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Thoughts on Shabbat HaGadol

The term “Shabbat HaGadol,” the Great Sabbath, referring to the Shabbat preceding the holiday of Pesach, this Shabbat, does not appear in the Talmud, either the Babylonian nor the Palestinian versions, nor in the early post-Talmudic works of the Geonim, the sages who headed the academies in Babylonia. It seems to appear first around the 11th century. Shlomo Ashkenazy in his volume Dor Dor uMinhagav (“Generations and their Customs”) writes that this term appeared first in Rome and its surrounding areas and spread from there to France and Germany and other areas of the Diaspora.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki) in the 11th century, writing about people referring to this Shabbat as Shabbat HaGadol, says “we don’t know why, for it is not greater than any other Shabbat of the year.” Rashi then cites an explanation he heard from a Rabbi Avraham. “Since the Jews went forth from Egypt on a Thursday (as we find in Seder Olam) and the taking of the lamb was on the tenth of the month, which was on the Shabbat prior to Pesach, the Jews said ‘if we sacrifice a ‘god’ of Egypt, will they not stone us?’ The Holy Blessed One said to Israel ‘Now you will see the wonder which I will do for you.’ Every man went and took his Paschal offering and kept it until the 14th of the month. When the Egyptians wanted to wreak vengeance against them, their innards were boiled and their fire extinguished (translation uncertain), and they were judged with afflictions and great, bad, and bitter sickness, and were unable to do any harm to Israel. And it was because of the miracles done for Israel on that Sabbath before Pesach, that they called it Shabbat HaGadol.” The Machzor Vitry, authored by Rabbi Simchah, one of Rashi’s students, cites the same explanation of Rabbi Avraham. Another version is given by the Tosafot, the next generations of Ashkenazic teachers, on a passage in the Talmud, where the taking of the lambs on the tenth leads to questioning of the Israelites by their Egyptian neighbors. When they explain that because Pharaoh will not let them go, God will bring a plague upon the firstborn of Egypt, the firstborn pleaded with Pharaoh to let the Israelites go and when he refused, a revolt broke out among those firstborn and many of them died.

Later authorities note that the 10th of Nisan does not always fall on Shabbat, thus these purported miracles perhaps should be celebrated on the 10th regardless of which day of the week it occurs. Various explanations are given for why we do not do so, some of which are less than convincing. One suggests that it was to avoid confusion with other later miracles like the splitting of the Jordan, that occurred on the tenth of Nisan. Another authority says it was because they took the sheep on the Sabbath day which they had begun to observe before this time thanks to Moses’s intervention, and they tied it to their bedposts, even though tying a permanent knot on Shabbat is forbidden. As we’ll see, there are no shortage of reasons given to consider this Shabbat a great day.

One thing we should note is that this four day interval between taking the lamb and sacrificing it was only done that first year before the Exodus. Subsequent paschal offerings could be taken even on the same day as the offering. This four day interval before the Exodus, the sages claim was intentionally meant to insult the Egyptians regarding their sheep-god by leaving it tied to their bedposts for four days before sacrificing it. It has been suggested by Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, in his 14th century law code, the Tur, that the plague of darkness, the ninth plague, took place at this time. The Torah notes that the Israelites had light and thus the Egyptians who were immobilized by the plague could see what the Israelites were doing but were unable to protest and stop them. Hence, because of this miracle on Shabbat, they called it Shabbat HaGadol. In subsequent years there was no longer a reason to take the lambs beforehand.

To be honest, we must admit that our ancestors, while they lived in Egypt most likely joined their neighbors in their idolatrous worship. Thus before the Israelites could be redeemed and serve the one God, the rabbis claim they had to demonstrate their scorn for the Egyptian god. Thus Moses tells the people “mishchu uk’chu” which is interpreted to mean “withdraw [your hands from idolatry] and take a lamb to sacrifice to God. However, it was not sufficient to withdraw their hands from idolatry, they had to actually do something to show that they were nullifying their connection to this false worship, by tethering the lamb to their beds for four days before sacrificing it, to show its powerlessness to rescue itself, let alone its worshipers.

Other reasons, however, are given for the name “Shabbat HaGadol.” One suggestion was that it was on this Shabbat that the Jewish system of reckoning the days and months was instituted. Prior to this, the Israelites considered the day to run from morning to evening as did their neighbors, including the night that followed. Now they began counting the evening before as the beginning of the day giving them on this transitional Shabbat, an extra long day, hence the great shabbat, Shabbat HaGadol.

Some suggest that Shabbat HaGadol gets its name from the practice of rabbis giving lengthy talks on the laws of Passover prior to the holiday each year at the end of the morning service or during the afternoon of Shabbat HaGadol. The longer the rabbis talked the longer the day seemed. In earlier times, there was not a regular sermon in the synagogue except for Shabbat Shuvah, in preparation for Yom Kippur and on Shabbat HaGadol before Pesach, thus it seems that some rabbis took the opportunity to expound at length. There are some who find evidence that the Shabbat before each holiday is known as Shabbat HaGadol not just this one before Passover and perhaps these days as well were used to expound on the laws of the upcoming festival. Others say that the greatness of the day was the fact that after this Shabbat the Israelites never returned to their slavery and oppression as in previous Shabbatot.

While there is no special Torah reading for Shabbat HaGadol, there is a special haftarah taken from the final chapter of Malachi, the last of our prophets. Its conclusion speaks of “Yom Adonay HaGadol v’haNora,” the great and awesome day of the Lord when Elijah will appear and turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents. Hence this is the Shabbat of “the great day,” Shabbat haGadol. It is a most appropriate reading for the upcoming holiday when we not only welcome Elijah, but also it is when parents are required to speak to their children about the Exodus.

Another explanation for the name that has been suggested is that it was on this Shabbat that the Israelites began observing the mitzvot, in effect becoming adults, gedolim. This was their transformation to being b’nai mitzvah and becoming obligated to fulfill God’s commandments as adults, hence Shabbat haGadol, the Shabbat of the Adult.

There are a variety of other explanations that different rabbis have come up with, all of which makes me wonder if Rashi might be right that we don’t know why it is called Shabbat HaGadol. I should mention, by the way, that one explanation given is based on the penchant of commentators to abbreviate some words in their texts. Thus one might perhaps believe that an abbreviation of hay-gimel-dalet is not actually short for Shabbat haGadol, but rather for Shabbat Haggadah. Why that name? It is the custom in many places to spend the afternoon of this Shabbat before Passover, reading through the text of the haggadah so one will be familiar with it for the seder and not stumble over the words. At first this was a custom for children, but later adults as well began following this tradition. Some might take that time to look at some Haggadah commentaries of which there is an endless selection, so they might share new insights with others at the seder. This tradition is not without controversy, some claiming that reading the haggadah early goes against the very words of the haggadah which says that we tell the story on the 15th of the month and only at night and only when the matzah and maror are set before us. However, others point out that that is true for the seder, but it is always a mitzvah to remember and to speak of God’s miraculous acts in bringing us forth from Egypt, so there is nothing wrong with reviewing the text in advance.

Aside from sticking it to the Egyptians, one wonders what purpose was there in delaying the sacrifice of the lamb to the 14th of Nisan. Rabbi Yakov Medan suggests that this was due to the requirement that all those partaking of the lamb be circumcised. The delay provided time for the Israelites who had not been circumcised during the enslavement in Egypt to perform this act and give themselves a few days to recover prior to the sacrifice of the lamb and the Exodus the next morning. He derives this quite naturally from the story told in the book of Joshua where the Israelites cross the divided River Jordan on the 10th of Nisan of the fortieth year and then are circumcised in a mass ritual in the land of Canaan since they had not done so during their journey through the wilderness. It is only after this ritual, that they are allowed to celebrate the first Pesach in the land of Israel on the 14th of the month. Thus to this day, at every briss, we refer to blood in the plural, linking the blood of the Paschal lamb to the blood of circumcision, as we quote the prophet Ezekiel in the prayer said for the healing of the infant, twice reciting, “v’omar lach b’damayich chayi, v’omar lach b’damayich chayi” “And I said unto you, in your blood you shall live, and I said unto you, in your blood you shall live.” One blood refers to the blood of circumcision and the other the blood of the Paschal lamb.

There is a very lengthy piyyut prescribed for Shabbat HaGadol which appears in traditional siddurim (you can find it in the Artscroll prayer book with translation). This poem by Rabbi Yosef Tuv-Elem, one of Rashi’s teachers in the 11th century, was to be inserted into the Shacharit Amidah for Shabbat HaGadol. It combines within it elements of the various traditions of this special Shabbat. It begins by talking about God’s saving the people from Egyptian slavery, recounting the confrontation of Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh, mentioning the plagues, but also speaking of God’s care for the people as they wandered in the wilderness. The poem continues by incorporating one of the songs we now find in the Haggadah, Vay’hi b’chatzi halailah, which speaks of various enemies in ancient times defeated by God “b’chatzi halailah,” at midnight. Each stanza concludes with that phrase. This is followed by a reshut, a humble statement of inadequacy by the author, who requests permission of the assembled to teach the laws of Passover. There then follow a detailed list of halachot in poetic form regarding chametz and matzah and other preparations for the holiday. The Artscroll editor notes that these laws are authoritative, but not all of its points are accepted as halachah. The piyyut concludes with a summary of the order of the seder in detail including the tradition of having a fifth cup of wine over the recital of Psalm 136, the Hallel HaGadol. At the very end, Tuv-Elem has composed the passage with which we conclude our seder to this day, “Chasal Siddur Pesach,” “the order of Pesach is now concluded.” It seems that if one takes the time to recite this entire poem on Shabbat HaGadol, you have pretty well fulfilled the custom of reviewing the laws of Pesach that day and a bit of the familiarization with the seder rituals as well.

While some years Shabbat HaGadol can occur on the eve of Passover, this year we are given a whole week to get ourselves ready for the holiday, to remove chametz, to kasher utensils and get out our Passover dishes, to prepare the necessary ritual items and, of course, to cook the traditional Passover foods. The traditional greeting for Passover is a little formal, it seems to me, “Chag Kasher v’Sameach, a kosher and joyful holiday.” The Yiddish greeting seems much warmer, so I wish you all “A zisn Pesach, a sweet Passover.”

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