We tend to accept certain traditions without much thought. As a case in point, consider the designation of this particular Shabbat. Traditionally, the Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol, the “Big” or “Great” Shabbat.
The rationale for this designation, however, warrants examination.
Some authorities delineate a utilitarian origin for the title Shabbat Hagadol. On the Shabbat before Pesach, these scholars explain, the rabbi customarily delivers a lengthy exposition regarding specific laws and concepts of the Pesach festival. This extended lecture lends the Shabbat before Pesach its character as a Shabbat which is “Gadol” (depending upon one’s vantage point, either “great” or just simply “long.”)
Other authorities trace the title of Shabbat Hagadol to the last line of the haftara traditionally recited on this Shabbat. In this final verse, the prophet Malachi references a future day of “great” significance: “Behold, I will send you Eliyahu the prophet before the coming of yom Hashem hagadol v’hanora, the great and awesome day of the Lord. (Malachi 3:23).”
Most scholars, however, connect the designation of Shabbat Hagadol to the monumental historical event that took place on the Shabbat before Pesach during the year of the Exodus. According to tradition, the 15th day of Nisan, the actual day of the Exodus, fell that year on a Thursday. The previous Shabbat, therefore, coincided with the 10th day of Nisan, the day on which the Israelites were commanded to set aside the Paschal lamb, in full view of their Egyptian neighbors. This lamb would serve as the korban Pesach offering, to be slaughtered on the 14th of Nisan and consumed by the Israelites, in their homes, on the night of the 15th.
The public setting aside the korban Pesach on the 10th of Nisan constituted a potentially dangerous declaration of freedom. In one fell swoop, the Israelites proclaimed their severance from Egyptian culture (according to many authorities, the lamb was an Egyptian deity) and their allegiance to their own God. This courageous act on the part of the Israelites, and God’s miraculous protection of them in the face of looming danger, is marked each year on Shabbat Hagadol, the “Great Shabbat.”
A critical question emerges, however, if we accept this historical explanation of Shabbat Hagadol.
Commemorations of historical events on the Jewish calendar are marked each year, as a rule, on the calendar dates of those events, not on the days of the week when they originally occurred. Why then do we celebrate Shabbat Hagadol on Shabbat each year, instead of marking the 10th day of Nisan on whatever day of the week it may happen to fall?
It occurred to me some years ago that the answer to this question may lie in the thematic connection between Shabbat and historical events of the 10th day of Nisan. Just as the setting aside of the korban Pesach constituted the Israelites’ declaration of independence from Egypt, Shabbat constitutes our weekly declaration of freedom from an outside world. On Shabbat, we turn to a surrounding society and, through action, declare: That which is most important to you, that which even we sometimes fall into thinking is most important, is not. Physical striving, accomplishment, and acquisition are admittedly values. They are not, however, the central values of our lives. Much more important is our devotion to God and tradition; our own spiritual growth; our commitment to family, nation, and community.
The Israelites of the Exodus proclaimed their freedom from Egyptian gods and announced their allegiance to the one God on the 10th day of Nisan. We proclaim our freedom from the “gods” around us and announce our allegiance to a higher divine calling, each week, on Shabbat. Perhaps this is the real lesson of Shabbat Hagadol, a lesson meant to flow from the Shabbat before Pesach to every Shabbat of the year.