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Shabbat haGadol

April 16, 2008

The Shabbat before Pesach is referred in medieval sources as Shabbat haGadol ‘ the Great Shabbat. But there is a range of opinions about its relationship to the Exodus narrative. According to these
sources, it was on the Shabbat preceding the first Pesach that Israel was commanded to take a lamb per household in preparation for the night of liberation, a precursor to the great events that were to come. Seizing a lamb, the totem of Egypt’s divinity, required a miracle ‘ hence the name Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat of the Great ‘ i.e. of God (Tur).

Another etymological possibility lies in the traditional practice of reciting most of the Haggadah after Minhah and reviewing the laws of Pesach during morning services on the Shabbat preceding Pesach. Quite a lot of ground to cover . . . Shabbat HaGadol then becomes ‘that really long Shabbat’ (Shibbolei HaLeket).

Still another direction ‘ more suggestive than plausible, perhaps ‘ is that the original Shabbat HaGadol, the tenth of Nissan, would become, forty years later, the Yahrtzeit of Miriam HaN’viah, first Prophet of the Exodus, first born of Yocheved and Amram, who foretold the salvation to come. Just as her arrival marks the beginning of the age of liberation, so does her departure mark its close. (Moed Katan 28.)

The Gerer Rebbe (S’fat Emet 5674) writes that Israel’s taking the Pesach lamb, abandoning Egyptian idolatry and civilization, represents Israel’s coming of age and celebrating the Shabbat as a community of responsible adults. ‘Shabbat HaGadol‘ thus means, ‘the grown-up Shabbat’.

A sixteenth century voice (Mabit) holds that, following the miracle of designating the Egyptians’ sacred animal for sacrifice without harm, B’nai Yisrael did not return to their slavery. In effect then, Shabbat HaGadol became ‘the long Shabbat, or Resting,’ the cessation of slavery; a cessation that continues to this day, for never again has the entire Jewish people been enslaved in the sense that we were in Mitzraim.

Despite the power of the above perspectives, the simplest explanation ‘ provided by David Abudraham (14th century) is that the name is based, like Shabbat Hazon, Nahamu, and Shuva, on the associated haftarah: Malachi chapter 3. The haftarah concludes, ‘Behold, I send Eliyahu the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome Day of HaShem (Yom HaShem HaGadol V’haNorah) . . . and he shall turn the hearts of the parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents.’

Exploding with images both exultant and terrifying, destructive and reassuring, apocalyptic and rooted in continuity, the haftarah selection, taken from the Book of Malachi, the last prophet, is infused with the promise of redemption. What is the source of the association between the approaching holiday and the yearning for apotheosis? Perhaps the link lies in Rabbi Yehoshua’s teaching:

“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.” (Bavli Rosh HaShana 11a)

For us, everything is evocative. Creation evokes the redemption of Israel. The redemption of Israel ‘ arguably the nexus and wellspring of all Jewish meaning, invoked over and over again in every service ‘ evokes the redemption of all of humanity. Even as Shabbat haGadol is the gateway to Pesach, so is Pesach the gateway to another kind of Shabbat haGadol: haYom She’kulo Shabbat, the day that is wholly Shabbat, in the words of our haftarah, the Yom Yavo ‘ the Day that comes (Malachi 3). This reading of Shabbat haGadol implies ‘the Shabbat of the Day of Redemption.’

‘He will turn the hearts of the parents to (`al) the children, and the hearts of the children to (`al) their parents . . . ‘ How poignant are these words in the context of Parashat Acharei Mot, with its mention of the death of Aharon’s sons ‘when they drew close to God and died.’ Rashi notes that the use of the word ‘`al‘ implies ‘concerning, due to’ ‘ He will turn the hearts of the parents due to the children and the hearts of the children due to their parents. For the parent, the experience of the child is felt intensely, with heart-wrenching poignancy. For the child, the experience of the parent is somehow veiled, other, distant. No matter how hard we try to understand or approach them, our parents’ lives remain, at some level, a mystery. And yet, the final words of Prophecy speak to these most primal of all relationships as deeply invested with world-liberating meaning. Only when hearts are turned can the Day come. Moshe’s strange words of comfort to Aharon in VaYikra 10, Bikrovai akadesh ‘ through those close to Me shall I be made holy speak to the power of intimacy, of daring to draw near to each other.

The Seder is not only an invocation of the past but a transformative experience drawing the redemption closer. More important than the rituals and liturgy, perhaps, is the gathering of generations around the Seder table. This is the essence of the dialogue, of hearts turning to each other and returning to their truest selves. The business of the Seder is creation, revelation and redemption ‘ let us not fear to draw close, to tell the stories and let the holy memories wash over us. L’shana HaBa’ah Biyerushalaim. Shabbat Shalom and Hag Kasher V’Sameah.


Moshe Rudin is a rabbinical student at AJR.