Sabbath services throughout the year highlight upcoming holidays.
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.
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.
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).
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