Time and Space Oddities

This Shabbat is a bit special. OK, yes, every Shabbat is special, so maybe I should rephrase that to read: this Shabbat is a bit unusual. First of all, it is Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the month of Adar. Second of all, it is Shabbat Shekalim, one of the four special Sabbaths before the holiday of Passover. This may not seem unique, but it actually is quite rare, and if it were a normal year we would read from a grand total of three Torah scrolls: one for the regular weekly portion, one for the Rosh Hodesh reading, and one for the special Shekalim maftir concluding portion.

None of the readings we do are particularly extraordinary. We get to them every year, but rarely do they all come together on one day. Shabbat Shekalim occurs either the Shabbat before or on Rosh Hodesh Adar. The reason is that in the Torah, the Israelites were commanded to bring a half-shekel donation to the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, each year. The donation was to be made in the month of Nisan, when Passover occurs, so it was announced by reading the relevant passage one month before so people could prepare their donation.

I love the quirks of the Jewish calendar, and one of them is that it is unusual for Shabbat Shekalim to land on Rosh Hodesh. This occurrence doesn’t present any real challenges since we are used to having three Torahs on a Shabbat. It can also happen on both on Hannukah and Shabbat HaHodesh when they fall on Rosh Hodesh, and of course we always have three Torahs on Simhat Torah, the completion of the Torah reading in the fall.

Shabbat Shekalim on Rosh Hodesh does, however, herald another rare occurrence: the first Seder falling on Saturday night, which does present several problems. The Fast of the Firstborn and the search for chametz (bread products) are moved back a day to Thursday because neither cleaning nor a fast can occur on Shabbat, and a fast cannot be moved to a Friday.

The first Seder on Saturday night also presents a challenge to Jewish law, in which two values come into conflict. We are commanded to remove chametz from our homes the day before Passover, but we are also commanded to eat three meals on Shabbat, two of which should include bread. How can we have a proper Shabbat afternoon meal with challah if we are not allowed to have bread in the house? You might answer that you could use matzah for the meal, but this is not allowed since we avoid eating matzah the day before Passover so that its taste will be fresh in our mouths at the first Seder.

There are two ways to resolve this dilemma. The first is to use egg matzah, which cannot be used to fulfill the mitzvah of matzah at the Seder but is “bread” in the sense that one says the motzi blessing over it like we would for bread. The benefit of this solution is that egg matzah is kosher for Passover so you can make your house totally prepared for the holiday by Friday afternoon.

While this solution is the easiest and probably the most preferred by rabbis in its simplicity, I personally don’t like it because egg matzah to me is too close to regular matzah. I love the moment in the Seder when I eat matzah for the first time in months. Having egg matzah a few hours earlier ruins the experience. So instead, what I do is leave some bread for the Friday and Saturday meals, but make sure not to get crumbs anywhere in the house. My teacher in Israel recommended outdoor meals on the patio with pita since it leaves fewer crumbs. This solution also requires having the Saturday meals earlier in the day. The last time this occurred in 2008, I moved the kiddush to after Shacharit and before the Torah service.

Having Shabbat Shekalim and Rosh Hodesh on the same day (and therefore the eve of Passover on Shabbat) is a rare occurrence. The first Seder on Saturday night only happened 12 times in the twentieth century and will happen only one more time before 2045. This coming Shabbat also happens to coincide with Chinese New Year, which has a number of similarities to Passover.

Oddities like this are fun because they connect us to the perpetual cycle of the Jewish calendar and cherished moments in our lives. I remember the last two times they occurred, including a wonderful year spent in Israel. How much has changed in my life since those memories years ago, and yet the holidays and the calendar are eternal, anchoring us in the ever-flowing stream of time.

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