The Shabbat before Passover has a special name: “Shabbat HaGadol,” the Great Shabbat. A number of reasons have been given for this special appellation. The Talmud (Shabbat 87b) relates that the Exodus occurred on a Thursday, with the Passover offering observed the night before. The Jewish people had been instructed four days prior (on Shabbat) to each take a sheep and hold it in their homes in anticipation of Wednesday night.
The sheep in ancient Egyptian culture was revered as a deity (similar to the status of cows in India today). So it required fortitude for the Jews to face their Egyptian taskmasters and say that not only were they finally leaving as free people, but they were also liberating themselves from centuries of psychological and emotional trauma of Egyptian subjugation. By sacrificing the Egyptians’ deity at God’s command, the Jews asserted that from now on they answered only to a higher authority.
Miraculously, the Egyptians were powerless to stop this act of defiance on the Jews’ last Shabbat in Egypt. In commemoration of this “great miracle” it is called Shabbat HaGadol.
So in addition to marking the beginning of the Exodus, this act showed the Jewish people overcoming a significant hurdle that was key to the Exodus. They began the transformation from timid slaves by asserting themselves as free people, thus becoming “Gedolim” (big or grownup, the title one receives at bar/bat mitzvah). Hence, again, the name Shabbat HaGadol.
Another explanation focuses not on the past but on the future. Its message I believe has much relevance for our times, and so perhaps resonates more.
The prophet Malachi was the last to prophesy in Jerusalem in the Second Temple era, and was the final prophet to be included in the canon of the Bible. His final message to the Jewish people was chosen as the Haftorah for the week leading into Passover.
Much of Malachi’s message is bleak. He observes the disintegration of morality and justice in the Holy Land, with the Jewish people drifting away from the path of Torah. He sees the writing on the wall for Jerusalem’s destruction and its people’s exile.
Yet in the very last verse of prophecy in all of Torah, Malachi’s final message is one of hope and reconciliation. He says “Behold! I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the great and awesome day of redemption by God” (Malachi 3:23). He prophesies that one of the signs that we have arrived at that time will be that there will be a rejuvenation of Jewish learning and observance by youth, who will be the catalyst for messianic redemption.
And then, in one the most stirring of all biblical passages, he concludes, “The day will come when God will restore the hearts of parents to their children, and the children to their parents” (Malachi 3:24). And they (the parents) will return to (Jewish observance) through their children. The prophet’s vision of that great day of redemption gives us “the Great Shabbat.”
We are living in an age of unquenchable thirst for knowledge. The revolution of the Information Age is driven primarily by youth who are unwilling to accept their parents’ paradigms. In the Jewish world as well, there is an unprecedented thirst to study our ancient texts and reconnect with the traditions of Judaism that many of our parents drifted from.
We are witnessing today the fulfillment of Malachi’s final prophecy. The children who settle for nothing less than authenticity and who desire to know the Torah’s message for our time are bringing the hearts of their parents back, telling us that Elijah is on his way.
Perhaps the reason we read this message before Passover is that no other holiday emphasizes the continuity of tradition between parents and children like Passover. Indeed it is only regarding Passover that the Torah instructs parents that they have an obligation to impart the story to their children. In addition the whole haggadah is arranged to be a response from a parent to a child’s query.
Our sages teach, “In Nissan our ancestors were redeemed and in Nissan we will be redeemed again” (Talmud Rosh HaShana 11a). May all of us merit having an actual Elijah-sighting at our seder tables this year, and then we will know that the “great” day is at hand.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at email@example.com.