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
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,
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
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)
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.