Tag Archives: Nisan

A New Theory of Shabbat HaGadol

This Saturday is Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” before Pesach. One of the big mysteries surrounding the holiday is the origin of this term. Why is the Shabbat preceding Pesach described as being gadol? Why aren’t the Sabbaths before other big holidays described the same way? What makes this Shabbat so special? Over the centuries, many different explanations have been given.

Perhaps the most famous explanation is that on the Shabbat before the Exodus, the Egyptians got word of the impending Tenth Plague and Death of the Firstborn so, naturally, all the Egyptian firstborn rose up in protest. They revolted against Pharaoh and pressured him to free the Israelites so that their lives would be spared. A civil war ensued and many Egyptians were struck down. This is why we read in Psalms (136:10) that God “struck down the Egyptians through their firstborn”. The verse can be read to mean that God struck down the Egyptian firstborn, or that He struck down the Egyptians at the hands of their own firstborn! This great civil war (a mini-plague in its own right) gave Shabbat HaGadol its name.

Khnum

Another explanation is that on (or just prior to) the Sabbath before the Exodus the Israelites had been commanded to prepare the sheep for the paschal sacrifice. Since this was in the month of Nisan, the astrological sign for which is a sheep or ram, the Egyptians were in the midst of worshipping their ram-headed sheep god Khnum. To the Egyptians, the sacrifice of a sheep at that time would have been appalling and sacrilegious. Yet, in great dread of the Israelites and their God, the Egyptians stayed silent and did not protest what they knew was about to happen. This was a mini-miracle and yet another display of God’s greatness, hence Shabbat HaGadol.

A more pragmatic explanation for Shabbat HaGadol is that, since it is the Sabbath before Pesach, rabbis in all synagogues give an extra-long sermon in preparation for the holiday. There are a lot of halakhot to go over, and there is also a need for some words of inspiration. Because of the long speeches, it became known as Shabbat HaGadol. Finally, some hold that the name comes from the Haftarah typically read on the Shabbat before Pesach (Malachi 3), and its concluding prophesy about the return of Eliyahu before the “Great [Gadol] and Awesome Day of Hashem”. After all, we had finished last year’s seder by praying and hoping that next year we will be redeemed and in Jerusalem. So, the Shabbat right before the upcoming Pesach is our final wish that the Great Day of God will come now so that this year’s seder can be in Jerusalem as we hoped.

All of the above are wonderful explanations. I believe there might also be one more coming out of an oft-forgotten historical detail from the end of the Second Temple era.

The Great Calendar Debate

As is well-known, at the end of the Second Temple era Jewish life in the Holy Land was dominated by two major groups: the Perushim (“Pharisees”) and the Tzdukim (“Sadducees”). The latter held only to the strict observance of the Written Torah, with no particular reverence for oral tradition or oral law. For this reason, the Sadducees famously did not believe in an afterlife, since the Torah never explicitly mentions it, nor did they allow any use of an existing flame on Shabbat, based on their straight-forward reading of Exodus 35:3.

Another major debate between the Sadducees and Pharisees was regarding Sefirat haOmer. The Torah states that we must start counting the Omer from the day after the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:11, 15). The Sadducees took this literally, and began the Omer count from the day after the Shabbat of Pesach. This meant that they always began counting on Sunday and always celebrated Shavuot on Sunday. The Pharisees, meanwhile, based on oral tradition, held that the count must begin from the day after the first yom tov of Pesach, since the Torah often refers to holidays themselves as “Shabbats”, too. The count would always begin on the 16th of Nisan, making Shavuot always land around the 6th or 7th of Sivan (depending on lunar month lengths). The Pharisees insisted this was the correct way going back to Sinai, as taught by Moses.

Intriguingly, there was a third up-and-coming group of Jews at the time, the mysterious Essenes. They were originally a small break-away sect of Sadducees that also had beliefs similar to the Pharisees and did maintain certain binding oral traditions. The Essenes would have a large impact on the development of Rabbinic Judaism as we know it (which came mostly out of Pharisee Judaism) following the destruction of the Second Temple. Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, which held by a lunisolar calendar that used lunar months but aligned with solar years (as we still do today), the Essenes believed such a calendar was inaccurate and too flexible. They did not like it one bit that the lunar months were proclaimed by the Sanhedrin based on eyewitnesses who might be mistaken. Instead, the Essenes held only to a finely-tuned solar calendar which they thought was perfect.

The Essene calendar (as described in the apocryphal but hugely important Book of Jubilees, ch. 6, among other sources) went as follows: There were 52 weeks divided up into 4 seasons, each with exactly 13 weeks totalling 91 days. The result was that holidays would always fall on the exact same weekday all the time. Shavuot was always celebrated on a Sunday, the 15th of Sivan. (They argued that Shavuot should be on a 15th just like the other regalim, Pesach and Sukkot.) The Essenes interpreted that verse in Leviticus to mean that the Omer count must start from the day after Shabbat after Pesach is over. So, the Essenes always celebrated Shavuot a week after the Sadducees! (Depending on when Pesach would fall in a given year, the Sadducees and Pharisees might celebrate Shavuot on the same day, or a day or two apart. In a year like this year, when Pesach falls on Shabbat, the Pharisees and Sadducees would have begun counting the Omer on the same Sunday and celebrated Shavuot on the same day.) The problem with the Essene calendar is that it had a year of 364 days, and it isn’t clear how they intercalated to stay aligned with the solar year of 365.24 days.

After the Temple was destroyed, Sadducee and Essene Judaism both disappeared (along with numerous other, smaller sects). Pharisee Judaism continued and evolved into “Rabbinic” Judaism. It was precisely the richness and fluidity of the oral tradition that allowed Judaism to survive and flourish. And we still have many remnants of our ancient Sages instituting practices partly to counter the mistaken Sadducee claims. Lighting Shabbat candles and eating warm chamin (like cholent) was a direct assault on Sadducee Judaism which kept the lights out and ate cold food to avoid making use of a flame. With this in mind, I believe we can posit another hypothesis for the origin of Shabbat HaGadol:

Unlike the Sadducees (and Essenes), our Sages held that the Omer count must start from the second day of Pesach since the first day of Pesach is itself like Shabbat. When the Torah says to count from the day after “Shabbat”, it means the day after the first yom tov of Pesach. In that case, if we insist on calling the first day of Pesach a Shabbat, what does that make the actual Shabbat preceding it? It’s like we have two Shabbats in a single week! So, perhaps it became customary to refer to the actual Shabbat as Shabbat haGadol, both to distinguish it from the Pesach mini-Shabbat and to emphasize the wrongness of the Sadducees and Essenes.

This leads us to an even bigger question: why did our Sages insist that Pesach is the Shabbat in question? Isn’t the Torah quite clear that the count should start from the Sabbath after Pesach? What is so important about tying Pesach to Shabbat?

Purpose of Creation

Rashi begins his commentary on the Torah by pointing out that Beresheet means that God created “for resheet”, and what is resheet? Proverbs 8:22 calls the Torah resheet darko, “the first of His way”, while Jeremiah 2:3 calls Israel resheet tevuato, “the first of His grain”. Therefore, God created the cosmos with the intention to eventually forge Israel and give His Torah. If not for this, He would have never created to begin with, as we read in Jeremiah 33:25-26 that “If not for My covenant day and night, I would have never established the laws of Heaven and Earth, so I will never reject the offspring of Jacob…”

The ‘Pillars of Creation’ in the Eagle Nebula (Courtesy: NASA)

Therefore, there is a deep, intrinsic connection between Creation and Pesach: Without a Genesis, there would be no Exodus, and without an Exodus God would have never bothered with a Genesis! This is why, when reciting Kiddush every Friday evening to welcome Shabbat, we say zekher l’yetziat Mitzrayim, “in memory of the Exodus from Egypt”. And it is why, when the Torah gives the Ten Commandments twice (in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), the first time it says Shabbat is in order to commemorate Genesis, while the second time it says Shabbat is in order to commemorate the Exodus! In the former, we are told to keep Shabbat because God rested on the Seventh Day of Creation, while in the latter we are told to keep Shabbat because we were once slaves working around the clock and we are no longer slaves so we should celebrate our freedom with a day of rest and divine service.

In short, Pesach and Shabbat are inseparable and represent two sides of the same coin. Our Sages insisted on commemorating Pesach itself as a Shabbat, for it cannot be any other way. Pesach is a Shabbat, the very reason for the existence not only of the Jewish people, but of the whole universe. And before the Pesach-Shabbat of Exodus comes the Great Shabbat of Genesis.

Shabbat Shalom!

The Science of Chametz

As we continue celebrating Pesach this week, and avoiding all things chametz, it is important to take a moment and explore what exactly is chametz? While we spend a tremendous amount of time and effort learning about, and implementing, the various halakhot regarding eliminating chametz, we rarely think about what chametz actually is on the chemical level. If we did know, it would help to clarify what specifically is forbidden, and might save us a great deal of time and effort in our preparations. It would also help us better understand what actually happened in Egypt with our ancestor millennia ago (the answer may surprise you). So, what is chametz? Continue reading

Coronavirus and the Coming of Mashiach

In this week’s parasha, Vayikra, we see the word HaMashiach (המשיח) appear for the first time. In fact, the word only appears a total of four times in the entire Torah, three in this week’s parasha, and once next week. In all four cases, the Torah is not speaking of the messiah, but rather of the High Priest, the anointed kohen gadol. Of course, this is only true on the surface, peshat, level. On a deeper, mystical level the Torah is indeed alluding to the messiah at the End of Days.

It is fitting that we are reading these words now, when the Jewish world is abuzz over what coronavirus means in the grand scheme of things, and whether, perhaps, it is a sign of Mashiach’s coming. Jewish social media is full of posts and reposts affirming that coronavirus is absolutely a sign of Mashiach’s arrival, with all kinds of “proofs” based on gematria and ancient prophecies. While some of these are accurate, others are nonsensical, absurd, or just plain fake, so it is worth checking the sources behind everything you receive.

Many of the posts cite the same verse, Isaiah 26:20: “Go, my people, enter your chambers, and lock your doors behind you. Hide but a little moment, until the fury passes.” This verse is indeed a prophecy for the End of Days. The preceding verse speaks of the Resurrection of the Dead (“Your dead shall live, dead bodies shall arise; those that dwell in the dust will awake and sing…”) while the verse that follows describes God’s final retribution: “Behold, God shall come forth from His place to punish the dwellers of the earth for their iniquity…” Having said that, it isn’t only sinners that perish. On the contrary, Isaiah cautions everyone to hide behind closed doors for, as the Sages teach, in such moments the angel of death is let loose and doesn’t differentiate between the righteous and the wicked. (For a detailed explanation of this, see Alshech on Exodus 12:13.)

Now, what exactly is the nature of the za’am (זעם), “fury”, that Isaiah speaks of? Is it really a virulent plague?

A Plague Before Mashiach

In several places, the Sages speak of a great plague that will befall the world before Mashiach comes. Possibly the earliest mention of this is Tosefta Ta’anit 2:11, where the Sages discuss if a global flood can come upon the Earth again, since God promised it wouldn’t (Genesis 9:15). The Sages qualify that statement:

Rabbi Meir said: A flood of water will not come again, but a flood of fire and brimstone will, like He brought upon the people of Sodom, as it is written, “And God rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire.” (Genesis 19:24) Rabbi Yehudah said: A flood upon the whole world will not come again, but a flood upon individuals will, such as if a person is at sea and his ship sinks and he dies—this is like a personal flood. Rabbi Yose said: A flood of water will not come again, but a “flood” of plague upon the idolaters in the days of Mashiach will…

A similar statement is found in the Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:13):

“The fig tree puts forth her green figs…” (Song of Songs 2:13) Said Rabbi Chiya bar Abba: before the days of the messiah, a great plague will come to the world, and the sinners will succumb to it “…and the vines in blossom give forth their fragrance…” (ibid.) These are the survivors, of whom it is said: “And it shall be, that he that is left in Zion, and he that remains in Jerusalem [shall be called holy…]” (Isaiah 4:3)

Such passages agree that a devastating plague will come upon the world at the End of Days to strike down idolaters and sinners (though even the righteous will suffer among them). It is interesting to point out how the coronavirus we are dealing with today has, strangely, left the vast majority of children unaffected, with mild symptoms, or none at all. Scientists have yet to find a good explanation for this baffling phenomenon. Perhaps, from a spiritual perspective, it is because innocent children cannot be categorized as “sinners” or “idolaters”, and are being spared.

The Midrash Rabbah quoted above goes on to cite a couple of passages that also appear in the Talmud about the final seven-year period before Mashiach comes, and the state of the world during that time. We’ve written about both of these prophecies on multiple occasions in the past (see, for example, #21 here), so we shall not repeat them. It suffices to say that much of what the Sages predicted has come true. The final sign given in the lengthy midrashic passage is that if you see a generation where people are growing bolder and bolder, love to “rant and rave”, where blasphemy is widespread and people constantly “taunt” God, you should expect Mashiach to be near.

This is one of the factors that distinguish between the current state of the world compared to previous global plagues. For example, the Spanish Flu that started in 1918 certainly qualifies as a great plague that engulfed the entire world, with an estimated 50 million deaths. It came at the same time as World War I, and there were certainly Jews then who expected Mashiach imminently. The critical difference between then and now is the set of prophecies in the Talmud, which are more descriptive of today’s world than, say, 1918, as well as the fact that today we have the State of Israel. The latter is especially significant, since Ezekiel (ch. 37-38) prophesied that Jews would first return to Israel, settle down and build a prosperous country, and only then Mashiach would come. Thus, it is only today that essentially all the prophecies have been fulfilled. And there is at least one more.

Rome and the Enemies of Israel

Another intriguing prophecy that has been brought to light in recent days is the destruction of Rome. The notion that Rome will be crushed before Mashiach comes is found across ancient Jewish texts. This is because, of course, for most of history the biggest oppressor of Israel has been Rome. It was Rome that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and thrust the Jewish people into this current, millennia-old exile. From historical records, we know that Rome enslaved countless Jews, far more than any other empire in history (see, for example, Samuel Kurinsky’s The Eighth Day). Later, Rome transformed into the Christian Empire—its seat being the Vatican in Rome—from which horrifying crusades, inquisitions, and other terrors were launched.

For the Sages, the greatest enemy was always Rome, and for Mashiach to come it meant Rome must fall for good. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a-b) records how when the students of Rabbi Yose ben Kisma asked him when Mashiach would come, he answered: “When [Rome] falls down, is rebuilt, falls again, and is again rebuilt, and then falls a third time, before it can be rebuilt the son of David will come.” Rabbi Yose predicted that Rome would fall three times. The third would be the last, and then Mashiach would come.*

While the city of Rome has been conquered and sacked multiple times, there have been three major powers that can be called “Rome”. The first was the Roman Empire itself, which formally came to an end in 476 CE. Then, in 800 CE, Pope Leo III resurrected the title and crowned Charlemagne as Roman Emperor once more. What followed was the era of the “Holy Roman Empire”. By 1648, the Holy Roman Empire was dismantled (though the title was carried on by some German powers until 1806). Finally, in 1861 the various kingdoms and states on the Italian peninsula unified to form the modern nation-state of Italy in the hopes of forging a renewed, strong Rome. Today’s Italy can therefore be seen as the third incarnation of ancient Rome. (This is all the more compelling when we remember that Italy was Hitler’s primary ally.)

As it stands currently, Italy has been hardest hit by the coronavirus. They have already had more than double the casualties of China, where the plague began. While we sincerely wish for everyone around the world to be healthy and protected from this dreadful pandemic, it is understandable why some have connected Italy’s unfortunate (and inexplicable) fate to this ancient prophecy. On that note, closely following Italy in terms of casualties are Spain and Iran—probably next in line when it comes to horrible treatment of the Jewish people throughout history. Of course, these numbers will change with time, and we pray for the plague to end immediately so that none more shall perish, no matter where they happen to live.

A Final Prophecy and a Call to Action

The Sages famously state that “in Nisan they were redeemed, and in Nisan they are destined to be redeemed again.” (Rosh Hashanah 11a-b) Just as the Israelites were saved from ancient Egypt in the month of Nisan, the Jewish people in the End of Days will be saved in the same month. The Sages actually debate in these pages whether the Redemption will take place in Nisan or in Tishrei, bringing various Scriptural proofs for both possibilities. The only conclusion is that both must happen: the process will begin in Nisan, and end in Tishrei, with the blowing of the Great Shofar.

Tonight, we usher in the month of Nisan. It is a most auspicious time to bring about the Final Redemption. Now is the time to take this opportunity seriously and prepare. Thankfully, God has made it easy—after all, just about everything is closed. There are no shows, no sports games, no vacations, no activities. There is nowhere to go. For most people, there is no need to even go to work. All distractions are out of the way. Now is the time for Torah and mitzvot, for prayer and repentance.

Finally, the Sages state that the best way to bring Mashiach is for all the Jewish people to keep Shabbat together, and that if the entire nation kept just one Shabbat properly, Mashiach would come (Shemot Rabbah 25:12). The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1905) added that the ideal time for this unified Shabbat is the last Shabbat of the month of Adar, right before the start of Nisan (see his commentary on Parashat Zachor). That Shabbat was just a few days ago, and it just so happened that the parasha we read was Vayakhel-Pekudei, which begins with God’s command to keep the Sabbath! (Exodus 35:2) The timing couldn’t be better. Heck, even the Pope has called for everyone to keep Shabbat like the Jews!

With the State of Israel, and much of the rest of the world, currently on lockdown, God has made it especially easy for us to fulfil one proper, nation-wide Sabbath. This week we have another tremendous opportunity, and the Shabbat that follows is Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” before Pesach. If we do our utmost now then maybe, just maybe, it will be the Great Sabbath that brings the Final Redemption.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*Click here to read about the “Three Romes” and the coming of Mashiach from a different perspective.