The Shabbat before Passover is called The Great
Shabbat (Shabbat HaGadol), because a great miracle occurred
on that day...
Why was [the commemoration of the miracle] not instituted
on the tenth of Nissan, regardless of whether it fall on Shabbat
or on a weekday, as all other commemorative dates were instituted?
Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 430:1
A cursory look at our calendar indicates that we measure
time in an awkward and inconvenient manner.
To distinguish a certain day, we refer to two different time-cycles:
the seven-day weekly cycle, and the 29.5 day lunar cycle,
which gives us an alternating 29 and 30-day month. These two
time-systems are asynchronous: a days place in the month
has no bearing on its place in the week.
So if the 10th of Nissan falls on Shabbat one year (as it
did in the year of the Exodus), it may fall on a Monday the
next year; and if the Shabbat before Passover is Nissan 10
one year, it may be Nissan 14 the next. Would it not have
been much simpler to employ a single cycle in which a fixed
number of weeks make up the month,
so that any given day may be placed in a single, unvarying
But life itself is not a singlar state of being, or even
a series of compatible states. Life is a multifaceted phenomenon,
with certain facets diverging from, or even clashing with,
the others. The absence of synchrony between the week and
the month is due to the fact that these two time-cycles reflect
two very different areas of our lives.
The Miraculous Month
The seven-day week is natures built-in time-cycle.
G-d created the universe in seven dayssix days of creative
involvement followed by a seventh of rest and withdrawal.
As a result, a seven-day cycle of work and rest has been ingrained
in creation as natures inner clock. This is the significance
of the mitzvah of Shabbat: that man attune his life to G-ds
creation, alternating a six-day exercise of his own creative
powers with a day of withdrawal from material creativity.
But G-d wanted moremore than our development of His
world in harmony with its built-in cycle of creation, more
than our realization of our in-born potentials. He wanted
us to be miracle-workers: to be forever reinventing and recreating
ourselves, forever challenging the status quo imposed by nature
and habit, forever transcending the strictures of normalacy
and convention. To this end, G-d introduced lunar time into
our lives, instructing us, in the first mitzvah commanded
us as a people, to establish a calendar based on the phases
of the moon.
In contrast with the regular, monotonous week, the lunar
month is forever changing and regenerating itself. As the
moon wanes and waxes in the nighttime sky, the lunar month
follows suit, growing with the expanding moon in the first
half of the month, reaching its climax with the full
moon on the 15th, dwindling to nothingness with the
shrinking moon of the second half of the month, and being
reborn on the night of the new moon. Indeed, the
Hebrew word for month, chodesh, means renewal.
For while the week represents the natural potential of man,
the lunar month stands for what is innovative, original and
miraculous in our achievements.
This explains why all the festivals on the Jewish calendar
are set in accordance with the day of the month, rather than
the day of the week.
The festivals represent a transcendence of the natural orderthe
Exodus on Passover, the miracles of Chanukah and Purim, and
so on. These days are landmarks of the miraculous in the terrain
of time, signposts indicating stores of norm-surpassing potential.
Every year, as we arrive at these junctures in our journey
through time, we are afforded the opportunity to tap these
reservoirs of the supernatural and translate them into personal
The Mutiny of the Firstborn
There is, however, one exception to this rule, one case in
which the date of a miraculous event in our history is identified
for posterity by its place in the weekly cycle. This exception
is Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat,
which commemorates a great miracle that transpired shortly before our Exodus from
The miracle occurred on the 10th of Nissan, 2448 (1313 bce),
five days before the Exodus. The Jewish people exited the
land of Egypt on Thursday,
Nissan 15, meaning that, in that year, Nissan 10 was a Shabbat.
But instead of commemorating the miracle on the lunar date
of its original occurrence, as is done with all other festivals
and commemorative dates of the Jewish calendar, the event
is remembered each year on the Shabbat before Passover.
Various reasons are given for this departure from the standard
practice. But the name given to this dayThe Great Shabbatsuggests
a deeper reason as well, a reason connected with the very
significance of Shabbat and the weekly cycle.
What happened on that Great Shabbat five days
before the Exodus?
On the eve of their departure from Egypt, the Jewish people
were commanded to bring a passover offering (korban
pesach) to G-d. On the tenth of this month,
G-d instructed Moses, every man shall take a lamb for
his family, one lamb for each household... It should be held
in safekeeping until the fourteenth of this month; the entire
community of Israel shall then slaughter their sacrifices
in the afternoon. They shall take the blood and place it on
the two doorposts and on the lintel... They shall eat the
meat that night, roasted over fire, with matzos and bitter
I will pass through Egypt on that night, and I will
kill every firstborn in Egypt, man and beast... The blood
will be a sign for you on the houses where you are staying;
I will see the blood and pass over youthere will not
be any deadly plague among you when I strike the land of Egypt.
The Talmud relates what happened when 600,000 Jews began
rounding up their lambs on the 10th of Nissan. The lamb was
worshipped as a deity in ancient Egypt, so this caused quite
a commotion. The firstborn of Egypt, who held the key social
and religious positions in Egyptian society, asked the Jews
why they were doing this, and were told: We are preparing
an offering to G-d. In four days hence, at the stroke of midnight,
G-d will pass through Egypt in order to execute the tenth
and final plague: all firstborn will die, and the Jewish nation
will be freed.
The firstborn of Egypt, who had already witnessed the first
nine plagues occur exactly as Moses had warned, were understandably
alarmed. They approached Pharaoh and his generals and demanded
that the Jews be freed immediately. When Pharaoh refused,
the firstborn took up arms against Pharaohs troops,
killing many of them. This event is alluded to by the Psalmist,
who sings: [Offer thanks to G-d,] who smote the Egyptians with their first born.
Where's the Miracle?
What was so great about this miracle? Indeed,
what was the miracle? That the firstborn took up the
cause of the Israelites was a natural and understandable development:
after all, all of Egypt had nine times witnessed the fulfillment,
with deadly accuracy, of the previously forecasted plagues
(what is amazing is the extent of Pharaoh's self-destructive
stubbornness, possible only because G-d had hardened
his heart). Furthermore, the firstborns mutiny
was not successful. Though they inflicted heavy casualties
on Pharaoh's forces, they failed in their attempt to force
the freedom of the Jewish people. Our conditions in Egypt
were unchanged by the events of The Great Shabbat!
This explains why this event belongs to the weekly
or natural of our lifes time-cycles, rather than to
its monthly or miraculous orbit. The great
miracle was in fact a perfectly natural occurrence,
both in the predictability of its development and that it
in no way changed the essential nature of the prevailing circumstances.
Yet we mark the event as a miracle, indeed as a uniquely
great miracle. For true greatness lies not in
overturning the circumstances of ones existence, but
in working within these circumstances to miraculize
In the miraculous trajectory of our lives, we transcend the
natural, the conventional and the normal. But a greater feat,
a more miraculous miracle, is to elevate them and perfect
them; to create, wthin their confines and parameters, a higher
and more transcendent reality.
This is what we achieved in Egypt on the Great Shabbat.
We were slaves to the Egyptians; yet we refused to be intimidated
by a society that deified the material and proclaimed a lamb
a god, and we proceeded to slaughter the idol of our masters.
Without hesitation we explained our actions to the leading
citizens of the superpower that ruled us.
On that Great Shabbat, a transformation took
place. Not a transformation that overturned the natural parameters
of our reality, but a transformation in which that very reality
was converted to our cause. By acting courageously in our
fulfillment of the divine will, we caused the most prestigious
segment of Egyptian society to press for our redemption.
Whether or not their effort was successful is far less relevant
than the fact that the natural and normal became instruments
of the miraculous. Indeed, the fact that it was not
successful places the greater emphasis on the true significance
of what happened on that Great Shabbatthe
Shabbat that most powerfully exemplifies the natural
time dimension of our lives.
From an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Hagodol 5743 (March
. There are certain dates on the Jewish calendar
that are confined to certain days of the week: for example,
the first day of Passover (Nissan 15) cannot fall on a Monday,
Wednesday or Friday. But this is only because our calendar
today follows a preset system, and is configured so as to
avoid certain undesirable confluences of the two cycles
(for example, if the seventh day of Sukkot would fall on
Shabbat, we would not be able to fulfill the mitzvah of
aravah). In essence, however, if our months were
guided solely by the phases of the moon, any monthly date
could fall on any day of the week.
. The difference between the week and the month can
also be seen in the history of the two time-cycles: the
week was established with the creation of nature, while
the Jewish lunar month came into being 2448 years later
with the miraculous month of Nissan, the month of the Exodus
and the splitting of the Red Sea. See Our Other Head
in last weeks issue of Week In Review.
. There is one festivalthe festival of Shavuotthat
is not designated by the Torah as a certain day of a certain
month. Instead, the Torah instructs us to count seven weeks(i.e.,
49 days), beginning on the second day of Passover, and observe
Shavuot on the 50th day; indeed, the name Shavuot
means weeks. However, these are not natural
weeks, but weeks created by counting days in
groups of seven. Shavuot is not consigned to a certain day
of the natural weekit is the the 50th day after the
first day of Passover; and since the first day of Passover
has a lunar dateNissan 15Shavuot is ultimately
a product of the monthly cycle.
. See quotation at the beginning of this essay.
. Talmud, Shabbat 87a; Tosafot, ibid.
. One reason is that forty years after the Exodus,
Moses sister, the prophetess Miriam, died on Nissan
10, and a fast day was instituted on that date to mourn
her passing; thus, the celebration of the miracle was relegated
to the weekly cycle (Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 430; Shulchan
Aruch HaRav, ibid.). Another reason is that since another
miracle, the splitting of the Jordan River, is commemorated
on Nissan 10, the miracle of the firstborn was relegated
to the Shabbat before Passover (Taz, ibid.).
. Talmud, Pesachim 87a; Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXVII, pp. 44-47.