Open the Door!
Shabbat Hagadol, Malachi 3:4–24
Dr. Vered Hillel, Netanya, Israel
“On the tenth day of this month [Nissan] each man is to take a lamb for the household, a lamb for each home” (Exodus 12:3). This lamb is set aside in anticipation of the Pesach sacrifice that would be offered four days later, which was five days before their redemption. Although this mitzvah was given for a specific time in the life of Israel, the tradition continues today in the observance of Shabbat Hagadol (the Great Shabbat), the Shabbat before Pesach.
Many mysteries surround the origin and meaning of Shabbat Hagadol. The term is not found in the Tanakh or in Talmudic literature. However, by the later Middle Ages the celebration of Shabbat Hagadol was a well-established custom. One interpretation holds that Shabbat Hagadol originated from the special haftarah reading assigned to the Shabbat before Pesach, Malachi 3:4–24, and particularly from verse 23 (4:5 in Christian Bibles) which proclaims the coming of Elijah before the great day (yom hagadol) of the Lord. This haftarah speaks of the future redemption of Israel, serves as a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, and looks forward to the final redemption.
The haftarah addresses topics such as judgment and rules (3:5, 22), those who fear Adonai and serve him (3:16, 20, 22) and those who don’t (3:5, 14, 18), and divine vindication (3:9). But the overall theme of restoration dominates the haftarah; for example, restoration of the Temple offerings (3:4), of the covenant relationship through repentance (3:7), of Adonai’s justice (3:24), and of parents and children to Adonai and to each other (3:23–24).
Malachi addresses the people of Israel, who have lost faith in the promises of Hashem. They have become discontent and are murmuring against Hashem because the expected manifestation of his glory has not taken place. In their despair they even question his holiness and justice and have begun to deny that he will come to judge the world. The people of Israel grumble, “Everyone who does evil is good in the eyes of Adonai and he delights in them,” or “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17) and “It is useless to serve God. What have we gained by keeping his requirements?” (Malachi 3:14). Malachi assures Israel that the day of Hashem is reality and that the Lord (Ha’adon) is coming to judge the people in order to refine them (3:1–6). However, before the Lord comes he will send a messenger to prepare the way, and then the Lord will appear suddenly. The haftarah concludes with the admonition to heed the Torah of Moshe and the announcement that Hashem will send Elijah before that great and terrible day to call the nation to repentance (3:23–24).
Notice that Malachi is addressing the people of Israel and announcing national redemption. Hashem’s actions are unilateral. He takes the necessary steps for redemption and restoration; Israel is not required to do anything. Israel’s rebellion against Hashem is so profound that he will send his prophet Elijah to renew their hearts to prepare for the coming of the Lord. This one-sided act of restoration is ultimate proof of Hashem’s love for Israel stated at the beginning of the book (Malachi 1:2).
The expectation of Elijah appearing before the great day of Hashem to prepare the hearts of Israel was firmly established by the late 2nd Temple period. For example, the three disciples of Yeshua, perplexed by his transfiguration and his instructions to remain silent until after his resurrection, question him about his timing, as they expect Elijah to come first. Yeshua answers that Elijah has already come, and they understand him to mean John the baptizer (Matt 17:12). The Gospel according to Luke explicitly states that John the baptizer is the forerunner of the Lord who came in the spirit and power of Elijah “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16–17). Elijah the messenger has come as has Yeshua the Lord, who through his sacrifice provides redemption to all who believe in him. Yet that great and terrible day of Hashem and his judgement have not come to pass.
Shabbat Hagadol is a fitting time to remember and meditate on Malachi’s admonitions, warnings, and announcements of redemption and restoration because it is the Shabbat before Pesach, when we open the door for Elijah in anticipation of final redemption. As Israel took the lamb on the 10th of Nissan in preparation for the sacrifice and in anticipation of their redemption, let us take this time on Shabbat Hagadol to prepare ourselves for Pesach and in anticipation of the final redemption to come. As we clean our houses, removing all the chametz, let us clean the chametz from our own lives and hearts, removing any discontent or weariness at Hashem’s timing and seeming lack of judgement, as Israel did in former days, and focus on Hashem’s provision of redemption and restoration that has been promised to Israel and provided for us individually through Yeshua.
I’ll close with an illustration from Midrash Rabbah, as it comments on Song of Songs 5:2: “I sleep, but my heart is awake. Listen, the voice of my beloved is knocking and says, ‘Open to me, my sister, my dove.’” Focusing on the words “open to me,” Song of Songs Rabbah explains, “Open for me an opening of repentance the size of a needle’s eye, and I will open for you doorways that ox-drawn carts . . . can fit through” (Songs Rabbah 8:2).
When Hashem saw the blood on the doorways of B’nei Israel that first Pesach night, he skipped over their homes. The door in this midrash symbolizes the tiny opening for repentance that they opened in their hearts. God had compassion on those small openings and greatly enlarged them, leading to the redemption that followed. We learn from this midrash that even if we merely open our hearts a tiny crack, Hashem will use that opening to penetrate into the depth of our hearts and souls and bring redemption—and restoration.
May we all open our hearts this Shabbat Hagadol!