The Shabbat immediately before Pesah is called Shabbat HaGadol–the Great Shabbat. What’s behind this special name? The most traditional answer is that we name the Shabbat after the culminating phrase of the special haftarah we read from the prophet Malachi. In that verse (3:23), God promises through the prophet to send Eliyah “before the great and awesome day of the coming of the LORD–lifnei bo Yom Adonai hagadol vehanora.” While this explanation makes sense, and it is common to name an occasion after a Biblical reading for that day, such a name usually comes from the beginning of the passage, not the end!
It’s also been suggested that this was one of those rare occasions in years gone by that the rabbi would give a long sermon warning people to prepare for Pesah in the appropriate manner. Since the sermon would be long and of utmost importance, they called this Shabbat HaGadol.
There’s another explanation that comes from an anonymous medieval collection of Jewish customs called the Kol Bo (“everything’s in it”). There we learn that it once was a pervasive Jewish custom to bake an enormous hallah for the Shabbat before Pesah and designate it as hallah ‘aniyah, the hallah for the poor, and distribute it among the poor. The size of this overgrown hallah, says the Kol Bo, inspired the name Shabbat HaGadol.
Later authorities lament the dissolution of this custom. I’ll teach about this briefly on Friday evening during services. Of course, we can look forward to learning Shabbat morning from our scholar-in-residence, Noam Zion, and throughout Shabbat!
Rabbi David Wise