The Great Shabbat Before Passover- Shabbat Hagadol by Eve Levy
This time of year all I can focus on is Passover. For better or worse, there are times when I get so involved in project that I can barely see anything else happening around me. That is me this time of year. Passover (Pesach), the time of our freedom, liberation from Egyptian bondage … whatever you want to call it, it is in the air and I feel like shouting from the rooftops, “Bring it on!”
You know it’s getting close when you come to the Shabbat before Passover. This Shabbat is a special one called “Shabbat Hagadol,” which means the great Shabbat. What’s so great about it? Let’s see.
When I moved to the United States from Israel six years ago, I was very caught up with making my first Passover in the States. I was busy shopping, menu planning, inviting guests, cooking, and running around taking care of so many details. One day, just a few days before the holiday, I was pulling into my driveway, and I saw my neighbor outside watering her plants. I knew she was Jewish, so I rolled down my window and casually asked how her Pesach preparations were coming along. I got a blank stare from her.
“What’s Pesach?” she asked.
I tried to hide my look of horror and complete shock, and I tried again. “You know, Passover? Do you have any plans for the Seder?”
“Oh right,” she replied. “It’s been years since we celebrated that one.”
I could not believe that the holiday of Passover, the highlight of my year, was completely off the radar for some Jews. Coming from Israel, where all Jews, regardless of their level of observance, celebrate the festivals in some way or another, this blew my mind. I literally could not sleep that night as I kept thinking about my Jewish neighbor, who was not having a Passover.
Late into the night, I Googled and researched data on how many Jews are keeping Passover these days. Some of the articles made my heart sink, with headlines such as “Passover Seder Losing Steam As Key Marker Of Affiliation,” and “The Passover Seder and the Missing Third Jew.”
More research reaffirmed my hope that we, the Jewish people, will endure: “Most Israeli Jews Keep Passover,” and “Passover Overtakes other Jewish holidays As Most Meaningful Jewish Holiday For Younger Generation.” An October 2013 Pew Research report revealed 7 out of every 10 Jews said they participated in a Seder the previous Passover.
As bleak as the situation felt, I found fresh hope, especially when my nearly assimilated neighbor accepted an invitation to join our Seder.
Passover is such a crucial part of our Jewish heritage. It is the link that passes our story from generation to generation. In some ways, it is the most important night of the year!
In the early 1880s, in the town of Berditchev in Russia, the Rebbe was getting ready to start his Seder. With all his students gathered around waiting, the Rebbe announced, “I cannot start my Seder until three things are brought to me: Turkish tobacco, Persian silk scarves, and a piece of bread.”
The students looked at each other in shock. What was going on? “Where can we find these items?” they asked. “It is punishable by death to have Turkish tobacco or Persian silk in one’s possession. And, a piece of bread on the night of Pesach… ?”
The Rebbe said, “Go find me these items. I will not start until I have them.”
One hour passed. Two hours. And, next to the Rebbe there was a pile of Persian silk scarves and a pile of tobacco. But, the students said they were unable to find even a crumb of chometz in the whole town!
The Rebbe said, “The Russian police put guards on every border. It is punishable by death to smuggle in anything these days, and yet, look how much tobacco and silk you have found! All that is written in the Torah is two short sentences that tell us not to have any chometz in your possession on Passover, and look, not a crumb can be found in the whole town of Berditchev!”
With that the Rebbe opened his hands towards Heaven and said to G-d, “Mi K’amcha Yisrael (Who is like Your people Israel)? What a special nation we are!” And, with that, he started his Pesach Seder.
We need to understand that Passover doesn’t just happen on its own. We need to build up to this holiday, create some hype around it, prepare, and, while doing all that, make it joyful and exciting so we can succeed in transmitting this precious treasure to our children and grandchildren.
Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat, comes and wakes us up, gets us excited. It is customary to gather and study about Passover in this Shabbat. In many synagogues, the rabbi will give a special Shabbat Hagadol speech. In synagogue, we read the Haftorah from Malachi, the last of the prophets of Israel, who uplifts the Jewish people with a verse about the future redemption: “Behold I will send you Eliyahu haNavi before the coming of the great and awesome day of G-d (Malachi 3:23).”
This Shabbat before Passover was the beginning of the actual redemption in Egypt. We were already preparing for the Exodus. Dreams were coming true. After Shabbat Hagadol we did not return to our slavery. We went from there to our freedom, as we walked through the splitting sea just a handful of days later. Shabbat Hagadol was the beginning of many miracles for the Jewish people.
We are now well into the Hebrew month of Nissan, the month of nissim (miracles). This Shabbat Hagadol, get yourself excited. Make it a Shabbat that gives you all the physical and spiritual energy you need to get through the next few days until Passover begins.
Wishing all my JWRP friends a beautiful Shabbat Hagadol and a Chag Kasher V’sameyach (a kosher and joyous holiday)!
Eve Levy is a JWRP City Leader from Portland, Oregon.