Many reasons are offered for the custom of calling the Shabbos immediately
preceding Passover "Shabbos Hagadol" (lit. Great Sabbath). Tur (1)
explains the name originates from the great miracle that occurred on the
Shabbos preceding the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt. On
that Shabbos, the Jews were told to take a lamb for the Paschal offering
and to tie them to their bedposts. Miraculously, the Egyptians, who
worshipped the lamb as a god, stood by silently as the Israelites
slaughtered their deity.
Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov (2) offers a novel interpretation that on this Shabbos
the Jewish people performed their first mitzvah (Divine commandment) as a
nation. By receiving and fulfilling the commandment of "On the tenth of
this month they shall take for themselves, each man, a lamb"
(Shemos/Exodus 12:3) the nation entered the realm of mitzvos, and in
essence became Bar Mitzvah. Just as a thirteen year old boy is referred
to as a "gadol", so too this Shabbos is referred to as Shabbos Hagadol.
Another "coming of age" for the Jewish People occurs on the night of
Passover, when we read the Hagada and fulfill the positive commandment of
telling the story of the Exodus. Unlike other times when we perform
mitzvos, such as taking the lulav or lighting Chanuka candles, this time
no blessing is recited prior to the fulfillment of the mitzvah. Chasam
Sofer (3) explains that there is a blessing but oddly it is recited at the
end of the Hagada, inconsistent with the principle that blessings are
recited before the performance of the mitzvah. Why, he asks, do we not
make this blessing before we perform the commandment of retelling the
story of the Exodus?
When a person converting to Judaism immerses in the waters of the mikva
(ritual bath), the final stage in the conversion process, he has no choice
but to make the blessing after he has immersed for a very simple reason:
prior to the immersion he was not yet Jewish. The Hagada tells us that
every year, as a Jew recounts his history, he is obligated to feel as if
he himself left Egyptian bondage. Reciting the Hagada is a fifteen-step
process that starts with recalling our lowly origins as idol worshippers
and culminates with the glorious Exodus and our entry - or "conversion" -
into being Jews. To properly relive the entire experience, we must feel,
as we begin the Hagada that we are idolatrous "not-yet-Jews" and are
unable to recite the blessing for performing this commandment. Finally,
through the process of telling and reliving the story we reach the climax
and connect to G-d as Jews. Like the immersing convert, we recite the
blessing at the end.
Our Sages teach us that the realities of our physical world are merely the
reflection of G-d's spiritual reality. Thus, the spiritual potential of
rebirth and renewal that are inherent to the Jewish month of Nissan
explains why the season of spring - heralding the renewal of our physical
world - occurs in it, and the miracles of the Exodus - the rebirth of our
nation - occurred at this time. The time is ripe with potential for
commencement, for growth. Let us use it to achieve greatness.
Have a Good Shabbos!
(1) Rabbi Yaakov, son of the Rosh; c 1275 - c 1340; author of the Arba
Turim, the halachic (Jewish legal) opus that restructured the legal
rulings of the Talmud, reorganizing them topically, creating a
superstructure that remains the standard for halachic works
(2) 1912-1976; in Sefer HaToda'ah, his exposition on the Jewish calendar,
proceeding month-by-month, discussing the special days and times of the
year, adding meaning and richness to their historic significance
(3) Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg; 1762-1839; acknowledged leader of
Hungarian Jewry of the time