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The Great Shabbat

Rabbi Simon Jacobson

 What defines greatness? A closer look at the significance of Shabbat HaGadol (lit. the great Shabbat) – the traditional name for the Shabbat preceding Passover – can perhaps shed some light on the meaning of greatness. And also give us a laugh or two – hey who can’t use it a bit of humor?…

If you thought that long, drawn-out Rabbinic sermons are a modern phenomenon, think again. None other than the great 11th century scholar and commentator, Rashi, writes in his Sefer ha’Pardes (p. 343), in the name of a Rabbi Yitzchak Yuskuntu that the customary lengthy Shabbat HaGadol speech makes the Shabbat feel long and drawn out. Hence they called the day Shabbat HaGadol, gadol as in long and protracted – the long Shabbat. “When people do not move around, but stay in one place for an extended time and don’t have what to do, they customarily will say: ‘what a long day…’”

I tried researching the identity of Rabbi Yitzchak Yuskuntu that Rashi cites, but with no success. All Rashi writes is that he was a “katzin” (which usually means a prominent individual, a magistrate), and that he was from Hungary (“eretz hagar”). If anyone has any more information on this Rabbi, I would appreciate you letting let me know.

Just in case you think that this was an anomaly only in Rashi’s town (and in the vicinity of the above-cited Rabbi Yitzchak), this reason for Shabbat haGadol is brought down by quite a few other Torah authorities, like the 13th century scholar, R’ Tzidkiyahu ben Avraham in his Shibolei Haleket, R’ Yechiel in Tanya Rabsi and others.

I guess the difference between the Synagogue sermons in the Middle Ages and today is that people then stuck around even if the sermons dragged on and the day turned long and drawn out. While today most congregants would simply leave and not hang around too long… Was it the sermon or the people? Probably both: The sermons were better and the people were more committed. Today, on the other hand… – you can fill in the blanks.

Before drawing any bizarre conclusions that the Shabbat before Passover is so named (The Long Shabbat) simply due to people’s feelings about the lengthy sermons, we must qualify this statement with a very clear and loud declaration that our sages, including Rashi himself, offer other reasons for this Shabbat being called Shabbat HaGadol.

Primary among these reasons is the one given by the legal (halachik) authorities, namely the Tur, Shulchan Oruch (code of Jewish law) and the Alter Rebbe in his Shulchan Oruch (Orech Chaim sec. 430) – that a great miracle happened on this Shabbat a few days preceding the Egyptian Exodus. There are various opinions as to the nature of this great miracle. Here is a summary of them:

1) The Jewish people were commanded by Moses to take a lamb and tie it to their bedposts on Shabbat, the 10th day of Nissan, five days before they were to leave Egypt. When the Egyptians inquired by the Jews why they were buying lambs en masse, they were told that these lambs were intended for the Paschal Offering, which would be sacrificed in preparation of the Plague of the Firstborn. For some reason, this information rattled the Egyptian firstborn, who immediately insisted that Pharaoh grant the Jews the liberty they demanded. When Pharaoh refused their request, the Egyptian firstborn waged war with Pharaoh’s army, and many Egyptians who were guilty of atrocities against the Jews were killed on that day. This is the meaning of the verse (Psalms 136:10): “Who struck Egypt through its first born; for His kindness is eternal” (Alter Rebbe’s Shulchan Aruch, from Tosafot Shabbat 87b).

2) On this day it was demonstrated that the Egyptians were powerless against the Jews. They were very disturbed by the fact that the Jews were planning to slaughter lambs, an Egyptian deity – but were incapable of doing anything to hamper their plans (Tur. Levush).

3) The Egyptians wanted to kill the Jews for slaughtering their deity, and G-d miraculously spared them (Rabboseinu Baalei haTosafos Bo 12:3. Rashi in Sefer HaPardes cited above, as well as in Sefer haOrah and Siddur Rashi).

Despite these reasons, it still seems kind of puzzling that a sage on the caliber of Rashi should cite the above-mentioned reason that people felt that the sermon made the day seem so long. Why would it be important to tell us this? And why would anyone suggest such a satirical name to a day so special like the Shabbat before Passover?! Especially considering that there are many other very positive reasons for calling this day Shabbat HaGadol – reasons that reflect the special and great miracles that transpired on that day! In addition to the reasons cited above, many scholars over the generations have posited different beautiful insights into this name (like the Avudraham and the Pri Chadash. – Many are gathered in Rabbi Menachem Kasher’s Hagoda Shelemah. See also Bnei Yissachar and Shaar Yissachar, among others).

Another oddity about Shabbat HaGadol is the fact that this name is not mentioned in any Biblical or Talmudic literature.* The first time we find it mentioned is in the writings of Rashi (cited above) and his contemporaries, like R’ Simcha ben Samuel of Vitry in his Machzor Vitri (section 259). And they both write that the name is shrouded in mystery: “The Shabbat prior to Passover people are accustomed to call Shabbat HaGadol. And they don’t know why it’s called Shabbat Hagadol, [why it is distinguished as being] greater than the other Sabbaths of the year.”

And yet, they continue to provide the reason for this name due to the great miracle that happened on that Shabbat in Egypt! Since Rashi and the other sages know and are giving us the reason, why are they emphasizing the ignorance of the people in their time who call it by that name without knowing why?! And why is it that people at the time were not aware of the reason? Clearly the name of the Shabbat was quite popular, suggesting that it was passed on by word-of-mouth from generation to generation. Yet, the reason was not passed on except to a select few. The question remains: Where did this name originate? How far back?

The history of Shabbat HaGadol and its name seems to be muddled, almost intentionally, in obscurity. Not to say that Jewish law is unclear about the matter; the Shulchan Aruch is very lucid about the great miracle that happened on that Shabbat, and how we honor that every year on this Shabbat HaGadol. Many eloquent thoughts and yes, sermons, have been delivered over the years explaining the moral and spiritual lessons from these miracles. And yet, when we go back and explore the past, the origins of the name seem to fade in the annals of history.

I will not attempt to unravel the mysteries of Shabbat HaGadol. Instead, allow me to just point out that perhaps we may have here a full-blown manifestation of the paradoxes and absurdities of life, which is acutely reflected in Jewish life.

On one hand, Shabbat HaGadol celebrates the great miracles that preceded the Exodus. After years of oppression at the hands of the Egyptians, the oppressors finally got their due, as they turned on each other and witnessed their gods being destroyed, helpless to do anything about it. Year after year on this Shabbat throughout the millennia, sermons upon sermons were delivered, educating, inspiring, motivating, cajoling the people to honor these miracles, improve their lives and heighten their consciousness.

On the other hand, the Jewish people, though free at last, are never allowed to gloat and succumb to pride and self-importance.

To remind us of that fact, we don’t really know when and where the “Great Shabbat” got its name. Furthermore, in an almost tongue-in-cheek way – quite refreshing if you ask me – we are reminded that some of these sermons (even back then) may have gone too long; or if that sounds too harsh, that the long sermons made the people feel that the day was very, very long… “What a long day?”

They say that there is a very thin line between comedy and tragedy, as well as between intensity and lightness of being. Sometimes the only way to survive and not be trampled by existential loneliness and the contradictions of life is with a bit of humor and self-deprecation; not to take yourself too seriously. Not becoming smug in the face of success; and not to be depressed in the face of (perceived) failure.

Balancing the two – seriousness and cheerfulness, intensity and buoyancy, realism and optimism, sadness and laughter, pain and joy, success and humility – is the secret to resilience and success; the power to withstand all challenges and endure. The mystery of immortality.

And in some strange way, this is the secret of greatness. The mystique behind the Great Shabbat.

May everyone be blessed with a very meaningful, transcendent – and disarming – Passover.

———-

*) The term Shabbat Hagadol is mentioned Zohar II 204a and Tikkunei Zohar 40b. But it is not referring there (at least explicitly) to the Shabbat preceding Passover.

 

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