19 April 2024

Shabbat HaGadol: T-Minus 3 Days and Counting

11 Nissan 5784
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Parashat Metzora - Shabbat HaGadol

One of the reasons given by Chazal for why the Shabbat just prior to Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol is that this is the day the Hebrews brought the Passover lambs into their homes and the Egyptians did not take retribution against them.
Shemot 8:22...

Pharaoh summoned Moshe and Aharon and said, "Go - bring offerings to your God in the land." Moshe said, "It is not proper to do so, for we will offer the deity of Egypt to Hashem, our God - behold, if we were to slaughter the deity of Egypt in their sight, will they not stone us?"
As we all know, Pharaoh did not let the people go and the lambs were taken into the Hebrews' dwellings for four days until the time came to slaughter them and roast them whole over an open fire for all the world to see and know that Hashem is God over all.

Can you imagine the sound of the bleating up and down all the streets? This was quite an in-your-face insult to Egypt, but they bore it without repercussion and Chazal considered it a miracle. Hence - Shabbat Hagadol.

Remember:  Faith only becomes real when it is put to the test.


For those with enough time to read, here is a very interesting and more detailed account by Daniel Pinner...
Shabbat ha-Gadol, “the Great Shabbat”, the Shabbat immediately before Pesach, commemorates our final Shabbat in Egypt, [3,336] years ago, just five days before the Exodus.

G-d had commanded the erstwhile slaves: “On the tenth of this month they will take to themselves – each man – a lamb for each father’s house…it will be for you to guard it until the fourteenth day of this month; then they will slaughter it – the entire assembly of the Congregation of Israel – at the onset of twilight.” (Exodus 12:3-6).

The Midrash expounds: “The Jews would tie [the lamb] to their bed-posts from the tenth of the month on; when the Egyptians would enter [the Jews’ houses], they would see the lambs thus, and their souls would explode in rage” (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Parashat ha-Chodesh s.v. dabru; Yalkut Shimoni, Bo 191).

The lamb was the Egyptian god, and for the Egyptians’ former slaves to show such contempt for their god and their religion drove them insane with impotent fury.

Obviously, the corollary was that for the Jews to openly treat their former masters’ god with such contempt took tremendous courage and faith in G-d. Keeping this god tied to a bed-post for four days was a continuous challenge to Egypt; it demanded far more dedication than a single impetuous act of bravery in a moment of excitement.

The Midrash continues: “‘Moshe called to all the elders of Israel, saying to them: Draw forth the flock and take it to yourselves’ (Exodus12:21) – every single one must drag around a god of Egypt, and slaughter it in front of them”. They had to extend this brazenness into the public squares and streets of Egypt, by slaughtering and roasting the Egyptian god in front of the Egyptians.

G-d commanded them to “eat it roasted over fire…do not eat of it raw [partially roasted], or cooked in water – only fire-roasted, its head with its legs with its innards” (Exodus 12:8-9).

Why this specific way of preparing the meat? – “Because it was an abomination for the Egyptians, slaughter it. And so that no [Jew] would say, We won’t roast it thoroughly lest it infuriate the Egyptians, it says ‘do not eat of it raw [partially roasted]’. And so that no Jew would say, We will cook it and thus conceal it in a pot, it says ‘do not eat of it …cooked in water’. And so that no Jew would say, We will cut off its head and its legs so they won’t recognise it, it says ‘its head with its legs with its innards’” (Da’at Z’keinim mi-Ba’alei Tosafot, Exodus 12:9). The Pesach sacrifice was a massive act of defiance against the idolatrous Egyptian oppressors.

The Midrash (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana ibid. and Yalkut Shimoni ibid.) further continues: “Their taking of the lamb stood by them at the River Jordan, and their eating of it stood by them in the days of Haman: they had eaten the flesh on this night– the night when ‘the king’s sleep eluded him’ (Esther 6:1)”.

The day they took the lamb, the 10th of Nisan, was the day that they would cross the River Jordan into Israel forty years later (Joshua 4:19). And the day that they ate it was the day that Achashverosh’s sleep would elude him 957 years later, in the days of Mordechai and Esther: Haman had promulgated his decree of genocide on the 13th of Nisan (Esther 3:12), so the three days of fasting that Esther decreed (4:16) were the 13th, 14th, and 15th of Nisan.

Hence the day that Esther risked her life by donning royal apparel and going to King Achashverosh (Esther 5:1) was the first day of Pesach, so the previous night, when ‘the king’s sleep eluded him’, was the night of the 14th of Nisan (see Esther Rabbah 8:7; Yalkut Shimoni, Esther 1056; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 50; Seder Olam Rabbah, Chapter 29; Targum, Esther 5:1 et. al.).

The Talmud (Shabbat 87b) and the Midrash (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Beshallach, Masechet de-Vayasa 1) record that the day of the Exodus, 15th Nisan 2448 (1312 B.C.E.), was a Thursday. “So they slaughtered their Pesach sacrifices on the Wednesday, and it was on the previous Shabbat that they had taken their Pesach lambs, because that was the tenth of the month. And it is therefore called Shabbat ha-Gadol – the Great Shabbat, because a great miracle was wrought thereon” (Tosafot, Shabbat 87b s.v. ve-oto yom).

The Shulchan Aruch cites this as practical halachah: “The Shabbat which is before Pesach is called Shabbat ha-Gadol because of the miracle that happened thereon” (Orach Chayim 430:1). The Mishnah Berurah (ad. loc.) explains: “In the year that they left Egypt, the 10th of Nisan fell on a Shabbat. Every single Jew had taken the lamb for his Pesach sacrifice and tied it to his bed-post… The Egyptians saw this, and asked them ‘Why are you doing this?’ They responded, ‘In order to slaughter it for the purpose of Pesach, as Hashem has commanded us’.

Their teeth were set on edge because they slaughtered their god, yet they were unable even to say anything to them. And because the tenth of the month then was a Shabbat, the Shabbat before Pesach was ever after to be called Shabbat ha- Gadol”.

The Haftarah reading for Shabbat ha-Gadol is the very last prophetic vision ever – the concluding 21 verses of the prophecy of Malachi, the last prophet, who prophesied during the early Second Temple era. After castigating Israel for their lack of gratitude to G-d and their defiling of the Holy Temple with their sub-standard sacrifices, Malachi portrays the Messianic era.

The Haftarah begins by contrasting the future glorious time with our past misdeeds: “Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to Hashem, as in days of old and as in former years” (Malachi 3:4). In his final message – the message which seals prophecy for all time – until the coming of the Messiah - he exhorts Israel: “Remember the Torah of Moshe My servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, decrees and statutes. Behold! I send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome Day of Hashem comes”.

An obvious question arises: why did our Sages select just this prophecy as the Haftarah for Shabbat ha-Gadol? If they wanted to link the redemption from Egypt with the final Messianic Redemption, then why not select one of the more impressive prophetic passages from Isaiah? Or why not one of Jeremiah’s magnificent descriptions of the final Redemption, which he depicts as being even more majestic than the redemption from Egypt (for example, 16:14 onwards, or 31:30 onwards)?

I suggest the following answer:

The Targum (Malachi 1:1) identifies Malachi as Ezra, which is also the opinion of two Talmudic sages, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha and Rabbi Nahman (Megillah 15a; Yalkut Shimoni, Malachi 586). Later sages, however, disagree: the Radak and the Ibn Ezra (commentary to Malachi 1:1) are of the opinion that Malachi was a separate prophet. The Rambam (Introduction to the Mishneh Torah), Rashi (commentary to Sukkah 44a and Bava Batra 15a), and Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartinura (commentary to Pirkei Avot 1:1) all state that Malachi was part of Ezra’s Beit Din (the Men of the Great Assembly).

On the 15th of Nisan they were redeemed from Egypt; and on the 15th of Nisan they will in the future be redeemed from subjugation to exile” (Tanhuma, Bo 9).  What is undisputed is that the prophet Malachi lived through the second redemption – the return of the exiles from the Babylonian/Persian exile and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Malachi was born during a period of exile, of destruction, when the majority of Jews were in foreign lands and the Land of Israel was under foreign occupation, with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem lying desolate.

Malachi witnessed King Cyrus’ proclamation, granting the Jews the right to return to Israel and rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (Ezra1:1-3, 2 Chronicles 36:22-23); he was part of the second redemption, the end of the Babylonian/Persian exile.

It was no coincidence that during the second redemption, the first festival that the Jews celebrated was Pesach (Ezra 6:15-22); neither was it coincidence that Ezra began his Aliyah journey on the 1st of Nisan (7:9), and led his followers from the River Ahava – the last leg of the journey to Israel – on the 12th of Nisan (8:31).

Malachi’s prophecy, then, is the synthesis between the first, second, and third redemptions, and is therefore the perfect reading for Shabbat ha-Gadol. Malachi had a unique perspective on Redemption, because he had experienced redemption in his own life. 
“On the 15th of Nisan…[G-d] spoke to Abraham our father in the Covenant between the Parts; on the 15th of Nisan the ministering angels came to announce to him that his son Isaac would be born to him; on the 15th of Nisan Isaac was born; on the 15th of Nisan they were redeemed from Egypt; and on the 15th of Nisan they will in the future be redeemed from subjugation to exile” (Tanhuma, Bo 9).

As we begin to celebrate the first redemption, it is especially relevant that the prophecy of the prophet who, during the second redemption, foretold the final and eternal Redemption, resounds in every synagogue.

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