The Shabbat before Pesach is known as Shabbat HaGadol, “the Great Shabbat,” though it is not completely clear why this is so.1 Nevertheless, several explanations have been offered for this honorable designation. The most common explanation is related to the Pesach offering that the Jewish people were commanded to prepare. On the Shabbat just before the Exodus, which was the tenth of Nissan, the Jewish people were commanded to prepare sheep for the Pesach offering and to tie them to their beds. The Jewish people, of course, did as they were told.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped 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 offerings to G-d. While under normal circumstances a bloody pogrom would certainly have ensued, a miracle occurred and not a single Jew was harmed by the Egyptians.2 In memory of this miracle, the Shabbat before Pesach is referred to as Shabbat HaGadol.
Additionally, as a result of being steeped in Egyptian society for so many years, many Jews had adopted the Egyptian religion and had also begun worshiping sheep. The excitement and preparation for the impending Exodus, however, influenced many Jews to repent their idolatrous ways.3 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 G-d’s authority upon themselves on this day. The term HaGadol (the Great) in this context refers to G-d Himself, Who is truly HaGadol.4
Another reason for the Shabbat HaGadol designation is that 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 tenth and final plague, which would be the death of all firstborns. When the firstborn Egyptians heard this, they demanded of Pharaoh that he release the Jews immediately to prevent the coming plague. When Pharaoh refused, the firstborns went on a rampage, killing many of their fellow Egyptians.5 This remarkable turn of events also warranted the designation of Gadol.
The name of this Shabbat also highlights the fact that it was the first time the Jewish people as a whole were able to fulfill a mitzvah of the Torah: the mitzvah of preparing a sheep for the Pesach offering.6 In this way, the Jewish people were like children who now become bar mitzvah (gadol) and are able to fully observe the Torah. It is also noted that ultimately, every Shabbat is referred to as gadol, as the liturgy of the Birkat Hamazon so demonstrates.7 One must be especially careful to honor this special Shabbat even more than any other…at least as much as Pesach itself.8 There is a custom on Shabbat HaGadol to eat foods remaining from the mishloach manot of Purim to symbolically connect Purim and Pesach, the two holidays of redemption.9
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 the length of this sermon are alluded to in the name Shabbat HaGadol.10 It is also noted that the words of the haftara 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 read this day.11
Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov offers an interpretation for the name Shabbat HaGadol, relating to the mitzvah of Sefirat Ha’omer.12 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.”13 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 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 they were slaves to Pharaoh,14 it was only on Shabbat HaGadol that it became a Divine mitzvah. Performing a mitzvah when commanded to do so is gadol, greater, than initiating it without the command.15
- Machzor Vitri 259.
- Shemot Rabba 16:3; Tur, OC 430.
- Tur, OC 430.
- Chatam Sofer.
- Tosafot, Shabbat 87b; Midrash Tehillim 136:6; Tanchuma, Bo.
- Pri Chadash 430.
- Rivevot Ephraim 4:113:55. See also Sefat Emet, Shabbat Hagadol 5646.
- Rivevot Ephraim 5:307.
- Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 430:4.
- Shvilei Haleket 205. See also Rivevot Ephraim 3:302:2.
- Mateh Moshe 542; Yabia Omer 4:39.
- Bnei Yissaschar, Nissan 3:2.
- Vayikra 23:15.
- Shemot Rabba 1:28.
- Kiddushin 31a.