Special Shabbatot

Sabbath services throughout the year highlight upcoming holidays.

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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.

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Michele Alperin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey. She has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.