Shabbat Hagadol, the “Great Shabbat” that occurs immediately prior to the holiday of Pesach, derives its name from the special reading from the Prophets this Shabbat [Malachi 3:4-24].
The special Torah readings on the Shabbatot of the past few weeks – Shabbat HaChodesh, which speaks about the new month; Shabbat Parah, which speaks about the Red Heifer; Shabbat Shekalim, which speaks about the giving of the Half Shekel; and Shabbat Zachor, which speaks about remembering Amalek – are Talmudic enactments.
In contrast, according to many rabbinical authorities, there was not even supposed to be a special reading from the Prophets on Shabbat Hagadol. [Or Zarua, Volume 2, Laws of the Torah Readings for the Four Parshiot and Holidays, Chapter 393; R. Ovadia Yosef, Shu”T Yehavei Da’at, Volume 1, Chapter 91].
The bottom line is, the Jewish people have concluded that the custom is that we read the final section of the Book of Malachi on this Shabbat, with the closing verses mentioning the phrase “Yom Hashem Hagadol”, the “Great Day of God”, and thus this Shabbat is called “Shabbat Hagadol”.
But when you read this final section of Malachi, you realize it does not mention Passover at all. Not once. Why is it, then, that the Rabbis wanted us to read this final section of Malachi as an introduction to the Passover experience, to the month of Nissan?
There are discussions throughout the ages of two specific reasons:
One reason mentioned is in the opening verses of the Haftarah. God warns the Jewish people that He will be a relentless accuser against us if we abuse the other; if we commit adultery; if we swear falsely and therefore cheat laborers; if we subvert; if we compromise the widow, the orphan, the stranger, those who are the most challenged within our society.
Redemption can only occur – indeed, we can only truly celebrate Pesach – when we realize that we can achieve that goal, when we treat the other with respect.
Therefore, this is our Haftarah, which reminds us that part of the redemptive experience involves welcoming in the stranger.
Another answer given – although the previous answer would have been sufficient – is that this is the final section from all of the words of the Prophets. It reminds us of the fact that after the Prophetic Era, in order that we become a redeemed people, we have to find our own voice with God.
Thus, we read this final chapter of Prophetic revelation to remind us that redemption requires us to create the next chapter of engagement with God, one in which we do not hear the voice of God from the Prophets.
Rather, we hear the voice of God through our study and through our engagement with God, through a searching for a powerful, meaningful relationship with God.
Therefore, our pre-Passover Haftarah concludes with the following words [Malachi 3:23] –
“הנה אנכי שולח לכם”, Behold, I will send to you, “את אליה הנביא”, Elijah the Prophet (who is mentioned at the Passover Seder), “לפני בוא יום ה’ הגדול והנורא”, before this Great and Awesome Day (which represents the Messianic Age).
But what will bring about the Messianic Age? The final verse of this Haftarah – in fact, the final verse of the Prophetic text of all of Tanach – tells us: “והשיב לב אבות על בנים, ולב בנים על אבותם”. When mothers and fathers and grandparents will re-engage with their children; when children will re-engage with their parents and grandparents in the heritage of the Jewish people.
Redemption will come when we are engaged in that rapprochement, when we are willing to create that opportunity, for there to be an intergenerational conversation about what it means to be part of the Jewish people and to be redeemed during the month of Nissan.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher v’Sameach.