The 'Great' Shabbat (Shabbat HaGadol)
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Wednesday 9th April 2014

Why is this Shabbat called ’HaGadol’ (‘the Great’)? The Chiddushei HaRim (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter d.1866) suggests that to answer this we must first contextualise the use of word 'gadol'.

1. The Men of The Great Assembly – the Torah leaders in the early years of the Second Temple – were known as the ‘Anshei Kenesset HaGedolah’. The Talmud (Yoma 69b) explains that the Assembly was called ‘Gedolah’ because it restored G-d's ‘crown’ to its former glory. ‘Restored’? How could a perfect, infinite G-d lose His glory?

The Talmud (ibid) reports that Moshe called G-d "HaGadol, HaGibor, V'HaNora" ("the Great, the Mighty, and the Awesome"). However, later generations struggled to apply those words to G-d. Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) witnessed the Babylonians desecrating the Temple and asked, "Where is His awesomeness?" Unable to answer, he deleted the word "HaNora" from the prayer liturgy. Similarly, when Daniel saw how the Babylonians oppressed Jewish captives, he asked: "Where is His might?" He then removed the word "HaGibor".

The Anshei Kenneset HaGedolah disagreed with Yirmiyahu and Daniel. If it were not for G-d's mighty restraint, He could not have stood by as His people were oppressed. Were it not for His awesomeness, the Jewish people could never have survived amongst the nations. The Assembly therefore reinserted the attributes of "HaGibor VeHanora – 'mighty' and 'awesome' into our conception of G-d and to our prayer liturgy. Their greatness was indeed to restore G-d’s crown to its former glory!

2. Greatness ('gedula') is also used to refer to Creation. The Sefat Emet (Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter d.1905) explains that the apparently self-perpetuating world of nature appears to contradict G-d's existence. However, a closer look and deeper thought enables us to see that nature exists only because G-d wills it. Thus, Creation itself is 'great' because it too testifies to G-d’s grandeur.

3. G-d promised Avraham “I will make you a great [gadol] nation." (Bereishit 12:2). The Rambam (Maimonides d.1204) comments that the title 'great nation' was given because Avraham managed to see through the fiction of polytheism in his society. Abraham was able to perceive G-d's truth and thus became a 'gadol'.

When viewed in these three contexts, the word gadol refers to the human capacity to pierce the smokescreen of apparent reality, whether in society, nature or ideology. To discover G-d when He hides; to perceive and reveal His latent potency.

Our ancestors demonstrated this ability many years ago in Egypt. On this Shabbat, they dared to slaughter a sheep – the pagan deity of their former masters. This action demanded the capacity to penetrate the darkness with which G-d chooses to hide over the truth. Through that action, G-d – and indeed the Jewish people – became truly great.

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