Shabbat HaGadol  ---  Passover Haggadah

Two-part Dvar-Torah and Sermon preceding Passover

Presented by David P. Stern 26 March 1994 in Greenbelt, Maryland

[* indicates where Hebrew text may be inserted]

(Before the reading of the weekly portion)

      Today is Shabbat HaGadol, the last of the four special shabbatot which precede Passover. By a quirk of the calendar, it comes very close--the seder is tonight.

      It is called "Shabbat HaGadol", the sabbath of "the great" because of the last line of the Haftarah, at the end of the book of the prophet Malachi, which runs:

    "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet
    before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord."

Actually, this is not the last line but the one before it, but it is repeated at the end, because you don't want the reading to end on a bad note, which is what you would otherwise get.

      It discusses something rather unusual: the final day of judgement. Nowhere in the Torah is the final judgement mentioned, and in general, the idea of final judgement is not often found in Judaism, though it is brought up at greater length in the book of Joel, chapter 3.

      But we find it here, and we are told, before it arrives, Elijah the prophet will appear--Elijah who never died, you may recall, but ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire. Elijah will now come and will close the generation gap--return the hearts of sons to their fathers, and the hearts of fathers to their sons, or else a terrible calamity may befall the land. We are not told more, but it is obviously a very important business.

      In later years, Elijah was given other roles, and in particular, to settle unresolved questions of Jewish law. As we will later see, Elijah's tie to the seder comes directly from this.

      And finally, Elijah is seen as messenger of the Messiah, for people reasoned, what else can the "great and terrible day" be, if not the coming of the Messiah? This is why we sing after the Havdalah (at least in the version I know)
    Eliahu the prophet
    Eliahu the Tishbite
    Eliahu the Gileadite
    Soon will he come to us
       Eliahu the prophet
    Soon, yes in our days
        With the Messiah son of David

The Passover Haggadah

(Part 2, at the end of the Mussaf service)

      Tonight is the seder, and I thought it may be of interest to discuss here some interesting points in the Haggadah which we all are going to read. I apologize here to all the experts who are already familiar with what I am going to say, and I hope you have brought Haggadoth with you, and also have your books with the weekly readings.

      Start with the name--"Haggadah." What does it mean? (ask)

      It means "the telling", because today we fulfil the commandment (Exodus, 13, v.8, p. 261):

          "And you shall tell your son on that day"

      "Higad'ta" and "Haggadah" come from the same root. But this is not the only place: the Torah commands us to tell our children about the deliverance from Egypt not just here, but in three other places, in each of them differently. Let us find them!

      One page ahead (Exodus 13, v.14, p. 262) it says:

          "And it shall be, when thy son asks thee, in time to come, saying "what is this?". That thou shalt say unto him: "By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage."

      Well, the Haggadah leaves nothing to chance: the son is supposed to ask, and the Haggadah even prepares for him a set of four questions, which expand considerably on the simple "what is this?"

      And when the son is finished, the Haggadah also has prepared the father's answer, traditionally recited as answer to the 4 questions, at the start of the Seder:

          "We were slaves to Pharaoh, and the Lord our God brought us out of there with a strong hand and and upstretched arm."

      Third place--Exodus 12, v.26, p. 257 (repeated top p. 22)

          And it shall come to pass, when the children say unto you: "What mean ye by this service?" That ye shall say: "It is the sacrifice of the Lord's Passover, for that he passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.

      And finally, Deuteronomy 6, v.20, p. 773--an important chapter which also contains the Shma' Yisrael.

          "When thy son asks thee in time to come, saying, "what mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which the Lord our God has commanded you?" Thou shalt say unto thy son:" We were Pharaoh's bondsmen in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand."

      Again, you have almost the same answer by the father, and the Haggadah takes words from here, too.

      So you have four expressions of the same commandment to "tell our sons", but each worded differently. Why? Our sages, may their memory be blessed, looked for a reason, and found one: because there exist four different kinds of sons.

          "The Torah spoke to four (different) sons--one wise, one wicked, one simple and one who cannot even ask (such as a baby)."

  • The son who asks " what mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which the Lord our God has commanded you?" is the wise one.


  • The son who asks "what mean you by this service?" is the wicked one.


  • The son who asks "what is this?" is the simple one.


  • And " you shall tell your son on that day" is for the one who cannot even ask..
Well, so you have told your sons, as required. What next? The tradition is that we should continue to discuss the exodus from Egypt for as long as we can--the entire night, if we can manage it, and the Haggadah tells about a group of sages who did just that, kept up the discussion until morning came and their students came to fetch them to the morning prayers.

      But most of us lacke such deep resources, so again the Haggadah steps in and provides a ready-made discussion (a "default version" in computer-speak), interrupted now and then with the kiddush over a glass of wine. Such a discussion is really all the Haggadah is supposed to do, which is why changes and additions are quite often incorporated. They belong to the style.

      The text contains many interesting things, but we only have the time for two.

      In Deuteronomy 20, v. 5, p. 859, we read about a ceremony of thanksgiving in the temple, centered on bringing the first fruits of the harvest. They are brought to the priest as an offering, in a basket, and the priest then recounts a quick capsule history of the Jewish people:
    A wandering Aramean was my father,
    and he went down into Egypt, and
    sojourned there, few in number.
    And he became there a nation, great,
    mighty and populous. And the Egyptians
    dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and
    laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried
    unto the Lord, the God of our fathers,
    and the Lord heard our voice,
    and saw our affliction, and our toil,
    and our oppression. And the Lord
    brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand,
    and an outstretched arm, and with great terror,
    and with signs, and with wonders.
    And he has brought us into this place,
    and has given us this land,
    a land flowing with milk and honey.

      As you read the Haggadah, this section is completely taken apart, phrase by phrase, sometimes word by word. Each is discussed, each is given a special meaning.

      There is only one glitch. Instead of "a wandering Aramean was my father"--meaning, Jacob--it is taken to mean "An Aramean sought to destroy my father" implying that Laban the Aramite tried to destroy Jacob. This is a switch between two words of the same root "aleph-bet-dalet", oved here translated "wandering" and literally meaning "lost", and me-abed meaning "destroyed", literally "causing to be lost."

      I guess playing fast and loose with the language is part of the midrash game.

      And finally, I promised to come back to Elijah. We pour a 5th cup for Elijah--why? Because one faction claimed that the seder should have five cups, not four. In Jewish tradition, undecided issues will all be decided by Elijah before the day of judgement, so we drink 4 and put a 5th cup on the table. If Elijah comes and tells us--not four but five--then we are ready.

      But we also open the door. Why? (ask)

      It has nothing to do with Elijah, and everything with the reading that follows, from Psalm 79. It is rather harsh:
    "Pour out thy wrath upon the nations
    that know Thee not,
    and upon the kingdoms
    that call not upon Thy name.
    For they have consumed Jacob
    and laid waste his habitation.
    Pour out Thy rage upon them
    and let Thy fury overtake them.
    Pursue them in anger
    and destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord."

      In medieaval times, Christians claimed that Jews were here cursing their neighbors, and would use it as a pretext to attack families in the middle of the seder. So we open the door for a practical reason (which thanks God is mostly forgotten)--to make sure no enemy is standing outside and listening.

      Well, I could go on and on, but we all still have a lot of preparation for the holiday. Chag Sameach, may you and your families have an enjoyable seder tonight.



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Last updated 9 June 2002