Of the Shabbatot in the year which have a second name, "Shabbat Hagadol", the Great Shabbat, which precedes Pesach, is one of the most well-known. According to tradition, the 10th day of Nissan was the date of the original Shabbat Hagadol.
On this Shabbat, Jewish communities gather in the Batei Midrash and the synagogues to listen to rabbis and scholars who give instruction in the laws of Pesach, so that heads of family will not err in the observance of the mitzvot appertaining to the festival and will have the knowledge to initiate a richer dialogue at the Seder table.
Origins of the Name
Among the numerous explanations of the name of this Shabbat, I should like to discuss the one which makes us reflect on the general meaning of Shabbat for modern man.
Until the eve of the exodus from enslavement, the only reason for keeping the Shabbat was
"For in six days G-d made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in it, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy."
However, from the first Shabbat Hagadol, the meaning was enriched and enhanced with a new reason, a complementary cause, that of Freedom:
"Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and that the Lord your G-d has commanded you to observe the Shabbat".
Thus, from the new meaning of being redeemed, Shabbat becomes gadol (great).
Relation between Shabbat and Freedom
Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (1800-1888), explains in contemporary terms the relation between Shabbat and freedom:
"If Shabbat had not been given so long ago by our merciful Heavenly Father, we would have had to go down on our bended knees to beg Him to give it to us, in order to save us and our children from self-deification and denial of G-d....
The more you realize that today business captures all our interest, every social relationship; the more you FEEL IMPRISONED by the march of industry, the more you must tremble before the thought that you and your son may remain completely SUBMERGED in it, running the danger of losing your G-d in it and any dignity of the human personality.
Thus, however important commerce is for you; however more valuable, as you say, time becomes; however much more your gain or loss depend on days, hours and minutes; however stronger the CHAINS of industry become, the greater must be the Shabbat offering, the more zealously you must grasp the cup of the Shabbat Kiddush, and with how much more harmony you must gather your wife and children and all the members of your family around you and sanctify the Shabbat, extol it and give fervent thanks for this gift."
An Opportunity for Liberation from Routine
The liberation from the yoke of slavery begins on Shabbat and this liberation recurs weekly. If we truly wish to liberate ourselves from daily routine, and from ourselves and our alienation, and to establish a relationship with G-d, Shabbat Hagadol can be a good opportunity to initiate a new life which offers the happiness which only free men can achieve.