Parshat Metzora – Shabbat Hagadol

A Shabbat of freedom and the Festival of Redemption.

Women light candles for Shabbat (photo credit: REUTERS)
Women light candles for Shabbat
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Shabbat before Passover is called Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath.
The source for this name, mentioned in halachic sources for over one thousand years, is not known. Various theories have been offered, one of which is the desire to connect this Shabbat to Passover. Indeed, different traditions in Jewish communities point to this.
For example, there is a tradition to read the Passover Haggada on this Shabbat as preparation for the Seder.
There is also a tradition for the rabbi of the community to deliver a sermon on this Shabbat regarding the halachot and significance of the holiday.
It seems not to be coincidental that Shabbat was chosen as the day on which to prepare for Passover. Shabbat is closely linked to the Exodus from Egypt, and therefore to Passover. As we say in kiddush on Friday evening, “... and with love and favor gave us His holy Shabbat as a heritage, a remembrance of Creation. [For that day is] the prologue to the holy convocations, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.”
There are two events we remember on Shabbat. One is universal – a remembrance of Creation. The other is particular to Am Yisrael (the People of Israel), the nation that has carried this memory with it for thousands of years – a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.
These two memories are explicitly written in the Torah as reasons for the mitzva of Shabbat. The Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai are written in the Torah twice and there are a few differences between the versions. One obvious difference is the reason for the mitzva of Shabbat. In the list of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus, one reason given for the commandment to observe Shabbat is: “For [in] six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth... and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the sabbath day and sanctified it.”
(Exodus 20:11) In the list of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Deuteronomy, however, we read a different reason: “And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God took you out from there... therefore, the Lord, your God, commanded you to observe the sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15) The commandment to keep Shabbat has two aspects, two long-term memories. They both deal with the beginnings of existence. Creation is the beginning of universal existence, while the Exodus from Egypt marked the beginning of the national existence of the People of Israel.
The reason offered regarding the act of Creation as one aspect of Shabbat says that we recognize the goodness of Creation by recognizing the goodness of the Creator. Observing Shabbat is a symbolic act in which we revive the wholeness of the world in our consciousness, as written in the verse which serves as the background for God’s resting on Shabbat: “And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was good.”
The second reason which focuses on the Exodus from Egypt is inextricably tied to the verse that precedes it which commands us to rest on Shabbat, “... you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your ox, your donkey, any of your livestock, nor the stranger who is within your cities, in order that your manservant and your maidservant may rest like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.”
Shabbat is not just a commemoration of the distant history of Creation, but demands of us to provide freedom to ourselves and to all those around us – to the manservant and the maidservant, and even to animals in our possession. This demand seemed absurd in the ancient world, yet the Torah sets it as top priority: And you shall remember that you were a slave! Nothing could be more appropriate than Shabbat being the preface to Passover. Before the arrival of the festival that marks freedom and liberation from slavery, we remember that a truly free person is one who recognizes the freedom of others. A nation that remembers that its existence is based on redemption, feels the need to begin the events of the festival of redemption with an act of redemption, with an act of giving freedom to oneself and to others.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.