By: Rabbi Ari Enkin / The Shabbat before Pesach is known as Shabbat Hagadol, (“the Great Shabbat”), though it is not completely clear why this is so. Nevertheless, a number of explanations have been offered for this honorable designation. The most common explanation is related to the Pesach offering that the Jewish people were commanded to prepare.  On the Shabbat just prior to the Exodus, which was the 10th of Nissan, the Jewish people were

Shabbat Hagadol

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By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

The Shabbat before Pesach is known as Shabbat Hagadol, (“the Great Shabbat”), though it is not completely clear why this is so.[1] Nevertheless, a number of explanations have been offered for this honorable designation.

The most common explanation is related to the Pesach offering that the Jewish people were commanded to prepare.  On the Shabbat just prior to the Exodus, which was the 10th of Nissan, the Jewish people were commanded to prepare a sheep for the Pesach offering and to tie it to their beds. The Jewish people, of course, did as they were told.

The ancient Egyptians worshipped sheep. When they saw that the Jews were tying sheep to their beds they became enraged and demanded an explanation for this sacrilege. The Jews calmly explained that they were going to slaughter the sheep as an offering to God. While under normal circumstances a bloody pogrom would certainly have been the response to what the Jewish people were doing, a miracle occurred and not a single Jew was harmed by an Egyptian.[2] In memory of this miracle the Shabbat before Pesach is referred to as “Shabbat Hagadol”.

Closely related to this idea is the fact that as a result of being steeped in Egyptian society for so many years, many Jews had adopted the Egyptian religion and had been worshiping sheep, as well. The excitement and preparation for the impending Exodus, however, influenced many Jews to repent from their idolatrous ways.[3] Therefore, in order to recall that many Jews had repented and returned to their Jewish roots on that day, this Shabbat was honored with the distinction of “Gadol”. So too, the nation as a whole had affirmed their acceptance of God’s kingship upon themselves on this day. The name “Hagadol” in this context refers to God Himself who is referred to as “Hagadol”.[4]

Additionally, when the Jews explained to the Egyptians what they were doing with a sheep tied to their beds they also took the opportunity to notify the Egyptians of the upcoming tenth and final plague which was to be the death of all the firstborn. When the firstborn Egyptians heard this they charged into Pharaoh demanding that he release the Jews immediately in order to annul the upcoming plague. When Pharaoh refused, the first born went on a rampage killing many fellow Egyptians themselves.[5] This remarkable turn of events also warranted the designation of “Gadol”.

The name of this Shabbat also highlights the fact that it was the first time the Jewish people as a whole were able to fulfill a mitzva of the Torah – the mitzva of preparing a sheep for the Pesach offering.[6] In this way, the Jewish people were like children who now became Bar-Mitzva, “Gadol”, and able to fully observe the Torah. It is also noted that ultimately, every Shabbat is referred to as “Gadol” as the liturgy of the Birkat Hamazon so demonstrates.[7] One must be especially careful to honor this special Shabbat even more than all others – at least as much as Pesach itself![8] There is a custom on Shabbat Hagadol to eat foods remaining from the mishloach manot of Purim in order to symbolically connect Purim and Pesach – the two holidays of redemption.[9] 

It is customary for the community rabbi to deliver a lengthy and intricate sermon on the afternoon of Shabbat Hagadol. Both the distinctiveness and the unusual length of the sermon are also alluded to in the name “Shabbat Hagadol”.[10] It is also noted that the words of the Haftara of Shabbat Hagadol include the prophecy about the future redemption, the “Yom Hagadol”. In this context the name “Shabbat Hagadol” is a reminder of the exciting Haftara that is read.[11]

Next Post –  Tuesday April 26 – Isru Chag (“Eighth Day Pesach”).

Chag Kasher V’sameach!


[1] Machzor Vitri 259.

[2] Shemot Rabba 16:3; Tur, OC 430.

[3] Tur, OC 430.

[4] Chatam Sofer

[5] Tosfot, Shabbat 87b; Midrash Tehillim 136:6; Tanchuma, Bo.

[6] Pri Chadash

[7] Rivevot Ephraim 4:113:55. See also Sefat Emet, Shabbat Hagadol 5646.

[8] Rivevot Ephraim 5:307

[9] Minhag Yisrael Torah 430:4

[10] Shvilei Haleket 205. See also Rivevot Ephraim 3:302:2

[11] Mateh Moshe 542; Yabia Omer 4:39.

About Ari Enkin

Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the author of the “Dalet Amot of Halacha” series (8 volumes), Rabbinic Director of United with Israel and a RA"M at a number of yeshivot. www.rabbienkin.com

9 comments

  1. Yi’yasher kochakha, R. Enkin.
    Artscroll’s “Haggadah of the Roshei Yeshiva, Vol. 2” offers the following suggestion from RSZA: To publicize that the first day of Pesach is called Shabbat in the Omer-related verses “mimachorat hashabbat yenifenu hakohen” and “usefartem lakhem mimachorat hashabbat”, we call the Shabbat before the first day of Pesach “Shabbat Hagadol”.

  2. HaRav Kook ZTZLexplained (Haggadah Shel Pesach p206)that the “gadlut of Shabbat Hagadol was that after MRAH recieved the laws of Hachodesh Hazeh Lachem…what was stll required to set into motion the events of the Exodus was “hitaruta d’latata,that effort coming from the people themselves. When they tied the sheep to their beds in spite of the fact that the Egyptions would protest they showed that they were willing to participate in the Geulah. Just as later Hashem would not part the the Red Sea until Nachshon jumped into the water. The “hitaruta d’laeila” of Hashem was complimented by the actions of Bnei Yisrael on Shabbat Hagadol.

  3. Any significance to the fact that this Shabat HaGadol we have the torah readings for Yom Kippur?

  4. Interesting coincidence (well not entirely a coincidence, it’s certainly the right time) – I also just wrote a post about “shabbat hagadol”:

    http://www.balashon.com/2011/04/shabbat-hagadol.html

  5. The Egyptians did not worship sheep. They did hold the ram, which is a male sheep, to be sacred. Apparently, it represented Amun, the Ram god. They used to sacrifice them once a year. Interesting parallel. Perhaps that’s the point, though. Taking the avoda zara and turning it into avodas hashem.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_worship#Sheep

  6. Probably the idea that they worshiped sheep comes from what Yosef said to his brothers about how Egyptians don’t like shepherds.

    More likely what Yosef is referring to is the old nomad vs. farmer conflict that goes back to the idea of Kayin and Hevel.

  7. R’ Charlie Hall,
    Thank you for the thought-provoking question to link Yom Kippur with Shabbat Hagadol. [Thank you also for validating my feeling – in a previous forum – that we should speak about the recaptured Bronx Zoo Egyptian cobra at the Seder this year. We were saved from lots of snakes in the desert when we left Egypt; Deut. 8:15.]

    To address the Yom Kippur/Shabbat Hagadol link: My teacher R. Joshua Shmidman, of blessed memory, used to quote his father that the preacher on Shabbat Hagadol should speak about teshuvah. This is because Pesach season manifests love between HKB”H and the Jewish People (reflected in the recitation of Shir Hashirim), and so it is the best time for teshuvah (since teshuvah me’ahavah is superior to teshuvah mi’yir’ah, as per the gemara in Yoma 86b).

    In a similar homiletic link, R. Nachman Cohen – in his book “A Time for All Things” – speaks of Shabbat Hagadol as the parallel to Yom Kippur. The original Shabbat Hagadol was the tenth of Nissan, as R. Enkin explained, and the months of Tishrei and Nissan are linked: their first day is a Rosh Hashanah in both cases, and their fifteenth day are holidays linked by way of a gezeirah shavah in Sukkah 27a. R. Cohen suggests that the mesirut nefesh the Jews displayed by risking their lives to take a sheep or goat is a source of atonement, just like Yom Kippur. He further proposes that the equation between Yom Kippur and Shabbat Hagadol is reflected in the Rema’s directive to read the Haggadah on Shabbat Hagadol up until the words “likhaper al kol avonoteinu”. [I would also note that throwing away bread crumbs is a theme during both seasons; tashlikh as well as bi’ur chametz (following the opinion of the Sages in Pesachim 21a that bi’ur chametz can be accomplished by tossing the bread into the river).]

  8. Seeing as we’re linking the 10th of nissan with yom kippur, why not compare the shnei seirim to the korban pesach.

    They both serve to remove non-Jewishness from ourselves – the korban pesach as in the post, the sair le’azazel –
    בבראשית רבה (סה י) ונשא השעיר עליו זה עשו שנאמר (בראשית כז יא) הן עשו אחי איש שעיר את כל עונותם עונות תם שנאמר ויעקב איש תם
    We return our sins to their source

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