Friday, March 22, 2013
The Great Shabbat
The Shabbat immediately preceding Passover is known as Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat. It is best known for being the Shabbat on which the rabbi of the community (or another leading scholar) gives a detailed sermon that is often a review of the laws of Passover. While it has been suggested that these sermons are the source of the title "HaGadol" (gadol means both great and large), there is an actual historical significance to this Shabbat.
In the year that the Israelites were redeemed from slavery, God commanded the Jewish people that on the 10th of Nisan, each Israelite household (or combination of households) must take a lamb to use for a sacrifice (Exodus 12:3). Choosing a lamb for a sacrifice might not seem like a big deal, but the Egyptians viewed sheep as holy animals. (Having lived among the Egyptians for so long, many Israelites had assumed the false belief that sheep have special spiritual significance.) By taking the sheep and preparing it for slaughter, the people displayed defiance of their Egyptian masters and rejected any religious significance for the sheep itself.
Shabbat HaGadol is marked in synagogue by the reading of a special haftarah from the book of Malachi (3:3-24). Some people connect the concluding line of this reading to the term Shabbat HaGadol: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great (hagadol) and awesome day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers..." (3:23-24).
Passover is the holiday on which Jews celebrate redemption, and Elijah the prophet will be the harbinger of the final redemption, the coming of the Messiah. The ultimate redemption cannot come, however, until the Jewish people do teshuva (repent). Some scholars, such as the Chatam Sofer, have commented that this is the true meaning of Shabbat HaGadol - that when the Israelites began their preparations for the exodus by taking a lamb into their house, they were doing teshuva for having followed the ways of their Egyptian neighbors.