the great sabbath – the great son, the great slaughter and the great polemic…
The Shabbat before Passover is widely referred to as Shabbat HaGadol, the Big or Great Shabbat. Surprisingly, no Jewish source refers to the Shabbat in this way before the year 1,000. 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.
The Machzor Vitry)., 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. Rashi actually writes that the customary lengthy Shabbat HaGadol sermon makes this Shabbat drag. He suggests that this is why it is called Shabbat HaGadol – gadol in the sense of “long/protracted.” (if you’re a fan of my recent blog keep it short, enough said)
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 1,000 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 it’s fitting conclusion that anticipated the coming of Elijah and thereafter, “the great and terrible day of God.” Shabbat Hagadol thus took it’s place in Ashkenaz as a Sabbath equal to the four special Sabbaths designated in the Mishnah for the (prior) month of Adar.”
If you subscribe to the thesis offered in part 2 of this series, that there had originally been a 40 day period of preparation for the redemption in Nisan, then Shabbat Hagadol served the same function as Shabbat Shuvah before Yom Kippur… as an opportunity for Rabbi’s to preach an inspiring sermon.
Israel Yuval and others * argue that The Great Shabbat was originally a (2nd – 3rd century ce) Christian innovation and was only integrated into Judaism much later date and as a response to the Christian Holy Week also known as “Great Week”. Shabbat Hagadol as a polemic tool against Christianity is supported by the choice of prophetic readings and samples of sermons from medieval (especially Ashkenazic) sources. The focus is on the “great slaughter” and the “great son”.
The Haftora for Shabbat Hagadol is Malachi 3: 4-24 concluding with (23-24):
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.
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.
הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם, אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא–לִפְנֵי, בּוֹא יוֹם יְהוָה, הַגָּדוֹל, וְהַנּוֹרָא.
וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב-אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל-אֲבוֹתָם–פֶּן-אָבוֹא, וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת-הָאָרֶץ חֵרֶם.
The point of the Haftorah (bedsides containing a reference to a Great Day) is that God will redeem the Jewish people and take vengeance upon their tormentors. **
But the polemics did not stop there.
The Jewish tradition addressed the Christian claim to be the younger brother (see part 1 of this series), with the counter claim that Rome was Edom in the Bible and that the progenitor of these Christian Edomites was the older or great brother Esau.
The Pesikta deRav Kehana ties the Shabbat Hagadol to the victory over the Great Brother…
And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his elder (lit. great) son, and said unto him: ‘My son’; and he said unto him: ‘Here am I.’ (Genesis 27:1)
וַיְהִי כִּי-זָקֵן יִצְחָק, וַתִּכְהֶיןָ עֵינָיו מֵרְאֹת; וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-עֵשָׂו בְּנוֹ הַגָּדֹל, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו בְּנִי, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, הִנֵּנִי.
And Rebekah took the choicest garments of Esau her elder son (lit. great), which were with her in the house, and put them upon Jacob her younger son. (Genesis 27: 15)
וַתִּקַּח רִבְקָה אֶת-בִּגְדֵי עֵשָׂו בְּנָהּ הַגָּדֹל, הַחֲמֻדֹת, אֲשֶׁר אִתָּהּ, בַּבָּיִת; וַתַּלְבֵּשׁ אֶת-יַעֲקֹב, בְּנָהּ הַקָּטָן.
These two verses are referenced in the Pesikta de Rav Kahana in an explanation of Exodus 12:6 which deals with the preparations taken from the 10th of Nisan when a lamb is taken:
and ye shall keep it unto the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at dusk.
The Pesikta, was compiled by the 8th century is thought to be based on substantially older texts similar to Genesis Rabah. It identifies the lamb with Edom, who it claims, God will make “small”:
The vision of Obadiah. Thus saith the Lord GOD concerning Edom: We have heard a message from the LORD, and an ambassador is sent among the nations: ‘Arise ye, and let us rise up against her in battle.’
Behold, I make thee small among the nations; thou art greatly despised.
חֲזוֹן, עֹבַדְיָה: כֹּה-אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה לֶאֱדוֹם, שְׁמוּעָה שָׁמַעְנוּ מֵאֵת יְהוָה וְצִיר בַּגּוֹיִם שֻׁלָּח–קוּמוּ וְנָקוּמָה עָלֶיהָ, לַמִּלְחָמָה.
הִנֵּה קָטֹן נְתַתִּיךָ, בַּגּוֹיִם: בָּזוּי אַתָּה, מְאֹד.
And will slaughter:
The sword of the LORD is filled with blood, it is made fat with fatness, with the blood of lambs and goats, with the fat of the kidneys of rams; for the LORD hath a sacrifice in Bozrah, and a great slaughter in the land of Edom.
חֶרֶב לַיהוָה מָלְאָה דָם, הֻדַּשְׁנָה מֵחֵלֶב, מִדַּם כָּרִים וְעַתּוּדִים, מֵחֵלֶב כִּלְיוֹת אֵילִים: כִּי זֶבַח לַיהוָה בְּבָצְרָה, וְטֶבַח גָּדוֹל בְּאֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם.
Can one assume that the author of this midrash was also aware that Jesus was thought to be “great” (Luke 1”32; Hebrews 1:3-4)
In any case, we can assume that when Shabbat Hagadol (re-)appeared in medieval times, it was used as a polemical tool against Christianity. Similar to the evolution of the removal of leaven, the emphasis for the week before Passover, including the Shabbat before Passover was changed from self reflection to retribution on our external enemies.. with an emphasis on the last plague, the smiting of the First Born (the Big son). (see Yuval p. 218 where he cites tosafot b. Shabbat 87b on connection between Shabbat Hagadol and the first born in Egypt). ***
Israel Yuval argues that Shabbat Hagadol did not exist in Judaism until medieval times. I side with Daniel Boyarin’s argument, that if the synoptic gospels refer to a Jewish Great Sabbath, it is unlikely that it was their innovation, they were certainly claiming an existing Jewish religious/cultural institution as their own.
So what was the nature of the original Jewish (Pre- Christian) Shabbat Hagadol?
According to a response from the thirteenth century a certain Menachem ben Yaakov writes that the Haftora read on this Shabbat was originally Jeremiah 7 (the Haftora we now read for parshat Tzav) but, says Menachem, since that Haftora contains a rebuke by the prophet that God doesn’t want the Jewish People’s hypocritical sacrifices, it would be too insensitive to use this reading “on the day the they [the Jews] they slaughter the Passover sacrifice. (Yuval p. 223)
It is clear to me, that this is precisely the right Haftora to read when we celebrate the newly created Passover Seder…. after the destruction of the temple and without a Passover sacrifice.
It is also clear to me, that it became impossible to read this Haftora once the competition with Christianity began. Jesus, after all modeled himself after Jeremiah when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the narrative of the Cleansing of the Temple.
But now that the competition is over… maybe we can read Jeremiah again… it’s powerful stuff for the Great Shabbat before Passover, and in my humble opinion, no one, said it better than Jeremiah. Here’s a sampling… but you should open up a Bible and read it for yourself…
Have a Great Shabbat…..
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place.
Trust ye not in lying words, saying: ‘The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, are these.’
Nay, but if ye thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye thoroughly execute justice between a man and his neighbour;
if ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt;
then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever.
Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit.
Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye have not known,
and come and stand before Me in this house, whereupon My name is called, and say: ‘We are delivered’, that ye may do all these abominations?
Is this house, whereupon My name is called, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it, saith the LORD……
Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD: Behold, Mine anger and My fury shall be poured out upon this place, upon man, and upon beast, and upon the trees of the field, and upon the fruit of the land; and it shall burn, and shall not be quenched.
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt-offerings unto your sacrifices, and eat ye flesh.
For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices;
but this thing I commanded them, saying: ‘Hearken unto My voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be My people; and walk ye in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’
But they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but walked in their own counsels, even in the stubbornness of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward,
even since the day that your fathers came forth out of the land of Egypt unto this day; and though I have sent unto you all My servants the prophets, sending them daily betimes and often,
* 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.
** Not coincidentally, Malachi 3, 1 -3 is not included since it makes reference to a messenger, which Christians would take to mean; Jesus.
Behold, I send My messenger, and he shall clear the way before Me; and the Lord, whom ye seek, will suddenly come to His temple, and the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in, behold, he cometh, saith the LORD of hosts….. And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver; and there shall be they that shall offer unto the LORD offerings in righteousness.