“Understanding Shabbat Hagadol

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week, we read the second parasha of the book of Leviticus, parashat Tzav. This Shabbat, the Shabbat which immediately precedes Passover, is also known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat. On this Shabbat, we read a special Haftorah from the prophet Malachi 3:4-24.

While there is no universally agreed upon reason for calling the Shabbat that immediately precedes Passover, Shabbat Hagadol, the great Sabbath, there are many traditions explaining this appellation. Rabbi Abraham Chill in his marvelous book, The Minhagim, which explains the customs and ceremonies of Judaism, their origins and rationale, offers several reasons for the name, Shabbat Hagadol.

One of the traditional reasons for the name recorded by Rabbi Chill is that the tenth of Nisan of the year of the Exodus was Shabbat. It was on that day that, as recorded in Exodus 12, that the Al-mighty called upon the Jews to take a sheep to their homes and keep it there until the 14th of Nisan, at which time they were to slaughter it in order to prepare it for the Pascal sacrifice. This act of taking the sheep on the part of the enslaved Hebrews, was not at all a simple act. It was, in effect, a great act of defiance. After all, the Egyptians worshiped sheep as their G-d. And so the timorous Hebrew slaves were bidden to take the sheep, in defiance of their masters, in defiance of the entire theology of Egypt, and slaughter it before the Egyptians’ eyes. Hence, the Sabbath is called Shabbat Hagadol, the great Sabbath, because it was on this Shabbat that the Jews expressed their defiance and declared their independence.

A second reason recorded by Rabbi Chill, is that “Shabbat” is a day of testimony. The Shabbat testifies that G-d created the heavens and the earth and rested on Shabbat, the seventh day. But it was the act of a remote, transcendent and seemingly distant G-d who created the world. On the other hand, Passover represents an imminent and close G-d who cares about his people and who was actively involved in redeeming even the little Jewish child from the slavery of Egypt. On the Shabbat before Passover, both these ideas are emphasized, the power of G-d and the love of G-d, hence the name, Shabbat Hagadol, the great Sabbath.

Another reason enumerated by Rabbi Chill is predicated on the prevailing custom that 30 days before a holiday Jews begin to study and learn about the customs and practices of the holiday. On the Sabbath before Passover it was the custom, and still is the custom, of community rabbis to spend most of the Shabbat explaining the complicated issues of the laws and rituals of the Passover holiday. Writes Chill, “It is a long and tiring day for the congregants and for the rabbi.” In effect, the great Shabbat, Shabbat Hagadol can mean the long Sabbath.

As mentioned previously, on this Shabbat, the special Haftorah from the prophet Malachi is read. Malachi 3:24 reads: “Hee’nay ah’no’chee sho’lay’ach la’chem et Eliya hanavee, lif’nay bo yom Hashem, hagadol v’ha’norah.” Behold I send to you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and awesome day of G-d. There are those who say that the Sabbath is called Shabbat Hagadol alluding to the word “gadol”–great in the aforementioned verse in Malachi, as if it represents a prayer that this great Sabbath should lead to the great day of redemption and the coming of the Messiah.

Jewish traditions and customs are always replete with meaning, and the tradition of Shabbat Hagadol is no exception. The ancient theme of Shabbat Hagadol may teach contemporary Jews that despite the redemption which took place over 3300 years ago, today’s events require of us to be firm and courageous, just as our ancestors were in the days of yore–defiant of their masters, affirming that with G-d’s help they will master their fate and defy their own presumed destinies. For contemporary Jews as well, it is a time to affirm both the power and the love of G-d. We must be certain that despite the great turmoil that we witness in Israel today, G-d’s power and love will be there for us, and will rescue us.

However, our salvation does not come without agony. There is of course, the long-suffering that is necessary before the redemption. It is during this difficult period, like the long Sabbath, that we must spend learning and mastering G-d’s Torah, learning to appreciate the beauty of the festivals and the observances, sparing no effort to uncover new insights within the Passover ritual, that are there just for our picking. It is a long and tiring process, but a process that results with much fulfillment and pleasure.

And finally, Shabbat Hagadol marks our commitment to the belief in the imminent arrival of the Prophet Elijah, who will herald the coming of the Messiah.

May we be worthy to merit that Shabbat Hagadol 5762 be a great day for us. May this great day signal that the full redemption is at hand, and that Jews the world over shall soon be reunited, reunited in our land which will become a land of peace, reunited in love of G-d and marked with personal and collective happiness.

Chag Kasher V’samayach.
May you be blessed.