Parashat Tzav-Shabbat Ha-Gadol

By Rabbi Judith Edelstein

Shabbat Hagadol

This “Great Shabbat,” which falls before Pesah, can be viewed as a paradigm for Judaism itself, as well as for the changing role of the rabbi over the centuries. There are a variety of explanations for the nomenclature and unique customs associated with this unique Shabbat.

“In Tosafot (Shabbat 87), in accordance with the Midrash we read: And therefore we call it Shabbat Hagadol because a great miracle was performed on that day” (Eliyahu Kitov, The Book of Our Heritage, p. 150).
Early sources describe the first Shabbat Hagadol being celebrated on the 10th of Nisan, Saturday, five days before the Israelites escaped from Egypt. “On the tenth day of the month…each man shall take a lamb for a household…” (Exodus 12:3) It was believed that a miracle enabled the Israelites to select the lamb for sacrifice on that Shabbat, because the Egyptians, who normally would not have permitted them to do this on any other day, allowed it on that particular Saturday. (Ibid, p.149) A variation on this theme follows: “Just as a child who is of the age to keep the mitzvot is called gadol(an adult), so the day on which the whole people of Israel had to keep their first mitzvot…(see above) is called Hagadol.” (Ibidp. 153)
According to Isaac Klein, it is believed that this “Great Shabbat” originally was one of four, the other Great Shabbatot occurring before each of the festivals, when the rabbis would offer an extended discourse to facilitate the community’s knowledge of the holiday in order to adhere to the laws. (A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, p. 108) While this honorific title fell into disuse for the other festivals, it was retained for Pesah, perhaps, due to the greater number of questions related to its proper observance.

Another explanation for the title of this Shabbat is that it describes the length of the rabbi’s talk, which was substantially longer than usual because of the myriad of intricate laws of Pesah. This resulted in congregants remaining in synagogue much later in the day. The community experienced this Shabbat as greater (actually longer) than other Shabbatot as they were held captive, needing to familiarize themselves with the holiday’s requirements.(Ibid.) Apparently, in earlier unspecified times the rabbis only preached on Shabbat Shuvah (The Sabbath of Repentance) and Shabbat Hagadol. (Ibid, 206) It was also the custom in Ashkenazic congregations to review the Haggadah that same afternoon up to the point when Rabban Gamliel explains the symbols on the Seder plate. This was done to remind the congregants of the content of the Haggadah before the Seder actually took place.

How the rabbi’s job has changed! From twice a year sermons to a minimum of one a week, monthly bulletin articles, regular divrei Torah that must be uploaded to the Internet, social and educational programming, counseling, teaching, spearheading social justice efforts, officiating at all life cycle events, including blessing the animals, at the very least. And how the congregation has been transformed!  Imagine a contemporary audience sitting well into the afternoon to learn the details of Pesah observance, followed by studying the Haggadah – without a Kiddush hour to break it up.

The most rational explanation for the name Shabbat Hagadol is based upon the haftarah, Malachai 3:23, which refers to the great and awesome day of the final redemption. For even before we speak of the redemption from slavery at the first Seder, we anticipate the final redemption that Elijah will proclaim.

Shabbat Hagadol‘s origins are a bit hazy, despite the various possibilities that are summarized here. Similarly, our origins as a people are not quite clear. While we can read about the miracles in scriptural and midrashic sources and study history, archeology, anthropology, etc, we cannot be definitive about where or how we started as a people.

Today, in most synagogues the term Shabbat Hagadol is known only to the clergy and those who look at the Jewish calendar. Whether we attribute the greatness of this day to the miracle of being able to select a lamb or simply to the haftarah, the fact that Shabbat Hagadol has survived at all is amazing, especially given that its function to educate the masses about the laws of Pesahoutside of the Haredi community, is no longer its intent. In the same vein, if we examine Judaism in its nascent state and compare it to the way it is practiced today, we find little resemblance. The changing nature of Shabbat Hagadol is symbolic of the evolution of Judaism itself. This has been the key to our survival as a people – the retention of the name with a new meaning that may yet continue to be revised. We honor and celebrate the beginnings with all the miracles – while we look forward to continued growth, revision and renewal, perhaps the greatest miracle of all.

A zissin Pesah.


Rabbi Judith Edelstein, D.Min, BCC is the part-time rabbi of Congregation Shirat HaYam in Nantucket, MA. She teaches at the JCC in Manhattan and works independently with private students for conversion, B’nai Mitzvah and other life cycle events.