The Shabbat before Pesach, or Passover, is known as Shabbat Hagadol, “the Great Sabbath”, though it is not completely clear why this is so. Nevertheless, a number of explanations have been offered for this honorable designation.

The most common explanation is related to the Passover offering that the Jewish people were commanded to prepare. On the Shabbat just prior to the Exodus, which was the 10th of Nissan, the Jewish people were commanded to prepare a sheep for the Pesach offering and to tie it to their beds. The Jewish people, of course, did as they were told.

The ancient Egyptians worshiped sheep. When they saw that the Jews were tying sheep to their beds, they became enraged and demanded an explanation for this sacrilege. The Jews calmly explained that they were going to slaughter the sheep as an offering to God. While under normal circumstances, a bloody pogrom would certainly have been the response to what the Jewish people were doing, a miracle occurred and not a single Jew was harmed by the Egyptians. In memory of this miracle, the Shabbat before Pesach is referred to as “Shabbat Hagadol” the GREAT Sabbath.

Additionally, as a result of being steeped in Egyptian society for so many years, many Jews adopted the Egyptian religion and had begun worshiping sheep as well. The excitement and preparation for the impending Exodus, however, influenced many Jews to repent from their idolatrous ways. In order to recall the mass repentance that took place on the Shabbat before the Exodus, this Shabbat is designated as Shabbat Hagadol. So too, the nation as a whole affirmed their acceptance of God’s authority upon themselves on this day. The name “Hagadol” in this context refers to God Himself, who is truly “Hagadol”.

Another reason for the Shabbat Hagadol designation is because when the Jews told the Egyptians why they were tying sheep to their beds, they also took the opportunity to notify the Egyptians of the upcoming 10th and final plague which would be the death of all the firstborn. When the firstborn Egyptians heard this they charged into Pharaoh demanding that he release the Jews immediately in order to prevent the upcoming plague. When Pharaoh refused, the firstborn went on a rampage killing many of their fellow Egyptians. This remarkable turn of events also warranted the designation of “Gadol”.

It is customary for the community rabbi to deliver a lengthy and intricate sermon on the afternoon of Shabbat Hagadol. Both the distinct nature and length of this sermon are alluded to in the name “Shabbat Hagadol.” It is also noted that the words of the Haftara (reading from the Prophets related to the weekly Torah portion) of Shabbat Hagadol include the prophecy about the future redemption — the “Yom Hagadol.” In this context, the designation “Shabbat Hagadol” is a reminder of the exciting Haftara that is read.

Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov offers his own interpretation for the name Shabbat Hagadol that relates to the mitzva of Sefirat Ha’omer. As is well known, the counting of the Omer begins on the second day of Pesach or, as the Torah puts it, “the day after Shabbat.” The Sadducees held that “the day after Shabbat” means that we start counting the Omer on the Sunday following the start of Pesach. Our sages teach us, however, that “Shabbat” in this context refers to the first day of Pesach. Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech suggests, therefore, that the Shabbat before Pesach is called “Shabbat Hagadol” in order to recall that the upcoming first day of Pesach is referred to as “Shabbat” in Scripture.

Rabbi Aaron of Belz offers another idea. He says that the Shabbat before Pesach is referred to as Shabbat Hagadol because it was the first Shabbat that the Jews were commanded to observe. Although the Jews had previously rested on Shabbat while slaves to Pharaoh, it was only on Shabbat Hagadol that it became a Divine mitzva. Performing a mitzva when commanded to do so is “Gadol” -greater, than doing it for other reasons.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Pesach from Israel!

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