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Torah reading:  Leviticus Chapters 16 to 18
Haftarah reading:  Malachi 3: 4-24 (with verse 23 repeated at end).

The Shabbat before Passover is known as Shabbat HaGadol, which means the great Shabbat, or the big Shabbat.  The Hebrew word gadol is similar to its English equivalents; it can mean great as in important, or big as in size.  Oddly, it's not really clear why this Shabbat is called "Shabbat HaGadol."

There is no special Torah reading for this "Big Shabbat", but there is a special Haftarah reading - Malachi 3: 4-24. The last two lines of Malachi, with the penultimate line repeated so we end on a positive note, provide one of the explanations why this Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol:

Lo, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great (hagadol) and awesome day of the Lord.  

That he may turn the heart of the fathers back through the children, and the heart of the children back through their fathers - lest I come and smite the earth with utter destruction.

Lo, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great (hagadol) and awesome day of the Lord.

During the Passover seder that Jews will observe Monday night, a cup of wine is set aside - the cup of Elijah - that is not drunk.  Late in the sedar, the children are asked to open the door - parents will tell their children they are opening the door to let Elijah in.  For eons, Jewish children have imagined the invisible Elijah entering the home, taking a seat at the sedar table, and taking a sip of wine from the cup that was left just for him!

The real reason we put out that extra cup of wine which no one (visible) drinks, is far less mystical.  The rabbis in the Talmud debated whether we should drink four cups or five cups of wine at the sedar.  Specifically, Rabbi Tarfon argued each person at the sedar should drink five cups of wine, but his colleagues, and those who came later in the Talmudic period, argued we should drink four cups of wine.  The rabbis in the majority arguing for four cups won the argument, at least for a few thousand years.  However, as a compromise, and to show our respect for Rabbi Tarfon and any who may have agreed with him, we set aside an extra cup of wine that no one drinks.   In hundreds of places in the Talmud, when the rabbis were unable to reach a consensus, they agreed to put the question aside "until Elijah comes."  One difference between Christianity and Judaism is that I don't think too many Christians believe that when Jesus returns He will be spending His time resolving hundreds of two thousand year old disputes, but that is the task that the rabbis nearly two thousand years ago imposed on Elijah!

So, one explanation why this Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol is from Malachi 3:23 - the final line of today's Haftarah.   A second explanation is below the orange squiggly.

In February 553, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian issued an edict which prohibited any rabbi from speaking in synagogue, indeed, all rabbinical sermons and explanations were forbidden:  

The Holy Scripture may be read in synagogues [but] the rabbis shall not be allowed to corrupt the Hebrew text.  We strictly forbid these rabbinic interpretations.  This is our will to be observed by officials who shall subject those who dare resist it or hinder it in any way to corporal punishment first, then force them to live in exile and confiscate their property, so they may not act disrespectfully against God and the Emperor.
A government official was assigned to each synagogue to ensure that each rabbi kept his mouth shut.

During the reign of Justinian, the armies of the Eastern Roman Empire reconquered much of what had been the Western Roman Empire, including North Africa, Italy, and much of Spain, so the Edict of Justinian had a wide reach.  Although the Germanic tribes would reconquer much of this land shortly after Justinian's death, the now Christian tribes maintained the prohibition of rabbinical sermons and teaching.  With the Arab-Muslim conquests of North Africa 652-55 and Hispania 711-20, rabbinical preaching returned, but not in Christendom. Eventually, however, one by one, the Christian kings eased up on the Justinian restrictions, but the rabbis were understandably reluctant to test this minimal toleration.  They restricted their sermons to just two a year - the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, and Shabbat HaGadol.  In his Shabbat HaGadol sermon, the rabbi would review the Passover Hagadah, emphasizing what parts must be said at the sedar, and would lecture on what foods could be eaten on Passover and what foods were forbidden.  This annual sermon would lengthen the synagogue service - the congregation would spend much longer in synagogue than on a regular Shabbat. Hence, Shabbat HaGadol, the "big Shabbat" with the long sermon and long service.

Some of you may have noticed that my link for the Edict of Justinian linked to a website - http://www.stopthereligiousright.org/.  This was accidental - I didn't know such a website existed, but it proves an important point.  The Edict of Justinian deprived the Jewish people of our religious freedom throughout Europe, and its ramifications were felt for over 1,000 years. Thanks to Justinian, it would not be until the rise of Reform Judaism in the 1830's and 1840's in Germany and the United States that rabbis would finally feel free to deliver weekly sermons.

Religious freedom is not about an employer's control over whatever health insurance he deigns to afford to his employees.  Religious freedom is not about refusing to employ or serve or contract with LGBT's, nor is it offering prayers in public schools or at county council meetings where many may not share the religious beliefs of the person offering the prayer. Many of us have ancestors who came to the United States primarily for the right to worship as they chose, without Justinian censors monitoring our religious services (a practice promptly adopted by the Nazis when they took power January 30, 1933), and without Nazi or Cossack mobs burning our houses of worship.  Religious freedom is too precious to be perverted by right wing politicians and king makers for their narrow ends.

Shabbat Shalom, and a Happy Pesach and a Happy Easter to all who observe these holidays.  

Originally posted to Elders of Zion on Thu Apr 10, 2014 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets .

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