Why is this Shabbat called Shabbat HaGadol – ‘the Great Shabbat?’

The first reference to this name is found in Siddur of Rashi, our great medieval commentator (p.171.) He makes the calculation, based on our Sages, 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 were struck down with sickness and were powerless to respond. Because of the miracles that occurred, the Shabbat before Pesach became called Shabbat HaGadol.

Other 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.

A more prosaic reason is offered by the leading authority for Ashkenazi customs, R Yaakov Moelin, the Maharil (14th century). He suggests that the name of this shabbat is connected with what we do today, rather than what our ancestors did in Egypt. In many communities, it has become the practice for long lectures to be given on this Shabbat, to educate people in the complexities of the laws of Pesach. Hence, Shabbat HaGadol or the Marathon Shabbat.

A related reason is given by R Moshe Met (16th century, Matteh Moshe). He says that the major shiur or lecture on the laws of Pesach was given by the Gadol Ha’ir, the Chief Rabbi of the town. Hence Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat of the leader who expounds the Torah to the community.

Rabbi Shlomo Luria (16th century, cited in Matteh Moshe 542) links HaGadol with the phrase at the end of the Haftarah read in many communities on this Shabbat: “Behold I send to you Elijah, the Prophet, before the coming of that Great and awesome day.” Linking this reason and the previous ones, it has become customary for the rabbi of the community to read the Haftarah on this Shabbat.

So, is ‘Great’ in this Shabbat related to the Exodus or the Messianic Age? Does it describe us individually or just our leaders?

All options are available!

As Shakespear famously said: “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.”

Have a Great Shabbat!