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What is Great About the Great Shabbat?

Next week is שבת הגדול, the Great Shabbat. So, let’s check your knowledge of Pesach’s history. On which night of the week did the original Pesach Seder, the Seder in Egypt, take place? The correct answer is…. Wednesday night. Good! So, it is obvious, what day Bnai Yisrael left Egypt. How do we know Wednesday night and Thursday are the correct answers?

The Children of Israel were told to take a lamb on the 10th day of Nisan. (Shemot 12:3) That year the 10th fell out on Saturday. They were to hold it until the afternoon of the 14th. That afternoon they slaughtered the lamb and roasted it to be ready for the meal later that night.  That Wednesday night, the 15th of Nisan, was the first Seder. Thursday morning, in broad daylight, the Children of Israel left Egypt. The upshot of this calculation is that the 10th of the month that year was Shabbat.

Last question, why was that Shabbat and every Shabbat that precedes Pesach thereafter known as “Shabbat Hagadol,” the Great Shabbat? What was significant about that Shabbat that we commemorate it every year before Pesach?

Our Torah scholars advance various reasons why the Shabbat preceding Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol. Rav Yosef Karo, author of the commentary “Bais Yosef” and later the “Shulchan Aurukh,” offers the following opinion. The lamb was one of the gods worshiped by the Egyptians. Its constellation, Aries, is visible in the sky this time of year. When each Jewish family tied up their lamb, the Egyptians and others sent their firstborn sons to inquire about it. The Jews answered, “Hashem commanded us to hold the lamb and then slaughter it.” This response by the Children of Israel, “set their (the Egyptians) teeth on edge” but they kept silent. Furthermore, the Jews informed them that God was going to kill all the firstborn sons. Rather than kill the Jews, the firstborn went back to their fathers and Pharaoh. They argued and pleaded with them to let the Children of Israel go. The entire Egyptian empire had already experienced nine plagues brought about in the name of Hashem. Now Hashem marked them for death. A rebellion ensued as many sons killed their fathers as recorded in Psalms 136: 10. It was on Shabbat that this significant event occurred marking the beginning of the redemption.

The commentary Bais Chodesh offers a different explanation. “Their teeth were set on edge when the firstborn were told of slaughtering their god.” He says the Egyptians knew the Jews were shepherds and that they often slaughtered and ate lamb. Yet the Egyptians were never bothered by it until now. This time the Jews informed the Egyptians that the slaughtering and eating of this lamb was a command from Hashem. He quotes the Zohar, “God is commanding us to slaughter below what is being slaughtered above.” What does this statement from the Zohar mean?

 The entire system of the Torah and the Jewish religion have one major objective: to uproot idolatry from our minds and our psychology. To eradicate it from all human practice and worship. How will this goal be accomplished? The primary way is through education. The Egyptians too had the opportunity to learn the truth about the Creator of the universe and reject the false notions of their culture. The concept of one, non-physical Creator, is the foundation of all knowledge and it is the antithesis of the false ideas leading one to worship idols. Just like every notion of idol worship is rejected, “slaughtered above,” in the world of true ideas, so too must man reject “slaughter below” any thought, notion, form, or practice of idol worship. The Jews were telling the Egyptians that they can save themselves as well if they too reject the false ideas attached to idol worship and accept the true ideas concerning the Creator of the universe. Many did and left Egypt together with the Jews. They are the mixed multitude mentioned in the Torah.

Finally, the commentary Preishah offers a third reason. He mentions the opinion of the Levush who held that the miracle of Shabbat Hagadol came precisely because of Shabbat. According to him, Bnai Yisrael kept Shabbat voluntarily even in Egypt. Upon leaving Egypt, one of the first mitzvot given to Bnai Yisrael, even before coming to Mt. Sinai, was the command to keep Shabbat. Why was that so? There is a direct relation between Shabbat and Pesach. Shabbat of course celebrates God, Creator of the universe. But the Creator didn’t just create the world and then left it to go on its way. The Creator has a plan, part of which has been revealed to mankind. To bring about His plan for the creation of the earth, the Creator must be involved with it. In particular, the affairs of mankind receive His direct attention. This notion seems implausible. God, the abstract Creator is too far removed from man. What demonstrates most clearly and vividly that God is involved with mankind? The fulfillment of His promise to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov to build a great nation from them and to redeem their descendants, the Children of Israel, from bondage.

 Two ideas are incorporated into the Kiddush we say every Friday night. God is the Creator of the universe and He relates directly to the nation of Israel. Shabbat merges the idea of Creator with “השגחת” Hashem, God’s divine watchfulness over Israel. The departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt was engineered specifically for them by the same Creator of the universe. However, the Exodus was also designed to be instructive for all mankind to know and learn the truth of God and His relationship to man.

Now we understand why this Shabbat is called “the Great Shabbat.” That Shabbat in Egypt marked for the Jews a crucial and pivotal philosophic turning point. This national and very public demonstration initiated the final act of redemption. It culminated 5 days later with the first Pesach Seder and the Exodus from Egypt. On that Shabbat, for the first time, two concepts of God were manifest to the world. Not only is there a non-physical Creator of the universe but the Creator relates to mankind, specifically involving Himself with the continued existence of the People of Israel. From then on, the Shabbat preceding Pesach was forever designated as Shabbat Hagadol.

 As we approach the holiday of Pesach, let us today, as our forefathers did in Egypt, reject and remove from our minds and actions any vestige of idol worship by committing ourselves to a life of study and practice of God’s word revealed to us in His Torah.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher Ve-Sameach,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan