Shabbat HaGadol 5771 — the how’s and why’s of Passover

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This week we celebrate “Shabbat HaGadol,” the big or great Sabbath. Which is kind of a weird name if you think about it. What is it that makes this Shabbat especially big or great?

Maybe it’s because this is the last Shabbat we have challah before Passover. Which is a great thing. By comparison, I always find next Shabbat, Shabbat chol hamoed Pesach, the Shabbat that falls during the holiday of Passover, to be sort of the saddest Shabbat of the year. To be celebrating Shabbat and have a couple of pieces of matzah sitting there—dry, hard, crumby matzah, instead of the delicious challah we usually have—well, it’s just not the same, is it?

The Sfat Emet, a Chasidic rabbi, was also stirred up by this question. So he decided to take a look at where else the sages of old used the word “HaGadol” to try and get some sense of what they might have had in mind when they chose to call this Shabbat by that name.

Moses refers to God as “HaGadol, HaGibor, VehaNorah” (“the Great, the Mighty, and the Awesome”). Jeremiah, disappointedly watching the destruction of the Temple the first time called God “haNorah,” the awesome; however, God was still “HaGadol,” great. The prophet Daniel refers to God as “HaGadol,” the great.

The Sfat Emet brings in several other sources and ties them together, but his conclusion is that “gadol” is referring to being able to see through “apparent reality” and perceiving God’s omnipresence. And this relates to Shabbat haGadol because the people were bravely preparing to slaughter animals considered deities by their former masters…yet they were able to perceive God’s “ha-gadol-ness,” his greatness, and had the confidence to move ahead, knowing they were fulfilling God’s will.

But there is another reason given in some sources for why this Shabbat is called “Shabbat haGadol” – and that’s because one tradition says that rabbis would give their longest sermon of the year today, reviewing all of the intricate rules of Pesach for the benefit of their congregants. Even thousands of years ago, Jews couldn’t keep track of the rules and needed to be reminded.

I won’t review all the rules of Passover here – I want to write a d’var Torah, not a book – but I think it’s good to review at least some of the rules for Passover – and to explore at least briefly the significance behind some of them.

There are really three major mitzvot (and a million little details) that define Passover: having a seder, eating matzah, and not eating—or even possessing—chametz, leaven for the duration of the holiday.

One question rabbis often get this time of year is “rabbi, the whole seder is SOOO long; do we really have to do the whole thing?”

It’s true, going through the entire haggadah is a big project.  When we lived in the Diaspora, we usually made the first seder one that was oriented toward grown-ups, and the second seder one somewhat abbreviated and oriented at kids. Now that we live in Israel and only have one seder, we just try and make it as lively and engaging as possible so we hold the kids’ attention as well.

So here we go with what are minimum requirements for a seder. First of all, and most important – it is a requirement that everyone should view themselves as if they, personally, were redeemed from Egypt. Which means it is a halachic requirement to bring your seder to life. Speed-mumbling your way through Maxwell House Haggadah while the kids play tag and the grown-ups snooze (my recollections from my youth) does not actually fulfill the requirement. You have to make it interesting. You have to make it engaging. We have found, especially with kids, props are very helpful with the ten plagues. Just be careful that the ping pong balls often used for hail don’t knock over and break any of your many wine glasses.

Someone has to ask a question. Traditionally, the youngest asks the four questions, “mah nishtanah,” but technically as long as someone asks a question you’ve fulfilled the obligation. Encourage people to ask questions – it’s a way to have people be engaged, and thereby helps fulfill the earlier mentioned requirement of feeling like it’s real.

There are three things the Talmud tells us must be discussed: the paschal lamb—the sacrifice that was offered on Passover, the lamb whose blood adorned our doorposts; the maror, the bitter herbs, to remind us of the bitterness of slavery; and matzah, which our ancestors baked in haste as they were scrambling to get the heck out of Egypt.

Everything else is to a greater or lesser degree optional, except for the various blessings that have to be said before eating things and the birkat hamazon said after the meal.

Which brings us to the next major requirement of the holiday. Eating matzah. I think this is the only place where we are specifically commanded to eat a particular food. Even for making Kiddush, it is possible to use things other than wine or grape juice. But there is no substitute for matzah made from one of the five grains, wheat, barley, rye, oats, or spelt.

Matzah has to specifically be labeled “kosher for Passover.” From the time the flour and water are mixed, the matzah must be completely baked within 18 minutes. Only kosher for Passover matzah is guaranteed to meet this requirement. The matzah you use at the seder table should be plain matzah, not something fancy like “egg matzah.” And the day before Passover is the one day of the year when you are supposed to NOT eat matzah. Some people avoid eating matzah from the first of Nisan on, just so they will have a bit of an appetite for it when the seder comes.

In the haggadah matzah is called “lechem oni.” “Oni” is a Hebrew word which can be translated as either “poverty” or “affliction.” So it’s either the bread that poor people eat – it’s very cheap, the only ingredients are flour and water – or it’s the bread of affliction. By the end of the eight days of Passover, regardless of how rich or poor you are it definitely becomes the “bread of affliction,” and you’ll be crying “let my people go.” If you truly want a taste of the real bread of affliction, get some “shmurah matzah,” which is like the “glatt kosher” version of matzah for Passover. Just be careful, as if you are not careful you might accidentally eat the box the shmurah matzah comes in, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the box and the matzah.

The Torah itself tells us the reason for this mitzvah: seven days shall you eat unleavened bread with it, the bread of affliction; for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste; that you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life. The matzah is a reminder to us of the great haste we had in leaving Egypt, and that we should always remember God’s kindness in bringing us out of Egypt.

Just as we are REQUIRED to eat mitzvah, we are FORBIDDEN to eat chametz, or leavened grains. Chametz is one of the five grains that has been in contact with water for more than 18 minutes—which would include not only most baked products, but beverages like beer or Scotch. There is no prohibition on dough that rises in other ways. Baking soda and baking powder are kosher for use on Passover.

The rules about chametz are particularly stringent. Not only are we forbidden to eat chametz, we are forbidden to have any in our possession. The Torah explicitly commands us “for seven days leaven will not be found in your homes.” But don’t worry, it does not mean you have to drink all of your Johnny Walker Blue Label Scotch before Wednesday—I’ll explain why momentarily.

There is another category of food called “kitniyot” which most Ashkenazi Jews treat as chametz even though they are not really chametz. Kitniyot include legumes, rice, and corn. Scholars debate whether soy beans are kitniyot because even though they are a bean they were unknown to the rabbis of Ashkenaz years ago.

Rabbi David Golinkin has written an opinion, which I subscribe to, that avoiding kitniyot is a “minhag shtut,” a foolish custom, and totally unnecessary (you can read an English language summary here). They are not chametz, they bear no relationship to chametz, and keeping Passover is hard enough without adding extra stringencies. We can all be honorary Sefardim for a week. If you choose to follow the custom of avoiding kitniyot because it was your family’s custom, by all means do so, it is meritorious to observe minhag avoteinu, the customs of our ancestors, but you don’t have to go crazy if some kitniyot accidentally got put on your Pesach dishes, and you don’t have to decide what’s kosher and what’s not if you have some Sefardi friends who invite you to their home during Pesach.

Getting rid of your chametz is a three-step process. First we do a thorough house cleaning. Don’t forget under the cushions of your sofa where the kids have been eating cookies and the car. We clean out our pantries and the refrigerator of any products that contain one of the five grains. This means reading ingredient lists carefully…soy sauce, for example, generally has wheat as one of the ingredients, and would not be kosher for Passover.

Since chametz is forbidden in any quantity at all, that means that we even need separate dishes for Passover since your regular dishes may have absorbed some chametz. Your metal items like silverware can be rendered kosher for Passover use by immersing them in boiling water. Glass is considered not to absorb chametz or anything else and can be used during Passover.

If you have any grain products you don’t want to dispose of—that you would like to set aside and be able to use again after Passover—you set them aside in a cabinet, or put them in the garage, put them somewhere you can shut them away for the 8 days of Passover. You then sell the chametz you are keeping. Contact your local rabbi to sell your chametz. If you don’t have a local rabbi, the Chabad web site offers the ability to sell your chametz through them on line. You have to specify your location, because you should really be in the same time zone as the person making the sale so you won’t own chametz at the wrong time. This is a real sale, in principle, the Gentile who buys your chametz can show up at your place and dip into your Scotch during Passover. I haven’t heard of it happening, but it is a theoretical possibility. The sale of chametz is structured in such a way that unless the buyer comes up with an outrageous amount of money when Passover is over, the deal cancels out, and you own your chametz once again.

Having cleaned house and sold the chametz, the third step is to disown any chametz that might accidentally be left. No matter how thorough you clean, some crumbs will undoubtedly escape your notice. The procedure and blessings to say in searching for the chametz can be found in any haggadah.

That’s the procedure for getting rid of your chametz. But WHY do we do it?

Many different explanations are given. Chametz is stuff that’s puffed up – during this time of year we are told we should do a spiritual housecleaning as well as a physical housecleaning and get rid of the “puffed up” stuff within ourselves, to get our egos in check.

It’s a reminder not only to get our egos in check but of the need to control our passions and appetites. The substance that we are commanded to eat – matzah – is made of wheat and water. The substance that we are forbidden to eat – chametz – is made of wheat and water. What’s the difference? Time. Less than 18 minutes contact and it is considered pure and holy for Passover. More than 18 minutes and it is considered impure and forbidden.

We have many examples where the same substance can be holy or profane. We drink wine as a sacrament to honor the Sabbath and holidays; yet too much wine and we disgrace ourselves and destroy our health. What elevates something from the profane and unholy to the sacred and holy is in how we prepare it and how we use it.

Sefer haChinuch explains that the roots of this mitzvah are found in the concept that we are commanded to always remember the miracles that God did for us in bringing us out of the land of Egypt. So we see that we come back around to the Sfat Emet’s reason for why this Shabbat is called “Shabbat HaGadol” – that both this Shabbat, and in fact the essence of the holiday, is about remembering God’s greatness.

The removal of chametz is specifically a reminder of the haste with which our ancestors left Egypt, that they had to bake their bread before it turned to leaven. Therefore, it is also supposed to remind us that there are some things that need to be done in haste – we should run to do a mitzvah, we should run away from doing a sin.

And Rebbe Nachman explains that an eagerness to run toward God and mitzvot is why our ancestors merited being saved from Egypt. Reb Nachman says that Moses asked God “By what merit are you bringing these people out from Egypt?” What have they done to deserve such a great show of Divine Favor? God replied with a verse from the Torah, “I brought you out of Egypt in order that you may serve me.” Rashi explains that God brought us out of Egypt in order that we would receive the Torah. Reb Nachman says this shows that it wasn’t because we otherwise deserved being saved – we were saved because of the merit God anticipated we would accrue when we accepted the Torah.

This holiday becomes a great sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. We remember the many great things God has done for us – and continues to do for us, every minute of every day – and we remind God that we are worthy of his faith in us, by going a little crazy with all of these rules at Passover time, we show that we are living up to the implied promise of our ancestors when God brought them out of Egypt – that once free, we would serve God with haste – and with joy.

May God bless all of us with a sweet and kosher Passover, filled with friends, family, and lit up by the light of the Holy One,

Amen.

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