The Shabbat before Passover is called “The Great Shabbat” (Shabbat HaGadol), because a great miracle occurred on that day…
Why was [the commemoration of the miracle] not instituted on the tenth of Nissan, regardless of whether it fall on Shabbat or on a weekday, as all other commemorative dates were instituted?
Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 430:1
A cursory look at our calendar indicates that we measure time in an awkward and inconvenient manner.
To distinguish a certain day, we refer to two different time-cycles: the seven-day weekly cycle, and the 29.5 day lunar cycle, which gives us an alternating 29 and 30-day month. These two time-systems are asynchronous: a day’s place in the month has no bearing on its place in the week. So if the 10th of Nissan falls on Shabbat one year (as it did in the year of the Exodus), it may fall on a Monday the next year; and if the Shabbat before Passover is Nissan 10 one year, it may be Nissan 14 the next. Would it not have been much simpler to employ a single cycle in which a fixed number of “weeks” make up the “month,” so that any given day may be placed in a single, unvarying context?
But life itself is not a singlar state of being, or even a series of compatible states. Life is a multifaceted phenomenon, with certain facets diverging from, or even clashing with, the others. The absence of synchrony between the week and the month is due to the fact that these two time-cycles reflect two very different areas of our lives.
The Miraculous Month
The seven-day week is nature’s built-in time-cycle. G-d created the universe in seven days—six days of creative involvement followed by a seventh of rest and withdrawal. As a result, a seven-day cycle of work and rest has been ingrained in creation as nature’s inner clock. This is the significance of the mitzvah of Shabbat: that man attune his life to G-d’s creation, alternating a six-day exercise of his own creative powers with a day of withdrawal from material creativity.
But G-d wanted more—more than our development of His world in harmony with its built-in cycle of creation, more than our realization of our in-born potentials. He wanted us to be miracle-workers: to be forever reinventing and recreating ourselves, forever challenging the status quo imposed by nature and habit, forever transcending the strictures of normalacy and convention. To this end, G-d introduced lunar time into our lives, instructing us, in the first mitzvah commanded us as a people, to establish a calendar based on the phases of the moon.
In contrast with the regular, monotonous week, the lunar month is forever changing and regenerating itself. As the moon wanes and waxes in the nighttime sky, the lunar month follows suit, growing with the expanding moon in the first half of the month, reaching its climax with the “full moon” on the 15th, dwindling to nothingness with the shrinking moon of the second half of the month, and being reborn on the night of the “new moon.” Indeed, the Hebrew word for “month,” chodesh, means “renewal.” For while the week represents the natural potential of man, the lunar month stands for what is innovative, original and miraculous in our achievements.
This explains why all the festivals on the Jewish calendar are set in accordance with the day of the month, rather than the day of the week. The festivals represent a transcendence of the natural order—the Exodus on Passover, the miracles of Chanukah and Purim, and so on. These days are landmarks of the miraculous in the terrain of time, signposts indicating stores of norm-surpassing potential. Every year, as we arrive at these junctures in our journey through time, we are afforded the opportunity to tap these reservoirs of the supernatural and translate them into personal miracles.
The Mutiny of the Firstborn
There is, however, one exception to this rule, one case in which the date of a miraculous event in our history is identified for posterity by its place in the weekly cycle. This exception is Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Shabbat,” which commemorates a “great miracle” that transpired shortly before our Exodus from Egypt.
The miracle occurred on the 10th of Nissan, 2448 (1313 bce), five days before the Exodus. The Jewish people exited the land of Egypt on Thursday, Nissan 15, meaning that, in that year, Nissan 10 was a Shabbat. But instead of commemorating the miracle on the lunar date of its original occurrence, as is done with all other festivals and commemorative dates of the Jewish calendar, the event is remembered each year on the Shabbat before Passover.
Various reasons are given for this departure from the standard practice. But the name given to this day—“The Great Shabbat”—suggests a deeper reason as well, a reason connected with the very significance of Shabbat and the weekly cycle.
What happened on that “Great Shabbat” five days before the Exodus?
On the eve of their departure from Egypt, the Jewish people were commanded to bring a “passover offering” (korban pesach) to G-d. “On the tenth of this month,” G-d instructed Moses, “every man shall take a lamb for his family, one lamb for each household… It should be held in safekeeping until the fourteenth of this month; the entire community of Israel shall then slaughter their sacrifices in the afternoon. They shall take the blood and place it on the two doorposts and on the lintel… They shall eat the meat that night, roasted over fire, with matzos and bitter herbs…
“I will pass through Egypt on that night, and I will kill every firstborn in Egypt, man and beast… The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are staying; I will see the blood and pass over you—there will not be any deadly plague among you when I strike the land of Egypt.”
The Talmud relates what happened when 600,000 Jews began rounding up their lambs on the 10th of Nissan. The lamb was worshipped as a deity in ancient Egypt, so this caused quite a commotion. The firstborn of Egypt, who held the key social and religious positions in Egyptian society, asked the Jews why they were doing this, and were told: We are preparing an offering to G-d. In four days hence, at the stroke of midnight, G-d will pass through Egypt in order to execute the tenth and final plague: all firstborn will die, and the Jewish nation will be freed.
The firstborn of Egypt, who had already witnessed the first nine plagues occur exactly as Moses had warned, were understandably alarmed. They approached Pharaoh and his generals and demanded that the Jews be freed immediately. When Pharaoh refused, the firstborn took up arms against Pharaoh’s troops, killing many of them. This event is alluded to by the Psalmist, who sings: “[Offer thanks to G-d,] who smote the Egyptians with their first born.”
Where’s the Miracle?
What was so “great” about this miracle? Indeed, what was the miracle? That the firstborn took up the cause of the Israelites was a natural and understandable development: after all, all of Egypt had nine times witnessed the fulfillment, with deadly accuracy, of the previously forecasted plagues (what is amazing is the extent of Pharaoh’s self-destructive stubbornness, possible only because G-d had “hardened his heart”). Furthermore, the firstborns’ mutiny was not successful. Though they inflicted heavy casualties on Pharaoh’s forces, they failed in their attempt to force the freedom of the Jewish people. Our conditions in Egypt were unchanged by the events of “The Great Shabbat”!
This explains why this event belongs to the “weekly” or natural of our life’s time-cycles, rather than to its “monthly” or miraculous orbit. The “great miracle” was in fact a perfectly natural occurrence, both in the predictability of its development and that it in no way changed the essential nature of the prevailing circumstances.
Yet we mark the event as a miracle, indeed as a uniquely “great miracle.” For true greatness lies not in overturning the circumstances of one’s existence, but in working within these circumstances to “miraculize” them.
In the miraculous trajectory of our lives, we transcend the natural, the conventional and the normal. But a greater feat, a more miraculous miracle, is to elevate them and perfect them; to create, wthin their confines and parameters, a higher and more transcendent reality.
This is what we achieved in Egypt on the “Great Shabbat.” We were slaves to the Egyptians; yet we refused to be intimidated by a society that deified the material and proclaimed a lamb a god, and we proceeded to slaughter the idol of our masters. Without hesitation we explained our actions to the leading citizens of the superpower that ruled us.
On that “Great Shabbat,” a transformation took place. Not a transformation that overturned the natural parameters of our reality, but a transformation in which that very reality was converted to our cause. By acting courageously in our fulfillment of the divine will, we caused the most prestigious segment of Egyptian society to press for our redemption.
Whether or not their effort was successful is far less relevant than the fact that the natural and normal became instruments of the miraculous. Indeed, the fact that it was not successful places the greater emphasis on the true significance of what happened on that “Great Shabbat”—the Shabbat that most powerfully exemplifies the “natural time” dimension of our lives.
From an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Hagodol 5743 (March 26, 1983)
. There are certain dates on the Jewish calendar that are confined to certain days of the week: for example, the first day of Passover (Nissan 15) cannot fall on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday. But this is only because our calendar today follows a preset system, and is configured so as to avoid certain undesirable confluences of the two cycles (for example, if the seventh day of Sukkot would fall on Shabbat, we would not be able to fulfill the mitzvah of aravah). In essence, however, if our months were guided solely by the phases of the moon, any monthly date could fall on any day of the week.
. The difference between the week and the month can also be seen in the history of the two time-cycles: the week was established with the creation of nature, while the Jewish lunar month came into being 2448 years later with the miraculous month of Nissan, the month of the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea. See Our Other Head in last week’s issue of Week In Review.
. There is one festival—the festival of Shavuot—that is not designated by the Torah as a certain day of a certain month. Instead, the Torah instructs us to count seven weeks(i.e., 49 days), beginning on the second day of Passover, and observe Shavuot on the 50th day; indeed, the name “Shavuot” means “weeks.” However, these are not natural weeks, but “weeks” created by counting days in groups of seven. Shavuot is not consigned to a certain day of the natural week—it is the the 50th day after the first day of Passover; and since the first day of Passover has a lunar date—Nissan 15—Shavuot is ultimately a product of the monthly cycle.
. See quotation at the beginning of this essay.
. Talmud, Shabbat 87a; Tosafot, ibid.
. One reason is that forty years after the Exodus, Moses’ sister, the prophetess Miriam, died on Nissan 10, and a fast day was instituted on that date to mourn her passing; thus, the celebration of the miracle was relegated to the weekly cycle (Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 430; Shulchan Aruch HaRav, ibid.). Another reason is that since another miracle, the splitting of the Jordan River, is commemorated on Nissan 10, the miracle of the firstborn was relegated to the Shabbat before Passover (Taz, ibid.).
. Exodus 12:3-13.
. Psalms 136:10.
. Talmud, Pesachim 87a; Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 430:1.
. Exodus 10:1.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXVII, pp. 44-47.