Preaching in the synagogue dates to late antiquity, when the tradition of weekly sermons given on the Sabbath and based on the reading from the Torah of that week, began. This tradition continued in Eastern Europe. There were also special occasions when the rabbi was particularly called upon to preach, notably Shabat Shuvah (the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), and Shabat ha-Gadol (the Sabbath before Passover). From the eighteenth century, the communal burial society would gather annually on the 7th of Adar, the traditional birth and death date of Moses in the Hebrew calendar, to hear a sermon from the rabbi. In larger communities, the weekly sermon would be delivered by the darshan (preacher), an appointed member of the communal establishment.
Sermons and Sermonic Literature
Sermon literature is a branch of ethical literature, meant to fortify the faith of its readers and to encourage them to cleave to the Torah and the commandments. In the Middle Ages, a tradition of recording sermons originally given in the synagogue in the language spoken locally by the Jews—Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, or Judezmo—in Hebrew took shape. Written collections of sermons are related to homiletic writing on the Torah, a stylized literature in Hebrew, generally, but not absolutely, distinct from exegetical commentary.
Sermons, particularly in Eastern Europe, had been an “oral literature” for centuries. That is to say, if a sermon lived on, it did so in the memory of those who heard it delivered orally (in Yiddish, in the case of Eastern Europe). Thus, sermons generally do not record historical events and they are not always a reliable historical source. They do, however, contain a record and impression of the dissemination of beliefs and opinions among Jews. Philosophical sermons in general, however, and in Eastern Europe in particular are quite marginal forms in the history of sermon literature. Anyone who examines the list of books cited in the sermon literature written in Eastern Europe will see that in every period, scientific and philosophical knowledge was limited to medieval Jewish works such as the Kuzari by Yehudah ha-Levi, The Guide of the Perplexed by Maimonides, The Duties of the Heart by Baḥya ibn Pakuda’, and The Book of Principles by Yosef Albo. Isolation from Central and Western European philosophical and scientific innovations is conspicuous from the seventeenth century onward in East European sermon literature.
The most common type of sermon literature is exegetical—although, unlike Torah commentary, a sermon was characteristically not a running commentary on the verses of the Bible. Rather, it concentrated on one or more subjects of importance to the preacher. Sometimes, however, passages in sermons did concentrate more on explaining the literal meaning of the biblical text than on homiletics. One classical type of exegetical sermon, dating from late antiquity, begins with a petiḥta’ (opening), in which the preacher quotes a verse or verses from the Haftarah (the reading from the prophets for that week) or from another part of the Bible, creating a sort of rhetorical tension before returning finally to his subject and relating it to the reading from the Torah for that week.
There are, in fact, no pure literary genres in sermon literature, as is shown by Keli yakar by Efrayim of Luntshits, the outstanding preacher of the sixteenth century. At first glance this work appears to be another commentary in the genre of supercommentaries on Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, but it is actually an original and highly creative collection based on the author’s sermons. While most often, books of sermons follow the order of the chapters and verses in the Bible, some follow the order of the tractates of the Talmud as studied in the circle of the author of the sermons. An example of this latter form of organization can be found in Magid devarav le-Ya‘akov (Korets, 1781), which collects the sermons of the magid (preacher) Dov Ber of Mezritsh.
Anthologies of quotations from the sources, which circulated widely, made it possible for preachers to find material, typically organized by subject and from both ancient and medieval rabbinical sources, to include in their sermons. The preachers did not necessarily study the enormous literature from which the material was gathered. Two early anthologies, useful for preachers, were Menorat ha-ma’or (Constantinople, 1514) by Yitsḥak Aboab and Re’shit ḥokhmah (Venice, 1549) by Eliyahu de Vidas. More than a century passed until the appearance of another important anthology, Shene luḥot ha-berit (Amsterdam, 1648) by Yesh‘ayahu ben Avraham Horowitz, a particularly important source for the transmission of kabbalistic teachings that had developed in Safed in the sixteenth century.
In fact, the kabbalistic sermon can be classed in a different category from the exegetical one in a number of respects. All kinds of preachers, itinerant and local, Sabbatians and Hasidim, were stimulated by and helped to increase growing interest in kabbalistic customs, particularly from the mid-seventeenth century on. Kabbalistic doctrines that sought to explain how to bring about redemption became popular themes in sermons. When the preacher was an important halakhic authority as well as a supremely talented speaker—as was David Shelomoh Eybeschütz, the author of ‘Arve naḥal (Sudylków, 1825), a collection of sermons from the end of the eighteenth century—the sermons would command attention. For example, Eybeschütz’s sermons on redemption are full of popular parables, and encouraged his listeners to observe the kabbalistic practices that he advocated.
The Hasidic sermon was ordinarily delivered by the rebbe in Yiddish at the third meal of the Sabbath, and (in accordance with Jewish law) only after the end of the Sabbath could his disciples write down, from memory, what they had heard. This written record, to the extent that it has come down to us, was immediately translated into Hebrew. The written forms of such sermons are replete with quotations from the Bible and from the Sages, culled from the Talmud and Midrash along with stories and parables. There is no doubt that these typically polished and learned sermons could not have been given to the community at large in the synagogue—though some might have been shared with a limited and chosen group of scholars and prominent Hasidim. Nevertheless, even the published, learned sermons preserve, in a fragmentary way, faithful records of the oral sermon, reflecting the use of stories and parables.
A vivid description of an unusual Hasidic sermon in the early days of the movement is presented by Salomon Maimon in his autobiography. He described how an itinerant propagandist-emissary attracted him to the court of Magid Dov Ber of Mezritsh (Dov Ber Friedman, also known as the Magid of Rivne). There Maimon listened on the Sabbath to the Magid’s sermon. According to Maimon, the Magid linked verses together with their interpretations in a way that corresponded to the names of the newcomers to the court, and to the troubles in their lives that had brought them to attend. Maimon was amazed, because the Magid had not met them before giving the sermon. He explains later in his autobiography that he subsequently learned that the Magid collected information about the newcomers to his court by means of emissaries and spies, so that he would be able to surprise them. Unfortunately, there is no reference to this type of sermon in any extant written or printed Hasidic sermon.
The sermons of that period, both by Hasidim and those who were not Hasidim, contain in their figures of speech and parables elements that contributed to the beginnings of the Hebrew short story and the Hebrew novella, creating a model for the literary efforts of the maskilim in Eastern Europe, before they were exposed to the narrative literature written by the maskilim of Germany from the 1830s and 1840s onward. In this context, the contrast between the sermons of the Magid of Mezritsh and those of Ya‘akov Kranz, the Magid of Dubno (1741–1804), is noteworthy. While the Magid of Mezritsh’s sermons, like those presented in the name of the Besht by Ya‘akov Yosef of Polnoye in his Toldot Ya‘akov Yosef, are replete with parables of kings and princes in the traditional, laconic style of the Midrash, Krantz’s sermons, by contrast, include many short and long fictional stories, composed in a new, modern style. Both undoubtedly had an influence on early maskilic literature in Eastern Europe. The tales of Naḥman of Bratslav, by contrast, came to prominence and wielded influence among modern Hebrew and Yiddish writers beginning only at the end of the nineteenth century and later.
The information in our possession about preachers and their sermons in Eastern Europe comes mainly from the written sermon literature in manuscript and print. Hardly any preachers wrote autobiographies in which they discuss their work, but David Darshan of Kraków did write Ketav hitnatslut le-darshanim (An Apology for Preachers; Lublin, 1574). He notes that among the obligations of preachers to the congregation was the additional duty of teaching and giving sermons to small and selected circles. From the sixteenth century on in Eastern Europe, the centers of Jewish cultural and communal life, the bet midrash and the synagogue, included a place for preachers and their sermons, on every Sabbath and holiday.
We have other written references to the transition from oral to written text as well as the preservation of at least part of an oral sermon given in Yiddish. In his book, Masah u-Merivah (Kraków, 1627), Alexander ben Yitsḥak Papin reconstructed Yiddish versions of sermons by Efrayim of Luntshits, which had previously been available only in Hebrew. Papin did this for the benefit of the majority of readers of his time, who were not Torah scholars. He rendered Efrayim of Luntshits’s sermons so that people who knew how to read but found it difficult to follow Hebrew could digest them.
The problematic relation between the written sermon and the oral one is treated in detail by Berekhyah Berakh, a preacher of Kraków in the first half of the seventeenth century, in the beginning of his Zera‘ Berakh (1646). He relates that he delivered sermons with intensity and vehemence on various subjects, but when he set about collecting his sermons in writing, he had to admit that these sermons did not constitute correct biblical commentary on the literal meaning of the words of the Torah. For that reason he omitted them from his book and presented only those sermons that had a firm exegetical basis. He strongly attacked the authors of books of sermons that were, he believed, at their core nothing but manifestations of vain wit.
The reader of printed sermons from Eastern Europe will notice that many of the preachers paraphrased their sources from memory. Sometimes they think they know for certain that the source they are citing is from the Talmud, but their wording shows that they drew upon compendia of midrashim. Very frequently even verses from the Torah are quoted imprecisely, from memory.
Some preachers were employed by communities and were expected to deliver sermons regularly on Sabbaths and holidays. There was, however, a large number of itinerant preachers, some of whom were quite prominent. The increase in the number and influence of itinerant preachers was also connected to the spread of Sabbatian propaganda, to which itinerant preachers like Ḥayim Malakh and Yehudah Leib Prossnitz contributed in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. Half a century later, there was an increase in the number of itinerant preachers who sought to enlist followers for Hasidism. These were generally given the title magid, which was very common in Eastern Europe in every period. The title mokhiaḥ (rebuker) was also common among such preachers. Among the Hasidic leaders who institutionalized their preaching in certain communities was the Magid of Mezritsh. His disciples recorded his words in Magid devarav le-Ya‘akov, cited above. Other well-known preachers were Yeḥi’el Mikhl, the Magid of Zlotshev (Zloczów; Ukr., Zolochiv), author of Mayim rabim (Warsaw, 1899); and Yisra’el ben Shabetai Hofstein, the Magid of Kozhenits (Kozienice), author of ‘Avodat Yisra’el (Jozefów, 1842).
David Shelomoh Eybeschütz was a student of one of the most important disciples of the Magid of Mezritsh, Meshulam Fayvush of Zbarzh (Zbaraż). Eybeschütz’s fame came mainly from his important Halakhic work, Levushe serad (Mohilev, 1812), a commentary on the laws of ritual slaughter. Because of his status as a halakhic authority, and the sweetness of his style, his collection of sermons, which began to be printed about 12 years after his death, became one of the most widely distributed collections of sermons in Eastern Europe, along with Ya‘arot devash by Yonatan Eybeschütz (Karlsruh, 1779, second ed., Prague, 1793), who was not a relative.
Most of the collected sermons that have come down to us from Eastern Europe were intended to preserve the memory of their authors, and were published in a single edition. This edition was apparently distributed or presented to the author’s relatives and friends. Part of the explanation for this phenomenon is the expansion of the market for Jewish books as the cost of publication fell from the end of the eighteenth century on, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century. As a result, an increasing number of authors, devoid of imagination and inspiration, began to leave behind a written memorial to themselves. It was easy to write a book of sermons based on excerpts from the anthologies mentioned above.
The quantity of printed books of sermons from Eastern Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could lead one to the erroneous conclusion that this literature rivaled Halakhic literature in its importance and provided a literary and ideological alternative to it. This is not the case. Prior to the end of the seventeenth century, sermon literature was not a significant item on the Jewish bookshelf. Even when the number of books of sermons increased, at no time did the literature of sermons become required reading, studied in a regular way in the Jewish educational system. It was never part of the official curriculum, unlike Halakhic literature, the best of which was repeatedly studied in Jewish educational systems everywhere, including Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, the influence of certain collections of sermons, often published posthumously, has been considerable, including those by Yeḥezkel Landau (Ahavat Tsiyon  and Derushe ha-Tselaḥ ); and Mosheh Sofer (Derashot , which anticipated the development of ideological orthodoxy in Judaism). Sofer’s sermons were considered notable for their style by Leopold Zunz, who mentioned them in his compendious study of exegesis and homiletics, Die gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden (1832).
In the late eighteenth century, preachers in German lands delivered sermons in German. This trend appeared in Eastern Europe, and by the late nineteenth century, sermons in liberal congregations were being given in local languages such as Polish, Hungarian, and Czech. At the same time, the influence of the Musar movement led some preachers in the traditional community to emphasize ethical matters. For example, in Lithuania, Mosheh Yitsḥak (1828–1900), the Magid of Kelem (Lith., Kelmė), gained popularity for his fierce condemnations of fraud and dishonesty in everyday life.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in addition to traditional sermons, one could hear others that reflected new ideological trends and developments, among them the values of the moderate Haskalah, which informed the preaching of figures such as Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport in Prague. A position closer to Reform Judaism was espoused in the sermons of the popular scholar and preacher Ozjasz Thon in Kraków and of the rabbi and scholar Mojżesz Schorr in Warsaw in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, Hagut ve-hanhagah (Jerusalem, 1959); Israel Bettan, Studies in Jewish Preaching: Middle Ages (Cincinnati, 1939), pp. 273–368; Israel Bettan, “The Dubno Maggid,” Hebrew Union College Annual 33.2 (1950–1951): 267–293; Menaḥem Blondheim, “‘Uleha-shom‘im yin‘am’: Ha-Derashah ha-ortodoksit be-Artsot Ha-Berit, ben hetse‘a rabani le-vikush ‘amami 1881–1939,” in Ha-Tarbut ha-‘amamit, ed. B. Z. Kedar, pp. 277–303 (Jerusalem 1996); Joseph Dan, Sifrut ha-musar veha-derush (Jerusalem, 1975); Jacob Elbaum, Petiḥut ve-histagrut: Ha-Yetsirah ha-ruḥanit-ha-sifrutit be-Polin uve-artsot Ashkenaz be-shilhe ha-me’ah ha-shesh-‘esreh (Jerusalem, 1990), pp. 242–245; Ze’ev Gries, Sifrut ha-hanhagot: Toldoteha u-mekomah be-ḥaye ḥaside R. Yisra’el Ba‘al Shem Tov (Jerusalem, 1989); Ze’ev Gries, Sefer sofer ve-sipur be-reshit ha-ḥasidut (Tel Aviv, 1992), pp. 27–29 and 63–64, and corresponding notes on pp. 116–117 and 132; Ze’ev Gries, “Between History and Literature—the Case of Jewish Preaching,” Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 4 (1994): 113–122; Ze’ev Gries, “Sifrut ha-derush ha-yehudit: Ben masoret shebi-khetav le-masoret be-‘al peh,” Kabalah 15 (2006): 169–195; Marc Saperstein, Jewish Preaching, 1200–1800 (New Haven, 1989), pp. 1–107; Marc Saperstein, “Your Voice Like a Ram’s Horn”: Themes and Texts in Traditional Jewish Preaching (Cincinnati, 1996), pp. 127–146, 445–484; Joseph Weiss, “Re’shit tsemiḥatah shel ha-derekh ha-ḥasidit,” Tsiyon 16.3–4 (1951): 46–105.