26 March 2021
Passover has become
a reminder of how we
are all interdependent
I was writing last Friday how Passover this year begins at sunset tomorrow evening (Saturday 27 March 2021) and continues until Sunday evening 4 April. The Shabbat before Passover is known as Shabbat Hagadol, ‘the Great Shabbat.’
After an entire year of challenge, change, unrest and uncertainty, Passover, the Festival of Liberation, is arriving once again. Although many people of us are still deeply affected by COVID, spring is blooming, vaccines are beginning to roll out, and soon we may begin to hope that the worst is behind us.
As Jewish families sit down tomorrow evening and on Sunday night to relive the Exodus from slavery and eat the shmurah matzah and bitter herbs, these may also be evenings to thank God for the myriad of miracles big and small in daily and personal lives.
Those who have entered a new era of health will not forget those still in isolation. Pesach offers a renewed appreciation and focus on who interdependent all are.
The Jewish calendar is based on a lunar calendar with adjustments, which means that Passover begins on Saturday night about once every nine years. This means that erev Pesach, the day before Passover 2021, coincides with Shabbat, bringing with it a number of unique customs and guidelines.
It is an ancient tradition for the firstborns to fast on the day before Passover. Since Jews generally do not fast on Shabbat, which is a day of feasting, or on Friday which may interfere with the joy of Shabbat joy, this fast of the firstborn was observed in many families yesterday (Thursday 25 March, 12 Nissan).
The widespread custom is for firstborns to participate in a siyum or another celebratory event that overrides the fast and allows them to eat for the remainder of the day. This, too, was followed yesterday (Thursday).
On the night before Passover, households traditionally search by candlelight for chametz, which they are forbidden to own or eat on Passover. These are foods with leavening agents. Chametz is a product that is both made from one of five types of grain – two varieties of wheat and three varieties of barley – and has been combined with water and left to stand raw for longer than 18 minutes and becomes leavened. Some Sephardi Jews from Spain and North Africa, including Moroccan Jews, have different restrictions, such as avoiding rice during Pesach.
Since this search cannot be carried out on Friday night, which is Shabbat, this tradition was observed in families after nightfall last night.
The last bits of chametz must be burned the day before Passover, before the fifth halachic hour of the day. Since this cannot be done on Shabbat, the burning of the chametz takes place at the same time on Friday, even though just enough chametz is kept to eat at the Friday night and Shabbat morning meals.
All chametz that is saved for use after Passover must be sold to a non-Jew and then bought back again after the holiday has passed. This sale typically takes place on the morning before Passover. Since buying and selling are forbidden on Shabbat, the sale is transacted by the community rabbi on behalf of his community on Friday.
Since the house cannot be cleaned on Shabbat, all cleaning must be finished on Friday. Yet it is a mitzvah to eat bread at the Friday night and Shabbat morning meals. It is also forbidden to eat matzah at this time, so that it can be enjoyed fully on Passover eve.
In practice, a small portion of chametz is retained, carefully kept away from all other food and utensils, all of which are strictly kosher for Passover by this time.
On Shabbat morning, services are held early so that the Shabbat meal, which requires two challah loaves, which are chametz, can take place before the deadline.
In a practical way, families are advised to prepare small rolls, one for each participant at each meal, and this can then be handed out and eaten without the use of a knife. But all the chametz that has been left for Shabbat must be eaten before the deadline, as chametz cannot be sold, burned, or taken outside the home on Shabbat.
In practice, any remaining challah pieces and crumbs are flushed down the toilet. At this point, people say the second Kol Chamira declaration, disowning any leftover chametz.
As Shabbat is a day of rest, people cannot prepare for the events after Shabbat in ways that include setting the table, cooking, and preparing. This can only be done once night has fallen on Saturday night. The prayer before these tasks begin says, ‘Blessed is he who divides between the sacred (Shabbat) and the sacred (holiday).’
On Shabbat, the blessing is different for each of the three services, evening, morning and afternoon. On Friday evening, the blessing speaks of the Shabbat of creation, on Saturday morning of the Shabbat of revelation, and in the afternoon of the Shabbat of redemption. In this way, Shabbat becomes a journey through the three phases of faith: God’s creation of the Universe; God’s self-revelation to humanity; and God’s redemptive acts, collectively summoning us to build a world at peace at peace with itself because it is at peace with God.
‘He sustains the living with lovingkindness and with great compassion revives the dead. He supports the fallen, heals the sick, sets captives free, and keeps his faith with those who sleep in the dust. Who is like you, Master of might, and to whom can you be compared, O King who brings death and gives life, and makes salvation grow?’ (Authorised Daily Prayer Book, p 287).
Many communities sing special hymns at the morning services on Shabbat haGadol. The main theme of these hymns is the laws of Passover, presented in verse form to make it easy for people to become familiar with the laws of the festival
Part of the Passover Haggadah is read on Shabbat haGadol, beginning at the paragraph that opens with the words ‘We were slaves’ and continuing until the words, ‘to atone for all of our sins.’ One reason for this is that the redemption began on Shabbat haGadol. Another reason is so children become familiar with the contents of the Haggadah. Yet another explanation is that the reading from the Haggadah on Shabbat haGadol is like a rehearsal for the Seder night, and allows people to become more familiar with the text.
In some Sephardic communities, it is customary to greet each other on this Shabbat to adding the title of the day: ‘Shabbat haGadol mevorach, a blessed Shabbat haGadol.’
It is a custom in some communities on the day before Shabbat haGadol to bake a small quantity of bread from the flour that has been reserved for making the matzot. This bread is referred to as the ‘challah of the poor’ or the ‘synagogue challah,’ and it is distributed to the poor in the community. The wealthy prepare a large quantity of this special challah, and those less well-off prepare a smaller quantity.
Traditionally, a lengthy and expansive sermon is given to the general community in the afternoon. There is a special Haftarah reading on this Shabbat from the Book of Malachi: ‘Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents …’ (Malachi 4: 5-6).
Shabbat haGadol mevorach