Why is this Shabbat Greater than Any Other
The original Pesach Seder, the Pesach Seder in Egypt, took place on a Wednesday night. How do we know? The Children of Israel were told to take a lamb on the 10th day of Nissan and hold it until the afternoon of the 14th. That afternoon they slaughtered the lamb and roasted it to have it ready for the night of the 15th. That Wednesday night was the first Seder. In the morning of the 15th, a Thursday, in broad day light, the Children of Israel left Egypt. The upshot is that the 10th of the month that year was Shabbat. Why was that Shabbat and thereafter every Shabbat preceding Pesach, known as Shabbat Hagadol? What great thing happened on that Shabbat?
Our Torah scholars advance various reasons why the Shabbat preceding Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol. Rav Yosef Karo, author of the commentary “Beit Yosef” and later the “Shulchan Aruch,” offers the following opinion. The lamb was one of the gods worshiped by the Egyptians. Its constellation, Aries, was visible in the sky this time of year. When each Jewish family tied up their lamb, the Egyptians and others sent their first-born 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 first-born sons. Rather than kill the Jews, the first born went back to their fathers and Pharaoh. They argued and pleaded with them to let the Children of Israel go. The 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 great miracle occurred marking the beginning of the redemption.
The commentary “Beit Chodesh” offers another explanation of “their teeth were set on edge because 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 system of Torah, the purpose of the Jewish religion, has one major objective: to uproot idolatry from humanity. How is this goal to be accomplished? The primary way is through education. The Egyptians too had opportunities to learn the truth about the Creator of the universe and reject the false notions of their culture. Before each plague was brought upon the Egyptians, Moshe explained the specific concept of God to be learned from the experience.
The concept of one, non-physical Creator, is the foundation of all knowledge. It is the antithesis of the false ideas that lead one to worship idols and/or create other nonsensical “religious” practices. The Zohar is teaching, just like every notion of idol worship is rejected, “slaughtered above,” in the world of true ideas, so too must man reject any notion, form or practice of idol worship, “slaughter below.” The Jews were telling the Egyptians that they can save themselves if they too reject the false ideas attached to idol worship and accept the true ideas related to the Creator of the universe.
Finally, the commentary Preisha offers a third reason. He mentions the opinion of the Levush who held that the miracle of Shabbat Hagadol came precisely because of Shabbat. Bnai Yisroel, he says, kept Shabbat voluntarily even in Egypt. Upon leaving Egypt, one of the first mitzvoth given to Bnai Yisroel, even before coming to Mt. Sinai, was the command to keep Shabbat. Why that mitzvah?
There is a direct relation between Shabbat and Pesach. Shabbat of course celebrates God, Creator of the universe. But the Creator did not just create the world and then leave it on its own. The Creator has a plan for the world, part of which has been revealed to mankind. To bring about His plan for the creation, 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 Jacob. His covenant with our Patriarchs was to build a great nation from them and later to redeem the their descendants from bondage in Egypt.
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 “Hashgachat” Hashem, God’s divine watchfulness over Israel. The exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt was engineered specifically for them by the same Creator of the universe. However, the Exodus was to be instructive for all mankind to know and learn the truth of God.
Now we understand why this Shabbat is called “the Great Shabbat.” That Shabbat in Egypt was the first time these two ideas were manifest to the world. From then on, the Shabbat preceding Pesach was forever designated as Shabbat Hagadol. We should use this Shabbat to reflect and study the relationship between these two great and fundamental ideas about God.
As we approach the holiday of Pesach, may Hashem enlighten the leaders of the world to bring an end to the horrific destruction of innocent life in Ukraine. And may the Creator of the universe continue His protecting care over the country of Israel, Jews and peace-loving people the world over.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach
Rabbi Robert Kaplan