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The Term ‘Shabbat HaGadol’

The term “Shabbat HaGadol,” first appears in the 12th century in works attributed to the school of Rashi: Sefer HaOrah, Siddur Rashi and Sefer HaPardes. It also appears in Machzor Vitry (by a disciple of Rashi).

These passages admit that even the people in that time did not know the origin of this term.

Here are some explanations suggested—over the centuries—for the origin of this term:

1. To commemorate a miracle that happened on this day.

There are three versions of this explanation:

A) Daat Zekenim to Exodus 12:3 cites a midrash that when the Israelites took the lamb for the Pesach sacrifice on the 10th of Nissan it was Shabbat. (We have other sources that disagree with this detail.) When the Egyptians saw that they had taken the lamb to slaughter, they gathered against the Israelites in order to kill them, since the gods of the Egyptians were animals. But, God performed a miracle (not specified) and the Israelites were saved.

B) Tosafot (Shabbos 87b): The Egyptian firstborn saw the Israelites taking the lambs that Shabbat and asked them why. They replied that they were preparing a sacrifice to God who is going to kill the firstborn Egyptians. The firstborn, then, went to their fathers and to Pharaoh and asked that he let the Israelites go. The firstborn then made war against their fellow Egyptians, killing many. See Psalm 136:10: “who struck Egypt through their firstborns” and Midrash Tanchuma, edition Buber, Bo.

C) Sefer HaOrah (part 2, paragraph 62): When the Egyptians wanted to take revenge against the Israelites for taking the lambs for sacrifice on the 10th of Nissan, “their intestines were on fire, and they were punished by afflictions and bad illnesses and they did not harm Israel.” Because these miracles were done for Israel on that Shabbat before Pesach, it was called “Shabbat HaGadol.” This interpretation was quoted by many other medieval halachic works. See Menachem M. Kasher, Haggadah Sheleimah, page 50, no. 1. But if the intent was to commemorate a miracle, the day should, perhaps, have been called “Shabbat HaNes.”

2. On this day—in taking the Paschal lamb—the Israelites performed their first mitzvah. See Hizzekuni, commentary to Exodus 12:3 and Abudarham. But if so, the day should, perhaps, have been called “Shabbat HaMitzvah.”

3. The haftarah includes the word “HaGadol” near the end.

But if the day was named in honor of the haftarah, it would have been called “Shabbat VeArvah.” (In any event, the 12th century name “Shabbat HaGadol,” precedes the consistent attachment of the haftarah from Malachi to this day. See below.)

4. “Shabbat HaGadol” is a corruption of “Shabbat Haggadah.” It is true that there was a custom for children to read the Haggadah on the Shabbat before Pesach (see Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel Halevi, Bonn, circa 1140-1225, paragraph 425, volume 2), but the custom of adults reading the Haggadah on the Shabbat before Pesach is not mentioned until Rabbi Isaac Tyrnau (circa 1400).

5. According to nine sources—some from the time of the early Rishonim—the Shabbat before each of the Shalosh Regalim and before Rosh Hashanah was also called “Shabbat HaGadol.” Most likely, this last explanation is the correct one.

Here are a few of the nine sources:

Rabbi Shlomo ben Hayatom, Italy, early 12th century: “But on Shabbat Hagadol before Pesach and Atzeret and Rosh Hashanah and Sukkah … ”
Piyut by Rabbi Moshe ben Binyamin Hasofer of Rome (early 12th century): “Kedushta of Rabbi Moshe of Shabbat Hagadol of Shavuot.”
Shibolei Haleket (paragraph 205, edition Buber, page 160) (Italy, 13th century), “And so were they accustomed to call the Shabbatot (before) the Shalosh Regalim.”
Machzor Roma, Bolonia, 1540-1541: “A Yotzer for Shabbat Hagadol of Shavuot.”And: “Azharot of Rabbi Shlomo … they recite them on Shabbat Hagadol of Shavuot.”

——

All of the above is adapted from a long post by Rabbi David Golinkin of April 2022, (“Responsa in a Moment, volume 16, no. 4) available online. Rabbi Golinkin is a leading posek in the Conservative movement. I have always been impressed by his thorough research. (I would like to thank Leonard Berkowitz for sending this post to me.) Admittedly, it is possible that the name was first used in connection with the Shabbat preceding Pesach, and then spread to the other holidays. But after careful consideration, Rabbi Golinkin thinks that this was not the case.

I did not discuss the passage at John 19:31, and passages in later Christian sources which use a term similar to “Shabbat HaGadol.” There is also a tombstone in Arabic of a Christian from Ramle, dating to 943 CE, which gives a death date of “Shabbat Alkabir” (the great Sabbath). All of these sources are probably irrelevant to our topic. They are discussed by Golinkin and dismissed. But the Safrais—in their Haggadat Chazal (1998)—take the position that these early non-Jewish sources are relevant and, eventually, led to the Jewish use of the term in the 12th century.
——

Now, it is time to briefly address how the haftarah from Malachi, “Vearvah,” eventually became attached to Shabbat HaGadol. There are various customs regarding the reading of “Vearvah.” Some read it on every Shabbat HaGadol, some read it only when Erev Pesach falls on Shabbat and some only when Erev Pesach does not fall on Shabbat. There is, of course, no section in Shulchan Aruch covering this reading, which explains the variety in customs. The earliest source mentioning “Vearvah,” in connection with Shabbat HaGadol is the sefer Maharil from Germany. Maharil died in the early 15th century. This work—by his student—mentions in the name of the Maharil that some read “Vearvah” on Shabbat HaGadol, but others only read it if Shabbat HaGadol falls on Erev Pesach.

The explanation of how this haftarah eventually became associated with Shabbat HaGadol lies in understanding the ancient triennial cycle of Torah readings and their haftarot. In the Amoraic and Geonic periods in Israel, the widespread practice was to read the Torah on a cycle that took approximately 3½ years (loosely referred to as the “triennial cycle”). They had 157 different Torah reading sections. As a consequence, many more haftarot were in use in Israel in those periods than are in use today. From haftarah lists discovered in the Cairo genizah, and from ancient piyyutim that also came to light, scholars can now reconstruct almost all the haftarot that were being read on this triennial cycle. See, e.g., the list with sources by Yosef Ofer in Tarbitz 58, pages 173-185.

The haftarah that is read today on Shabbat HaGadol, “Vearvah … minchat yehudah,” started out as the haftarah on the triennial cycle for a section of parshat Tzav that began at 6:12 and that had to do with a mincha offering!

When the triennial cycle began to fall out of use in the period of the later Geonim and early Rishonim, “Vearvah” first became a haftarah for full parshat Tzav in some communities. Tzav is normally the regular Torah reading on Shabbat HaGadol in a non-leap year. But, because of the competition with other haftarot for parshat Tzav, it ended up surviving only as a special holiday haftarah for the Shabbat preceding Pesach. We do not know all the details, but this is, essentially, what happened (see further Or Zarua, section 393).

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Evolutionary biologists explain that “adaptation is the key to survival.”

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