The Shabbat prior to Passover is called Shabbat HaGadol. The source of the term is unclear as it is not found in the Tanach or Talmudic literature,1 though in the Middle Ages a number of authorities occupied themselves with explaining the origin of the term.
One approach sees Shabbat HaGadol as originating with the special Haftorah, specifically the verse which refers to a day in the future which will be gadol,meaning "great." 2
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. (Malachi 3:23)
The prophet speaks of the day of redemption in the future. Passover, which represents the day of redemption of antiquity, serves as the archetype of the future redemption.3 Therefore the Talmud teaches:
Rabbi Yehoshua says: "In Nissan the world was created ... the bondage of our ancestors ceased in Egypt; and in Nissan they will be redeemed in time to come." (Talmud Rosh HaShana 11a)
The tradition, which accords Elijah a primary role in the Messianic age, calls upon us to read the portion of the prophet which alludes to that "great" day.
* * *
THE EXODUS TIMETABLE
Other commentaries look back to the past for an explanation for the term. The Talmud teaches that the day the Jews left Egypt -- the 15th of the month of Nissan -- was a Thursday, and the 10th of the month was the previous Shabbat:
As to Nissan in which the Israelites departed from Egypt, on the fourteenth they killed their Passover sacrifices, on the fifteenth they went forth, and in the evening [of the 15th] the firstborn were smitten... and that day was a Thursday. (Shabbath 87b)
The significance of the 10th is mentioned in the Torah:
Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, "In the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for a house." (Exodus 12:3)
Tosfot4 point out that by taking the lamb, the Jews piqued the interest, and the ire, of the firstborn of Egypt. They pleaded with Pharaoh to release the Jews. When he refused, the firstborn rebelled and attacked their own parents.5Therefore the day is considered great, due to the miracle of God which was manifest and the subsequent unraveling of Egyptian society. Furthermore, by slaughtering the object of Egyptians worship, the Jews liberated themselves from the chains of spiritual slavery.
When the Holy One, blessed be He, told Moses to slay the paschal lamb, Moses answered: "Lord of the Universe! How can I possibly do this thing? Do You not know that the lamb is the Egyptian god? As it says: If we sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us?" (Exodus 8:22) God replied: "As you live, Israel will not depart from here before they slaughter the Egyptian gods before their very eyes, that I may teach them that their gods are really nothing at all.'" This is what He [God] actually did, for on that night He slew the Egyptian firstborn and on that night the Israelites slaughtered their paschal lamb and ate it. When the Egyptians beheld their firstborn slain and their gods slaughtered, they could do nothing, as it says: While the Egyptians were burying them that the Lord had smitten among them, even all their firstborn; upon their gods also the Lord executed judgment. (Midrash Rabbah – Exodus 16:3)
God then said to Moses: "As long as Israel worship Egyptian gods, they will not be redeemed; go and tell them to abandon their evil ways and to reject idolatry." This is what is meant by: Draw out and take you lambs. That is to say: Draw away your hands from idolatry and take for yourselves lambs, thereby slaying the gods of Egypt and preparing the Passover; only through this will the Lord pass over you. This is the meaning of In sitting still and rest shall you be saved. (Midrash Rabbah – Exodus 16:2)
The taking of the lambs was significant on another level as well. The Jews were now occupied with performance of a Divine decree; aside from the rejection of the Egyptian gods they were now actively fulfilling God's command.
* * *
All these explanations though, seem to point to the significance of the 10th of Nissan,6 rather than to the Shabbat which precedes Passover.7 While that 10thof the month in Egypt happened to fall on Shabbat, its significance has apparently no intrinsic connection with Shabbat. Our conclusion, based on the sources we have seen thus far, is that we should celebrate the 10th of Nissan as well as the 15th. but Shabbat Hagadol remains a mystery.8
In order to understand the idea we must first explore the relationship between Shabbat and the other holidays. Shabbat and the Jewish holidays should be seen as different orbits. Shabbat is a commemoration to creation, while the holidays have an historical impetus. Moreover, Shabbat exists in a system established with, and as a result of, creation. Every 7th day is Shabbat, independent of any other calendric input. The Divine precept which introduced the Passover holiday began with a command to keep time, to anoint time.
And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: "This month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, 'In the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for a house.'" (Exodus 12:1-3)
It is the responsibility of the Israelites to sanctify time. The court decides that the new month has arrived; then, and only then are the holidays set up. It can be said that Shabbat comes from above while the holidays come from below.9The Shabbat was holy due to God's creation and rest:
For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the Shabbat day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:11)
* * *
THE JEWISH CALENDAR
Man dictates the calendar and the holidays:
Rav Yochanan said: "When the ministering angels assemble before God and ask, 'When is Rosh HaShanah and when is Yom Kippur?' God says to them: 'Why do you ask Me? You and I, let us all go to the Court on earth [and inquire of them].'" (Midrash Rabbah - Deuteronomy 2:14)
While Shabbat existed from the time of creation, only God was bound by this concept; Shabbat did not seem to have much to do with man. The description cited above of Shabbat being the result of creation is absent the second time the Ten Commandments are written in the Torah. There, the verse illuminates a different aspect of Shabbat:
And remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and with a stretched out arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Shabbat day. (Deut. 5:15)
Here we find an historical component to Shabbat. Our duty to observe Shabbat is not due exclusively to the theological concept of creation and God's rest. Rather, the historical events of our slavery and redemption are the focus.
The Sfat Emet explains that the term "Shabbat HaGadol" results from the Shabbat taking on new significance. Only with the Jews redemption from Egypt did Shabbat acquire the historical identity which intertwined with the theology.The Sfat Emet explains that Shabbat had now become "greater": Now the second aspect of Shabbat, articulated in the repetition of the Ten Commandments, would be realized.10
* * *
WHY IS THIS SHABBAT DIFFERENT?
This Shabbat in Egypt was different from all other previous Shabbatot. Now man joined God in His holy day. Ironically, the mode of observance was not resting in the classic sense. Man was bidden to take his lamb, in what we have already noted was a strong polemical statement hurled at the polytheistic, lamb-worshiping Egyptians.
The Sfat Emet states11 that by taking the lamb the Jews observed Shabbat in Egypt. This was their first Shabbat as a people, a moment of passage in the national sense: They had reached the age of majority, became adult ("gedolim"), with responsibilities. This was Shabbat "HaGadol".12 The most basic teaching of Shabbat is the acknowledgement that God created the world in six days. By taking the lamb the Jews rejected idolatry and accepted God. This was not merely an action which took place on the tenth of Nissan. This was a watershed of Jewish history. Now the Jews joined God in a Shabbat.
The Talmud teaches that one who desecrates Shabbat is guilty of idolatry, for he has rejected the works of God. Now we see that those who rejected idolatry were viewed as "Shabbat observers." Moreover, in taking the lamb, they kept their only Shabbat commandment. This "perfect track record" made it a truly great Shabbat.13
Our sages teach us that if all of Israel fully observe just two Shabbatot we will merit the coming of the Messiah:
Rav Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: "If Israel were to keep two Shabbatot according to the laws thereof, they would be redeemed immediately." (Shabbat 118b)
Interestingly, according to the mainstream Jewish approach the world was created in Nissan, which means that the Shabbat which takes place around the 10th of the month was the second Shabbat in the history of the world. Had those two Shabbatot been kept properly the world would have been redeemed.
In the Sifrei Hapardes, Rav Yeshiel Epstein writes that the two Shabbatot which must be observed are Shabbat Hagadol and Shabbt Shuva. Each of these Shabbatot have a special power to them:
One falls between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, it is a Shabbat which teaches man how to return to God. The other Shabbat is the first Shabbat observed in Egypt. It is a Shabbat which contains within it the secret of redemption.
If man could master these two Shabbatot, the Messiah would quickly arrive.
- The Machzor Vitri section 259 writes "The Shabbat prior to Passover the people are accustomed to call it "Shabbat Hagadol" though they don't know why. The term may be found in the Zohar 1 47b, 2 204a, Tikunei Zohar 40b. (return to text)
- Cited in the name of Rav Shlomo Luria, known as the Maharshal, see Mateh Moses section 542, Rav Ovadia Yosef, Yabia Omer 4:39. Also the Maharal in Gvrurot Hashem chapter 39, and Tiferet Yisrael chapter 44. (return to text)
- Rabbi Soloveitchik pointed out that the term "geula" is only used to describe two occurrences: the redemption in Egypt and the messianic age. Other times of salvation are called "purkan," as in references to Channuka and Purim. (return to text)
- Commenting on Shabbat 87b. (return to text)
- "To him who struck Egypt in their firstborn" (Psalms 136:10). When God sent the plague of the firstborn...All the firstborn went to speak to their fathers and said "Everything which Moses has said has come true, don't you want us to live? Let us get the Hebrews out of our homes otherwise we are dead". They answered "even if all of Egypt dies they are not leaving". All the firstborn gathered in front of Pharaoh and screamed "Please remove this nation, because of them evil will befall us and you". Pharaoh said to his servants "Remove them and break their knees". What did they do? Each took a sword and killed his father. Thus it says: To him who struck Egypt in (with) their firstborn. (Midrash Tehilim 136:6, Ancient Tanchuma Bo 18). For more on this idea see my Notes on Parshat Bo, 5759. (return to text)
- This question has been posed by many: See Taz, Magen Avraham, and other commentaries to section 430 of Orach Chaim. (return to text)
- There is some debate as to whether on the Shabbat immediately preceding Passover the special Haftorah would be read in the event that Erev Passover is Shabbat – or if it would be pushed to the previous Shabbat. (return to text)
- Some have a custom of reading the Haggada on Shabbat Hagadol. This is mentioned in the customs of the Maharil, Laws of Erev Passover section 10, and was institutionalized by the Ramah Orach Chaim 430:1. The Vilna Gaon (Biur Hagra 430) looked askance at this custom for the Mechilta and the Haggada itself suggest that perhaps the commandment of telling the tale of the Exodus should be performed on the first of the month. Rather the verse stresses "And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did to me when I came forth out of Egypt". (13:8) n that day you shall tell your son -- and not on the Shabbat preceding Passover. (return to text)
- Rav Tzadok Hacohen from Lublin, Pri Tzadik Shabbat Hagadol 3. (return to text)
- Sfat Emet Shabbat Hagadol 5637. (return to text)
- Sfat Emet Shabbat Hagadol 5646. (return to text)
- Sfat Emet Shabbat Hagadol 5674. (return to text)
- See Chulin 5a and the comments of Rashi. (return to text)