The Shabbat before Passover is widely referred to as Shabbat hagadol, the Big or Great Shabbat which is not a big deal. What is a big deal is that no Jewish source refers to the Shabbat in this way before the year 1000, and …. the earliest reference to the Great Sabbath is actually in The New Testament (John 19:31) where the crucifixion occurs on the Friday before Passover which.. “was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a great Sabbath.” (The greek word used is: megalē μεγάλη which means: large, great). In fact, In early Christianity, “The Great Sabbath” denoted the Sabbath before Easter.
A 12th Century Jewish source claims that Jews call it the Great Shabbat, but they don’t know why because it is no greater than the other Shabbats (Machzor Vitry). Rashi actually writes that the customary lengthy Shabbat HaGadol sermon makes this Shabbat drag. And, he says, this is why it is called Shabbat HaGadol – gadol in the sense of “long/protracted.”
Leopold Zunz, the 19th century founder of Jewish Studies raised the possibility that the Jews had borrowed the term “Great Sabbath” from their Christian environment which makes little sense. What makes more sense, especially based on recent research by scholars such as Daniel Boyarin (The Jewish Gospels), is that Christian sources have preserved a common Jewish belief and custom which, once embraced by the Christian offshoot, was repressed within Judaism.
After close to 1000 years, Shabbat Hagadol began to reemerge into Ashkenazi circles. “The uniqueness was expressed in the choice of a new Hafarah portion, Malachi 3, because of its fitting conclusion that anticipated the coming of Eliza and thereafter, “the great and terrible day of God.” Shabbat hagadol thus took it place in Ashkenaz as a Sabbath equal to the four special Sabbaths designated in the Mishnah for the (prior) month of Adar.” (for a full treatment of the repression and reemergence of Shabbat hagadol see: Passover in the Middle Ages, Israel J. Yuval in Passover and Easter – Origin and History to Modern Times Vol 6 pp127 – 160 and The Great Sabbath and Lent: Jewish Origins? By Lawrence Hoffman Passover and Easter – Origin and History to Modern Times Vol 5 pp. 15 – 35).
The reason that the millennium long repression of the Great Sabbath is such a big deal is that in rebounding to Christianity’s embrace of the Great Sabbath, we repressed not only the Great Sabbath but lost a critical element of Passover… the month-long preparation for Passover.
You see that just as Lent (which means “long” and signifies the lengthening of days and the beginning of Spring) starts with a Carnival and a Mardi Gras and signifies the practice of the last days of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season, so too, Purim welcomes in a similar period before Passover where Jews were to engage in introspection and repentance. The purging of Leaven was not something done the night before the holiday when looking for a few symbolic crumbs, but was a month long period of preparation, when sin was to be removed.
4 And there shall be no leaven (שְׂאֹר) seen with thee in all they borders seven days; … (Deuteronomy 16: 1 – 4)
It turns out that leavened (unlike matzo) is a symbol which was part of the vernacular of the ancient world and whose significance was readily understood not only within Judaism, but also Christianity and Arab – indo-Iranian groups in the ancient near east.
We first find Leavened in the Bible in Leviticus 2: 11:
11 No meal-offering, which ye shall bring unto the LORD, shall be made with leaven; for ye shall make no leaven, nor any honey, smoke as an offering made by fire unto the LORD.
כָּל-הַמִּנְחָה, אֲשֶׁר תַּקְרִיבוּ לַיהוָה–לֹא תֵעָשֶׂה, חָמֵץ
כִּי כָל-שְׂאֹר וְכָל-דְּבַשׁ, לֹא-תַקְטִירוּ מִמֶּנּוּ אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה
In his scholarly commentary on Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom writes regarding leavened . . . leaven. hames . . . se’or.:
The difference between the two is that se’or leavens the dough and the leavened dough is called hiimes” (Yahel ‘Or). … Similarly, Akk. emesu ‘be sour’ and emsu ‘sour’ (adi.) are used in connection with wine, vinegar, beer, fruit, or leavened bread, in other words, with foods that have fermented and, in the case of bread, to which leaven has been added. Fermentation is equivalent to decay and corruption and for this reason is prohibited on the altar.
“Leaven in the dough” is a common rabbinic metaphor for man’s evil propensities (e.g., Babylonian Talmud Berachot 17a).
“Sovereign of the Universe, it is well known to You that it is our will to do Your will. Who prevents us from doing so? The leavening agent in the dough (the evil inclination within us) and our subservience to the nations. May it be Your will to save us from these so that we can return to fulfilling Your commandments wholeheartedly.” Prayer of Rabbi Alexandrai
The New Testament mentions “the leaven of malice and wickedness”
Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened [bread] of sincerity and truth. [Corinthians 5:8] and “the leaven of the Pharisees,” which is “hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1; d. Mark 8:15).
This view is shared by the ancients:
“Leaven itself comes from corruption, and corrupts the dough with which it is mixed . . . and in general, fermentation seems to be a kind of putrefaction” (Plutarch, Quaest. Rom. 109). Plutarch records that the Roman high priest (Flamen Dialis) was forbidden even to touch leaven (ibid.). To be sure, all of the above-cited references stem from late antiquity (Christian, rabbinic, and Hellenistic sources), but they undoubtedly reflect an older and universal regard of leaven as the arch-symbol of fermentation:’ deterioration, and death and, hence, taboo on the altar of blessing and life. [pp 188-9 Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary Anchor Bible, Vol. 3, Jacob Milgrom]
Listen to what Philo of Alexandria (representing the Jewish Hellenistics) wrote:
Leaven is forbidden because of the rising which it produces. Here again we have a symbol of the truth, that none as he approaches the altar should be uplifted or puffed up by arrogance; rather gazing on the greatness of God, let him gain a perception of the weakness which belongs to the creature, even though he may be superior to others in prosperity; and having been thus led to the reasonable conclusion, let him reduce the overweening exaltation of his pride by laying low that pestilent enemy, conceit. …. For naked you came into the world, worthy sir, and naked will you again depart, and the span of time between your birth and death is a loan to you from God. During this span what can be meet for you to do but to study fellow-feeling and goodwill and equity and humanity and what else belongs to virtue, and to cast away the inequitable, unrighteous and unforgiving viciousness which turns man, naturally the most civilized of creatures, into a wild and ferocious animal! (Philo,The Special Laws, Book I, 293-295 quoted in The Passover Anthology, Philip Goodman).
My guess is that if someone in 1st – 3rd Century CE had asked a Jew, a Hellenist, an early Christian or even a local pagan whether he had gotten rid of his leaven… the respondent may have hesitated and wondered whether the subject of conversation was old pita in his kitchen cabinet or the worker conditions in his sweat shop.
It is surprising that the symbolism of the purging of leaven as a metaphor for introspection and repentance seems not to appear in the Haggada directly itself and is relegated to the commentaries as meta-interpretation. In fact, the removal, nullification and prohibition to own leaven is not mentioned during the Seder service all… surprising since at least half of the effort in preparing a seder goes into making the home hametz-free! (“On all other nights we eat Hametz and matzo .. on this night we eat only matzoh” does not count.. since the emphasis is on eating matzoh, not clearing and nullifying hametz.)
To be sure, for the Hasidic or more mystically inclined who recite a meditation (kavanah) before or after the Bedikat and Biur Hametz (search and nullification of the leaven) ritual, there is mention of leaven as a metaphor for impurity:
May it be Your will, Lord, our G-d and G-d of our fathers, that just as I remove the chametz from my house and from my possession, so shall You remove all the extraneous forces. Remove the spirit of impurity from the earth, remove our evil inclination from us, and grant us a heart of flesh to serve You in truth. Make all the sitra achara, all the kelipot, and all wickedness be consumed in smoke, and remove the dominion of evil from the earth. Remove with a spirit of destruction and a spirit of judgment all that distress the Shechina, just as You destroyed Egypt and its idols in those days, at this time. Amen, Selah.
But the sense of leaven as representing decay, corruption and arrogance is lost.
It occurred to me that while we Jews do our cleaning during our first month Nissan, Persians at the outset of the Iranian Norouz, (the Persian new year, which falls on the first day of spring) continue the practice of “khooneh tekouni” which literally means “shaking the house”? Everything in the house is thoroughly cleaned, from the drapes to the furniture.
Similarly Lent comes from the word length.. as in the longer days of spring. Instead of Ash Wednesday, the Eastern Church celebrates Clean Monday, otherwise known as Ash Monday. According to Wikipidia:
The common term for this day, “Clean Monday”, refers to the leaving behind of sinful attitudes and non-fasting foods. It is sometimes called “Ash Monday,” by analogy with Ash Wednesday (the day when the Western Churches begin Lent). …. Liturgically, Clean Monday—and thus Lent itself—begins on the preceding (Sunday) night, at a special service called Forgiveness Vespers, which culminates with the Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness, at which all present will bow down before one another and ask forgiveness. In this way, the faithful begin Lent with a clean conscience, with forgiveness, and with renewed Christian love. The entire first week of Great Lent is often referred to as “Clean Week,” and it is customary to go to Confession during this week, and to clean the house thoroughly.
The fact that so many other competing religions, especially Christianity, retained the spring-purification rites may explain why it’s symbolism became muted in Judaism. (The: “the leaven of the Pharisees,” snipe does not help.) But for whatever the reason, it seems to me that a reintegration of this critical element of the Passover message is overdue, especially because the Jewish version of spring-purification message is uniquely political… it combines the Exodus-Revolution.. with spring purification…
The unique Spring message of Passover is that in every spring and in every generation, each person and every people needs to look within and at the ruling powers. We have to root out the corruption, pride, arrogance, decay and death that is the “leaven in the dough”, both in our souls and in our public squares… we need to weed out arrogance in our souls but also in our Pharaohs… This political element to the nullification of leaven is uniquely Jewish.
And that is a big deal.
Let us reintegrate the political and spiritual, social and ethical message of the awakening of spring and purging/abstinence from decay and corruption into our Passover celebration.
Let us make note that most haggadot, especially older illuminated ones, don’t start with kiddush, but rather with the search for leaven…. even though the search and nullification of leaven takes place before the onset of the holiday and holiday service… as if to say… that little search with the candle and wooden spoon is actually a big deal….