Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Word of Torah - Shabbat Hagadol

The Sabbath immediately preceding Passover is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the great (big) Sabbath. What's so great about it? Would you believe it's the length of the service?

In the good old days, it was unusual for the rabbi to sermonize every week. Typically, a rabbi would speak at length only twice a year. The first time, on the Sabbath preceding Yom Kippur, to speak to the congregation about the importance of doing teshuva (repentance) and seeking forgiveness. The second time was on Shabbat Hagadol to teach the complex laws regarding chametz (leavened bread) and preparing for Passover.

Besides the age old yearning for shorter services, there is an additional reason. This week has a special reading from the Prophets, which contains the word "gadol":

Malachi Chapter 3

23. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.

24. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the land with utter destruction.

This messianic prophecy regards the end of days and the belief that Elijah will return at Pesach to welcome the Messiah. The text speaks to the importance of Passover as the foremost of all holidays for the Jewish nation. But, what does Elijah have to do with Passover? He wasn't even born for centuries after the Exodus. Yet, as central part of the Seder is the Cup of Elijah, with our little ones staring at the cup to see if the wine is diminished.

The answer is to be found in a rabbinic disagreement concerning the number of cups we drink this night.

In Exodus 6 we read of the promise of redemption:

Wherefore say unto the children of Israel: I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments;
and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a G-d; and ye shall know that I am the LORD your G-d, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Eyptians.
And I will bring you in unto the land...

Should this last verb, "bring you", be included as a term of redemption, thus requiring a 5th cup? Or is it not about redemption but the promise of the holy land made to Abraham, thus only 4 cups?

The question remained unanswered, and according to tradition, the prophet Elijah will resolve all disputes at the time of the coming of the Messiah.

We honor the dispute itself by pouring a special 5th cup, we call the Cup of Elijah. We welcome this prophet of peace to acknowledge that people can have honest disagreements without vilifying the other. And, as Malachi said, the hearts of parents and children will be turned to one another. What better place than the seder table?

Rabbi Sheldon PennesRabbi Sheldon Pennes is the Jack H. Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Los Angeles Jewish Home, where he oversees the many services and activities that educate, illuminate, and enrich the spiritual life and needs of those living in, or served by, the Home.

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