Various explanations have been offered for why we call the Sabbath before Passover by the special name Shabbat ha-Gadol (the Great Sabbath). In the Seder Olam and in the midrashim - cited in Tur Orah Haim 430 - we find the first reason, which is that on the tenth of Nissan, which in the year of the exodus fell on the Sabbath, the children of Israel designated the lambs that were to be the Paschal offerings and they tied them to their bedposts. Moreover, despite seeing that their G-ds were designated for slaughter, the Egyptians did nothing.
Many have raised the question that according to this reason we ought to have commemorated the tenth of Nissan as the day on which the miracle occurred. Why, if we are remembering the miracle that occurred in connection with the designation of the lamb on the tenth of Nissan, do we remember that miracle specifically on the Sabbath without regard to the day of the month the Sabbath before Passover falls upon? Even though the tenth of Nissan happened to fall on the Sabbath in the year of the exodus, that seems an inadequate reason to push off the memorial for the miracle from the tenth of Nissan (explicitly specified by the Torah) to the Sabbath before Passover. Moreover, the miracle that happened in connection with the designation of the lambs continued for four more days while the lambs were being held until the fourteenth of Nissan when the Pascal offering was brought. Why, then, do we not observe the days between the tenth and the fourteenth of Nissan to commemorate the ongoing miracle just as we observe the eight days of Hanukah. And I add a further question concerning the Mishnah in Pesahim 95b, which teaches that the lamb for the Paschal offering was designated on the tenth of Nissan only in the year of the exodus, but not subsequently. The Talmud infers that the commandment to designate the Paschal lamb on the tenth of Nissan applied only in the year of the exodus from the verse (Exodus 12:3) "in the tenth day of this month" (b'esor la-hodesh ha-zeh), which is understood to limit the commandment to take the Paschal lamb on the tenth of Nissan to that year only. The exclusion of subsequent years from commemorating this miracle (by not requiring that the Paschal lamb in subsequent years be designated on the tenth of Nissan) requires explanation. But I have seen no commentators who have been aroused to do so.
And here is what my Fortress has inspired to resolve these difficulties. It was with a profound purpose that the Torah required the Paschal lamb in Egypt to be taken and designated on the tenth of Nissan. It was only because the tenth of Nissan in that year fell on the Sabbath that they were commanded to take and designate the Paschal lamb on that day. And the intention of the Giver of the Torah was that the process of the redemption of Israel from Egypt begin on the Sabbath day -- on that day which had been destined and designated, since the Creation, to be the point of departure for the redemption of Israel. The taking of the Paschal lamb was then made a symbol of the liberation of the nation from the Egyptian oppression with the ultimate purpose of coming to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah on the day of the Sabbath, as it is written (Exodus 3:12) "When you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve G-d upon this mountain" (b'hotziakha et ha-am ta'avdun et ha-Eloqim al ha-har ha-zeh).
The designation and the taking of the lamb was the deed and commandment that began the process of redemption. So it was with a deep purpose that the Torah marked the tenth day of Nissan, in particular, for the Paschal lamb to be designated, for it so happened that the tenth day of Nissan that year fell on the Sabbath. But it was not because there was any necessity that the lamb be inspected four days. On the contrary, it was only because the tenth of Nissan that year fell on the Sabbath that the Torah required the lamb to designated four days before the Paschal offering was to be brought just so that the redemption should begin on the Sabbath.
According to this explanation, the Paschal lamb was designated on the tenth of Nissan not to examine and prepare it for four days before being offered. Rather the unspoken reason was to give the Sabbath, by designating the lamb on the Sabbath before the redemption of Israel from Egypt, its first splendor and purity as the day on which the Torah was destined to be given. On the Sabbath day before the exodus from Egypt, the Sabbath, through the designation of the lamb, received its elevated and sublime content as the symbol of the purpose of the redemption. Thus, the lamb was not designated for the purpose of examining it for four days. For why should this offering differ from all the others that do not require four days of examination before being brought? But the hidden intention was to give the Sabbath before the redemption of Israel from Egypt, through this deed of designating the lamb, the first splendor and purity of the Sabbath day which had been set aside for the Torah to be given on it.
What emerges from the foregoing is that we do not commemorate the tenth day of Nissan as the day of a special miracle, that four days were not needed to test and examine the lamb for any disqualifying blemish, and that there was no need or purpose to require four days of inspection of the Paschal lamb in subsequent years. The reason for designating the lamb four days before Passover obtained only in the year of the exodus, when the tenth of Nissan fell on the Sabbath. It is fitting and proper therefore that we call the Sabbath before Passover, without regard for the day of the month on which it falls, Shabbat ha-Gadol (the Great Sabbath), as that day on which, in the year of the Exodus (which happened to be the tenth of Nissan), the preparation for the redemption began through the taking and designating of the Paschal lamb. It was not the tenth of Nissan, but the day of the Sabbath, on which the Torah was focused in determining the day on which the lamb would be designated.
Now the reason that the Torah called the day of taking and designating the lamb "the tenth of the month" instead of "the Sabbath" was that the commandment to take and designate the lamb was told to them already on the first of Nissan, so that just calling the day "Sabbath" would not sufficiently have identified it. Moreover, at that time in Egypt, the day of the Sabbath did not yet have any legal basis, for they had not yet been commanded to keep the Sabbath and it was no different from the other days of the week. The Torah therefore had to identify the day, which was the Sabbath, on which the lamb would be taken - the day on which foundation and cornerstone for the redemption of Israel was laid - as the tenth of Nissan. It is by right that this Sabbath take, as its reward, the honorable name "great" that underscores the value and exalted importance of the Sabbath. It was the Sabbath that began the great miracle of the freedom of Israel and its liberation from bondage and from darkness to great light.
Perhaps it was this lofty concept that R. Akiva had in mind when he replied to the question of Tinneus Rufus (Genesis Rabbah 11:5): "Why does this day [the Sabbath] differ from the rest?" R. Akiva replied "the Holy One Blessed Be He wished to honor it," by which he meant that the Eternal wished to honor it as the beginning of the chapter of redemption and as the day on which the Torah was given, for both events occurred on the Sabbath. And herein lies the great value and importance of the Sabbath about which it is written at the time of Creation (Genesis 2:3): "And the Lord blessed the seventh day and sanctified it" (va-yivarekh Eloqim et yom ha-sh'vi'i va-y'qadesh oto). He blessed it and sanctified it, He designated it, He prepared it and separated it for the two most important events in the annals of Israel: the redemption of the body and redemption of the soul.
With this idea we have also found a correct reason for why the Torah refers to the first day of Passover as the "Sabbath" as it is written (Leviticus 23:15): "and you shall count from the morrow after the sabbath . . . fifty days" (u-s'phartem lakhem mi-mokhorat ha-shabbat hamishim yom). And see the Ibn Ezra on the Torah who writes that three days are referred to by the name "sabbath": 1) the Sabbath of Creation, 2) Passover, and 3) the "sabbath of rest" (shabbat shabbaton) of the Day of Atonement. Now it is obvious why the Day of Atonement is referred to as "sabbath" since all forms of work are prohibited on the Day of Atonement, as they are on the Sabbath of Creation, and as is stated in the Mishnah in Megilah (7b): "There is no difference between the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement save only that the deliberate violation of the one is punished by a human court and the deliberate violation of the other is punished by kareth." But why did the Torah refer to the first day of Passover using the name "sabbath" when those forms of work necessary to the preparation of food are permissible on Passover? And what connection and relation is there to be found between Passover and the Sabbath that would account for Passover being referred to as a "sabbath?" And this is a great wonder, and I know of no one who has been provoked by it.
But according to our premise that the reason that the Torah required that Paschal lamb be taken and designated on the tenth of Nissan was precisely that in the year of the exodus the tenth of Nissan fell on the Sabbath, calling Passover "sabbath" is entirely correct. Now, the verse (Deuteronomy 26:5) "and became there a nation" (va-y'hi sham l'goy) must, accordingly, refer to Israel's becoming a nation in Egypt, which occurred on the holy Sabbath day on the tenth of Nissan, through their taking and designating the Paschal lamb. Moreover, the Torah was given on the Sabbath, so that the verse (Deuteronomy 27:9) "O, Israel, this day you have become the people of the Lord your G-d" (yisrael ha-yom ha-zeh ni-hi-yeita l'am la-ha-Sheim Eloqekha) is specifically referring to the Sabbath day on which the Torah was given. Thus, one verse can be connected to the other, and these two days, the one at the beginning of the exodus from Egypt and the other the day of the giving of the Torah, were both the Sabbath, the day on which the people of Israel, the holy nation, was created. Can there be any question, then, why the first day of Passover is also referred to by the Torah as a "Sabbath"?
And according to all the above, how well can we understand what was written concerning the taking of the lamb on the tenth of Nissan (Exodus 12:6) "and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month" (v'haya lakhem l'mishmeret ad arba'a assar yom la-hodesh ha-zeh), which means keep it for four days of scrutiny. Why were four days of scrutiny necessary, a level of scrutiny that is not practiced on the Paschal lambs in subsequent years or for any other sacrifice (as explained in Pesahim 96)? What was different about the Passover of the exodus that required four days of scrutiny for the Paschal lamb? But according to our introduction, there is no difficulty inasmuch as the taking and the designation of the paschal lamb was on the Sabbath, the tenth of Nissan. For if that lamb would not have been carefully watched and inspected for all four days until it was ready to be slaughtered, it might well have been necessary to take and designate another lamb or goat on one of the succeeding days between the Sabbath and the time of slaughter. And in that case the connection between the day on which the exodus began (the day on which the Paschal lamb was taken) and the Sabbath day would have been broken.
What emerges from our explanation is that the brilliance and purity of the holiness of the Sabbath also extends to the commandment of the Paschal offering and its holy rays shine on the first commandment - aside from "this month is to you the first of the months" (ha-hodesh ha-zeh lakhem rosh hodoshim) - that we were commanded to perform. And this is the connection between the Sabbath and Passover on account of which the first day of Passover is called by the name "Sabbath."