The shabbat before Pesach goes under the name of “Shabbat Hagadol”, the Great Sabbath. It follows a number of special shabbatot, each with its own name and purpose –Shekalim and Zachor, Parah and HaChodesh, each of which is designed liturgically to remind us of something particular, each of which has its own extra torah reading and Haftarah.
Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath, doesn’t quite fit into the pattern. While it has its own Haftarah from which some say its name is derived (it ends “hiney anochi sholeyach lachem et eliyah ha’navee, lifnei bo yom Adonai, hagadol v’ha’norah” Behold I am sending to you Elijah the prophet before the arrival of the Day of the Eternal God, the great and the awesome day (Malachi 3:4-24,23”) there is no way of knowing whether the name or the reading came first, and truthfully the connection is quite tenuous – to derive the name of the day from the penultimate word of the Haftarah seems unlikely. So, it doesn’t have an extra Torah reading, and the Haftarah which contains both terrible warning of destruction as well as a prophecy of the redemption at the end of days, is an unlikely contender for the designation of the date.
So what makes this Shabbat Great? Shabbat Hagadol, the great Sabbath?
I’ve heard a number of explanations – always a sign that there can be no certainty – and they range from the quasi historical to the frankly unbelievable.
Traditional commentators explain that the 10th Nissan, the date when the Israelites were to take the lambs into their homes prior to slaughtering them on the 14th of that month, was a shabbat – hence we are remembering the anniversary of that brave act of identification made by the Hebrew slaves after the ninth plague had not yet effected their liberation. It is a neat suggestion, backed up by some ingenious workings of biblical chronology, but I think at least partially, it misses the point of the naming of this shabbat. To get a sense of the specialness of this day we need to look not at the particular events of the Exodus, but at the fuller picture of the Jewish year.
There are two shabbatot in the year when it was traditional for the rabbis or scholars of the community to give a sermon. One was the shabbat before Pesach – Shabbat Hagadol, and the other was the Shabbat before Yom Kippur – Shabbat Shuvah. Each of these are the pivotal shabbatot of the Jewish calendar, for they appear exactly half a year apart at a boundary point of the year. The spring month of Nisan is designated in the bible as the first month of the year, and the autumn month of Tishrei begins the counting of the new solar year. Both therefore are counted as real new years in our calendar, and so both hold out the possibility of new beginnings.
In both new years there is a tradition of self examination, of clearing out the old disruptive and restraining elements in our lives, and of starting afresh. Be it the emptying our of the crumbs in our pockets into running water during tashlich as we symbolically get rid of our sins at Rosh Hashanah, or the bedikat chametz – searching for the strategically placed bits of bread around the house with a candle and a feather on the night before seder night so as to be able to burn them the next day, we use the same symbolism to the same effect – we want to be able to start again unencumbered by our past worldly misdemeanours, we want to have a new chance, and the beginning of a year has the right sort of resonance for it.
In the month of Tishrei, along with the festivals of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the eight days of Sukkot our calendar has created a special shabbat with its own haftarah, where God speaks to us asking us to return – Shabbat Shuvah. It seems only proper that the month of Nisan should have a special shabbat too, echoing the relationship between God and Israel that will also be so prominent in the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, but weighted slightly differently from the Autumn celebration.
Pesach is a festival that is dedicated to the particular experience of the Jews. It records our liberation from slavery, the beginning of our journey towards peoplehood, the moment when we embarked on a course that would lead to our encountering God, accepting Covenant, recognising the unity of the Divine. The Autumn Festivals celebrate not our particularity but our part in a universality – Rosh Hashanah is not the birthday of the Jewish people but of the World, Sukkot is the festival of recognition of the universality of God over all peoples. Our Jewish tradition values both aspects – the particularity of the special covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and God, and the universality of God being God over all the world – divine creator of all people.
Just as we have two new years co-existing with each other in our calendar, so does our theology allow for two quite different identities – the particular one of the Jewish world and the universal one of the whole world. The skill is in keeping the balance at all times between what may sometimes be conflicting priorities. If we become too universalist then we lose our special identity, integrating and assimilating into our context until we become unrecognisable even to ourselves. If we become too particularist then we block out the world around us, turn our backs on the real and important issues of our context, and deny the greatness and universality of our God by denying parts of God’s creation. The prophets railed against this; the rabbis planned and manoeuvred to keep seemingly mutually incompatible ideas and circumstances alive and within the tradition. It is a major triumph of Judaism that it is able to keep conflicting truths within the canon of our teachings and one we must never take for granted.
So both Nisan and Tishrei are new beginnings, yet each has different characteristic alongside the similarity. Nisan is about the particular redemption of the Jewish people, Tishrei about the universal redemption of the world. Yet each has a balancing component within it. In Tishrei we mix into the liturgy a great deal of contemplative and reflective material, and we add a shabbat of particularity – shabbat Shuvah. In Pesach we act out the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt as though we ourselves were there, but we mix into it an awareness of the pain and suffering of the wider world. We lessen our wine of joy by dropping some out as we recall the sufferings of the Egyptians for example, we shorten some of the Hallel psalms to temper our happiness at the crossing of the Red Sea because we remember the Egyptian pursuers who drowned there. And we add to our commemoration of our redemption from slavery the oppression of others who are not yet released from their subjugation. There is a tradition to add to both the symbols of Pesach and the liturgy of its services a wider remembrance of suffering and tyranny. When I was growing up it was common to have a matzah of hope for Jews in Syria and the Soviet Union, to leave an extra chair and place setting for those who were unable to partake in a seder. As time passed other things have been added to some sedarim – the orange placed on the seder place for example, to symbolise inclusion; and now the olive being added as a hope for peace for all peoples in the Middle East.
Balancing the universal and the particular, the creation of the whole world and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, is a Jewish life skill. We are a separate people who are part of the one humanity created by God. We have a particular covenant which designates particular obligations – mitzvot, with that God and we also know that while our convenant is binding on both parties, God also has other particular covenants with other peoples. We care about our special identity and need to keep it active, and yet we also care about God’s wider world. We balance the two parts of ourselves continually, the particularist and the universalist elements are both legitimate expressions of Jewish thinking, and neither perspective can enable us without the other being somewhere in the equation.
So why Shabbat HaGadol? It is, I think, the balance to Shabbat Shuvah, the day to remind ourselves as we frantically focus down on Pesach preparations that our world is larger and more complex than we might currently be tempted to think. If our minds are full only of cleaning, cooking and shopping, we should allow space to consider the purpose of commemorating the festival at all. If we are preparing ourselves for the seder service, we should be looking outside the texts of Egyptian or Roman or Crusader persecution of the Jews and look for more modern examples of oppression and subjugation – both within the Jewish world and outside of it. Shabbat Hagadol is a day to remember the rest of the world before we immerse ourselves in the particular Jewish experience of an exodus and a liberation that led to our formation as a people.
We are once again, at a new beginning. It is 6 months since we stopped and really thought about the world and about our part within it, our sins of commission and our sins of omission. This shabbat before Pesach, Shabbat HaGadol, calls to us now to ask – Have we changed in that time? Have we responded to injustice or pain around us? Have we followed up the resolutions and vows we made during the Yamim Noraim? Are we playing a part in Tikkun Olam, repairing the world so as to make it a more godly place? Do we really care what is happening in our name in the world right now as Jews or middle-class professionals or citizens of Western countries? Or will we just settle down in our homes to commemorate a historical event in a ritual way, opening the door to the outside only towards the end of our service, for a brief moment of recognition that we are not alone in the world, yearning for Elijah to come and signal the end?
Shabbat Hagadol – taking place in a new month which itself begins a new year refocuses us for a day away from our own historical reality to look at the surroundings in which our present reality takes place. It is truly a Great Sabbath.