Hearing Passover’s Footsteps

Anyone who has seen the movie “Jaws” will surely remember the opening scene. A woman swims peacefully in the ocean and all appears to be well, until we hear that pulsating, foreboding music. You can’t see the shark yet, but you know it’s out there, and before too long, it will make its appearance…

I have a feeling that I am about to invoke the ire of much of the Jewish world by bringing this subject up, but the ear attuned to the nuances of the Jewish calendar will, come this Shabbat, hear the “pulsating, foreboding music” that is the earliest harbinger of Passover. This week we celebrate Shabbat Sh’kalim, the first of the four special Shabbatot that precede the Passover festival.

The offering of a half-shekel by every male over twenty in the ancient Israelite community was not only an act on his behalf, but also his family. It was both a fundraising vehicle for the community, and also a census that would determine the approximate number of households in the community, and how big a fighting force of appropriately aged men could be mustered.

In later times, during the period of the Temples in Jerusalem, the special prophetic portion that we will read from Second Kings tells us that the collection of the half-shekel served as an early example of what we might call today a “refurbishing fund,” or a capital campaign. The leaders of the community understood that, with huge numbers of Israelites sure to come to Jerusalem in order to offer their Paschal sacrifices and celebrate the festival, it was important for the holy Temple to look its best. Any breaches in its walls needed to be repaired, and the inner areas also needed to be maintained. Those collected half-shekels provided the needed money.

This coming Shabbat, we will announce the imminent beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar. It is when- even if we might want to avoid it- we actually have a tangible sense of how the coming weeks of the calendar will play out. From the first day of Adar, it is two weeks to Purim and six weeks to Passover. The message of Shabbat Sh’kalim would seem to be clear. It’s time to begin to get ready.

Because of its long and ritualized lead-time, of which Shabbat Sh’kalim is but the first element, one can’t say of Passover that it “sneaks up on us.” It is not the shark in the water, even though the mere mention of it tends to conjure up feelings of dread in those who have to prepare for it. By the time it arrives, we have been thinking of and, for all intents and purposes, “doing” Passover for weeks.

But there is definitely something about Shabbat Sh’kalim that stops us in our tracks and forces us to recognize where in the calendar year we are. Because I celebrated my bar mitzvah on Shabbat Sh’kalim many years ago, it always served as a reminder of the passage of time, bringing me back to the fading memories of that day. But as an adult, the significance of that anniversary, while noteworthy, has been completely eclipsed by the reality of what lies ahead… what I call the “gravitational pull of Passover.”

After the heavy dosing of Jewish holidays in the early fall, our calendar keeps a rather low profile, yielding a welcome supply of “ordinary Shabbatot”- an oxymoron if ever there was one. Other than Chanukkah, there are only minor observances; a fast day in Tevet, Tu B’Shvat, etc. And even Chanukkah is hardly the kind of festival that demands a lot of attention, having become bigger than life at least partly because of the season in which it falls.

Once Shabbat Sh’kalim comes and the month of Adar begins, it is as if we are launched into the next intensely busy season of the Jewish year. It is not only physical; it is, in equal measure, a psychological transition. People feel busier even if they’re not, because they know that there is so much to be done in order to be ready for Passover. And it’s not as if it ends with the conclusion of Passover. Yom Hashoah follows almost immediately, and Yom Ha’atzma’ut shortly thereafter. This uniquely intense period of observances impacts scheduling on every level of the Jewish community, and doesn’t really abate until after Shavuot, when we wake up one day to discover- miracle of miracle- another one of those “ordinary Shabbatot.”

Whenever I mention this perspective on Shabbat Sh’kalim in my own community, I am reminded of the price to be paid for mentioning the “P word.” And I understand. It’s almost as if we can physically feel the anticipation of the difficult work that lies ahead in the next few weeks. No one likes to be reminded of that.

But that’s exactly what the function of Shabbat Sh’kalim is- to serve as a reminder. With or without the pulsating music in the background, Passover is coming…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.