What makes Shabbat HaGadol — the Great Shabbat — so great? It's all about the goat. (LIBRESHOT/MARTIN VOREL)
What makes Shabbat HaGadol — the Great Shabbat — so great? It's all about the goat. (LIBRESHOT/MARTIN VOREL)

What makes the ‘Great Shabbat’ so great? How do we make it meaningful this year?

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Shabbat HaGadol


Leviticus 6:1-8:36

The Shabbat before Passover is called Shabbat HaGadol, or the Great Shabbat when translated literally. There are references to this title for Shabbat dating back as far as the early Middle Ages in France.

But what makes this Shabbat so great compared to every other Shabbat we celebrate?

The most common understanding is that it was on this day that the Hebrews were instructed to take a sheep or goat and tie it to their bed posts for examination until Nisan 14 — at which point they would be required to slaughter the animal and use the blood as a sign on the doorposts so that they would be spared from the plague of the firstborn.

The animal would then be consumed on the night of Nisan 15 and be eaten with matzah and bitter herbs. The Children of Israel would experience their very first Passover seder while still in Egypt, awaiting the great deliverance from slavery the very next day.

It seems that the very taking of the sheep or goat is what has earned the day the name Shabbat HaGadol. It still begs the question of what makes that so very great.

The Midrash that Tosafot quotes relates the following story:

We therefore call that Shabbat Shabbat HaGadol because a great miracle was done as it says in the Midrash (Shemot Rabba, Parshat Bo), “When they (the Hebrews) took their pascal lambs on that Shabbat, the first born of the nations gathered on Israel and asked them why there were doing that. Thus did they say to them, “It is a pascal offering to God who will kill the firstborn of Egypt.” They went to their fathers and to Pharaoh to beseech him to send out the Hebrews but he refused to send them.The firstborn waged war and killed many of them. That is why the verse reads, “to smite Egypt with their firstborn” (Psalms 136).

According to the Midrash, the very taking of the sheep or goat was the impetus that resulted in a great miracle for the Israelites.

In ancient Egypt, there were many idols that were served. Sheep were also deified, which made the insult incredibly great to the Egyptians.

Not only were the Israelites preparing themselves to leave their host country and hundreds of years of slavery, but they were going to take the idols of Egypt and slaughter them as the kingdom of Egypt was being brought to its knees.

We commemorate the process as much as the final deliverance because we recognize that breaking the idols of Egypt was an important step in creating a new sense of identity for the Jewish people.

We are currently living in a completely upside down world.

There is absolutely no one that is not affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and no one in California unaffected by the shelter-in-place order.

Just about everyone’s daily routine has been disrupted, and we are all facing a level of uncertainty that probably has never been experienced in the lifetime of most community members.

All the institutions that gave us so much sense of security are either closed or limited. Schools, synagogues and even playgrounds are off-limits and we are forced to distance ourselves from the people that we love.

All of this is forcing us to stay inside and find ways to keep ourselves feeling productive and safe. Could it be that we are all heading into a Shabbat HaGadol — a great Shabbat experience where we take the idols of today and examine them in order to create an offering to God that will signify some kind of great deliverance?

When the Israelites were told to take a sheep into their homes, they were also faced with great uncertainty. They had seen the power of God, but they were shown exactly how it would work out for them.

Their response was to follow the instructions and not try to figure things out on their own. They trusted in God that He was going to do something great.

We do not know what the immediate future holds, but we can take advantage of the time that we have to reassess our priorities and our values.

We can take the technology that has often isolated us in a world of self-indulgent entertainment and redirect it to connect with ideas and people that can help us grow spiritually.

The world is not the same today as it was a few weeks ago. Perhaps we can take advantage of that and create a world that is infused with more meaning.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto.