By Joel Grossman, April 12, 2014
Whenever I think of Shabbat hagadol I remember a special bar mitzvah that my family attended in Miami Beach about 15 years ago. This bar mitzvah took place on Shabbat hagadol, just a few days before Pesach. Now think for a moment about that—preparing for Pesach isn’t all that much work, so why not have a huge simcha right before Pesach starts? Anyway, this bar mitzvah of a boy named Dovid (not David or Daveed, but Dovid) whose family is very close to mine was at a very Orthodox shul. Shortly after Dovid read Torah, davened, and presented his dvar Torah, the rabbi of the shul spoke to him. Dovid, he said, this is such a special day. Today is Shabbat hagadol (the rabbi actually used the correct pronunciation—SHA-bbes ha GA-dol) and it’s so appropriate for this day of your bar mitzvah. Up until today you were a katan, a child, but today, you are becoming a gadol on shabbes hagadol.
What is most memorable to me about this weekend was how many other rabbis—that is rabonim—said exactly the same thing! One after another, during the service, at the Kiddush, at the reception, rabbi after rabbi said to the bar mitzvah boy that it was so fitting that the bar mitzvah was on shabbes hagadol because today Dovid was a gadol. I am quite sure that each of them had thought of this witty idea independently, and couldn’t wait to say this chochma, and didn’t let it trouble them that others had said it first!
So, aside from Dovid’s bar mitzvah, why is this Shabbat called Shabbat hagadol? Several reasons are given. First, in the haftora for Shabbat hagadol we find the pasuk from Malachi 3:23—hiney anochi sholeach lachem et Eliyahu Hanavi lifnei bo yom hagadol v’hanorah—for I will send Eliyahu the prophet to you before the great and awesome day. This use of the word gadol in the haftorah gives the Shabbat its name, similar to Shabbat Nachamu which takes it name from the haftorah.
Another interpretation: there was a custom that the rabbi of the community would give a thorough review of all of the laws of Pesach on the Shabbat before Pesach, and this very long dvar torah gadol gave rise to the nickname Shabbat hagadol. Let me assure you, that is not my minhag.
The midrash also tells a story about the Shabbat before the first Pesach. According to tradition, the exodus from Egypt—the first day of Pesach—was a Thursday, the 15th of Nissan. Working backwards, the prior Shabbat was the 10th of Nissan. Before going into the midrash, let’s take a very quick look at Shmot chapter 12 verse 3 (chumash p. 380) where God commanded the Jews as follows: on the 10th of Nissan each family was to take a lamb, and watch over the lamb until the 14th, in the late afternoon. As we all know, once the lamb was slaughtered the people were commanded to take some of the blood of the lamb and put it on their doorposts, so that later on that night, when God passed through the land of Egypt and killed every firstborn, He would know to pass over the houses where there was lamb’s blood on the doorposts.
The midrash says that when the people followed this command and starting taking lambs on the 10th of Nissan, the Egyptians started asking them exactly what the heck they were doing. The Jews answered that in a few more days they would slaughter the lambs, put a little blood on their doorposts, and then God would go across the land of Egypt and kill all of the firstborn of Egypt but pass over the Jews’ houses. Naturally this upset the Egyptians very much, especially the firstborn, and they went to Paroh and told him to let the Jews go immediately. Paroh, of course, refused, and there was a battle between the Egyptians’ firstborn and Paroh’s soldiers. Many of Paroh’s soldiers were killed, making it easier for the Jews to escape a few days later. The midrash has a proof-text from Psalm 136 verse 10, a psalm which we recite each Shabbat and holiday morning during psukei d’zimrah. It is the psalm where each verse has a short phrase praising God followed by the refrain ki l’olam chasdo, his lovingkindness if forever. You can find it in the siddur on page ___. Verse 10 says: l’makeh mitzraim b’vchoraihem, who struck Egypt through their firstborn. Now the verse could have said “l’makeh bchorei mitzraim,” to the God who struck all of Egypt’s firstborn, but instead it has a much more nuanced grammar—he struck Egypt with, or through their firstborn. In other words, the Midrash tells us, not only did God strike Egypt’s firstborn, God was able to get Egypt’s firstborn to strike the Egyptians, thereby making it easier for the people to fight off the remainder of the Egyptian army. And since all of this happened on the day that the Egyptians saw the Jews taking lambs into their homes — the 10th of Nissan, which was the Shabbat before Pesach– we commemorate this very fortuitous event by forever calling the Shabbat before Pesach Shabbat hagadol.
Let me offer two other thoughts on Shabbat hagadol. The first was inspired by my reading a wonderful book called Start-up Nation. As you may know, this book is about Israel’s high-tech industry and the phenomenal success of so many of its start-up companies. It is a very wonderful read, and I recommend it highly. Now as I read the book I learned a new Hebrew expression: rosh gadol. The authors use this term to describe some of the out-of-the-box visionary thinking of the high tech enterpreneurs. As the authors explain, there is a huge difference between someone with a rosh gadol—a big head, and someone with rosh katan—a small head. Now in English slang the term “fathead” is pretty derogatory, but the Hebrew idiom rosh gadol refers to someone who is able to see the big picture, who can see beyond the immediate field of vision of what is to what could be. Only someone with a rosh gadol—a visionary, you might say—could dream up some of the brilliant products which have made the Israeli high tech industry so incredibly successful.
As I was thinking about the meaning of Shabbat hagadol, I thought about what it means to have a rosh gadol, to see the big picture. And if you think that the current Israeli high tech geniuses who have created so many amazing inventions have a rosh gadol, how about the Jewish people who took lambs into their homes on the Shabbat before the first Pesach? Here were people who knew nothing but slavery, and submitting to their Egyptian masters. They knew that the Egyptians worshipped these very lambs whom God was asking them to slaughter. The one thing these people needed was a rosh gadol—an ability to see beyond their immediate surroundings, to envision a world where they were not slaves, and were free of the Egyptians. By taking this revolutionary step of taking a lamb into their homes in defiance of their masters they began to create something brand new—a new people free of slavery and free to worship God. This first Shabbat hagadol was the day of the amazing, gigantic leap of faith which only could be done by a people with a rosh gadol, a visionary mind. Now that’s what I call a start-up nation!
I have one last thought to share on the possible meaning of the term Shabbat hagadol. Up to now all of the interpretations have been about why this is the Great Shabbat. But there is perhaps another way to look at it. Instead of saying that Shabbat hagadol means that this Shabbat before Pesach is a great Shabbat, we might say that the words mean that of two different days, Shabbat is the gadol, the greater of the two. What is the other day? Pesach. So the term Shabbat hagadol might mean that as between Shabbat and Pesach, Shabbat hagadol, Shabbat is the greater one. This has both spiritual and practical meaning. First, it is easy to get caught up in the preparation for Pesach, turning your house upside down, shopping, changing the dishes, inviting guests or being invited to a seder. We can be so immersed in Pesach preparation that we might forget about Shabbat, not give it the attention it deserves each week. After all, remembering and observing the Shabbat is one of the Ten Commandments, and cleaning your house for Pesach is not.
On a practical level, we also must remember that Shabbat takes precedence over preparation for Pesach, even on those very difficult years when the first Seder is on Saturday night. No last minute shopping, cooking or cleaning on the Shabbat before Pesach. It is still Shabbat. Pesach is very important but as between the two of them, Shabbat hagadol, Shabbat is the greater.
Shabbat shalom, chag kasher v’sameach.