special haftarah reading, Isaiah 66:1-24, prophesies a special pilgrimage to Jerusalem on Rosh Chodesh in the future.

Machar Chodesh 

If Rosh Chodesh occurs the day after Shabbat, then the Shabbat is termed Shabbat Machar Chodesh–literally, “tomorrow is the [new] month”–and has a special haftarah, I Samuel 20:18-42, that relates an episode with David and Jonathan involving the new moon.

Shabbat Shuvah

The first special Shabbat of the Jewish year–Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return–occurs between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; it receives its name from a verse in the day’s haftarah: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin” (Hosea 14:2).

Some call the day Shabbat Teshuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance, because it is observed during the Ten Days of Repentance. The defining custom of this Shabbat is an admonitory sermon by the rabbi designed to inspire and awaken listeners to examine their deeds and return to God. The rabbi may also review the laws of Yom Kippur. Some communities add readings from Joel 2:15-27 and Micah 7:18-20 that elaborate the Yom Kippur themes of repentance and forgiveness. Joel focuses on purification and fasting by the people and Micah on God’s promise to forgive the people: “He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities, You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).

Shabbat Shira

The Shabbat that falls before or on Tu Bishvat (a minor Jewish festival celebrating trees) is called Shabbat Shira, because the week’s parashah [weekly Torah reading], B’shalah, includes Shirat Hayam, the song the Israelites sang after they crossed the Red Sea. It opens with the words, “I will sing to the Lord, for the Lord has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver the Lord has hurled into the sea” and ends with “Adonai will reign forever and ever.”

Shabbat Shekalim

During the month or so before Passover, four Shabbatot are characterized by special maftir readings, called the Arba Parshiot [four Torah portions], which relate thematically to Purim or Passover: Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat Parah, and Shabbat Hachodesh.

Shabbat Shekalim–which takes place the Shabbat prior to Rosh Chodesh for the month of Adar or on Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Adar itself–is named for the maftir reading, Exodus 30:11. The maftir describes a census requiring every Israelite man to contribute a half shekel to support communal sacrifices in the portable tent of meeting and later at the Temple. The egalitarian nature of this contribution is emphasized–“the rich shall not pay more, and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel.” The requirement that all individuals contribute equally to the community helped develop a sense of unity crucial to the new nation created by the Exodus.

In the special haftarah, 2 Kings 11:17-12:17, King Yehoash commanded that all money brought to the Temple be used for its repairs and renovations–both the required contributions and the free-will offerings. Shabbat Shekalim occurs about a month before Passover as a reminder that the due date for the half-shekel contributions was approaching, on 1 Nisan, a month later. Some people contribute to an institution of Jewish learning in remembrance of the half shekel.

Shabbat Zakhor

The next of the Arba Parashiot is Shabbat Zakhor, whose maftir reading, Deuteronomy 25:17-19, is an admonition to remember Amalek, the nation that surprised the Israelites wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt with a rear attack on the stragglers. The Israelites constituted no military threat, leading some Jewish commentators to view Amalek as rebels against God, because they were trying to destroy the Israelites. God commands the Israelites, therefore, “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

The Torah instructs Jews to “remember Amalek,” a commandment fulfilled each year by publicly reading this passage on the Shabbat before Purim, because Haman, the arch-villain of the Scroll of Esther [megillat Esther], who tries to kill the Jews of Persia, is an Amalekite. The haftarah reading is I Samuel 15:2-34, which describes Saul’s war with Amalek.

Shabbat Parah

Shabbat Parah, the Sabbath of the Red Heifer, occurs on the Shabbat prior to Shabbat Mevarkhim of the month of Nisan. The maftir reading, Numbers 19:1-22, deals with the red heifer whose ashes were combined with water to ritually purify anyone who had been in contact with a dead person. Because only people who were pure could eat from the Passover sacrifice, a public announcement right before Nisan reminded anyone who had become impure to purify themselves before making the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The haftarah, Ezekiel 36:16-38, also deals with issues of being cleansed from contamination, but the impurity in this case symbolizes human sinfulness. But, like physical impurity, sins can be overcome. As God says in Ezekiel 36:25,26: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes [idolatrous practices]. And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you.” This renewal of self and nation reflects Passover’s theme of redemption.

Shabbat HaHodesh

Shabbat HaHodesh occurs either on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Nisan or on Rosh Chodesh itself. The maftir reading is Exodus 12:1-20, which details eating the  Passover sacrifice, with “your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand”; eating bitter herbs and unleavened bread; and putting blood on the doorposts; and it lists the Passover laws.

The first day of Nisan is also important as the occasion for God’s first commandment, sanctifying the new moon, which begins the Torah reading, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” This commandment moved the determination of months from God’s agenda into the hands of the Jewish people–giving them control over time and the theological/liturgical cycle. The haftarah, Ezekiel 45:16-46:18, describes the sacrifices that the Israelites are to bring on the first of Nisan, on Passover, and on other festivals in the future Temple.

Shabbat Hagadol

The Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath. As the Israelites were preparing to leave Egypt, God commanded them to select a lamb that would serve as the Passover sacrifice. This mitzvah, or commandment, required the Israelites to actively participate in the redemption from Egypt. The name Shabbat Hagadol literally comes from a verse in the day’s haftarah, Malachi 3:4-24. “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord,” which alludes to a messianic future.

The past redemption at Passover is tied to the future messianic redemption, which, according to tradition, will also take place on Passover. Traditional practices on Shabbat Hagadol include reciting special hymns about the laws of Passover, reading the part of the Haggadah that begins with Avadim Hayinu, “We were slaves,” and listening to the community’s outstanding Torah scholar address the congregation on the laws of Passover.

Affliction Readings

The three Shabbatot preceding Tisha B’Av–a fast day commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple–are also distinctive, although only the last one is named. On each Shabbat, special haftarot called “the three affliction readings” reflect the somber mood of the three weeks between the fast day of 17 Tamuz, when the walls of Jerusalem were breached, and Tisha B’Av, when the Temple was burned. On the first Shabbat, Jeremiah 1:1-2:3 is chanted, on the second Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4, and 4:1-2, and on the third, the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 1:1-27).

This third Shabbat, right before Tisha B’Av, is called Shabbat Hazon after the haftarah that warns the “sinful nation” that has “forsaken the Lord” about the potentially disastrous consequences of its actions; yet it also reminds the people: “be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white, but if you refuse and disobey, you will be devoured by the sword.” This haftarah prefigures the mood of the subsequent month of Elul, with its focus of repentance. Isaiah says, “Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged,” implying that mourning the loss of the Temple and Jerusalem is not sufficient without a commitment to ethical action.


Not only is Tisha B’Av preceded by a Shabbat that sets its mood, but it is followed by a Shabbat of Comfort, Shabbat Nahamu, whose haftarah, Isaiah 40:1-26, begins: “Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God.” The haftarah suggests that Israel’s “term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated, for she has received at the hand of the Lord double for all her sins.” This is the first of seven haftarot from Isaiah, called “the seven consolations,” which are read on the Shabbatot after Tisha B’Av. Offering hope of ultimate redemption, these consolatory readings bridge the period from Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah, as Jews are beginning their own move towards self-judgment, self-renewal, and personal redemption.

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