The Shabbat before Passover is termed “Shabbat HaGadol” (“The Great Shabbat”) in commemoration of the great miracle that happened in Egypt on this day, heralding the Exodus from Egypt five days later.
What was that miracle? As the Alter Rebbe relates in his “Shulchan Aruch”, the firstborn of Egypt learned that G‑d would slay all of them during the tenth plague and tried to convince the Pharaoh to release the Jewish people. When he refused, they revolted against him, as said in the famous verse:
“To Him Who smote the Egyptians with their firstborn” (Tehillim, 136:10).
In memory of this event there is a custom to begin the recitation of the Haggadah on Shabbos HaGadol (find more on this below).
Shabbat HaGadol is one of the rare instances in which a commemorative date in the calendar is set by the day of the week rather than the day of the month. Why so? What is the association between this miracle and the seventh day of the week? And moreover: why did the Sages attach so much importance to the miracle of the firstborn?
From the Rebbe’s explanations:
– The purpose of the exodus from Egypt is for the Jewish people to appreciate G‑d’s providence as it is written:
“And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a G-d to you, and you will know that I am the Lord your G-d, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” (Shemot, 6:7)
As the Jews exist within our material world, they should come to an awareness of G‑d and accept His Torah and commandments and through their service reveal G‑dliness in the world at large.
Since the goal of the exodus was the revelation of G‑dliness, it was associated with miracles which broke the boundaries of nature. The Hebrew for “nature” is teva which also has the meaning “submerged”. Meaning that the G‑dly power which is invested in the world is submerged within the natural order which obscures our appreciation of Him.
Miracles, in general, are those events that break through the natural set and allow us to openly appreciate G‑d’s infinite power. However, the miracle of “smiting Egypt with their firstborn” was a different – and indeed greater – kind of a miracle.
The transformation of the firstborn of Egypt into a force which acted on behalf of Redemption, represents a change – an elevation of those elements of existence which at first seemingly oppose G-dliness.
The revolt of the firstborn revealed the infinite dimension of G‑dliness within the limits of our material world – without breaking it. This paved the way to the exodus from Egypt five days later.
For this reason, this miracle is associated with Shabbat, because Shabbat is associated with the ultimate redemption – “the day which is all Shabbos and rest for eternity.” Indeed, the commemoration of this miracle enhances the nature of Shabbat, making it Shabbat HaGadol – “The Great Shabbat”.
Customs of the Day
Shabbat HaGadol customs include reading a portion of the Haggadah (from “Avadim hayinu…” to “…al kol avonotainu”), which tells the story of the Redemption.
It is also customary that the Rabbi of the community delivers a lecture in which he elaborates on the laws of Passover and their significance, in preparation for the festival.
Based on the Rebbe’s talk on Shabbat Parshat Tzav (8th Day of Nissan, 5751 / 1991) – listen to it now in the daily podcast “The Rebbe’s Talks” (on the main screen of the app).