Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488 – 1575) in his Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, alludes to a rationale that explains why the Shabbat before Passover is called Shabbat Hagadol (“the Great Shabbat”), which seems to just raise another question. The Midrash relates that the Jews left Egypt on the 15th of Nisan which was a Wednesday. They were commanded to set aside their Passover lambs four days before, on the tenth of Nisan, which happened to fall on Shabbat. When the Egyptians saw the Jews putting aside these animals, they asked them what they were doing and the Jews told them that they planned on using them as offerings. This put the Jews in great danger of being violently confronted by the Egyptians, who viewed the animals as sacred deities. Miraculously, the Egyptians experienced sudden pain and illness and were not able to harm the Jews. Rabbi Karo writes that this Shabbat is referred to as the Great Shabbat to commemorate this great miracle.
A question that must be addressed according to this approach, however, is why Shabbat is the day that serves to commemorate the miracle recorded by the Midrash. It is true that the miracle occurred on Shabbat, but that was only coincidental. The day that is actually connected to the miracle is the tenth of Nisan, whatever day of the week it may fall out on, since that was the day that they were commanded to prepare their lambs. Furthermore, the Torah itself only mentions the tenth of Nisan, and doesn’t make any reference to which day it of the week it was. If we are to choose a day to commemorate this miracle, the fourteenth, whichever day of the week it happens to be, would seem to be the best choice. Why did Shabbat take on that role?
The Book of Our Heritage, by R. Eliyahu Kitov, explains that the miracle was actually closely connected with Shabbat. He suggests that if not for Shabbat, they wouldn’t have been in any danger in the first place. One element was that the Egyptians were familiar with the unique ways of the Israelites. They knew how unusual it was for the Jews to be working with their animals on Shabbat (aside from whatever care was necessary to provide the animals with their needs). Their interest and curiosity was therefore piqued and they were led to inquire about the unusual activity. But even after they asked the Jews, if not for an additional factor that Shabbat added, no miracle would have been necessary.
Another challenge that Shabbat caused was very indirect. It is noteworthy that in the realm of the laws of Shabbat observance, there are no laws that address honesty. There are multiple areas of halachah that do address honesty, but they apply equally on all days of the week and year. Nevertheless, the Talmud records that in ancient times Jews were more scrupulous about honesty on Shabbat than they were on other days. On the Shabbat before Passover, this led them into their potentially volatile situation. Had the Egyptians inquired why the Jews were setting their lambs aside on any other day, the Jews could have easily and justifiably diverted the Egyptians’ attention and avoided answering their questions directly. Due to their great awe and respect for Shabbat, however, they were unable to find it in themselves to serve aside from being absolutely straightforward and forthcoming and they therefore were pulled into the precarious position that they would be miraculously saved from.
The Israelites honesty on Shabbat reveals a lesson that is especially relevant to Orthodoxy today. Our generation has seen an explosion in Jewish and Torah knowledge. In the religious community, this increased awareness of Jewish Law has had the positive effect of having led to more attention to the details of the laws and a more detailed observance of Halachah. Many people have observed, however, that this enhanced observance of the letter of the law seems to have replaced instead of complimented a deep sense of the spirit of the law that was formerly an essential element of the Jewish religious experience. According to the Book of Our Heritage, the message of Shabbat Hagadol is best summed up in the words of the Talmud, “The Merciful One wants heart!” The Shabbat before the Exodus didn’t, in the final analysis, get the Jews into trouble because of their observance of any of the laws of Shabbat. It was, rather, their profound sense of the uniqueness and significance of Shabbat – the spirit of Shabbat – that laid the groundwork for the miracle to take place. Today, this message of Shabbat Hagadol regarding the spirit of Shabbat is at least as important and as least as pertinent as the commemoration of the miracle itself.