For the week ending 9 April 2005 / 29 Adar II 5765


by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Steve in Ann Arbor, MI

Dear Rabbi,

I saw in a calendar that the Shabbat before Pesach is called "Shabbat HaGadol". Does this mean "The Great Shabbat"? What is the significance of this?

Dear Steve,

The Jews in Egypt on the eve of the Exodus were given their first mitzvah (the Torah had not yet been given) which applied to that generation only: "Speak to the entire community of Israel saying, On the tenth of this month, let each one take a lamb for each homeAnd you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the month, and the entire congregation of the community of Israel shall slaughter it in the afternoon. And they shall take of the blood and put it on the doorposts and on the lintelAnd on this night, they shall eat the meat, roasted over the fire, and unleavened cakes; with bitter herbs they shall eat it" (Ex. 12).

Sefer HaPardes, ascribed to Rashi, explains that the Jews went out of Egypt on a Thursday; therefore the taking of the lamb on the tenth of the month was on Shabbat. The Jews declared "If we sacrifice lambs which are sacred to the Egyptians before their very eyes, surely they will stone us." But G-d said to them, "Now you will see the wonderful thing I will do for you." Whereupon each Jew took his Pesach offering and kept it for four days. When the Egyptians saw this, they wanted to take revenge against the Jews but they were stricken with all kinds of bodily suffering and could not harm them. On account of the miracles that were done on that day, the Sabbath before Passover is known as Shabbat HaGadol.

There are other reasons given as to why this Shabbat is called HaGadol: Just as a child who is of the age to keep the mitzvot is called a gadol (an adult), so too the day on which the Jewish People came of age and were commanded with their first mitzvah is called HaGadol (Chizkuni). When the Jews were in Egypt, Moses asked Pharaoh to let them rest on Shabbat. Each week when the Sabbath ended, they returned to their wearisome toil. After the Shabbat when they took the lambs they did not return to their slavery and therefore it was called Shabbat HaGadol, the long Sabbath (Mabit). On this Shabbat large congregations would gather to learn the laws of Pesach and this day was therefore called Shabbat HaGadol because on it people gathered in large assemblies and learned much about great (important) laws (Tzeda Laderech).

From: Ian in Tampa, FL

Dear Rabbi,

Is there any special clothing to be worn at the Seder? I seem to remember my grandfather wearing all white.

Dear Ian,

In general, as on all festivals, we wear our finest clothing. One should try to the best of ones ability to buy new clothing for ones family in honor of this great day, and wear nice clothing in honor of the entire holiday which lasts seven days (or eight days outside of Israel). In fact, a husband is required to buy his wife a gift of clothing, jewelry or something else that makes her happy in honor of the festival.

Regarding wearing white, it is customary among Ashkenazim for the head of the household to wear a plain white garment or robe, called a kittel in Yiddish, during the Seder. Several reasons are given for this custom:

Curiously enough, in some ways the wearing of white on the Seder night is associated with death, as the dead are buried in white burial shrouds. One reason for this is to instill a feeling of humility as we recline, to recall our humble beginnings and appreciate G-ds mercy in having taken us out of slavery. The hard boiled eggs eaten at the Seder (in addition to representing the festival-offering) are considered a mourners food and also conjure up this idea of humility. Of course, the lowly, unleavened matzah clearly communicates this nights emphasis on humility. Another reason for this curious undercurrent of death and mourning at the festive meal is that Tisha bAv, the day of the destruction of the Temples, always occurs on the same day of the week as the first night of Passover.

However, other commentators interpret the custom of wearing white quite differently. They maintain that there is nothing finer than to officiate the Seder in a plain white garment. For it was thus that the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary, once a year at the pinnacle of the Yom Kippur service. On this night, each Jew who celebrates the sacred Seder is like the High Priest performing the most holy service.

This custom of wearing a white garment at the Seder is not observed among Sephardi Jews. To this day, many Yemenite Jews wear traditional garb at the Seder, including colorful robes and turbans. Some have the custom to reenact the Exodus in a small type of skit during the Seder.

From: Gloria in Chicago, IL

Dear Rabbi,

I remember as a child sitting at my familys Seder and not being able to understand a word of what was going on because the Haggada was read in what sounded like Hebrew or Yiddish or both. Now that I am college I want to make a Seder with my friends, but some of them (who read and understand Hebrew) say it has to be read in the original and that the translations are only to help people understand what they are reading in Hebrew. Is that true? It seems that the main thing is that the meaning be conveyed from generation to generation. How can that be if people dont understand and therefore dont enjoy the experience?

Dear Gloria,

First of all, Im sure you are grateful to your parents (and their parents and their parents) for having had a Seder even in a language you didnt understand. For that reason you know that you are a Jew, and that Jews make a Seder, and that as a Jew you want to understand the Seder that youll do. When you call your family to wish them a happy Passover may I suggest you thank them for imparting you with an appreciation of Judaism, nostalgically recall with them the special times youve had together on Passover in the past, and tell them that youll miss them this year on Passover.

As far as reading the Haggada in Hebrew is concerned, whenever possible, it is very nice to include the original flavor of the Holy language to the Seder and other ceremonies. Grappling with reading and comprehending Hebrew can serve as a challenge to spur our Jewish learning and help us appreciate that Jewishly, there is still very much for us to learn. This might also serve as an impetus to invest time in preparing for the Seder beforehand to become familiar with what well be doing.

That being said, you are certainly correct that the purpose of the Haggada is to pass the message of Passover from generation to generation haggadah means to relate and publicize. Therefore it can (and should) be said in any language in order for the participants to understand whats being passed on. This is particularly true regarding children. The Haggada should be said not only in a language they understand, but in a way they can relate to with challenging questions, songs, drama and suspense.

Many people try to find a workable balance between reading the Hebrew vs. comprehension. Each section can be read and translated; some can be read in the original while others not; or most can be in another language while central parts are recited or sung in Hebrew like the four questions. Here it is important not only to understand the questions, but to hear the answer. At the Seder, surprise your friends who know how to read the questions in Hebrew by asking them if they know the answer to the questions even in English. Do your homework!

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