When Shabbat HaGadol Falls on Erev Pesach
Since medieval times, the Shabbat preceding Pesach is referred to as Shabbat HaGadol (The Great Shabbat). There are a number of customs associated with this Shabbat: 1) a special sermon, known as the Shabbat HaGadol Drasha, is delivered; 2) special additional prayers are inserted into the repetition of the morning Amida; and 3) a portion of the Haggadah is recited.
Since Jewish customs have great importance and meaning, the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law) dedicates an entire chapter to discuss the laws of Shabbat HaGadol.
THE GREAT SHABBAT
Early Rishonim, such as Rashi (1040–1105), point out that even in their days, the meaning behind the Shabbat HaGadol name had become obscured, and they offer explanations as to its significance.
The standard explanation is that the name Shabbat HaGadol refers to the great miracles that took place on this day. It was on this Shabbat (which coincided with the tenth of Nisan during the year of the Exodus) that Hashem had commanded the Jewish people to designate a lamb or young goat for the Pesach offering. The Jewish people demonstrated unconditional devotion to Hashem by taking a lamb, the deity of the Egyptians, right before their eyes—ignoring concerns of likely reprisal at the hands of their Egyptian overlords. Hashem miraculously protected the Jewish people, and the Egyptians were unable to cause them any harm.
Chazal recognized this Shabbat as the beginning of our salvation from Egypt. For it was in the merit of this mitzvah that the Jewish people became deserving of being redeemed. By referring to this special day as Shabbat HaGadol and through performance of the various customs of the day, we remember this great miracle and prepare ourselves for Pesach.
The Haggadah of the Maharal mi’Prague offers another explanation as to why this Shabbat is referred to as Shabbat HaGadol: the Seder night is an auspicious time for Eliyahu HaNavi to herald the coming of Mashiach and our ultimate redemption. The Navi refers to this as “The Great and Awesome Day.” All the blessings that come during the week find their source in Shabbat, which is known as mekor haberacha (the source of all blessing). Therefore, on Shabbat HaGadol (The Great Shabbat) we pray that Hashem should open the floodgates of blessing, so we can merit to greet Mashiach on Pesach—that “Great and Awesome Day.”
CUSTOMS OF THE DAY
Although it may sound droll, there were early commentators who suggested that “Shabbat HaGadol” refers to “the long sermon,” which makes the day feel longer than usual. While it may be long, one of the main purposes of this sermon is to review the halachot of Pesach, especially regarding the numerous halachot of how to prepare our homes for the holiday. For this reason, many communities have the custom that in a year such as this, when Shabbat HaGadol falls on erev Pesach, to deliver the Shabbat HaGadol Drasha a week early.
However, Aruch Hashulchan and others write that since many rabbis discuss more esoteric topics in their drashot these days, there is no need to move up the Drasha.
Because the Jews’ redemption in a sense began on this Shabbat, there is a custom to recite a portion of the Haggadah from “We were slaves in Egypt” until “to forgive all of our sins.” The Vilna Gaon questioned this custom since we specifically state in the Haggadah that this mitzvah is limited to the Seder night. Therefore, in deference to the Vilna Gaon, there are those who do not follow this custom.
There are special piyutim (poetic liturgy) added during the chazan’s repetition of Shemoneh Esrei in honor of Shabbat HaGadol. Some point out that since the piyutim recited during shacharit discuss halachot of how to prepare the home for Pesach, and it would be too late to benefit from reviewing these halachot this year, like the Shabbat HaGadol Drasha, there are some who feel these piyutim should be said the week before.
Like so many of our mitzvot, we get out of it what we put into it! No holiday requires more preparation and effort than Pesach. Shabbat HaGadol, as it was on that original Shabbat, is one of the final steps of our extensive preparations.
Wishing you all an amazing chag; whether your custom is to advance Shabbat HaGadol to the week before, or to celebrate the greatness on erev Pesach.