This Shabbat is called Shabbat Hagadol because the Exodus happened on a Shabbat. Since then, every year, the Shabbat before Pesach has been called Shabbat Hagadol to remember that miracle. There are many Ashkenazi communities that read part of the Haggadah during their daily afternoon (Minchah) service. This reason for calling it Shabbat Hagadol is given in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 430).  The name “Shabbat Hagadol” would, accordingly, be translated “The Great Shabbat.”

There is also a tradition of the community rabbi giving a long sermon that day. Before weekly divrei Torah became common place in the Jewish world, there were only two days of the year when the rabbi would deliver a sermon: Shabbat Hagadol before Pesach and Shabbat Shuvah before Yom Kippur. From this perspective, Shabbat Hagadol would mean “The Shabbat of the ‘Gadol;’ The Shabbat of the Rabbi.”

The first perspective emphasizes the centrality of freedom from slavery in the Jewish conception of spirituality and of the nature of our people. That Shabbat during which we were saved from Egypt, when we first ate the Korban Pesach (Paschal Lamb), was the greatest Shabbat in our history. Our first commandment was given and followed, and we took a great step in the direction of freeing ourselves from subjugation to another human being, and committing ourselves to the bedrock of existence itself.

The second perspective has the advantage of grammatical consistency. “Shabbat” is a feminine word, and so “The Great Shabbat” should be “Hashabbat Hag’dolah.” It also emphasizes the nature of Judaism as a religion of an active organic community. Rabbinic Judaism has never been a spectator religion in which the laypeople passively listened to the words of the rabbi. Judaism is reliant not on charismatic leadership, nor on spectacle, or even on the synagogue. Judaism is reliant on Jewish people doing mitzvot and learning Torah, and doing those things not only as individuals, but in community. When Jews keep kosher, when they give tzedakah, when they daven and teach each other Torah, when they keep Shabbat and holidays, Judaism thrives.

Nothing exemplifies this better than the Pesach seder. Families and friends gather around the same table. Parents teach their children Torah. People question and debate the meanings of the different elements of the Haggadah. The seder is filled with study, prayer, ritual, song, and food, and it is all done by the participants themselves. 

This year, our seder tables may have fewer people seated around them. We may be sharing our seder with someone else remotely. Nevertheless, we are still doing the seder ourselves as we do every year. It is we who ask the four questions, it is we who pour and drink the four cups, it is we who delve into the nature of the four children, and we who expound on the words “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Each of us gives life to Judaism, to the Torah, to the Jewish culture and to our unfolding history as we each do our seder. That seder gives us back as much life as we ourselves infuse it with.

May our four cups be full of taste and meaning. May our words of Torah give us each new insight. May our Hallel sung at the table be inspired and inspiring. May our feast of freedom be delicious. Next year, may we have this seder, sitting face-to-face at the same physical table, whether in Jerusalem or in Maine.

Shabbat Shalom!

Aaron Shub is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh,

a Modern Orthodox Jewish community in Portland, ME

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