WHY IS TODAY CALLED SHABBAT HAGADOL – ‘THE GREAT SHABBAT?’
- The first reference to this name is found in Siddur Rashi (p.171.) The calculation is made that the Exodus took place on a Thursday. Hence, the 10th Nisan that year would have been a Shabbat. This was the time that the Israelites were commanded to take a lamb, the deity of the Egyptians, keep it in their homes for four days and slaughter it. Siddur Rashi cites Midrashim that the Egyptians were seething with rage at the action of the Israelites. However, they became smitten with sickness and afflictions and were powerless to respond. Because of the miracles that occurred, the Shabbat before Pesach became called Shabbat HaGadol.
- Medieval commentators (e.g. Hizkuni, Shemot 12:3) suggest that the courage required to take a lamb, the god of the Egyptians was enough to merit this Shabbat being called HaGadol
- R Mordechai Yehudah Leib Zacks (Zemanim p.32) suggests that when the Israelites took their lambs in Egypt, they chanted praises to Hashem that became known as Hallel HGgadol, ‘the Great Hallel.’ Hence, the original name of this day was Shabbat Hallel HaGadol. In the course of time, the name became shortened to Shabbat HaGadol.
- The Maharil (14th century) suggests that the reason for this is connected with what we do today, rather than what our ancestors did then. It has become the practice for long lectures to be given on this Shabbat, in order to educate people in the complexities of Pesach.
- In similar vein, the Matteh Moshe (542) says that this is the Shabbat of the Gadol, i.e. the rav of the town who expounds the Torah to the community or the larger crowds who attended.
- The Maharshal (cited in Matteh Moshe 542) links HaGadol with the phrase at the end of the Haftarah: “Behold I send to you Elijah, the Prophet, before the coming of that Great and awesome day.”
- Rabbi Alter Hilvitz (Chikrei Zemanim II, 25) suggests that the name of the Shabbat was originally HaShavua HaGadol – ‘the Great Week.’ In the course of time, this became corrupted to Shabbat HaGadol.
- Finally, a suggestion that in medieval times the Shabbatot before Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah were also called Shabbat HaGadol. The name simply served to highlight an important event in the coming week.
Dayan Ivan Binstock