HaGadol (the Great Sabbath) is the name given to the Shabbat
immediately preceding Passover. It is very fitting that Passover, the ultimate
holiday of preparation, should have its own day honoring the very fact that Passover
requires preparation. In his 13th century legal masterwork, the Arba’ah Turim,
Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher tells us the origins and history of Shabbat Hagadol. The
Torah commanded each Jewish household in Egypt to take a lamb into the house on
the tenth day of the month of Nisan, four days before sacrificing the Paschal
lamb. Each household was to tie the lamb to the leg of a bed and keep it there
for four days. Their Egyptian neighbors came asking the Jews why they were
doing such a strange thing. The Jews responded with the truth, “Our God has
commanded us to keep this lamb with us for four days and then to slaughter it
as a sacrifice on the fourteenth of Nisan.”
The slaughter of the Paschal lamb was counterculture, a subversive
act performed by a minority in the face of an oppressive ruler. The lamb was a
deity for the Egyptians. Indeed, that is why the lamb was chosen to be the
Paschal sacrifice: to show God’s dominion and ability to reject, and overthrow,
the dominant power. Although the Egyptians were upset, they were not able to
stop the Jews from preparing for and carrying out this commandment. On the year
of the first seder in Egypt, the redemption took place on a Thursday, which
placed the tenth of Nisan on Shabbat. Therefore, it is known as Shabbat HaGadol
because of this miracle of Passover preparation. It is in recognition of this
miracle that we continue to mark Shabbat HaGadol as a special pre-Passover
Rabbi Yoel Sirkis in his work Bayit Chadash, a commentary on the Arba’ah Turim, asks an obvious question: that first year in Egypt it happened to be that the tenth day of the month of Nisan occurred on the Sabbath. But the commandment of the Torah is to take a lamb into your home specifically on the tenth day of Nisan. The fact that the tenth of Nisan occurred on a Shabbat was seemingly only a coincidence. If so, why do we continue to celebrate this event on Shabbat even when Shabbat is not the tenth of Nisan? We should be celebrating on the tenth day of Nisan! What is the intrinsic connection between Shabbat and this miraculous event of Passover preparation?
I thought to answer Rabbi Sirkis’s question by taking a look at a unique aspect of the holiday of Passover. The entire holiday of Passover revolves around the home. The first mention of the Paschal lamb instructs us to take it into our home. Carrying out the commandment of the Paschal lamb required a home to spread the blood on the doorposts. Even the redemption itself came to homes and not just individuals: God passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt. Even today, the central rituals of Passover are performed by the household in the home, together around a communal meal, not in the synagogue. The individual would not have been saved on Passover were it not for their connection to the group. Even Moses himself could not perform this commandment and merit redemption without the structure of a home and community. The central act of salvation was joining oneself to a community and sitting with that community the duration of the night in solidarity.
Passover is not only the holiday of freedom; it is also the birthday of the Jewish nation. Indeed, our freedom was merited through becoming a nation. The essence of the holiday is the “taking of one nation from the midst of another nation”. The redemption of Passover is forged by the Jewish sense of community and nationhood. The central act of the holiday is simply belonging, joining, and connecting to the whole. This is of course the sin of the wicked son at the seder. He sees himself as separate from the community, and he does so specifically at the time we celebrate our peoplehood. The hagaddah relates that in so doing, the wicked son denies that which is fundamental. Peoplehood and community is the fundamental principle of Judaism and of Passover.
I believe this is why the sages chose to always commemorate the start of Passover, its preparation, not on the tenth of Nisan, but on Shabbat. Shabbat is the time for community and family on a continual basis. It is the time we set aside to be a part of the Jewish nation as a whole. We put aside work and individual pursuits; we invite guests and friends into our home; we gather to discuss and share our lives communally. It is therefore very fitting that the real preparation for Passover should begin with Shabbat, the day of community and belonging.