David Walk

A Really Big Shabbat!!

The Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat. Since every Shabbat is observed for about 25 hours, this name can’t refer to the actual size of this Shabbat. So, what makes it great? Most authorities emphasize the historic events which preceded the Exodus. Many believe that, like this year, that Shabbat was on the tenth of the month when the Jews set aside the lamb which would be offered to God on the fourteenth. 

I like an alternative reason. The Torah describes the Count of the Omer (SEFIRAT HA’OMER) of barley beginning on the day after Shabbat. Jewish tradition firmly asserts that this Shabbat is actually the first day of Pesach. Chag is also a type of Shabbat or restful cessation of labor. So, there evolved a custom to call the nearest Shabbat to Pesach, the Great Shabbat, because the seventh day Shabbat is greater than the holiday version of Shabbat. How do we know that our regular Shabbat is greater than the holidays? Well, because the transgression of Shabbat was theoretically a capital crime in the times of the Sanhedrin, while desecrating a Chag is a regular sin, theoretically punished by lashes.

This Shabbat is marked by two famous occurrences: CHAMETZ trepidation (also called Fear of Crumbs) and the custom of reading the Haggadah around Mincha time. Many Haggadahs (especially old ones) are marked with the notation before AVADIM HAYINU: Read from here on Shabbat Hagadol. Then after DAYEINU and before Raban Gamliel, one often finds: Until here is recited on Shabbat Hagadol.

However, like everything else in Judaism, not everyone agrees. Chasidei Karlin are against this custom because, like MATZAH, one should wait to recite the Haggadah until the Seder night, so that it will be beloved (CHAVIV) in our mouths.

The most famous objector is the Vilna Gaon. In the collection  of his customs, compiled by his students, called MA’ASEH RAV it is written: On Shabbat Hagadol at Mincha time, don’t recite AVADIM HAYINU. This is based on the Mechilta, and enshrined in the Haggadah: One may think that the discussion of the Exodus could be done from the first of the month. The Torah therefore says, `On that day.’ `On that day,’ however, could mean while it is yet daytime; the Torah therefore says, `It is because of this.’ The expression `because of this’ can only be said when Matzah and Maror are placed before you.

There you have it. The Haggadah should not be recited unless the visual aids are there in front of you. We hold off on the recitation of the Haggadah until all the supporting activities are available. Before going further, I must note that the students of the Vilna Gaon also wrote that he allowed one to peruse the Haggadah to familiarize oneself again with the text, but one should be careful not to recite it aloud.

So, it sounds like one could fulfill the obligation of retelling the Exodus story from the beginning of Nissan. Why should that be true? Perhaps, the Jews were already in a sufficiently redeemed stare on that date when they all accepted upon themselves to prepare the Pesach Offering. Fascinating.

Now we must ask: What is the relationship of the Mitzvot and customs of the Seder ceremony to the performance of the annual obligation of SIPUR YETZIAT MITZRAYIM (retelling the Exodus tale)?

To better understand this question we must revisit another section of the Haggadah. Right after the paragraph of AVADIM HAYINU, we have the story of the scholars who stayed up all night in B’nei Brak. Connected to that story is the fascinating, but seemingly irrelevant anecdote of Rebbe Elazar ben Azarya who was happy that he could convince the Sages that we must ZECHER (remember or mention) the Exodus every day and every night. 

The role of the first story is really quite obvious: No matter how knowledgeable one might be, it is obligatory to put great effort into the task of retelling it at the Seder. But why are we interested in the non-Pesach issue of mentioning the Exodus twice daily? Well, because the Sages wanted us to know that a mere mention that we were redeemed from Egypt may work on other days, but tonight we must do something much more ambitious to fulfill the requirements of SIPPUR YETZIAT MITZRAYIM (telling the story of the Exodus).

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik has a beautiful exposition on the differences between ‘mentioning’ and ‘retelling’, based on the ideas of Reb Chaim Soloveitchik, his Grandfather (Shiurei Avi Mori, Vol 2, pg. 153). I’d like to highlight two of those ideas.

First, Sipur is an all encompassing experience. This means,of course, the Mitzva performances of the night, like the Matzah and Maror are used to help us be totally immersed in the activity. However, even more than that, other pedagogic methods can be utilized, like singing, story telling, visual aids, costumes, games. The sky and your imagination are the limit. 

Secondly, Sipur is TALMUD TORAH (Torah study) and MESORAH (transmission of our heritage). This requires innovation, as we say there is no Study Hall experience without CHIDUSH (innovation, Chagiga 3a). Therefore the Seder cannot be a restatement of what everyone already knows. Since the retelling of the Exodus experience is characterized by Talmud Torah, Sippur entails innovating, broadening and deepening its essence yet further every year.

Whether you read the Haggadah this Shabbat afternoon or not, you should be preparing for the Seder by researching the vast Haggadah literature, and assembling material appropriate for those who will attend your Seder. It’s terrific to have wonderful culinary treats at your Seder, but the pedagogic treats should demand even greater effort and exertion. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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