The Great Sabbath: All Sabbaths are great

Rabbi Lane Steinger serves Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community.

BY RABBI LANE STEINGER

We conclude this week with a special Shabbat, Shabbat Ha-gadol/The Great Sabbath, the Shabbat that precedes Passover.

The name Shabbat Ha-gadol is derived from Malachi 3:4-4:24, the Haftarah, or reading from the Prophets, for this Shabbat, which declares, “See, I am sending Elijah the prophet to you before the coming great and awesome day of the Eternal.” 

This penultimate verse of the Haftarah, Malachi 4:23, customarily is repeated after 4:24, emphatically linking the reading with Elijah and, therefore, with Pesach. A rabbinic tradition associated Passover and its deliverance from Egypt in the past to the future redemption for the people Israel: 

“Rabbi Joshua says, ‘In Nisan they were liberated, in Nisan they will be liberated in the future from their Exile. Scripture called [Passover] Leyl Shimurim/a night of vigil, a night of vigilance coming ever since the six days of creation.’ ” 

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This quote from the Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 11b., cites Exodus 12:42, which states, “That was for the Eternal a night of vigil for bringing them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is a night of vigil for all the Israelites throughout their generations.”

Professor Mel Scult, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan’s leading biographer, has pointed out that Rabbi Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, used to teach that often traditional statements about God can best be understood by inverting them. For example, “The Torah of God is flawless, restoring the soul” [Psalms 19:8a] can be rendered, “Whatever restores the soul is the Torah of God” [“Kol Haneshamah for Sabbath and Festivals”]. 

Applying this principle to Shabbat Ha-gadol, we learn that not only is the Sabbath preceding Passover the Great Shabbat, but also “Gadol Ha-shabbat/Great is the Sabbath” in general.

Rabbi Kaplan eschewed supernaturalism and taught that mitzvot like celebration of the Sabbath are not divine commandments but, rather, religious folkways. 

“The Sabbath is not only a means of collective self-expression; it is the principal institution through which each Jew individually can experience the spiritualizing influence of the Jewish civilization,” he wrote in “Judaism as a Civilization.”  

Moreover, Kaplan stressed the positive possibilities presented by Shabbat: “In the last instance, not what the Jew will refrain from doing will determine the spiritual influence of the Sabbath, but the affirmative conduct which the observance of the Sabbath will elicit from him.” 

Kaplan advocated Shabbat eve as a time for gathering with dear ones: a “reunion” with family and friends, attending services on Saturday morning and, on Shabbat afternoon, engaging in “educational and recreational activities” such as “lectures,” “outdoor sports” and “social gatherings.” He concluded that “where the aim of readjustment [of Shabbat] is to enrich Jewish life, Jews need not fear that departure from certain traditional customs will undermine Judaism.” 

As we prepare for Pesach, this particular Shabbat serves as a significant signpost for us. Shabbat Ha-gadol/The Great Sabbath, the Shabbat preceding Passover, not only points us toward the grand festival itself, but also indicates “Gadol Ha-shabbat/Great is the Sabbath.”

Every Shabbat is a weekly opportunity. May we be liberated in mind, in heart and in spirit at this sacred season, and on every Seventh Day throughout the year! 

Shabbat Ha-gadol Shalom!