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April 12, 2019

04/09/2019 04:23:20 PM


Sam Shnider

This week is the week before Passover, and this Shabbat is referred to as “Shabbat Hagadol” (The Great Shabbat). Why is this Shabbat called Shabbat Hagadol? The truth is that no one knows for certain. The naming of this Shabbat is one of those particular Jewish customs that have multiple explanations, and none that is final and authoritative.

One important reason is that the reading for this Shabbat, from the end of the prophecy of Malachi, announces the imminent redemption at the end of days using the word “Hagadol”: Behold I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, Lifnei Bo Yom Hashem Hagadol Vehanorah, “before that great and awesome day of God”. This reading connects the imminent redemption with the times of spring and the Passover holiday, because it is at this time of year that the final redemption is destined to occur, and it is this time of year that we are reminded of the optimism and hope of Israel’s relationship to God.

Another important reason is that a great miracle occurred on this day, because it was the day that the Israelites took their pascal lambs and set them aside for the Passover sacrifice, and each family had a lamb tied to the outside of their houses. For the Egyptians, the ram-god was a most respected deity, and the notion of sacrificing a lamb was an abomination, as Moses explains:

Exod 8:22-26 “It would not be right to do so; for the sacrifices that we offer to the LORD our God are an abomination to the Egyptians. If we offer in the sight of the Egyptians sacrifices that are an abomination to them, will they not stone us?”

Nonetheless, the Israelites were commanded to set aside their pascal lambs for four days prior to the sacrifice itself (which occurred on the night of the Exodus) in plain view of the Egyptians. The miracle was thus that the Israelites, in all their scattered dwelling places, were able, each on an individual family basis to celebrate their Jewish identity with no repercussions or hate crimes.

This period of four days, right before the Exodus, was a period of stillness before the storm, when the Israelites were suddenly able to look around them, and realize that they had respite from their work, that no one was oppressing them any more, and they were about to leave slavery forever. This miracle is called “Great” or “HaGadol.”

A final reason for the naming of Shabbat Hagadol, which is more technical, but is more likely, is that the naming Shabbat Hagadol was derived from a mistaken abbreviation of Shabbat Haggadah, or the Shabbat on which we read the Haggadah. This teaches us that in preparation for the Seder night, there was a custom to read through the Haggadah at least one in advance – to be familiar with its ideas and insights, and to gain more perspective on its significance.

What these reasons have in common is that the Sabbath before Passover is an opportunity for us to set our intentions for the upcoming Passover holiday, and to be prepared for it both mentally and physically. If Shabbat is a time of rest and reflection, it is a chance for us to deepen our experience of Jewish practice and prayer, and allow ourselves a few moments to enjoy the approaching holiday by thinking about its meanings and its relation to our own lives before it actually arrives. And by setting aside these few moments before the holiday, we can fully surround ourselves with the atmosphere of Passover on the night that is different from all other nights.


Fri, August 14 2020 24 Av 5780