This Shabbat is known at Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Shabbat,” for various reasons: it immediately precedes Pesach, and its famous haftorah concludes with the Elijah prophecy foretelling the Messianic Age: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord” (Malachi 3:24). Since most Jews, from childhood on, know Elijah only as the well-traveled fellow who visits every Jewish home during the Pesach Seder to quaff a beaker of wine, they never identify him with the short-tempered prophet and enemy of Ahab and Jezebel (I Kings 16-21) who defends the Jewish God against overwhelming odds—but it makes for exciting reading.
There is another reason for calling this Shabbat “Great.” In Eastern Europe, whence sprang the majority of American Jews, the town rabbi rarely spoke from the pulpit. His provenance was the yeshiva, the Talmudic academy, where he learned with advanced students and prepared them for semicha, or rabbinic ordination. He would also preside over batei din, or ritual law courts, where his people would come for him to adjudicate legal matters, dealing with religion, business, and personal life—marriage, divorce, couples unable to get along, and the like (Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Polish rabbi’s son, gives a beautiful picture of this in his semi-autobiographical collection of stories, “Tales from My Father’s Court.”) The rabbi rarely spoke from the pulpit: his level of learning was often too high for the common folk. That function was left to magidim, itinerant preachers who would tell homiletical stories to impress the townspeople with the need for piety, honesty, and keeping the Torah against the onslaught of modern temptations.
Still, on the Shabbat prior to Pesach, the rabbi would deign to mount the beema/podium, and give a long talk about hilchote Pesach, the laws of Passover—how to dispose of one’s leaven, both physically and spiritually; how to make Pesach, and the various prohibitions of the holiday, by far the most complex of all Jewish home observances. (I understand that the most pious among us, the Chasidim, will not eat in one another’s homes during this time, since they are uncertain of one another’s kashrut.) In keeping with this tradition, I will give a talk on “Pesach Facts and Fantasies,” focusing on “Pesach Peculiarities” and emphasizing how we ought to be koshering our hearts and souls as much as our homes.
Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.