“Understanding Shabbat Hagadol
(updated and revised from Tzav 5762-2002)

This week, we read the second parasha of the book of Leviticus, parashat Tzav. Because it immediately precedes Passover, this Shabbat is known as שַׁבַּת הַגָּדוֹל —Shabbat Hagadol, the great Shabbat. On this Shabbat, a special Haftarah from the prophet Malachi 3:4-24, is read.

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 distinguished appellation. Rabbi Abraham Chill in his comprehensive and erudite 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 reasons for the name recorded by Rabbi Chill is that tradition maintains that the tenth of Nissan of the year of the Exodus was a 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 Nissan, at which time they were to slaughter it and 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 brazen act of defiance. After all, the Egyptians worshiped sheep as their G-d. The timorous Hebrew slaves, were thus 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 open defiance and declared their independence.

A second reason recorded by Rabbi Chill, is that “Shabbat” day itself 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, this great act of Divine creation, is often perceived as 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 children 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 (Talmud, Pesachim, 6a), 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, (except on those years like this one when Shabbat Hagadol falls the day before Passover and the Shabbat Hagadol Discourse is offered the Shabbat before), it was the custom, and still is the custom, for community rabbis to offer a major discourse explaining the often complex issues of the laws and rituals of the Passover holiday. Writes Rabbi Chill, “It is a long and tiring day for the congregants and for the rabbi.” In effect, the name “The Great Shabbat, Shabbat Hagadol,” reflects the long Sabbath.

As previously noted, on this Shabbat, the special Haftarah from the prophet Malachi is read. Malachi 3:23 reads: הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא, לִפְנֵי בּוֹא יוֹם השׁם, הַגָּדוֹל וְהַנּוֹרָא. 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 because of the word גָּדוֹל –“gadol”–great in the aforementioned verse in Malachi, as if to represent 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, and 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 challenges and the great turmoil that we witness in the land of Israel and in Jewish world today, G-d’s power and love will be there for us, and will rescue and redeem us as well.

However, our salvation does not come without effort or agony. There is, of course, the long-suffering that is always necessary before the redemption. It is during this difficult period, similar to 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 in much reward, and a great sense of pleasure and fulfillment.

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 5781 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.

חַג כָּשֵׁר וְשָׂמֵחַ. We wish all our friends a wonderfully joyous, meaningful and healthy Passover.

Please note: The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Saturday night, March 27th and all day Sunday and Monday, March 28th and 29th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Friday night, April 2nd, and continue through Saturday and Sunday, April 3rd and 4th.

May you be blessed.