Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
The Great Shabbos
Many reasons are given for the unique name of this week's Shabbos - Shabbos
haGadol, the Great Shabbos. After all, aren't all Shabboses great?
The Tur (chapter 430) explains: We find in the Torah (Shemos 12:3) that on
the 10th day of Nisan the Jews were commanded to take a sheep and set it
aside for the Korban Pesach (Pesach offering). They did so - the head of
each family took a sheep and tied it to the foot of his bed. When the
Egyptians saw what they were doing, they were mystified. "What are you
doing with these sheep?" they asked. "We are putting them aside in order to
slaughter them as an offering for Hashem (G-d)," they replied. Now the
sheep was the god of the Egyptians, and thus the Egyptians were extremely
agitated by the Jews telling them this. Under normal circumstances, they
would have incited riots and pogroms against the Jews. Yet, for reasons
unknown even to them, they found themselves unable to react. ("For fear [of
the Jews] had fallen upon them," (Tehillim/Psalms 105:38).) Now we know
that the day Bnei Yisrael (the Jews) left Mitzrayim (Egypt), the 15th day
of Nisan, was on a Thursday (Seder Olam). Thus, the miracle of the
Egyptians' non-reaction occurred on Shabbos, five days earlier. This is why
it is called Shabbos haGadol - because of the Great Miracle which occurred
on this Shabbos.
Some question this: If so, why was Shabbos chosen to commemorate this
miracle? True, the miracle occurred on Shabbos that year, but wouldn't it
have been more appropriate to designate the 10th day of Nisan, no matter
when it falls, as the day of commemoration?
They answer that the neis (miracle) only transpired because it was Shabbos.
Normally, there would have been nothing so unusual about the Jews putting
sheep aside. What caught the Egyptians' eyes was that it was Shabbos, and
they knew that the Jews were forbidden to handle live animals on Shabbos.
Their interest was piqued, and they asked, and that's how the whole miracle
came about. Thus the neis is attributed to Shabbos.
Others answer that under normal circumstances the Egyptians' questions
would have posed no problem for the Jews. In matters of life-and-death, one
is permitted to lie. Thus, they could easily have fabricated an excuse as
to why they were setting these animals aside. Talmud Yerushalmi (the
Jerusalem Talmud; Demai ch. 4) states, however, that on Shabbos even an
unlearned Jew fears to tell a lie, out of fear of the sanctity of Shabbos.
This is why Shabbos was set aside to remember the neis; on a weekday none
of this would ever have happened. [The above reasons are quoted in Sefer
Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov in his sefer Bnei Yisasschar (Nisan 3:2)
quotes Sha'alos veTeshuvos Shemen haMor who offers the following
explanation regarding the name "Shabbos haGadol." The Torah commands us to
start counting Sefiras Ha- omer (the counting of the 49 days between Pesach
and Shavuos) "mi-macharas ha-Shabbos, on the day after Shabbos. (Vayikra
23:15)" Translated literally, it appears we should begin counting sefirah
on the Sunday (- the day after Shabbos) following the first day of Pesach.
Yet Chazal, our Sages, tell us that this is not correct. In this instance,
they say, "Shabbos" does not refer to the seventh day of the week, but
rather to the first day of Pesach, which is also called Shabbos. Thus, no
matter which day of the week it comes out, we begin counting on the second
day of Pesach.
The Tzidokim (Sadducees), a sect which interpreted the Written Torah in its
most literal sense, and refused to accept Torah she-ba'al peh (Oral Torah),
understood this pasuk literally, and thus maintained that one must begin
counting on the Sunday following the first day of Pesach.
In many instances, Chazal instruct us to do certain things in order to
refute the corrupt view of the Tzidokim. This is why, he explains, they
gave the name of the Shabbos before Pesach "Shabbos haGadol, the Great
Shabbos," implying that there is another, "smaller" Shabbos following (the
first day of Pesach which is also called "Shabbos"). It is of lesser
kedushah (sanctity) than a regular Shabbos day, inasmuch as it is
permissable to perform on it work relating to food.
Rabbi Aaron of Belz zt"l explains the name "Shabbos haGadol" as follows:
The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 1:28) relates that even in Egypt, the Jews kept
Shabbos. How was this possible? Moshe appealed to Pharaoh that if he would
not allow his slaves at least one day of rest during the week, their
stamina would be weakened and they would be unable to continue exerting
themselves. Pharaoh saw the logic in this, and decided to give the Jews one
"day-off" a week. Moshe then chose Shabbos to be their "Yom Menuchah - day
Thus, although the Jews did not work on Shabbos in Egypt, they didn't
actually "keep" Shabbos. They were not observing the laws of Shabbos
because of the mitzvah (commandment), but rather because it was their
day-of-rest. This is referred to as "eino metzuvah ve-oseh, one who does
without being commanded." Now that they were about to leave Egypt, however,
Moshe revealed to them the true reason he had declared the seventh day as a
day-of-rest - because it is a mitzvah which Hashem wants us to observe.
This Shabbos, the tenth of Nisan, was the first Shabbos the Jews observed
as metzuvah ve-oseh, ones who were commanded to do so.
Chazal say (Kiddushin 31a) that one who performs a mitzvah out of
obligation is GREATER (gadol) than one who does a mitzvah voluntarily. [The
reason for this is that one who performs a mitzvah voluntarily experiences
no moral conflict - there is no yetzer hara (evil inclination) telling him
not to do it.] This, then, is why this week's Shabbos is called "Shabbos
haGadol, the Great Shabbos," for it was on this Shabbos that Bnei Yisrael
achieved the greatness of keeping Shabbos because it is a mitzvah, and not
just as a day-of-rest.
This Shabbos is great in many ways. Above all, it is great, for it is on
this Shabbos that we have the opportunity to make our last spiritual
preparations for Yom Tov. This coming week we will likely be occupied with
our material preparations for Pesach, so let's take advantage of Shabbos to
do a bit of spiritual bedikas chametz (search for leaven) - getting
ourselves into the right frame-of-mind for Yom Tov.
Text Copyright © 1998 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.