Friends, this Sabbath is called “Sabbath Hagadol.” It means the “Great Sabbath.” This curious name is not to be rendered in the ordinary secular sense as if to imply that the day is bigger or longer in duration. You all know that the Sabbaths during the month of Tamuz, which is in July or August, are longer by far. A number of opinions are to be found as to the significance of this title.
In our literature we find various reasons why this Sabbath preceding the holiday of Passover is called “the great Sabbath.” What makes the Sabbath great? The Torah tells us: the tenth day of this month (Nisan) in the year which the Exodus occurred fell on Sabbath. It was the last Sabbath prior to the Exodus itself which took place four days later. Regarding this day, the Talmud Sabbath 87 states that this particular day fell on Sabbath, and in Exodus 12:3:7 it states “speak to the whole assembly of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household.” Because of that Sabbath the children of Israel performed their first mitzvah to take a lamb for the Passover sacrifice (korban pesach). The Sabbath was named “Sabbath Hagadol,” the Great Sabbath. The miracle which occurred was when the Egyptians believed in this animal as their god and yet they did not do anything about it. We are told in the Midrash, Shemoth Rabah 21, when the Jews took in the lamb on that Sabbath, all the Egyptian firstborns came to the Jews asking them the reason for doing so. They were told: “This is a Passover sacrifice to God. On the night that we will eat this lamb, God will kill all the firstborns.” The firstborns all ran to their parents and to Pharaoh urging them to send out the children right then and there, but they were refused. A bitter struggle started and the firstborns slew many of the Egyptians, as is written: “Lemakey mitzrayim bivchoreyhem” – he hit the Egyptians by the hands of their first born. This took place during that Saturday. This is one of the reasons why that Sabbath was named “Shabbos Hagadol” (Tosfos Sabbath 87).
When the children of Israel prepared their lambs the Egyptians came in and asked them the reason for this. The Jews replied: “In order to slaughter them for Passover, as we were ordered by God.” The Egyptians gnashed their teeth in anger, but because of all of the plagues they were afraid to say anything. For that great miracle, that Sabbath was named “Shabbos Hagadol,” the “Great Sabbath,” a name which remains until this day (Tur orach chaim, chapter 430).
When a boy reaches the age of thirteen and enters the community by accepting the observance of the commandments he is then called a “godol,” a great one. The same thing happened to the children of Israel. They were commanded to observe the first of the mitzvot, so they were now all bar mitzvah, meaning that each one became a godol. Since it all started on that particular day, that Sabbath was named “Shabbath Hagadol” (Meaynah shel torah).
Another explanation can be found in the haftorah of today. The haftorah, too, speaks of redemption. Not REDEMPTION of the past, but of the future. The prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and says: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord” (Malachi 3:23). The day of redemption is called “the great day.” In today’s haftorah we have the good tidings about the redemption of the Jewish people. The prophet tells us that before the arrival of the redemption God will send the prophet Elijah. “and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers” (malachi 3:24).
Harav Yosef Dov Soloveichik z”l” explained that the intergenerational greatness of this day is the unity of all members of klal Yisrael – the community of Israel – past, present and future.
How does unity come about? What is the nature of this greatness? Rabbi Akivah answers it is what the children inherit from their parents. A father endows his son with heredity and inherited characteristics such as looks, strength, possessions, wisdom and life span, as well as with “mispar hadorot,” the number of generations.
The most redemptive quality that we acquire from our parents is the ability to unite with all past generations. Elijah is that person to bring unity and solidarity, the unity of turning the heart of the father to the children and the heart of the children to their parents.
Have a great Sabbath and a freilechen kosher Pesach.
Rabbi Philip Lazowski is rabbi emeritus of Beth Hillel Synagogue in Bloomfield.