Homiletic Literature

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Editors: Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik
Date: 2007
Encyclopaedia Judaica
From: Encyclopaedia Judaica(Vol. 9. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 10
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1270L

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The scope of this article extends from the Middle Ages to modern times (for the talmudic period see *Midrash , *Aggadah , and *Preaching ) and deals with the nature of the homily and works in the sphere of homiletic literature. For a discussion of the history and art of preaching see *Preaching .

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Middle Ages


Medieval Hebrew homiletic literature was not a direct continuation of the homiletic literature of the midrashic-talmudic period. Contemporaneous social and cultural conditions were basic to its development. Medieval homiletic forms therefore vary in many aspects from those of the older homiletic literature, though in some respects it is still in the tradition of the Midrash. The darshan (preacher) might have considered the midrashic form ideal but it no longer answered medieval needs.

With the exception of the great corpus of halakhic writings, homiletic literature is the richest and most extensive medieval literary form. Collections of sermons are found in the wealth of works written by rabbis throughout the Middle Ages. The homily was central to both Eastern and Western Jewries, and was used also in philosophical and kabbalistic literature. Homiletic literature appealed to all social and intellectual levels, and persons from different stations in life perpetuated it. Financially, some preachers were only slightly better off than the kabẓanim (itinerant beggars) and wandered from one small town to the next to preach for a very small fee. Others were among those rabbis who achieved great fame, wealth, and influence. While the Middle Ages produced comprehensive collections of homilies centered on accepted Jewish norms, the sermon was also a means through which profound and revolutionary medieval ideas were introduced into Judaism.

Homiletic literature, a genre within *ethical literature , mainly aims to educate the public toward moral and religious behavior in everyday life and during times of crisis. It differs from other ethical literary forms in that it appeals directly to its audience. It is in fact a product of the direct confrontation between the public and the teacher and has therefore a much more immediate effect. During the Middle Ages, the sermon exerted great influence on Jewish ideology and historical development; it was the most effective tool in forging abstract ideas into a historical force. Homiletic literature is also the most continuous and widespread form of ethical literature. Beginning with the 16th century, there is hardly a Jewish community in Eastern Europe or the East that did not produce preachers whose sermons were written down and often printed. Since the 12th century, with the exception of halakhic writings, homiletic literature is the only Hebrew literary form to enjoy uninterrupted development.


For the medieval listener the homily fulfilled the functions of a newspaper, the theater, the television and radio, a good work of fiction, didactic writings, and political treatises. A good sermon had to be informative, educational, and entertaining. It served as a platform to disseminate information and news, whether local or of distant lands. To the listener the sermon was also a behavioral guide for every situation with which he might be confronted. At the same time, however, he enjoyed it from an artistic point of view. The art of rhetoric, which flourished during the Middle Ages, found its keenest expression in the sermon. As far as may be discerned from extant medieval literary documents, the medieval listener reacted to the preacher first and foremost as an artist, and judged the sermon aesthetically: the didactic and informative elements were secondary. It is, however, difficult to evaluate the role of rhetoric in the medieval sermons at hand since the aesthetic value of their rhetoric can only be fully appreciated in the oral form. The sermon which was committed to writing either by the preacher or his disciples usually concentrated on didactic elements rather than on the rhetorical and artistic techniques used in the oral presentation. The vast body of extant homiletic works, either in printed form or in manuscripts, should therefore be seen only as the partial realization of the Jewish homily, rather than its fullest aesthetic expression.


The traditionalism inherent in homiletic literature made it a popular form of education and artistic enjoyment. The listeners were at least partially acquainted with the vast body of homiletic works which tradition had bequeathed to medieval Jewish society and on which the preacher drew. The great Talmudic rabbis who had formulated the halakhah had also dealt with homiletics. Their homiletic sayings, and occasionally parts of their sermons, are incorporated in talmudic and midrashic literature which every medieval Jew studied. Knowledge of homiletic literature was regarded as one of the highest social and cultural virtues. No other medieval literary form, except the halakhah, was held in such high esteem. The medieval darshan was seen as a descendant of the sages of the Midrash and his role was therefore hallowed by tradition. The traditionalism in homiletics has its roots not only in the history of the Jewish homily but is based on the inner character of the Hebrew sermon. Homiletic literature is essentially a traditional art form where ancient and holy texts are the point of departure for a discussion of contemporary problems, thus showing that the old tradition is relevant to contemporary times.

In midrashic literature, it is frequently difficult to distinguish between exegesis and homiletics. The point of distinction between these two literary forms is the inclination of the writer: if he is primarily concerned with the ancient text, the work will be regarded as exegetical; but if it is in the form of a sermon, it will be regarded as homiletic The medieval darshan was regarded not only as a preacher, but also as the disciple of the ancient sages whose exegesis of the Bible was accepted as the one and true interpretation. Since the Jew of the Middle Ages knew talmudic-midrashic literature, as well as the Bible, all of which was considered holy, accordingly, medieval sermons frequently do not start with a biblical verse, but with a talmudic saying, which the darshan interprets to suit his homiletic purpose. In most medieval Hebrew homiletical works, the interpretation of biblical verses and rabbinic sayings are interwoven in the fabric of the sermon and the medieval darshanim repeatedly showed that the same meaning was hidden within the words of these two ancient literatures.

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The medieval Hebrew sermon drew on the Midrash for most of its literary devices and, like the ancient Hebrew homily, was filled to overflowing with verses and sayings. One of the main aims of the darshan was to make his idea the dominant concept in the sermon and to show through numerous quotations that it is frequently found in the ancient tradition. It was customary to cite or quote the Bible to which the darshan would add at least two rabbinic sayings to substantiate his argument. The biblical and rabbinic references formed one section of the homily and were aimed at showing one particular detail of the whole thesis of the darshan. It created the impression that the sermon was entirely within the traditional Jewish context and that nothing new had been said in the derashah; that the darshan had merely expressed and emphasized in a new form certain ideas imbedded in the ancient texts which were really well-known to the public. Even philosophers, kabbalists, Shabbateans, and Hasidim couched their most revolutionary ideas in traditional terminology and delivered sermons whose language was readily acceptable to their listeners. Indeed, the listeners readily thought that these new ideas were a correct outgrowth out of the ancient texts that were quoted. Homiletics thus helped to smooth the way for the introduction of new ideas into traditional Judaism. Moreover, homiletics was the great popularizing agent in Hebrew literature, for the appearance of a new idea in a homily helped to gain it widespread acceptance.


Medieval homiletic literature was an integral part of Hebrew ethical literature and some of the most important ethical works were written in the form of homilies, e.g., Hegyon ha-Nefesh by *Abraham bar Ḥiyya (12th century Spain); Kad Ha-Kemah by *Bahya b. Asher b. Ḥlava (late 13th century). In addition, important innovations in ethical theory, ideas of Judah Loew b. Bezalel, *Ephraim Solomon ben Aaron of Luntschitz, and the ethical formulations of the ḥasidic movement, were first expressed in homiletic form. There is a close relationship between homiletics and ethics in that both aimed at teaching the community new moral and theological ideas through the use of homilies. In both forms new ideas were expressed in a traditional manner, though the sermon could generally do this far better than the ethical treatise. The darshan drew on all earlier respected sources, of which the best known and most widely read were to be found in ethical literature in general, and in earlier homiletic literature in particular. Thus during the Middle Ages and early modern period the literary treasure-house on which the preacher drew for his quotations grew from generation to generation. Continually quoted were the homilies of Maimonides, Saadiah b. Joseph Gaon, Jonah b. Abraham Gerondi, NaḤmanides, Baḥya b. Joseph ibn Paquda, the Zohar, Moses Alshekh, Solomon b. Moses Alkabeẓ, Judah Loew b. Bezalel, and Moses Ḥayyim b. Luzzatto. The darshan even drew upon the sayings of writers whose outlook was different from his own. Thus Baḥya b. Joseph ibn Paquda, a philosopher and rationalist, was quoted by kabbalists, rabbinical thinkers, and Ḥasidim who essentially disagreed with his main ideas, as well as by preachers who shared his philosophical views. At a time when a biblical verse could be interpreted in as many ways as the preacher wished, it was usual for statements by early medieval thinkers to be taken out of context and brought as proof of an idea which that thinker would not have accepted. The phenomenon is undoubtedly part of the traditionalistic character of the homily which utilized all Jewish literature and thought as legitimate sources to substantiate its validity. Even ancient ideological conflicts were forgotten so that the preacher might use the sayings of both sides to demonstrate his own concept which might differ from either earlier theory. In relation to the homily, Judaism was ideologically unified in support of the ideas of the preacher. It is one of the unique aspects of traditional Jewish literature that the validity of a work is not voided just because one disagrees with the approach taken. Homiletic literature has served an important role in the history of Jewish thought. It helped to mitigate the sharpness of ideological conflict and change, and to form a body of accepted, traditional or pseudo-traditional ideas common to all Jews. Often ideas and books rejected either by most Jews or all were reinterpreted in a homiletical way which enabled them to remain within the fabric of Jewish culture. Thus homiletics was instrumental in making Jewish medieval culture a continuous whole.

Structure of Sermon

The Hebrew sermon in medieval and early modern times was not constructed as a single homiletic entity. The preacher divided the homily into two parts, the "large" sermon and the "small," each requiring its own norms, formulas, and artistic values. The "large" sermon comprised the overall structure of the homily, which was usually based upon either a verse or verses from the weekly portion of the Torah, one of the festivals, a marriage, bar mitzvah or commemoration of the death of a communal leader or a famous rabbi. The sermon was regarded as an artistic unit with a beginning, middle, and end, whose structure was influenced by the accepted rhetorical norms of the time. It usually took about a half hour to deliver, which in print covers from five to 10 pages. The second part of the sermon, the "small" homiletic unit – the derush – is the basic element from which the sermon was constructed. The derush, toward which the preacher directed most of his creative capacity, has no exact parallel in the Christian or Muslim sermon. Essentially exegetical in character, the derush was derived from the ancient Midrash. Whereas the "large" homiletic unit was didactic, either moralistic or ideological, the "small" unit was exegetic – an independent homily on a biblical verse or a talmudic saying. The artistic unity of the sermon depended upon the ability of the preacher to weave a long series of derushim into a whole. The methods used to construct the derush were largely influenced by midrashic literature. Preachers did not try to reveal the simple meaning of the biblical verse, but rather to show that the verse contained unimagined depths, open to multiple interpretation. MedievalPage 510  |  Top of Article preachers, unlike midrashic sages, used grammatical and linguistic methods not to discover the true meaning of the language, but to find an exegesis suitable to their didactic and homiletical purposes. Similarly, other methods, especially the various forms of *gematria and *notarikon , were used to prove that the verse under consideration had meanings unconnected to the literal meaning of its words. After the 16th century (see below) such methods became paramount, preachers drawing further away from the simple, literal meaning of their chosen texts.

Preachers and listeners, however, knew and regarded the literal meaning of the ancient texts. But listeners did not come to the derashah for an exegesis of the Bible in order to understand it better. That could be accomplished at home by studying well-known biblical and talmudic commentaries. It was expected that the derashah would show the contemporary relevance of the ancient texts. Further, the derashah was expected to be an artistic performance where seemingly unconnected ideas were suddenly shown to be related. It was accepted that the exegetical part of the sermon was, to some extent, a verbal game at which the preacher had to prove his mastery. He could, therefore, use any means of exegesis justified by tradition.

During the Renaissance some preachers read Cicero and other, usually Latin, classical writers and the "large" sermon, or the derashah as a whole, absorbed certain classical rhetorical teachings. For example, the structure of the homily was divided into an introduction, a thesis and its development, and a conclusion. But the impact of classical writers upon the Hebrew homily was slight and superficial, the predominant influence remaining the midrashic tradition. The classical speeches of Cicero and others could not replace the sermon from Leviticus Rabbah as the ideal. However, when Jews preached in other languages, in Italian for instance, they used classical rhetorical forms extensively. Similarly, the modern Jewish sermon in German, English, or French is not essentially different in form from Christian sermons in those languages. Only in languages other than Hebrew did Jewish preachers share significantly the more universal norms of classical rhetoric.

Aesthetics of Sermon

The artistic value of the sermon was based upon one rhetorical device: surprise, universally employed by Hebrew homilists throughout the Middle Ages. But the element of surprise was difficult to achieve. On the one hand, the texts used by the Hebrew homilist were well-known to his listeners, who were usually able to recite verses by heart and were familiar with the talmudic and midrashic sayings. (The opposite was true of medieval Christians who were usually ignorant of both the Old and New Testaments.) On the other hand, the didactic content of the sermon could not be startlingly new. Moralistic preaching intended to reprove the listeners and guide them toward correct behavior but did not reveal any ideas unknown to the community. Preachers who used new theological ideas, philosophical or kabbalistic, did not present them as novel, but rather as traditional ideas found in the ancient literature and used by former teachers and homilists. Yet surprise was the element the preacher strove to achieve in his homily; it was also what the congregation expected, and the basis on which his artistic prowess was assessed. Surprise was achieved in only one way: by creating an unexpected connection between the text and the theme of the sermon. In a good sermon, the wellknown text was revealed in a totally new light. That every listener knew the preacher's text, its context, its accepted interpretation, and usually the main commentaries, and some of its aggadic and midrashic exegesis, actually served the preacher's artistic method. Interest in the sermon was created by the fact that the listeners were anxious to learn what the preacher saw in verses whose interpretation they already knew. The artistry of the preacher was revealed in demonstrating that the text had unsuspected depths, and that it could be connected to the theme of the sermon, though initially there had apparently been no link between them.

The method of surprise was practiced in different ways. If the sermon was dedicated to Ḥanukkah, for example, the preacher quoted a text in which there was no mention of anything connected with that holiday. Then he would proceed to prove that the text was directly connected with the occasion, thus surprising the audience with his homiletical artistry. Another practice, common in the opening of ancient homilies, was to cite two texts or two verses which seemed to have nothing in common, and which were far removed from the thesis of the sermon, and to demonstrate their unsuspected connection.

This technique was utilized throughout the homily. Often a preacher quoted a text, explained it in a surprising manner, then, seemingly forgetting it, he treated other texts only to unexpectedly show their relationship to the first text. The skillful darshan, who revealed surprising meaning within an ancient text, used the text as a unifying theme throughout the sermon. The method outlined above achieved the following: it brought the sacred text to life and proved it to be relevant to contemporary circumstances and problems; it enabled the preacher to extricate new ideas from the ancient texts; it gave unity to the sermon, enabling the listeners to remember its main points; and, above all – the artfulness of the preacher was a source of enjoyment to the congregation.

Although the artistic ideal discussed above was seldom achieved, most preachers attempted some approximation of it. Often the intensity of the didactic motive within the sermon and the preacher prevented this ideal from being realized. In fact, the artistic development of the sermon diminished as the didactic intensity of the preacher increased. When angered by some breach in moral behavior, the preacher devoted himself to correcting that evil and gave little attention to artistic considerations. Rather the preacher quoted text after text, each clearly related to the moral problem at hand; the demand for clarity superseding the demand for artistry. Similarly, when the preacher was teaching a philosophical idea unfamiliar to his listeners he presented texts which directly and literallyPage 511  |  Top of Article proved his thesis. Only when the didactic impulse was not so strong was the artistic element allowed to shape the sermon.

The aesthetic element in the medieval sermon is not always obvious to the modern reader, principally because of the special cultural tradition shared by the preacher and his listeners. The preacher expressed his ideas in the form most understandable to a specific community at a specific time in its history. Thus, the modern reader finds it difficult to follow gematriyya'ot, which were commonplace to the medieval listener. The more intense the cultural tradition within a certain community, the more difficult it is for outsiders to follow the artistry of the preacher.

Some rhetorical devices used by most preachers were not deleted even when a powerful didactic tension existed between the preacher and his listeners. Such devices included the classical rhetorical techniques of ethical literature like the story, the fable, the joke, and the epigram. However, the aesthetic value of the medieval sermon rested mainly on the element of surprise.

Another important reason why the rhetorical artistry of the medieval homily remains obscure to the modern reader is that few sermons of that period have survived in the form in which they were delivered. The process of committing a sermon to writing usually resulted in changing its structure and even its purpose. In a written sermon, and more so in a printed one, the content was not confined to an immediate problem of interest only to one community. In writing down his sermon the preacher gave the problems wider meaning and a more general applicability, but at the cost of losing the immediacy of impact of the oral version. Obviously, in a written sermon most of the rhetorical devices lose much of their effect. Because a book must be written in a form that bears repeated reading, the element of surprise, the most important rhetorical device of the oral sermon, was superfluous and meaningless. Accordingly, it is impossible to judge the artistry of the oral sermon by those which have come down to us in writing.

In writing down their sermons, some preachers remained relatively faithful to the original texts delivered orally. Others departed so completely from the oral form that the written sermon is almost a different work. Most of the sermons that survive are between these two types, i.e., they preserve the main elements of the oral form but have lost their original structure, rhetorical devices, and special didactic themes. Many ancient homiletic works did not reach the Middle Ages in their original form, but were arranged in an exegetical manner where each verse is explained. Medieval writers followed the tradition of the ancient sages and left a large body of literature whose character is somewhere between the homiletic and the exegetic. This category includes some of the most significant medieval works, such as those of Isaac b. Moses *Arama in Spain, Moses Alshekh and Solomon Alkabez in Safed, and Judah Loew b. Bezalel of Prague. Medieval homiletic literature falls into two groups: that based upon oral preaching, and that based purely upon written exegesis. The major distinction is that exegetic works comment successively upon every verse without establishing a connection between the commentaries. Homiletic exegesis chooses problems from the Torah and comments upon them at length. This selectivity of both text and theme separates homiletic works from purely exegetic works. Homilies such as these, however, have little to do withoral preaching and rhetorical art.


No other body of Hebrew literature has received so little attention from modern scholars as homiletic literature. There is not even a comprehensive study of the field, and only a few critical editions of important works exist. Most homiletic works remain in manuscript, and those that were printed lack scholarly bibliography. There are very few studies of individual homilists, biographically or bibliographically. At present it is therefore impossible to give a detailed history of the Hebrew homily. Nevertheless a rough outline is possible.

In the early Middle Ages oral homilies were delivered, but preachers usually did not write down their sermons, which were thereby lost. During the gaonic period, vast literary work was done in homiletics, but as a continuation of early midrashic literature. Most of the extant midrashic works were compiled during that period, with medieval editors adding new material to the old. A few such works are Exodus Rabbah, Numbers Rabba, Genesis Rabbati, Midrash ha-Gadol, and later, anthologies like the famous *Yalkut Shimoni . Some original works, for example *Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer , were written in a manner similar to the ancient homiletic tradition. Apparently, during this period rearranging and editing old homiletic material was a sufficient substitute for creative work, at least in the area of writing.

The first example of original medieval homiletic work is found in She'iltot by *Aḥa of Shabḥa . Modern studies have shown this to be a collection of homilies, delivered orally and then written down, whose main aim was halakhic elucidation but which also dealt with aggadic, moral, and ethical problems. She'iltot has a definite rhetorical structure, based upon a thesis, a question, an answer, an exposition, and a conclusion. This literature flourished in Babylonia in the gaonic period, and was transmitted to Palestine. She'iltot was translated or edited from the Aramaic into Hebrew in the form of the Sefer ve-Hizhir (1880), which may also be only a surviving remnant of a greater body of homiletic literature.

In Europe the growth of homiletic literature proper (excluding editing of old midrashic material) is closely connected with the flourishing of Jewish *philosophy . The first such homiletic work extant is Abraham bar Ḥiyya's Hegyon ha-Nefesh, a collection of four sermons, whose common theme is repentance. Abraham bar Ḥiyya was followed by Jacob *Anatoli and other philosophical homilists who created a school of homilists that continued to develop until the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (Isaac Arama, the author of Akedat Yiẓḥak, being one of the last of this school). The philosophical homilistPage 512  |  Top of Article faced a new series of problems, i.e., the formulation of a homiletic connection between biblical verses and philosophical ideas, derived from Plato or Aristotle, which have no basis in the Bible. The artistry of the philosophical homilist was demonstrated when he succeeded in proving that seemingly foreign philosophical ideas, if interpreted in the right homiletic manner, have a basis in the Scriptures.

At about the same time, another school of homilists was developing among the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz in Germany. Sefer Ḥasidim, the main ethical work of this movement, contains hundreds of long and short homilies on ethical themes, extensively used by subsequent moralists and homilists, first in Germany and then in Safed and in Eastern Europe. The esoteric theological literature of this movement also contains much homiletic material. However, the main contribution of the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz to Hebrew homiletics was the formulation of hermeneutical methods of homiletic interpretation of verses from the Bible, prayers, and piyyutim. These methods, based upon study of the letters in each section of the sacred literature, checking their meaning in notarikon and counting their numerical value, among dozens of other devices, served the later Hebrew homilists especially in Eastern Europe.

To a large extent kabbalistic literature was also based on homiletic works. Some, like the Zohar and the Sefer ha-*Bahir , were pseudepigraphical and written in the manner of early midrashim. In these works medieval homiletics were expressed in the language of the tannaitic period. However, some kabbalists, like Baḥya ben Asher in his homiletic exegesis of the Torah, also developed contemporary homiletics, using the accepted medieval norms. Many kabbalists, for example, Naḥmanides and Baḥya b. Asher in Kad ha-Kemaḥ, also wrote quasi-rabbinic sermons in which they did not reveal, or did not stress, their kabbalistic teachings. Kabbalistic homiletic literature penetrated to new depths the symbolic significance of the ancient texts and later generations have made use of their hermeneutical methods.

One of the peaks in the development of Hebrew homiletic literature was reached in Italy during the Renaissance and the 17th century. Some of the greatest Hebrew homilists – Judah *Moscato , Azariah *Figo , Leone of Modena – lived in those periods. The general cultural atmosphere and the influence of classical Latin rhetoric on Jewish scholars in Italy encouraged preachers to devote more thought to the aesthetic aspects of the homily. Ideological controversies and moral admonishing were transmuted by a new concentration on the beauty of the sermon. All of the methods developed earlier – including those of the kabbalists – were used in a new and more aesthetic way. Nevertheless, this influence was not very great because the major source of 16th century Hebrew homiletic literature was Safed.

After the expulsion from Spain, new centers of Jewish learning were established in other countries, especially Turkey (Salonika, Smyrna) and Palestine. In these areas homiletic literature was infused with new vigor, and the foundation for later and even modern homiletics was laid. Most of the important preachers were of the school of Joseph *Taitaẓak , and the most important among them was Moses Alshekh. In his monumental collection of homilies, Moses treated every portion of the Torah in depth, raising numerous homiletical problems and developing exemplary literary homilies about each portion. Other writers in Safed, among them Solomon *Alkabeẓ , contributed to the city's fame as a homiletical center. During this period in the Ottoman Empire in general and Salonika, Smyrna, and Safed in particular, there was also an increase in the quantity of creative work in homiletics. Eastern Europe, although the population center of Jewry and soon to be the cultural center as well, came completely under the influence of the East. Many works of the hundreds of preachers in the East were lost or remained in manuscripts, but those which survived became the major source for later Hebrew homilists.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, homiletics became the most developed branch of Jewish literature with the exception of halakhic writings. The number of homiletic collections compiled at this time probably reached into the thousands. All ideological conflicts of the period were recorded, or sometimes initiated, in the works of great writers and socially sensitive men like Judah Loew b. Bezalel or Ephraim Solomon ben Aaron of Luntschitz. The Shabbatean movement also produced homiletic literature; in fact, some of the greatest homiletic works of the period were written by believers in Shabbetai Ẓevi who only hinted at this belief in their writings. Among them were *Elijah ha-Kohen of Smyrna (Shevet Musar), Jonathan *Eybeschuetz , and the anonymous author of the important collection, *Ḥemdat Yamim , one of the period's best homiletic works in Hebrew.

Ḥasidic literature of the 18th and 19th centuries is, from the point of view of literary forms, a direct continuation of the homiletic literature produced in Eastern Europe by preceding generations. Like most homiletic works, ḥasidic homilies are kabbalistic in ideology and moralistic in expression. *Ḥasidism , however, is the only religious movement in Judaism which made homiletic literature its dominant, and for a long time, almost exclusive means of expression. Few ḥasidic works were written as ethical works, and since 1815 some collections of stories are found in ḥasidic literature; but collections of homilies were the only writings produced by early and most important ḥasidic teachers – *Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye, *Dov Baer of Mezhirich , *Levi Isaac of Berdichev , *Elimelech of Lyzhansk , *Nahman of Bratslav, and even *Shneur Zalman of Lyady (whose Tanya is written in the manner of an ethical book). In the court of the hasidic rabbi, the Sabbath sermon acquired new importance because it became the rabbi's chief means of teaching the theology of the new movement to his disciples. Studying the homiletic teachings of the rabbi became in some cases more important than the study of halakhah. Even today, ḥasidic rabbis publish their teachings in the form of homilies.

[Joseph Dan]

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Modern Period

The modern sermon, traditional derashah, has a tendency to find its way into print, though by definition its efficacy lay in the spoken word. Not only did preachers themselves publish their sermons, but also relatives, friends, and admirers frequently did so as an act of posthumous respect, accompanied by the apologetic statement "by public demand." Sometimes sermons were published by listeners who wrote out from memory sermons they had heard. The sermon stands midway between the derashah and the lecture, the dividing line, particularly in their published form, not always being very clear. As with the derashah, sermonic literature can be an important source for the social and religious history of a given period.


Modern homiletic literature begins in the 19th century (see *Preaching ), but its antecedents lie in the 17th and 18th centuries. Refugees from Spain and Portugal brought with them to Amsterdam, London, Hamburg, Bordeaux, Bayonne and elsewhere a tradition of sermons in the vernacular – probably influenced by the Church (see the bibliography of Spanish and Portuguese sermons in M. Kayserling's supplements to his Bibliothek juedischer Kanzelredner, 1870–72, 2 vols.; C. Roth, Mag. Bibl. 322 ff.). In the 18th century sermons delivered in synagogues on patriotic occasions were usually published, some of them in translation from the original Hebrew or Yiddish. Moses Mendelssohn wrote the sermon which David Fraenkel delivered in Berlin on the occasion of the victories of Frederick II at Rossbach and Leuthen during the Seven Years' War (1757, published by M. Kayserling, Zum Siegesfeste, 1866; see also Rosenbach, An American Jewish Bibliography (1926), no. 36; also in English, C. Roth, ibid., 324; Rosenbach, ibid., nos. 35, 37, 38, 42). Similarly, Mendelssohn composed a sermon for Aaron Moses on the occasion of the Peace of Hubertusburg (1763). A sermon written in Hebrew on the death of Frederick II in 1786 by N.H. Wessely was translated into German by L. Bendavid (for England see C. Roth, ibid.; for an 18th-century example in the U.S. see Rosenbach ibid., no. 80, cf. Roth, ibid., 325, no. 26). On the occasion of the coronation of Franz I as emperor of Austria (1792), Moses Muenz preached a sermon in Vienna which was published in German translation; and David Sinzheim devoted one to the "glorious victories" of Napoleon in 1805. The Napoleonic Wars also occasioned sermons by Prussian rabbis as when special services were held for Jews who volunteered for the Prussian forces (cf. S.M. Weyl's sermon Hoffnung und Vertrauen held in Berlin on March 28, 1813, translated from the Hebrew by I.L. Auerbach; and L.J. Saalschuetz, Rede und Gebet, Koenigsberg, 1815). The coming of peace in 1814 was celebrated by Herz Homberg in a sermon in Vienna, and by M. Benlevi in Hildesheim.


While the patriotic sermon continued to occupy an important place in the modern preacher's repertory (see below: Subjects and Titles), the age of emancipation and synagogue reform brought to the fore the regular Sabbath and festival sermon in the vernacular, which have since constituted the bulk of homiletic literature.

The traditionalists at first opposed the new sermon as much as other reforms, and for a time its use was restricted to its innovators. The consistorial system introduced by Napoleon in France and its dependencies in other European countries, included a provision which required the rabbi to deliver his sermon in the vernacular. In Germany such sermons were first delivered, among other places, in I. *Jacobson's school in Seesen, the Philanthropin school in Frankfurt, the private Reform services held in Berlin, the new Temple in Hamburg, and the improvised services arranged at the Leipzig fairs. In his Die Gottesdienstlichen Vortraege der Juden (1832), L. *Zunz , one of the early preachers, showed the antiquity of the Jewish homily in the vernacular. His sermons at the Reform services in Berlin, two of which appeared separately in 1817 and 1820, were published in 1823. Others among the early preachers whose sermons were published either singly or in collections were Joseph b. Wolf, Dessau; Israel Jacobson, Seesen and Berlin; I.L. *Auerbach , Leipzig; David *Friedlaender , E. Kley, and G. *Salomon , Berlin and Hamburg; and Joseph von Maier, Stuttgart. In Vienna, I.N. *Mannheimer introduced German sermons in 1821. Some Orthodox rabbis, such as J. *Ettlinger , I. *Bernays , S.R. *Hirsch , Z.B. *Auerbach , and S. Plessner soon recognized the futility of opposing such a useful vehicle of religious influence and instruction and published sermons of their own. Before the middle of the 19th century, men like M. *Creizenach , M. *Jost , S. *Herxheimer , S. *Formstecher , A. *Geiger , L. *Philippsohn , J.L. *Saalschuetz , and M. *Sachs occupied pulpits in German synagogues and published their sermons in book form or in special periodicals (see below).


The printed sermon became a well-established genre of Jewish literature in Europe by the middle of the 19th century, a time in which Protestant sermonic literature flourished in Victorian England in particular. In Germany, Reform rabbis like Samuel Holdheim, A. Geiger, the historian Levi *Herzfeld , scholars M. *Joel and J. *Perles , N. and A. *Bruell , and Marcus *Horovitz , and prominent preachers L. *Stein , S. *Maybaum , D. *Leindoerfer had their sermons published. Congregations in Austria and the German-speaking parts of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, and even Galicia and Romania offered their pulpits to preachers from Germany and vice versa. Thus A. *Jellinek was active both in Leipzig and Vienna; A. *Schwarz in Karlsruhe and Vienna; David *Kaufmann in Berlin and Budapest as was Joel *Mueller . To Vienna belong the sermons of M. *Guedemann , A. *Schmiedl , D. *Feuchtwang , and H.P. *Chajes ; the latter's sermons appeared both in German and Italian (from his Florence and Trieste period). In Hungary, too, Reform produced a sermonic literature in German and Hungarian by such prominent scholars and preachers as H.B. Fassel; L. and J. *Loew , S. *Hevesi , A. Perls, and A. Kiss. Even in Poland and Russia the first attempts at Reform were accompanied by sermons in German as exemplified by those published by W. Tugendhaft (Vilna, 1843), S.A. *Schwabacher (Odessa, 1875, 1884) and I.W. Olschwanger (St. Petersburg, 1879). Early sermonsPage 514  |  Top of Article in the U.S. (see below) were also preached and printed in German. Prominent preachers in the early 20th century who published sermons were C. Seligmann and L. *Baeck among Reform rabbis, S. *Breuer and N.A. *Nobel among the Orthodox.


In England, from the middle of the 19th century, both Orthodox and Reform synagogue sermons began to be published: A. Belais (Biblical Expositions, English and Hebrew, 1844); Raphael Meldola (1844), I. Albu (A Word in Due Season, 1853); M.H. Bresslau (1858); of mild or radical Reform tendencies are those of D.W. Marks (1851, 1862, 1865); M. Joseph (1893, 1906, 1930), Israel *Abrahams and Claude G. *Montefiore (18952, 1906) I.I. *Mattuck (1937); A.A. Green (1935); and several volumes by Ignaz *Maybaum (1951, 1962, 1965) dealing with the theological problems arising from the Holocaust. Sermons were published by four successive chief rabbis of Great Britain: N.M. and H. *Adler , J.H. *Hertz , and I. *Brodie . Other rabbis whose sermons were published included: H. *Gollancz (1909, 1916, 1924), E. Levine (1935), S.L. Lehrman (1957), and A. Cohen (1960). The chief rabbis in South Africa, J.L. *Landau (1936) and L.I. Rabinowitz (19522, 1955) had their sermons printed, as did J. Newman (1958). Earlier, some German sermons had been translated into English (cf. G. Solomon, Twelve Sermons, 1893).


In France the outstanding preacher in the 19th century was Chief Rabbi Zadoc Kahn, several volumes of whose sermons were published (1875, 1878, 1886–96). Also published were the sermons of chief rabbis J.W. Klein (1863); Alfred *Levy (1896); M.A. Weil (1880), B. Lipman (1928), and J. Kaplan. Many sermons in Dutch appeared in print (see Kayserling, Bibliothek Juedischer Kanzelredner 2 (1872), 69–70). Some of the Danish sermons by J.N. Mannheimer (1819), who was Danish by birth and served as preacher in Copenhagen (1816–21), were printed. The sermons of A.A. *Wolff , who preached in Danish, French, and German, and more recently, of M. Melchior and W.S. Jacobson (1941) were published as were the Swedish sermons of M. Ehrenpreis (see Kayserling, ibid. 70–71). Among the printed sermons of Italian preachers are those of Lelio della *Torre (1834, 1869, 1879, 1904), Marco Tedeschi (1866, 1929), S.D. *Luzzatto (1857), S.H. *Margulies (1891, 1956), E. *Benamozegh (1886), D. Prato (1950), and D.A. Vivanti (1929). Early Spanish or Portuguese sermons have already been mentioned; those by the Portuguese rabbi and scholar M.B. *Amzalak were published in 1927. There is also a homiletical literature in Ladino. Sermons in Russian, Polish, and Romanian were preached and published by the few modern, usually government-appointed rabbis in these countries, such as M. Jastrow, S. *Poznanski , and M. *Schorr . Some sermons have even been translated into Marathi (H. Alder, 1878; B.S. Ashtumker, The Jewish Pulpit and Sermons, Bombay, 1878).


The arrival of large numbers of East European immigrants in England and the U.S., where Yiddish remained their language for at least one generation, resulted in additional homiletical literature in that language. In those countries collections of Yiddish sermons were published more as an aid to preachers than for the general public (see below). There is little original modern sermonic literature in Hebrew. In 1812–13 six sermons in German by Joseph b. Wolf of Dessau appeared with a Hebrew translation. Sermons by I.N. Mannheimer were translated into Hebrew (1865) as were those by A. Jellinek (1861, 1891, 1906, 1930). For the sermons of N.A. Nobel see Hagut ve-Halakhah (1969). Some Orthodox rabbis adopted the new medium, such as M.A. *Amiel (Derashot el-Ammi, 1924, and Hegyonotel-Ammi, 1933–36); J.L. *Zirelsohn (Ma'arkhei Lev, 1932); and A. Lewin (Ha-Derash ve-ha-Iyyun, 1928).


Collections of sermons often containmaterial for all occasions by the same author, or such materialby different authors arranged according to subjects: Sabbath (Pentateuch readings), festivals – or the two combined; bar and bat mitzvah; weddings and funerals; rabbis' inaugural and farewell; consecrations of synagogues, cemeteries, and other communal institutions; and various anniversaries and jubilees. The Russian pogroms of 1903 and after produced many protestsermons. Patriotic sermons included those given on the occasion of national holidays, the restoration of peace, sovereign's birthday or death, wars and victories – which represent the least commendable category, especially when preachers indulged in chauvinistic sentiments and addressed volunteers or draftees.

A curiosity is a sermon preached for duelling students at Vienna. Sermons to children and youth, such as those by Charlotte de *Rothschild (also translated into German) and Simeon *Singer (1908), also constitute a special category. The title, especially of individual sermons, reflects the subject of the address. Collections often appear under such titles as Sabbath Sermons, Festival Sermons or just Sermons; but more fanciful names are also found, e.g., My Religion, Oaks and Acorns, Reaching for the Moon, God on Trial, Hear, Oh Israel, and Short and Sweet. Some sermons, published in languages other than Hebrew, have secondary Hebrew titles which are not always identical with the main title. Occasionally preachers devote a series of sermons to a particular subject (M. Horovitz, Der Talmud, 1883; S. Carlebach, Das Gebet des R. Nechunjoh b. Hakkonoh, 1903; Eḥad mi Yode'a, 1896; S. Hirsch, Die Messiaslehre der Juden in Kanzel vortraegen, 1843). Others wrote philosophical lectures (cf. R. Lewin, Mose und Kant, 1924).

FORM AND STYLE. Sermons, of course, reflect the literary ability of the preacher. Some sermons are written in a magnificent style, others are hardly readable. Nineteenth-century preachers produced an extremely ornate sermonic style, while modern preachers use a more sober and simple idiom. Sermons vary greatly in Jewish substance, ranging from the more or less original exposition of Bible and Midrash, with morals applied to contemporary problems, to the development of philosophical themes and the declamation of humanisticPage 515  |  Top of Article and ethical ideals as the essence of Judaism. Some sermons are long, having required at least an hour to deliver, others are short and pithy expositions which must have held the attention of the congregation to the end. There is even a sermon in verse (M. Jacobson, 1894).


Some authors have published general collections of sermons. Others have published, either singly or in small groups, sermons delivered on special occasions. There are also collections of general or occasional sermons edited by different authors. These collections, along with periodicals devoted to sermonic literature, were intended mainly for the "professional" preacher. Among the collections of sermons the following should be mentioned: in German, S.L. Liepmannssohn's Israelitische Predigtbibliothek, 1842; W. Levy's collection of the same name in 1916; and, above all, M. Kayserling's Bibliothek juedischer Kanzelredner (2 vols., 1870, 1872). In English, Best Jewish Sermons (ed. I. Teplitz); G. Zelikovitch's Der Idish-Amerikaner Redner (521 sermons in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish, 19224); the Manuals of…Sermons published since 1943 by the Rabbinical Council of America; the I. Bettan Memorial volume published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1961; and The American Rabbi, 1961–62. For collections of Yiddish sermons see above. Sermonic periodicals included S.H. Sonneschein's Homiletische Monatsschrift fuer Rabbiner (1868); L. Philippson's Israelitisches Predigtund Schulmagazin (1834–36); Katheder und Kanzel (1894); and Homiletische Zeitschrift (Yein Levanon, 1912–13). For English periodicals see U.S. below. There were also homiletical journals in Hungarian.

A related type of literature are the collections of homiletic material, of which there are many in Hebrew and Yiddish, and which can also be found in handbooks for rabbis. An early work of this kind is A. Ehrenteil's Ha-MaggidDer juedische Prediger (1854).


Many works, mostly lectures given at rabbinical seminaries, have been published as teaching manuals for student teachers and as contributions to homiletics as a branch of Jewish learning. Other works, like Zunz's famous Gottesdienstliche Vortraege, describe the history of the synagogue sermon. Between 1844 and 1856 E. Kley published his Predigt-Skizzen, Beitrage zu einer kuenftigen Homiletik (2 vols.). Also of importance are S. Maybaum's Juedische Homiletik (with texts and themes, 1890); L. Philippson's Die Rhetorik und juedische Homiletik of the same year; and J. Wohlgemuth's Beitraege zu einer juedischen Homiletik (1903–64). In French there is M. Weill's La Parole de Dieu; ou, La Chaire israélite ancienne et moderne (1880); and in English, A. Cohen's Jewish Homiletics (1937); S.B. Freehof 's Modern Jewish Preaching (1941); and Aspects of Homiletics (HUC-JIR, 1957). In Hebrew mention should be made of S.J. Glickberg's Ha-Derashah be-Yisrael (1940) and Torat ha-Derashah (1948).


The first Jewish sermon printed in the U.S. was one delivered by R.H.I. Karigal at Newport, R.I., in 1773. However, recognition of the sermon as an integral part of the synagogue service only came after Isaac Leeser obtained the right to preach regularly in 1843. Leeser published his sermons which were delivered in English to an Orthodox congregation, in DiscoursesArgumentative and Devotional (2 vols. 1837) and Discourses on the Jewish Religion (10 vols. 1866–67).

During the mid-19th century the Reform movement, predominantly under German influence, gained strength. The sermon as an essential feature of the service was a Reform innovation and the pulpit was an important means of expounding Reform ideas. For some time during the 19th century the most renowned Jewish preachers in the U.S. spoke in German, and many of their discourses were printed in that language (see HJ, 7, 1945, 103). Inevitably the use of German declined, especially after 1833, when Hebrew Union College began to ordain English-speaking rabbis. At this time the Sunday service became an institution of the Reform avant-garde. Such services were usually a mere framework for the rabbi's address, many of which were printed, e.g., the series of 36 delivered by Joseph Krauskopf. The Sunday service declined after World War I, though it was continued by such prominent figures as Abba Hillel Silver and Solomon B. Freehof.

Whether delivered in English or German, the Jewish sermon exhibited the influence of the contemporary Protestant sermon. After 1880, there arose a large Yiddish-speaking community whose rabbis and *maggidim used the mode of textual exposition long developed among Jews. One of the most famous of the maggidim of this period was Ẓevi Hirsch Masliansky, some of whose addresses were issued, either in Yiddish or in translation. A distinguished Conservative preacher, I.H. Levinthal, exemplifies the successful marriage of "derush" and the style of the English pulpit. Although pulpit oratory has declined in significance, the output of printed sermons is considerable, whether in the form of single addresses or collections published by individual rabbis or rabbinical associations.

Recording devices, which are readily available, have made the perpetuation of the pulpit message easier. Likewise, there is copious material on the art of preaching. Rabbinic periodicals present texts and subjects, and even compilations of sentences and phrases, classified and indexed, intended to provide preachers with oratorical sparkle.

[Alexander Carlebach]


S. Gliksberg, Ha-Derashah be-Yisrael (1940); I. Bettan, Studies in Jewish Preaching (1939); Zunz-Albeck, Derashot; Zinberg, Sifrut, passim; S. Shalem, Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh (1966); S. Baron, Social and Religious History of the Jews, 6 (1969), 152ff.; H.R. Rabinowitz, Deyokna'ot shel Darshanim (1967); S.K. Mirsky, Al ha-Darshanut ve-Sifrut ha-Derush ba-Amerikah (1938); Zunz, Vortraege. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: A. Melamed in: Aryeh Yishag (2003), 107–30; M. Fachter, in: Ereẓ Yisra'el be-Hagut ha-Yehudi bi-Ymei ha-Beinayim (1991), 290–319; K. Kaplan, in: Yahudut Zemanenu (1994), 169–200; J. Dan in: Ha-Safrut (1972), 558–67; idem, in: World Congress for Jewish Studies, 6:3 (1977) 203–13; idem. in: Ha-Tarbut ha-Ammamit (1996), 141–53; J. Elbaum, in: ibid., 167–81; H. Turninsky, in: ibid., 183–95;Page 516  |  Top of Article S. Regev, in: Da'at (2003), 201–19; M. Halamish, in: Yakhin (2002), 19–24; D. Schwartz, in: Me'ah Shenot Ẓiyyonut Datit (2003) 357–392; A. Taub, in: Talmud Torah be-Halakha, be-Hashkafa u-ve-Hinukh ha-Yehudi (2002), 101–8; M. Piekarz, The Beginning of Hasidism: Ideological Trends in Derush and Musar Literature (Hebrew) (1978); Y. Hasidai, "Reishit Darkam shel ha-Ḥasidim ve-ha-Mitnaggedim le-Or Safrut ha-Derush" (Diss., 1984); M. Fachter, "Safrut ha-Derush ve-ha-Musar shel Ḥakhmei Ẓefat be-Me'ah ha-16," (Diss., 1976); Z. Gross, at: http://hsf.bgu.ac.il/cjt/files/electures/sifruthadrush.htm ; K. Kaplan, Ortodoxia ba-Olam he-Ḥadash: Rabbanim u-Derashot be-Amerikah (18811924) (2002).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2587509165