Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


A Derashah

By the Rev. S. C. Noot, at the Synagogue B’nay Israel,
William Street, New York

My Brethren,

We read in Treatise Berachoth תניא אבא בנימן אומר אין תפלה של אדם נשמעת אלא בבית הכנסת. שנאמר לשמע אל הרנה ואל התפלה אשר עבדך מתפלל לפניך בבית הזה׃ “Rabbi Benjamin says, The prayer of a man is only heard in the Synagogue; as it is written, ‘That Thou mayst hear the hymn and the prayer which thy servant prayeth before Thee in this house.’” It is, therefore, brethren, that you have come to the important resolution of erecting for yourselves this holy place for the worship of our Father. It is with real pleasure that I can make here the exclamation of our ancestor Jacob: “How fearful is this place; it is no other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven,” which means, as our great Rashi explains, “the place whence prayers ascend towards heaven, the residence of God.” I have no doubt but that the establishment of this house of the Lord sprang from pure <<401>>motives, namely, to praise our God, to pray for the welfare of your neighbours and your own prosperity. You are, therefore, justified in saying: “We are rejoiced when they say to us, Let us go to the house of the Lord,” and undoubtedly you entertained the thought day and night, in order to appoint a proper plan for your prayers. But it is not your house; for king David said “Let us go to בית ה׳ the house of the Lord,” and it is a reward for your exertion that you are permitted to enter a house which is the property of our great Father—a place where his glory dwells; “For who is like the Lord our God whenever we call on Him?” You are always in the presence of your Father, and if you act obediently to his desires, He will also come and bless you; for it is said: “And they shall make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” And here again the word לי “unto me,” shows that nothing in the sanctuary belongs to you, but to Him to whom it is dedicated; it is, therefore, your evident and highest duty when entering this holy place, the מקדש מעט, to enter it with fear, with reverence, and becoming gravity; and you ought to reflect on the object of its establishment, to take your seats with silent devotion, and to throw aside all thought on your daily business and avocations. And only when properly composed commence your prayers, as it is recommended in the Talmud Berachoth: “The ancient pious men were in the habit of resting some time before they prayed, in order that they might direct their hearts to Heaven.”

There can be no doubt but that the promise made to Isaiah, “And I will bring them to my holy mountain, and I will make them rejoice in my house of prayer,” בבית תפלתי will be fulfilled; but as here again the word תפלתם “their house of prayer” is not used, but תפלתי “my house of prayer,” it will prove to you what is requisite to constitute a building a house of prayer of the Lord. It is not greatness and magnificence of the structure which will effect this; it is the devotion of the heart, the piety of the intentions which will do this. If the motive be ostentation, then the most beautiful temple, though magnificent in the eyes of the world, is not acceptable; but with humility the small and unsightly edifice is truly sanctified by God’s presence, and his glory will there appear unto the children of Israel, and He will be sanctified by those whom He honours, that is those who fulfill his commandments.

Therefore, let no pride overcome you, that you might say in your presumption כחי ועצם ידי עשה לי את החיל הזה, “Our own might and the strength of our hand has acquired for us this treasure;” you should remember the words of our father Abraham, and be instructed by them. He said, “And I am but dust and ashes;” so also Moses and Aaron, “And <<402>>what are we?” and finally David ע״ה “And I a worm and no man;” and thus ascribing glory to the Lord, you will be preserved in the path of righteousness.

This consideration will explain to us the saying of the Psalmist: “And thine, O Lord, is the loving kindness (החסד); for thou wilt repay man according to his deeds.” Our great Azariah Pigo comments on this verse as follows: He first objects, by asking, “What especial mercy is this, if God merely rewards every man according to his deeds?” To which he replies: Our precepts, contained in Scripture, are divided into two parts, the מצות עשה the positive commandments, or the things which we should do; and מצות לא תעשה the negative precepts, or the things which we should not do. The latter require no action, as is evident from their nature; but the former require action, or else they cannot be obeyed. Now let us assume charity for instance, צדקה either with our person or our money; could we give alms to the poor, if God were to deny us the means to do so? or could we attend on the sick, or bury the dead, or perform similar acts of personal charity, if God were to withhold from us strength and health? And still we are promised reward for being kind and charitable. David, therefore, says truly: “Thine, O Lord, is the loving kindness; for thou wilt repay man according to his deeds, as though the act were entirely his own, whereas the means proceed from thee.”

The first and principal observance which I therefore most recommend, is charity, as we are taught in the של״ה (Shelah) by Rabbi Isaiah Horwitz: “Included in the idea, that wealth is but deposit with us, is that a man is not permitted to make use of his money only in what is necessary; for it is merely a deposit with us from the blessed God, and we are only, therefore, permitted to use it for necessary purposes, and should employ the remainder in charity and kindness. Thou must open wide thy hand to the poor; for the Lord gives thee power to acquire wealth; and thou art his messenger, and shouldst give to the poor from his property, not thine; for thou and thy means are his. And let not the rich man say, Why shall I be the protector and distributor of rations to the poor? why does the holy One not support them himself? It is already written in the first chapter of Baba Metzeeä: Turnus Rufus, the wicked, asked Rabbi Akiba, If your Lord loves the poor, why does He not support them?  When the other replied, That we may be saved from future punishment, and to call down blessings on those of us who give; as it is written, ‘Give to him, and let thy heart not feel regret when thou givest him; for on account of this thing will the Lord thy God bless thee.’”

<<403>>The second observance I recommend to you, is גמילות חסד  personal kindness, which applies both to the living and the dead. But before you commence to do for others, begin to sanctify yourself, thereby rendering to your own persons the greatest mercy, purifying your souls that they may be worthy to dwell in the presence of God. And if you act faithfully in these two respects, God will be with you, and reward you for establishing this sanctuary; as it is mentioned in Berachoth: “Whoever appoints a fixed place for his prayers, the God of Abraham will be his aid; for it is said, ‘And Abraham rose early and went to the place where he had stood before the Lord.’” So also said Rabbi Simon Ben Yochai: “Whoever appoints a fixed place for his prayers will see his enemies fall before him.” Another promise of the Bible convinces me that your present undertaking will meet with its reward; as it is written in 2 Samuel 7:10: “Moreover, I will appoint a place for my people, Israel, and will plant them, and they shall dwell in a place of their own, and move no more, neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them any more as before time.” You will observe that the verse just quoted uses the singular ושכן תחתיו וונטעתיו and לענותו though the nation is composed of many and does not consist of a single individual; so also are the Israelites elsewhere spoken of as one person, such as בני בכורי ישראל “Israel is my first born son;” again “Dismiss my son;” but this can only be predicated of a state of peace and harmonious union. You, then, who have united for a good work, have ample encouragement to hope for the prosperity of your undertaking; since God himself is the planter in the verse we have quoted; for when a man plants, there is a doubt whether he will reap, or, whether he will be able to eat of the fruits; but when God says: “I will plant them,” there is no fear of the result; and He can therefore promise that they shall dwell quietly with no one to disturb them, but only when the community be as one, since of one only the promise is given. And if this be your case, you may enter here with a cheerful heart, and say, “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob! thy dwelling places; O Israel!” which verse also speaks of us in the singular number; and this is again observable at the giving of the law, where it is said: “And all the people answered with one voice,” which is properly explained by in unison and harmony.”

Your wishes are now fulfilled, and you have found a place for the Lord, a dwelling for the “mighty One of Jacob.” Now after you have been thus successful, I must urge upon you to pray with the congregation, and to set your children the example להתפלל בבית ה׳ to pray  in the house of God; let them know the way in which they should <<404>>walk, that they may not be like a flock without a shepherd. Make them acquainted with the law of the Lord; let their mothers wake them up from their sleep early in the morning, to send them to the house where God is worshipped. As the Talmud teaches: “By what means do the women acquire merit? by sending their children to the Synagogue and to school to be instructed in our holy language.” So also teaches Resh Lakish in Talmud Sabbath: “The world is only preserved on account of the children that attend school; and it is not permitted to detain them from attending, even for the building of the holy temple.”

You then see, brethren, how important it is to teach our children the law of God. Having therefore, recommended to you charity and personal kindness, let me urge upon you the third fundamental principle on which the world depends, namely, the study of the law; for one depends on the other; and if you succeed in making knowledge and obedience of the precepts your own, you will also establish among yourselves the other three principles of which our wise men speak in the first chapter of Aboth, to wit, “Justice, Truth, and Peace;” for, if there be no peace, there is nothing perfect; as it is written, “If you will walk in my statutes and observe my commandments—then will I  give peace in the land.” Spare, therefore, no pains to instruct your children in religion; educate them so that they may know the value or our holy Law, which is called our inheritance מורשה; as it is written in Deuteronomy, “The  law which Moses has commanded us, is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob;” and only then can you be sure that you have contributed to the result that, “the law may not be forgotten by Israel.” The following passage from Talmud Pesachim, ought also to encourage you to study the words of the Law and to teach them diligently to your children. “The Rabbins say, the following law was unknown to the men of Bethera, and they knew not whether or not it were permitted to slay the Passover sacrifice on the fourteenth day of Nissan, should this happen on the Sabbath, And they inquired whether one could be found to give a satisfactory reply to the question. They were thereupon told there is a certain man who is come up from Babylon, by name Hillel, the Babylonian, who has served, that is frequented the schools of Shemangyah and Abtalyon, and he is sure to know. Upon being questioned, he said, Have we then but one Passover sacrifice in the year which sets aside the Sabbath? when we have more than two hundred such sacrifices for which the Sabbath is set aside (meaning that they are regularly offered notwithstanding it being the Sabbath.) Whereupon they said to him, Whence canst thou deduce this rule? But he replied, By the daily sacrifice it is said, <<405>>Which you shall offer in its season במועדו, and with the Passover lamb it is also said, The children of Israel shall prepare the Passover in its season במועדו; now as the ‘in its season’ במועדו employed with the daily offering includes the Sabbath, so must the ‘in its season’ with the Passover also include the Sabbath. Besides we can demonstrate it by a major inference (קל וחומר); if the daily offering for which the punishment of ‘cutting off from the people’ is not denounced should it be omitted, sets aside the Sabbath, how much more must this be with the Passover, the neglect of which is punished with ‘a cutting off’ from Israel. They at once seated him at the head of the school, and appointed him as their Nahssy (chief); but he said to them, What was the cause that I should be your chief and prince? nothing but your indolence, in that you did not frequent the school of the two great men of our generation.”

Let the foregoing example be sufficient to you to prove that the careful studying of our holy law is one of the principal duties incumbent on us. Are we not the true owners of the law? was it not given to us from heaven? why then should we neglect to meditate therein day and night? Would not this neglect prove that we disregard its Divine Giver no less than its first receiver, Moses? This consideration should then induce us to devise all practical means to have our children instructed in our religion, and to impress on their minds how they should conduct themselves in our places of worship, so that, behaving with decorum, they may imbibe all the instruction there afforded them in the pleasant path of the law of life. Instruct them also to make the proper responses, especially in answering Amen אמן to the various blessings, and in particular to the one ending המחזיר שכינתו לציון, that they may fully assent to the hope of our national restoration herein prayed for.

* * * *

Endeavour also to instruct your children in the knowledge of the six hundred and thirteen precepts of the law, as also the seven rabbinical ordinances, called שבע מצות דרבנן which were introduced after the giving of the law. * * * * So also says Maimonides—

אלו הן תרי״ג מצות שנאמרו למשה בסיני הן וכללותיהם ויש מצות אחרות שנתחדשו לאחר מתן תורה וקבעו אותן נביאים וחכמים ופשטו בכל ישראל כגון מגלה נר חנוכה תענית תשעה באב ועירובין ונטילת ידים׃

“These are the six hundred and thirteen precepts which were given to Moses at Sinai with their particular definitions. But there are other precepts, promulgated after the giving of the law by the ordinances of the prophets and other wise men, and were adopted by all Israel; for instance, the reading of the book of Esther, the lighting of the Hanuckah lamp, the fast of the <<406>>ninth of Ab, the Ayrub, and the washing of hands before meals.’ (See also book Mattay Dan, and Darchay Noam, by Rabbi Solomon, D’Oliveyra, and the Kether Torah, by Dr. David Widdal.) Rabbi Yehudah Hallevy in his book of Cuzri, question eighty-nine, speaks likewise on this subject, in which connexion he also enumerates the lighting of the lamps on Sabbath and holidays, the reading of Hallel, the second days of the festivals, the seven feast days for a wedding, the seven days of mourning, and the four fasts.

The last observation I shall have to offer is respecting the manner of saying ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו “Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom,” after the Shemang, which is so variously done, some saying it aloud while others say it in a very low tone, which latter is the proper way. The reason is thus assigned in Talmud Pesachim: “Our Rabbins say, How was it customary to read the Shemang? They said ‘Hear, O Israel,’ &c., and made no stop after the first verse; this is the opinion of R. Meir; but R. Judah said, ‘They make a stop, but only by saying, ‘Blessed be the glory of his kingdom for ever and ever.’ Now the question occurs, Why do not we say it (aloud)? And the answer is given that we go after the legend related by R. Simeon, son of Pazi; it is said, ‘And Jarob called his sons,’ &c., that is to say he wished to reveal to them the end, which means the time of the coming of the Messiah; but at once the spirit departed from him; when he said, Is there perhaps an unworthy one among you, and is it with me as with Abraham, from whom Ishmael descended, or Isaac from whom Esau descended? to which they replied, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, is the sole Eternal God’ (ה׳ אחד), adding, As but one God is worshipped in thy heart, so there is but one in our heart;  Jacob then at once replied, ‘Blessed be the glory of his kingdom for ever and ever,’ Now, said our wise men, How shall we do? shall we say this verse whereas Moses did not say it? shall we not say it, whereas Jacob said it? So they decided that it is to be said in a low voice.” It is, therefore, incumbent on us to conform strictly to the ordinances of our חכמים, and any one who acts contrary is destroying the fence which they have set round the law.

* * * *

You will then see how important it is to be instructed in our holy Scriptures, and what satisfaction we must feel if we are duly informed how to conduct ourselves during our prayers. Therefore, let no time be lost in an earnest endeavour to establish the study of the law among Israel, and God Almighty will assist you in your labours; כי בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך מוליכין אותו  “for in the way a man is willing to go, he will lead forward from above;” and do not say, “Who will go up for us <<407>>to heaven and bring the law down to us?” no, for “it is nigh unto you, in your heart and in your mouth, that you may do it.” And I am certain that assistance will be vouchsafed to you; and thus we shall be enabled to set an example to all nations, that we are a free people, protected by the typical eagle,* which emblem we find already alluded to in Exodus, in the words, “And I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto me;” and “As the eagle stirreth up her next,” &c. We are not now here under barbarous rulers, as was our fate in former times, when the study of our Scriptures was punished with death. On the contrary, our Christian brethren feel themselves great delight when we study our holy law. We have the opportunity, and let us properly and duly employ it, and contribute by our own deeds to the speedy fulfillment of the prophecy, “And the earth shall be full of knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Amen.

* The arms of the United States.


Note. We have hitherto, in our sermon department, given only productions fashioned more or less after the modern style; we trust, however, that our readers, although not used to it, will relish a good old-fashioned Derasha, richly seasoned with quotations from Talmud and Midrash, with the usual quaint illustrations belonging thereto. Such productions contain, as will be seen, much that is instructive; but we fear that the haste with which we had to translate Mr. Noot’s quotations, may have prevented us from doing him ample justice. It is not always easy to render into English the peculiar phraseology of the Rabbi’s’ hence let any fault be ascribed to our incompetence, and not to the learning of the gentleman who has furnished us with a transcript of his lecture, which highly edified his own congregation for whom alone it was prepared in the first instance. Ed. Oc.