The Sabbath preceding Passover, Shabbat haGadol, “the great Shabbat,” is often treated as the fifth special Shabbat of the Adar-Nissan period, although this is inaccurate. The four special Sabbaths on which special Torah passages are read- Shekalim, Zachor, Parah, and Hachodesh- are established from antiquity, documented in tractate Megillah, 29a to 30b. Shabbat haGadol, however, is not mentioned anywhere in the Mishna or gemara, though by the Middle Ages, there appeared to be numerous explanations as to why this Sabbath was named as such. The Sefer haOrah even asks, “People customarily call the shabbat that precedes Pesach “Shabbat HaGadol” (the great shabbat), but they do not know why it is greater than any other shabbat of the year.”
One explanation is found in Tosafot, Shabbat 87b, DH V’oto yom chamishi b’shabbat hayah v’chulei. Tosafot there explains that since in the year of the exodus itself, the day of the exodus was a Thursday (15th of Nissan), it follows that the day on which the Jews had to “take for themselves a lamb for each household” (i.e. the tenth of Nissan) [see Exodus 12:3] was a Shabbos. With this in mind, Tosafot explain that the minhag of calling the shabbat before Pesach “Shabbat HaGadol” (i.e. the Great Shabbat) serves to commemorate the great miracle which took place on that day, as recorded in the Midrash: Ve’im ken be revi’i shachatu pischeihem venimtza bashabbat she’averah lakechu pesacheihen she’az hayah be’asor lechodesh. If so, Shechitas Korban Pesach was on Wednesday. It turns out that on the previous Shabbos, they took (bought or designated) their animals for Pesach, for this was the 10th of the month; Ve’al ken korin oto shabbat haggadol lefi shenna’asah bo nes gadol kid’amrinan bemidrash. This is why it is called Shabbat ha’Gadol, for a great miracle occurred, like it says in the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah perek 21: Keshellakechu pischeihem be’otoh shabbat nitkabbetzu bechorot umot ha’olam atzel yisra’el veshalvom lamah hayu osin kach ameru lahen zevach pesach lah sheyaharog bechorei mitzrayim, When they took their Pesachim, the first born of the nations gathered to Yisrael and asked what they were doing. They said “it is Zevach Pesach to Hashem. He will kill the first born of Mitzrayim”; hallechu etzel avoteihem ve’al par’oh levakesh mimenu sheyishlechu yisra’el velo ratzu va’asu bechorot milchamah veharegu mahen harbeh, hada hu dichtiv, lemakkeh mitzrayim bivchoreihem. [The first born] went to their fathers and to Pharaoh, to ask him to send Yisrael, and they did not want to. The first born made a war, and killed many Egyptians. The verse “l’Makeh Mitzrayim bi’Vchoreihem” (He strikes Mitzrayim through their firstborn) alludes to this.
The poskim discuss several ways in which the special status of this day is commemorated. A minhag of reciting certain portions of the Haggadah on Shabbat HaGadol is discussed, as early as the Sefer Ra’avyah, siman 425 (Eliezer ben Rabbenu Yoel haLevi, 1140-1220): The minhag is that the children read the Haggadah in advance on the day of Shabbos HaGadol, [etc.,] and this is [indeed a] proper [practice], for [in this way] they will arrange [the content] ‘in their mouths’ [i.e. they will familiarize themselves with it] and on Pesach [night] they will understand [the Seder] and ask [their questions].” The Rema codifies this in his glosses on Orach Chaim 430: Shabbat shelifnei hapesach korin oto shabbat hagadol, mipnei hanes shenna’sah bo. Rema: Vehaminhag lomar beminchah hahaggadah, mittechillat avadim hayinu ad lechapper al kol avonoteinu; uposekim lomar barchi nafshi (The Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat haGadol, on account of the miracle that happened then. Rema: the Haggadah is read on the Shabbos before Pesach, Shabbos HaGadol, at [the time of the] Mincha [i.e. afternoon] services, from “Avadim hayinu” [“We were slaves” – i.e. immediately after the four “Mah Nishtanah” questions] until “lechaper al kol avonotainu” [i.e. the end of the “Dayeinu” poem – including its “follow-up” paragraph]. The clear implication is that adults are included, and although the reason of the Ra’avyah does not seem to fit this exactly, perhaps the basic idea is the same – to “prepare” for saying the Haggadah on Pesach night. The Rema bases this on the Sefer haMinhagim, and the precise timing at Mincha is built on the Ashkenazi minhag to read a chapter from Pirkei Avos just before concluding the Shabbos Mincha services in the summer, and the chapter of Tehillim “Barchi Nafshi” during the winter. Since the minhag is not to begin with Pirkei Avot until Pesach itself, the minhag of reading the Haggadah is designated as replacing what would have been the last “wintertime” reading of “Barchi Nafshi” – effectively ending its “period of being read” (which is how the Rema puts it).
The other notable practice is a special Haftorah reading. The Levush (Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe, 1530-1612) describes various versions of a minhag to read a special “haftarah”, which begins with “V’Arva LaHashem” [Malachi 3:4] and mentions the “Great Day” of Hashem. Some have the minhag to read this only when the Shabbat is the day before Pesach, others do precisely the opposite – they read this only when it is not the day before Pesach, and some read it in all cases. Indeed, the Maharshal (quoted in Mateh Moshe, # 542) says that the name of Shabbat haGadol comes from the haftorah reading of Malachi. The connection between this haftorah and the events of Nissan, however, requires closer attention.
The last verses of the haftorah point to the messianic age, in which the father-son relationship will be restored: “And he [Elijah] shall return the heart of the fathers to the sons, and the heart of the sons to their fathers,” Malachi 3:24. Troubled relationships between fathers and sons abound throughout the Torah, perhaps pointing to the strained relationship between humanity and G-d. Isaac chooses Esau over Jacob, and Jacob (with the encouragement of his mother) tricks him in return (Genesis 27). When our forefathers love a son, they often do so at the expense of others sons, which fosters resentment and even violence. Jacob prefers Joseph, and his other sons trick both of them, such that Joseph spends years in bondage and Jacob spends decades assuming that his beloved son is dead (Genesis 37). By the time Jacob reunites with Joseph, he is a broken man, one who describes the days of his life to Pharaoh as short and bitter (Genesis 47:9). We learn next to nothing about Moses’ sons, but from the little we hear, we learn that he neglected to circumcise one of them (Exodus 4:24-26) and that he abandoned both of them, causing his father-in-law to make a trip to Sinai to bring Moses his family back (Exodus 18:2-5). David and Absalom have a particularly strained relationship; Absalom dedicates himself to waging war against his father David and proclaiming himself king in his father’s stead (II Samuel 15-19). David eventually defeats Absalom and dramatically mourns his passing, which occurs in a grisly fashion, with Absalom’s head “caught up” by the branches of a terebinth tree (II Samuel 18:9). These examples point us to the fact that just as the human condition in this world is characterized by strife and often strained relationships, the reversal of this state of affairs represents the Messianic era, in which the reconciliation of fathers and sons, and ultimately humanity and G-d, is a sign of the status quo being overturned.
The Rambam, in Hilchot Melachim 12:2, even points to this verse as a description of what will transpire when the Mashiach comes: Ya’amod navi leyisra’el leyashar yisra’el ulehachin libbam. shenne’emar “hinneh anochi sholeach lachem, et Eliyahu Hanavi,” (Malachi 12:23). Ve’einu ba lo letammei hattahor, velo letahor hatame, velo lifsol anashim shehem bechezkat kashrut, velo lehachshir mi shehuchzeku pesulin; ela lasum shalom ba’olam, shene’emar, “veheshiv lev avot al banim.” (Malachi 12:24). The era of world peace that will be ushered in the Messianic Era is encapsulated in the hearts of fathers and sons being reconciled. Yetziat mitzrayim, the exodus of the Jewish People out of Mitzrayim, is itself an act which was miraculous, and clearly went against the world order. It was a subversive and miraculous experience, which, like the reconciliation of fathers and sons, demonstrates that the social order can be overthrown and reversed, if G-d wills it. The father-son, parent-child relationship between HaShem and the Jewish People was renewed when HaShem brought us out of Egypt; the people lived to serve their Creator and none else as they were liberated out of slavery and into true Avodat HaShem. The gematria for Eliyahu is 52, the same as ben, son; by courageously challenging Egyptian worship of the lamb by preparing their korbanot and waging battle against the Mitzrim, our people demonstrated their desire to reconcile themselves to their Father, and so were prepared for the miracles that were about to come their way. The restoration of relationships to their intended harmony is the task Pesach reminds us of, and truly, the great day of Divine reckoning Malachi speaks of is alluded to by this restorative process.