Jewish World Review March 26, 1999 / 9 Nissan, 5759

"The Great Sabbath"

By Ari Z. Zivotofsky

THE SABBATH IMMEDIATELY PRECEDING PASSOVER (March 27th, this year) is a distinguished one. It bears an impressive title and a unique set of liturgical and ritual practices.

Known as Shabbat Hagadol -- The "Great" or "Big" Sabbath --- it can precede the holiday by as much as seven days.

There are two widespread customs observed on this Sabbath: The rabbi delivers a major discourse, second in importance only to the one addressing his congregation during the High Holiday sermon, and the first-half of the haggadah (Passover liturgy) is recited in the afternoon, almost like a practice session before the seder, reliving of the Exodus re-created every year during Passover.

While in many contemporary synagogues the high point of every Sabbath morning service is the rabbi's speech, it was not always this way.

Throughout most of Jewish history, until as late as 200 years ago, the Torah reading was the focus of the service and the rabbi delivered a sermon only twice a year: on Shabbat Shuva, the sabbath between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and on Shabbat Hagadol.

Though universally observed in one form or another, there is no clear origin of " The Great Sabbath’s" name and character, as exists for Shabbat Shuva.

In his Haggadah Shlaimah, Rabbi Kasher collects nine different reasons that shed light on this puzzle. Here are a few:

The most well known source relates back to the events that occurred in Egypt immediately preceding the Exodus.

The year the Jews left Egypt, Passover, the 15th of the month of Nissan, occurred, according to tradition, on a Thursday. Thus, the 10th of Nissan was on a Shabbat. It was on that day that each Jewish family selected the Paschal Lamb that would be used at the seder. Since the Egyptians worshipped sheep this was a daring and risky action. A Great miracle occurred and the Egyptians remained passive. Thus, in commemoration of this Great miracle that occurred on the Sabbath before Passover , we observe the Sabbath before Passover as the Great Sabbath.

The Chizkuni and others commentaries have suggested that the day was Great since, for the first time in our history, the Jews carried out a Divine commandment -- the taking of the Paschal lamb -- as a nation. Similarly, when a Jew matures and becomes obligated in the fulfilling commandments as a bar or bat mitzvah s/he is referred to as a Gadol --- as in Shabbat hagadol.

A slightly humorous explanation is offered by Rashi, the foremost biblical commentator.

Since people remain in the synagogue significantly longer than on other weeks to listen to the special, well-developed sermon, this Shabbat appears to be exceedingly long (gadol). Furthermore, this long lecture is delivered by the gadol (outstanding religious personality) of the community.

Two suggestions detract slightly from the uniqueness of the day. One attributes the title to a scribal error: Ancient books had called it Shabbat Haggada because part of the haggada (Passover text) is read during the day. The word Haggada was written in abbreviated form and eventually became corrupted to hagadol.

This theory, however, is rejected outright by Rabbi Kasher because the usage of the name Shabbat Hagadol is far more widespread than the custom of reading the Haggadah.

Furthermore, there are just too many diverse and early sources that employ the term hagadol to suspect that they are all based on a scribal error.

Others have noted that in different periods and locations not only the Shabbat before Passover was called Shabbat Hagadol, but so was the Sabbaths before the religious festivals of Shavuot and Sukkot. It was simply a way of designating the special event that is to take place during the upcoming week.

Probably the most likely source of the name Shabbat Hagadol is that it relates to the haftora of the day. Just like Shabbat Shuva and Shabbat Nachamu (the sabbath right after Tisha B'av) are so called because of phrases found in their respective haftora readings, so too Shabbat Hagadol. Its haftora portion is taken from the prophet Malachi and speaks about the coming of Elijah the prophet to announce the Great Day of God.

Hence it is called The Great Sabbath (Shabbat HAgadol), not just "Great Shabbat" (Shabbat Gadol).

Either way, It is for this great day that we yearn on Passover night when we greet Elijah at the door and proclaim at the conclusion of the seder "Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem."

JWR contributor Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a suburban-D.C. writer who works in neurophysiology at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.


©1999, Ari Z. Zivotofsky