19 March 2021
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
During Lent and Easter this year, I am taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:
1, a photograph of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;
2, the day’s Gospel reading;
3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).
This week I am offering photographs from seven churches that have shaped and influenced my spirituality.
Today is the Feast of Saint Joseph, and my photographs this morning (19 March 2021) are from Coventry Cathedral, which also featured on the News at Ten on the BBC the night before last (17 March 2021). During the 1970s, I regularly visited Coventry Cathedral. I was strongly influenced by the values that inform the ministries at the cathedral, particularly the Ministry of Reconciliation, and for a few years I was a member of the Community of the Cross of Nails.
Following the bombing of Coventry’s mediaeval cathedral in 1940, the Provost, the Very Revd Richard Howard, had these words inscribed on the wall behind the charred cross and the Altar of the ruined building, ‘Father Forgive.’
These words moved generations of people and are prayed in the Litany of Reconciliation every Friday at noon outside in the ruins of the mediaeval cathedral in Coventry and in many other places around the world by the Community of the Cross of Nails.
The Litany of Reconciliation, based on the seven cardinal sins, was written in 1958 by Canon Joseph Poole, the first Precentor of the new, post-war cathedral in Coventry. This Litany is a universal and timeless confession of humanity’s failings, but it calls on us to approach these sins and weaknesses in the forgiveness of God’s love.
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Matthew 1: 18-25 (NRSVA):
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:
The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (19 March 2021, Saint Joseph of Nazareth), prays:
Let us pray that churches and national institutions that work on climate change advocacy can work harmoniously together for the common good.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org