By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
As we get older, our perspective changes with regard to the age-old question of who is a child and who is an adult. At what age does one pass from the status of a minor into majority?
From the point of view of Jewish religion things seem quite clear. Traditionally, boys become men at age 13. Recognizing that females mature earlier, our rabbis defined age 12 as the age of majority for a girl.
So it is with regard to the performance of mitzvot and other religious functions. A girl celebrates her bat mitzvah at age 12, and boys wear tefillin and are counted as part of a minyan at age 13. Before the age of 13 he is a katan, a minor. Afterwards, he is a gadol.
Gadol can mean adult, or it can mean large or great.
This Shabbat, the last one preceding Passover, is known as Shabbat HaGadol. How are we to translate it? Is it the adult Shabbat, the large Shabbat, or perhaps the great Shabbat? Or does the word gadol mean something entirely different in this context?
Many have a custom to do a preliminary reading of the Passover Haggadah on this Shabbat. Those who do so, and I am among them, will have an opportunity not just to read the ancient words but to study some commentary upon them. Of the dozens of haggadot on the market, I recommend one called The Royal Table, written by Rabbi Norman Lamm. I recommend this work in its entirety, but I would like to draw your attention to his creative approach to the meaning of the word gadol, and not just in the context of Shabbat HaGadol.
Rabbi Lamm points out that in the Talmud, katan does not always mean minor, nor does gadol invariably connote an adult. In certain contexts, Rabbi Lamm informs us, a person’s status is not a question of age but a question of independence. In the words of the Talmud, “A katan who does not rely upon his father’s table is a gadol. A gadol who is dependent upon his father is a katan.”
This piece of Talmudic wisdom allows us a definition of gadol with entirely new vistas of insight and understanding. A gadol is someone who is self-reliant, who can stand on his own two feet, not just intellectually but in every other sense as well.
Thus, Rabbi Lamm teaches us that this Shabbat is called HaGadol because it marks our independence as a people. It was on this day that we were able to demonstrate to our Egyptian slave masters that we no longer feared them and were about to declare ourselves religiously, culturally, and physically independent.
I find myself taking the implications of Rabbi Lamm’s insights even further.
Nowadays, we refer to those Torah sages whose authority we revere and to whom we look for guidance as “gedolim,” the plural of “gadol.” I have often struggled with the question as to what makes a gadol. Is it just his piety and erudition? Surely, these are the necessary prerequisites for the status of gadol. But reflection upon the great sages of Jewish history reveals that the outstanding gedolim of the generations had streaks of independence, which they asserted in unique and often courageous ways.
Take Maimonides – the Rambam. His Torah scholarship and personal spirituality were unparalleled. Yet he embarked, quite intentionally, upon many new paths in his life. He undertook significant positions of community leadership, delved into areas of study of which his own teachers never knew, and did not fear to express his independence of thought even when he differed from some of his predecessors.
Or consider Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known as the Chatam Sofer, who is generally thought to have been an ardent traditionalist. Yet he too demonstrated great independence when he formulated his own approach to combating the heretical movements of his time. He invented new ways to fight old battles.
The Chofetz Chaim and Rav Moshe Feinstein, to take two 20th-century gedolim, undertook new approaches, new emphases, and dealt with unprecedented issues relying upon their profound scholarship for sure, but also were confident in their independent judgment. Rav Moshe even committed to writing some of his thoughts about the necessity of a posek, a halachic decisor, not to fear to express his independent thoughts when he was confident that they were correct.
Shabbat HaGadol gives us the opportunity to cherish our independence in so many ways. We must never abandon our Torah and tradition, but we must realize that there is a place for independence when it is appropriate.
Passover is the holiday of freedom and independence. Our sages teach us that no one is as free as he who studies Torah deeply. Independence of thought and creativity are values that are cherished by our tradition, and Passover is the time for us to celebrate those values.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.