Friday, 19 March 2021

Turning the hearts of
parents to children and
of children to parents

Patrick Comerford

This year, Pesach – the Great Jewish Festival of Passover – begins at sunset on Saturday evening next week (27 March 2021). Each Shabbat in the weeks immediately before Passover has a special name, and the Shabbat beginning at sunset next Friday evening (26 March 2021) is known as Shabbat haGadol (שבת הגדול), the ‘Great Sabbath,’ for many reasons.

Many special customs are associated with this Shabbat. The people celebrated the very first Shabbat haGadol in Egypt on the Tenth of Nissan, five days before their redemption. On that day, they received the first commandment that applied only to that Shabbat, but not to future generations, ‘on the tenth of this month [Nissan] they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household’ (Exodus 12: 3).

This mitzvah of preparing a lamb for the Passover offering four days before it was to be brought, applied only to that first Passover in Egypt. The Torah does not say that this must continue before every future Passover. Nevertheless, the people continued to do this to make sure that their lambs had no blemishes that would preclude their being sacrificed.

The Egyptians, for whom the lamb was a deity, were aware that the people observed Shabbat and did not busy themselves tending animals on that day. So, they were surprised and decided to investigate what was happening.

They answered, ‘It is to be slaughtered as a Passover sacrifice as God has commanded us.’

The Jewish Sages said, ‘Even an ignorant man will not tell lies on Shabbat.’ The Egyptians were angry but did not say anything in protest.

It is also said that 40 years later Miriam died on Shabbat haGadol and that the well that accompanied the people and provided them with water in the wilderness, disappeared.

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

Shabbat haGadol begins at sunset next Friday evening, and Passover begins at sunset on Saturday evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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