Q: Why are there 5 special Haftarah portions before Pesach?
A: That is a great question. First, let’s understand the Torah cycle. Each Shabbat, there is a prescribed portion of the Torah that is read, so that in one year, you will read through the entire Torah. Each Torah portion has been ascribed a corresponding Haftarah portion, from somewhere else in the Tanakh. This process dates back to the captivity in Babylon. In addition, we add a third reading each Shabbat from the B’rit Chadasha, the New Testament.
There are special Shabbatot throughout the year, where either a special Torah passage is read, a special Haftarah portion is read, or both. In the weeks leading up to Passover, 5 of these special Shabbatot appear. These are Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat Parah, Shabbat Ha-Chodesh, and Shabbat Ha Gadol.
Shabbat Shekalim remembers the half-shekel that was collected during the census of the children of Israel after the exodus out of Egypt. This passage usually falls during the portion Ki Tisa. The portion is so named because of the second Hebrew sentence in the portion, which reads, “כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל” ki tisa et rosh b’nai Yisrael”. It is generally translated, “Take a census.” But the literal meaning of the Hebrew is “lift the head of the children of Israel.” The implication is that each person is looked in the face as they are counted, because each person is important. This is significant leading up to Passover, as each person must decide if they are going to paint the blood of the lamb on their door, figuratively speaking. Are you going to be the one that allows death into the house, or will you be covered by the blood?
Shabbat Zachor is the Sabbath we remember the command to blot out the name of Amalek. On their way out of Egypt, the Amalekites stood in their path, waging war upon them. They were, of course, defeated, but their treachery against God’s chosen people would not be forgotten. This passage is read on the Sabbath immediately prior to Purim, which comes about a month before Passover. The villain of Purim, Haman, was an Agagite, who was a descendant of Amalek. Because the Amalekite king was allowed to live, contrary to the command of the Lord, Haman, his descendant, was allowed to plan for the destruction of the Jews, completing the task that the Amalekites had attempted generations before. This obviously was not successful, as the Lord had put Queen Esther in place to prevent it. However, in this passage we are reminded that the people of the Lord will have enemies, but they will not be victorious, as they were not during the Passover. God will achieve the victory!
The third special Shabbat is Shabbat Parah. Shabbat Parah officially marks the beginning of the preparation for Passover. The portion discusses the red heifer, which was required for the purification of the priesthood. Without the blood, there would be no priests. This has a double symbolism with respect to Passover. First, it is a reminder that Passover is a festival of purity, and we should approach the holiday with a view towards getting the leaven out of our lives. But second, it is also a reminder that we are called to be priests, a royal priesthood, in fact. And just as the blood of the red heifer purified the priests from the touch of death, so does the blood of the lamb of God, the essence of Passover, purifies those who believe from the touch of death.
The next one is Shabbat Ha-Chodesh. It is the last Shabbat before the month of Nissan begins, in which Passover falls. Scripture defines Nissan as the first month, and this is the passage that is read special to Shabbat Ha-Chodesh.
Finally, Shabbat Ha-Gadol is the Sabbath before Passover. It is called the Great Sabbath (gadol is great in Hebrew). Symbolically, it marks the day when the ancient Israelites chose the lamb they would slaughter for the Pesach meal. They would bring it to their home and keep it until the 14th of Nissan. The special Haftarah reading speaks of the return of Elijah the prophet. Traditionally, a place is set at every Passover table for Elijah, who is believed to be coming back at Passover. We who believe in Yeshua also believe that John the Immerser (Baptist) was the one who came in the spirit and likeness of Elijah, just as Yeshua said, to announce the coming of Messiah.
There are other special Shabbatot through the year, but these are the ones that relate to Passover.