Judaism: Shabbat Hagadol - The Great Sabbath
Redemption and repentance
This year 5774, as in about one-third of all leap years, Parashat Achrei Mot coincides with Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath, the Shabbat immediately before Pesach. In the words of the Shulchan Aruch, “The Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol because of the miracle that happened thereon” (Orach Chayim 430:1).
The Mishnah Berurah (ad. loc.) explains: “In the year that they left Egypt, the 10th of Nisan fell on a Shabbat. Every single Jew had taken the lamb for his Pesach sacrifice and tied it to his bed-post… The Egyptians saw this, and asked them ‘Why are you doing this?’ They responded, ‘In order to slaughter it for the purpose of Pesach, as Hashem has commanded us’. Their teeth were set on edge because they slaughtered their god, yet they were unable even to say anything to them. And because the tenth of the month that year was a Shabbat, the Shabbat before Pesach was ever after to be called Shabbat Hagadol”.
Unlike the other four special Sabbaths from the beginning of Adar until immediately before Pesach (Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat Parah, and Shabbat Hachodesh), Shabbat Hagadol has no special Torah-reading. It does, however, have a specific Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) following the regular weekly Parashah.
That is to say, instead of the usual choice of a Haftarah which echoes the message of the Parashah, the Haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol is relevant to the approaching Pesach (Passover) holiday.
This Haftarah consists of Malakhi 3:4-24, the last 21 verses of the last of the Prophets.
The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, known as the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), in his halakhic compendium Shulchan Aruch Harav, explains: “This section contains the phrase, ‘bring all the tithes to the storage-house…’ (verse 10), and this is appropriate for Pesach-eve, which is the time for removing [grains]. That is to say, on Pesach-eve of the fourth year of the Shmitta-cycle and on Pesach-eve of the seventh year of the Shmitta-cycle, everyone must remove from his house all the tithes which he has separated from his produce throughout the preceding three years, which would have been stored in his house. Then on this Pesach-eve he is obligated to bring it all to the Levite’s house” (Orach Chayim, Laws of Pesach 430:3).
Thus the Alter Rebbe explains the connection between this Haftarah and Pesach-eve.
I suggest that there is an additional connection. Malakhi, as noted above, was the last Prophet ever. That is to say, his prophecy sealed the prophetic message until the Elijah will come to herald the Mashiach, which is how Malakhi concludes his prophecy: “Behold! – I send you Elijah the Prophet, before the coming of the great and awesome Day of Hashem; and he will cause the hearts of the fathers to repent with their sons, and the hearts of the sons with their fathers, lest I come and smite the Land with desolation” (Malakhi 3:24).
This prophecy is G-d’s farewell to His nation, His final prophetic message to His nation as He closed the final page of the final chapter of the era of prophecy. When Hazal selected this passage as the Haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol, they surely had a reason.
Pesach celebrates the first redemption, the redemption from Egypt, and the Haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol looks forward to the final redemption.
The final redemption can come in one of two ways. An earlier Prophet depicted the final redemption, concluding with the phrase “I am Hashem, in its time I will hasten it” (Isaiah 60:22).
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) and the Midrash (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 8:1 ) note the puzzling wording – “in its time I will hasten it”. If the redemption comes “in its time”, then G-d does not hasten it; if He hastens it, it does not come “in its time” but before its time! “If they [Israel] are worthy, ‘I will hasten it’; if they are unworthy, it will come ‘in its time’”.
Another Midrash cites Rabbi Elazar’s graphic depiction: “If they do not repent on their own initiative, then G-d will raise against them an evil king whose decrees will be as harsh as Haman’s and who will enslave them, and as a result they will repent, as it says ‘when trouble will come like a river, the Spirit of Hashem will be wondrous in it, and a redeemer shall come unto Zion’ (Isaiah 59:19-20)” (Tanhuma, Bechukkotay 3).
It is significant, then, in this context to cite the Rambam: “How excellent is the attribute of repentance! Someone who just last night was separated from Hashem, the G-d of Israel, as it says ‘you sins have separated between you and your G-d’ (Isaiah 59:2); who cries out and is not answered, as it says ‘when you increase your praying I will not hearken’ (Isaiah 1:15); who when he performs mitzvot they are flung back in his face, as it says ‘who has asked this from your hand, to trample My courts’ (Isaiah 1:12)… – today that self-same person cleaves unto the Shechinah [Divine Presence], as it says ‘and you who cleave unto Hashem your G-d are all alive today’ (Deuteronomy 4:4).
He cries out and is answered immediately, as it says ‘before they even cry out I shall answer’ (Isaiah 65:24)
He performs mitzvot and they are accepted with joy and happiness, as it says ‘G-d has already shown favour to your deeds’ (Ecclesiastes 9:7).
More than this, [G-d] yearns for his mitzvot, as it says ‘then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasant to Hashem as in the days of old and in ancient years’ (Malakhi 3:4)” (Laws of Repentance 7:7).
So the Rambam sums up the tremendous value of repentance by citing the opening verse of the Haftarah of Shabbat Hagadol.
As we have seen, there is a direct connexion between repentance and redemption, and the Rambam gives practical halakhic expression to this by quoting this prophecy of redemption to demonstrate the greatness of repentance.
This Shabbat, Shabbat Hagadol and Parshat Achrei Mot combined, beautifully synthesizes the two motifs of redemption and repentance. Pesach (to which Shabbat Hagadol is the prelude) celebrates the first redemption, the Prophet Malakhi lived during the second redemption, and foretold the third redemption.
Thus Shabbat Hagadol links all three redemptions.
And Parshat Achrei Mot is redolent with the theme of repentance. It begins with G-d commanding Aaron and the Kohanim (Priests) who are to come after him how to atone for Israel year by year with the Yom Kippur service (Leviticus 16), and concludes with the admonition against immorality and forbidden sexual relationships (chapter 18), which constitutes the Torah-reading for Yom Kippur afternoon.
What is the connection between Leviticus Chapter 18 which forbids certain relationships and the redemption? – The answer is in the opening words: “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: I am Hashem your G-d. Do not do as the actions of the land of Egypt in which you dwelt, and do not do as the actions of the Land of Canaan to which I am bringing you, and in their ways do not walk” (Leviticus 18:1-3).
That is to say, by obeying G-d’s Torah and His laws and His decrees we merit leaving Egypt and coming to Israel.
The Jewish nation’s historic mission began the day that Abram became Abraham our father and circumcised himself and all the males of his household when he was ninety-nine years old (Genesis 17). 401 years later, on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt, G-d gave his descendants two mitzvot in whose merit to deserve the redemption – circumcision and the Pesach sacrifice (Shemot Rabbah 19:5; Yalkut Shimoni, Ezekiel 354; Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Bo, Masechta de-Pis’cha 5 s.v. ve-hayah lachem le-mishmeret).
Let us return to the day that Abraham our father circumcised himself, at the very end of Parshat Lech Lecha. The next sentence, the opening words of Parashat Vayeira, tells us that “Hashem appeared to him in the plains of Mamre when he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day” (Genesis 18:1).
The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343), in his commentary to Genesis 18:1, cites the Midrash, that “in the future time to come, Abraham will sit at the entrance of Gehinnom (hell) and will not let any circumcised Jew enter.
"And those who sinned too much – what will he do with them? He will remove the foreskins from babies who died before they could be circumcised and will attach them to those sinners, and then let them descend into Gehinnom. This is the inference of ‘he sent forth his hand against those who were perfect [i.e. the sinners who were circumcised], he has profaned his covenant [i.e. he annulled the covenant of circumcision for those sinners]’ (Psalms 55:21). ‘In the heat of the day’ alludes to the day of which it is written, ‘Behold the day is coming, burning like an oven’ (Malakhi 3:19)” (Bereishit Rabbah 48:8).
The Ba’al ha-Turim in his commentary interprets “those who sinned too much” to mean Jews who had relations with non-Jewish women and restored their foreskins, denying the Covenant with G-d.
This, says the Ba’al ha-Turim, is the reason that the word “ke-chom” (“in the heat”) occurs four times in the Tanach. The first time is when Abraham “was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day”.
The second time was when King Saul mobilised the Israeli Army against the Ammonite invasion, sending a message to the people of Jabesh-Gilead: “Tomorrow you will have salvation in the heat (ke-chom) of the sun” (1 Samuel 11:9).
The third is one of Isaiah’s messianic prophecies: “This said Hashem to me: I will be at peace while I look at My dwelling-place, like the clear heat (ke-chom) upon the herbs” (Isaiah 18:4).
The fourth is shortly after King Saul was killed in battle against the Philistines, at the start of the civil war between the supporters of Ish-Boshet (Saul’s only surviving son) and the supporters of King David: “The sons of Rimmon the Beerothite…went and came in the heat (ke-chom) of the day to the house of Ish-Boshet” (2 Samuel 4:5), and assassinated him.
The Ba’al ha-Turim weaves all these together: “Abraham sits at the entrance to the tent and does not let any Jew who is circumcised to enter into the heat of the day, but rather only into the clear heat upon the herbs, meaning into Paradise, as it is written ‘Hashem will be your eternal light’ (Isaiah 60:19). However, Ish-Boshet [literally ‘man of disgrace’], meaning a Jew who has relations with a non-Jewish woman – because there is no greater disgrace than a Jew who has relations with a non-Jewish woman – will enter Gehinnom in the heat of the sun, as it is written, ‘Behold the day is coming, burning like an oven’ (Malakhi 3:19)”.
And the Ba’al ha-Turim concludes by noting that “ke-chom ha-yom” (“in the heat of the day”) has the same numerical value (129) as “dam milah”) (“the blood of circumcision”).
Avoiding forbidden relationships – the theme with which Parshat Acharei Mot concludes – guarantees the Jew’s individual salvation. Circumcision likewise.
And repentance – the theme with which Parshat Acharei Mot begins – is what hastens the redemption, which is what the Haftarah of Shabbat Hagadol looks forward to.