I love Shabbat. I really do. Most weeks, I find myself counting the days, anticipating Shabbat, making plans, and eagerly awaiting the impending rest, relaxation, prayer, and communal connections. But, this week as Shabbat approaches, I find I am thinking less of Shabbat and a whole lot more about Pesach which will begin on Monday night. After all, this is but one of 52 Shabbatot during the year, so there will be many others. Pesach, on the other hand, comes but once a year. And, trying to figure out how and when to clean the house, clear out the hametz, kasher the kitchen, cook the food, shop for the groceries, and plan for the seder that will be in my home occupies more than the available space in my mind and in my schedule. So, is it any wonder that my mind is jumping ahead of the calendar and is more centered on Pesach than on Shabbat?
On the other hand, our tradition tells us this is an important Shabbat - this Shabbat, the last one before Pesach, is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Big Shabbat, the great Shabbat. So, it must be important, right? As I began thinking about writing this message, I could not help but wonder if perhaps the special significance of this Shabbat is specifically because of the danger of it being diminished (as unintended as that diminishing might be) in the wake of the coming holiday and all of its necessary preparation. After all, references to Shabbat Hagadol cannot be found in Torah or even the Talmud, and it is a bit unknown how this Shabbat came to be known as such. In fact, in his opening to Sefer Hapardes, Rashi explains that people are accustomed to calling the shabbat before Pesach "Shabbat Hagadol", but they do not know what makes this shabbat greater than any other. So, like Rashi, different commentators speak of it and try to explain its origins.
In many commentaries, Shabbat HaGadol finds her origins as does any other special Shabbat (Shabbat Nachamu, Shabbat Hazon), namely through word association based on the Haftarah. In this case, the last verse of the special Haftarah refers to a day in the future which will be gadol (great): "Hinei Anochi Sholei-ach lahem... Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great (gadol) and awesome day of the Lord. (Malachi 3:23). Speaking of a day of redemption in the future, the prophet looks to Passover as an archetype of redemption, recalling the Talmudic teaching of Rabbi Yehoshua: "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)
In another explanation, The Tur (Jacob ben Asher, 13th century) writes that the Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat HaGadol because a great miracle was performed for Israel. At God's command, each family took a lamb (a symbol that also was associated with the god of Egypt), and tied it to their doorposts and kept it there for four days. They told the Egyptians they would slaughter it on the 14th of Nisan, thus assuring that Israelites would be saved from the destruction of the final plague. That year the 10th of Nisan (the day corresponding to the fourth day before the slaughter) was a Shabbat. As a commemoration of the start of the miracle, that Shabbat became Shabbat Hagadol, and even though the last Shabbat before Pesach is not always on the 10th of the Hebrew month, it retained the label of Shabbat Hagadol so that we would pause to consider the great wonder that resulted from the sign on the doorposts.
Some understand the great significance of this explanation of the Tur in an even more extended way, explaining that when the Egyptian firstborn heard of what was to happen, they pleaded with their fathers and Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Their cries were ignored and a civil war broke out in Egypt in which many Egyptians were killed, thus weakening their power to oppress. (I have to admit a personal difficulty with this explanation. Out of a tradition that has us dip our fingers in our wine to diminish our joy that resulted from another people's suffering, it is hard to imagine that we would increase the importance of a Shabbat celebration knowing that so many were killed for it to happen.)
Somewhere along the way, Shabbat Hagadol became known as one of two Shabbatot on which the rabbi would deliver more extensive sermons, keeping people involved in learning into the late afternoon. The Sefer Shibolei Haleket (R. Zedekiah b. Abraham Harof Anav, Italy, 1210 - 1275) explains: 'on the Sabbath before Passover the people stay late into the afternoon...in order to hear the sermon expounding upon the laws of removing leaven...and it goes on, and the people do not return home until it is over, for if they do not hear it now, when will they hear it, for Passover arrives this week...and due to this length, the day seems greater and longer to the people than other days, and therefore they refer to this Sabbath as the Great Sabbath. (I suspect for some readers of this message, the idea of a rabbi - any rabbi - giving a longer sermon would not be reason for celebration or for calling special attention to the day).
As I thought about these explanations, there was another element that came to mind that actually helped me re-focus on this Shabbat and begin to anticipate it as any other Shabbat. Shabbat, as we know, is connected to creation. As the Torah explains, after the six days of creation, God rested and withdrew. So says the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus: "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day" (Exodus 20:11) In other words, we have Shabbat because of its link to creation. As a result, the seven day cycle of work and rest has become part of the inner Jewish clock. It is the time when we attune our lives to God, alternating between our own abilities to help create and withdraw as well.
But, there is a second telling of the Ten Commandments in the book of Deuteronomy. There, the reason for Shabbat is explained differently: "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath Day" (Deuteronomy 5:15). Here, Shabbat is linked to the Exodus and freedom, the very theme that Passover invites us to experience and be a part of in a deep and personal way. As Jews, we know that freedom bears responsibility - to ourselves, to our world, to God. And, freedom is best expressed when used to break down the barriers that prevent us, as individuals and as a collective whole, from reaching our potential.
What better Shabbat than this one prior to Passover to be reminded that God wants us to live in harmony with creation and to take moments to withdraw so we can see the beauty of the world around us. And God also wants us to use our freedom to become miracle workers, to reinvent and recreate ourselves and our world, to challenge the status quo, to fight against bondage, and to transcend the barriers of oppression. This is the Shabbat Hagadol I pray that each of us will experience this week!
Shabbat Hagadol Shalom.