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


The Essence of Judaism.

A Sermon for Sabbath Kedoshim, Spoken in the Synagogue Rodef Sholem, Philadelphia

By Isaac Leeser

To the God of Israel, the Father of all creatures, the Lord of all spirits, be praise and glory, from the rising of the sun to his setting, from all the children of man, whom his power has called into life, now and for ever. Amen.


Having been invited by your Board of Managers to deliver an address on this Sabbath in your Synagogue, I know of no more fitting subject on which to descant than the general tendency of that religion which we all profess in common, whether we are of the German or Portuguese mode of worship, or whether we first saw the light in America or the various divisions of the old world. We are all Israelites, are either by descent or by adoption sons of Jacob, and no one is exempt from a due obedience to the law which is the outward token of our faith, and no one, on the other side, can be said to have duties to perform, if we take the general mass, which are not equally incumbent on all others. There are indeed different orders, such as priests, judges, superintendents of public affairs, and teachers of religion to whom peculiar obligations are assigned; but these affect not <<122>>their general obedience; and the especial acts required of them only extend to the general good, for the fartherance of which the various selected classes have needs to be established; since neither an Aaron, nor a David, nor a Samuel, nor an Isaiah was selected in order to glorify himself; and whatever either or all of these were called upon to execute was merely to fortify the large masses of their fellow-countrymen in the observance of the precepts in which all had a common interest. But as respects pure morality and the relative obligations which each man has to the other, there was not, and could not be any difference in the different ranks of society, inasmuch as all had the same Chief to follow, and all owed obedience and implicit fealty to the same God, who declared all alike to be his children.

Let us now take as the text of our reflection of to-day the following verse from this day’s Sidrah,

את שבתתי תשמרו ומקדשי תיראו אני ה׳׃ ויקרא י״ט ל׳׃

“My Sabbath shall ye observe and my sanctuary shall ye reverence; I am the Lord.”—Lev. xix. 20.

All duty is, according to the true principles of Judaism, referable to one single cause, and this is the will of God as revealed to us in his word. You cannot indicate to me a single act which is obligatory upon us and is not contained in or at least derived from the Scriptures, and if it be possible to point out any not so authenticated, we may at once say that its execution is a voluntary act on our part, but is no obligation, for the infraction of which we are punishable, and for the observance of which on the other hand we are entitled to reward. Punishment and reward are properly applicable to duty only we are ordered by God to fulfil certain precepts, some of which are easy and others difficult of execution, and the measure of our disobedience or obedience fixes our liability to divine and civil visitation for our acts, or exhibits us as entitled to commendation from God and our fellow-men, and the consequent happy and gratifying results springing from this state of things. It is according to this view that we are simply bound to become acquainted with the Principles of the revealed religion, which we justly assume to be from <<123>> God, in order that we may know what acts to do and what others there are which we must avoid, and the closer any one of us approaches the standard thus discovered the nearer will he be perfect, so far as this is practicable for us to become. At best will this perfection be exceedingly difficult for us to acquire; we are so surrounded with temptations, we are so constantly imagining that we are excused by circumstances for failing in our duty and faltering in our path, that we must often feel shame and contrition at discovering how easily we have been lured away to do that which we would condemn in others if we observed them guilty of the same faults; and yet how little do we struggle before we yield to allurement, how glad indeed are we to have so paltry an apology, as an opportune and convenient temptation to do what is wrong. This is our course even when we know our line of duty; how much more then must we be exposed to evil deeds should we be absolutely ignorant of the source whence it is derived. You have heard, no doubt, a great deal said of the innocence of man in a state of nature, by which is meant that state of lawlessness, where he roams about at will without moral or civil restraints, indulging in all imaginable fancies which his own impulses may direct him to. Without entering deeply into the inquiry whether such a state ever can exist, even amongst the most savage tribes, it must at once strike you, that the unrestricted license in one, must operate to the injury of all others; for it is not to be supposed that, when a man is absolutely free to do as he pleases, he will be restrained from any act of aggression upon the person and property of others, if he deems such a trespass, as we view it in our state of civilization, conducive to his pleasure and within the limits of his strength to accomplish.

Nature, we may be sure, is as strong in one as in another; the desire for gratification and to possess is powerful in all alike. If therefore there be no law to restrain the impulse to have and to enjoy, there can be no peace, no property, no love, no rights; but all would be one universal scene of warfare, anarchy, hate and plunder the strong would override the weak, and the latter would plan secret and cunning devices to accomplish by craft what he lacks in brute force, to be revenged on the other.

Consequently if you abolish law, you abolish civilised society; for if even you might succeed by any, the barest, possibility to enable a savage to live alone in the recesses of a mountain fastness or the solitude of the forest unrestrained and uncontrolled, you cannot give him a single companion, not to mention many, without establishing at once a system of reciprocal rights and duties; no one can submit unconditionally to the will of another and be happy or even negatively content; he will sigh to be released from the bonds of such depressing slavery will want to know how far the bounds of the power of his tyrant extends; and if he can find none, he will not rest till he has discovered some method to set a limit to the will that oppresses him, so that he may tell him, “Thus far shalt thou go, but approach nearer at thy peril.”

So far, therefore, is the law of God from abridging our natural rights; so far is it from destroying our independence; so little does it deprive us of the least that we could claim as justly our due: that it is at once the exponent of our rights, and the best definer of our duties; since it marks out what we must do to others and what we have an undoubted right to require from them. All just legislation must be a system of checks and balances; something must be granted in return for every demand; there must be relaxation for every exertion; there must be an indulgence for every sacrifice required, and so on the other hand there must be no reward without toil, no glory without previous merit. Our wise men have an expression which exhibits this ides in a simple light מי שלא טרח בערב שבת מה יאכל בשבת “He that has not laboured on the eve of the Sabbath what shall he eat on the Sabbath?” meaning, since it is not permitted to labour on the day devoted to rest to dress our food, no one can justly partake of a meal if he has it not in readiness on the day of preparation which precedes it; so also can no man expect reward without he has deserved it; no rest if he has not toiled for it; no renown if he has squandered away the precious hours; no tranquillity of soul if he has not subdued his evil inclinations in deference to the demands of religion.

It is accordingly not so much the gratification of a desire to rule uncircumscribed in the world, <<125>> which induced our gracious and heavenly Father to bestow on us his law, as the knowledge He had of our fallible nature, that we required a guide, sure and unwavering, which is to point out to us whatever we should do or avoid; which should teach us when we should aid our neighbour, and when to expect his support; when we should bestow gifts and when we may look forward to receive them; when we should offer consolation and when we should be entitled to have the sympathy of others bestowed on us; and we may be sure, that mankind will be then in the greatest state of peace and prosperity when the fewest have cause to complain of the acts of oppression committed and of the deeds of charity denied them by others.

And O! how happily might our life glide away, if each would look upon the other as his friend whom he is bound to love and whom he is willing to cherish as one equal with him in the eyes of the Creator; if the strong would rejoice in his strength to assist the weak against his oppressor; if the rich would look with pleasure upon his wealth when it enables him to open wide his hand to the needy one, his brother; when the wise would glory in his wisdom at the moment he steps abroad to diffuse the cheering light of truth and science among those whom his words may lead to a better appreciation of life and duty; and when  those who are humble would need not fear to lay their distress open to the attentive ear of their loving neighbours; when innocence might freely claim the arm of power for its protection; poverty appeal without dread of refusal to those who have enough of life’s abundant store; and when the simple might frankly ask for instruction and it not be denied to them.

But alas! how sad is the reality around us; there is indeed much that is heavenly scattered all over the earth; there are brothers and sisters of the needy, there are those in whose houses the poor find a cheerful welcome, to whom it is enough that a fellow-being suffers, to excite their warmest pity, as they hope to be heard in their hour of distress; but there are many who can see unmoved the tears of the orphan, and turn away unpityingly from the streaming eyes of the lonely widow; to whom the groaning of the captive is sweet music, and who glory over innocence ensnared and in<<126>>experience steeped by them into the whirlpool of crime. And yet such as these are often called the great ones of the earth; they are raised high amidst those who have power, and many call them the illustrious of mankind; the glittering star of proud rank graces their bosom, and historians love to record their deeds, and sycophants flatter them by saying that in men so exalted that is venial sin, a slight transgression, which is degrading crime and low debauchery in the humble.

Do you now wonder that the divine legislation, which is ours, endeavoured to place and succeeded in so doing all human beings on one level of obedience to a superior law and subjection to one Supreme Being? Assuredly not; for however low any one may stand in the ranks of society, he feels in himself the spirit divine which animates the most exalted; he sees that they must eat, if even more dainty food than satisfies him, of the products of the earth which he cultivates in the broiling heat, whilst the heavy drops of sweat course down his sunburnt cheeks; and he sees that when they have surfeited themselves with drink and food, they sicken from the excess just as he, the labourer, does when he neglects the prudential rules of temperance and moderation; that when age creeps over them their hair whitens, and their limbs totter just as is the case with him and his compeers; that when an epidemic rages and mows down the hard-working classes and those who live in penury, it spares not the palaces of the rich and great, but garners them in likewise into an untimely grave; and that finally, should all things go well with them for many, many years, they cannot escape from the gaping, yawning tomb, though it be a pyramid which covers their dust, or a mausoleum which rises above their mouldering bones.

It is therefore, I say, that the humblest labourer feels within  himself that he is a human being, equal with the highest, that he has hopes and wishes which carry him beyond the narrow space in which he dwells here; that he has a right to look forward to the time when he is to exchange his coarse attire for garments of light and glory, when he is to be the immediate servant of God instead of being dependent on and subject to the arbitrary will of man.     

This future equality of all the sons of Adam, however, is only possible on the assumption that there is a Power who can effect this change; for in human possibility it is not, and all the dreams of the philanthropist must, however well intended, end at length  in sore disappointment. We may deplore the evil which meets us at every turn, we may weep for the tears of the innocent which we see flowing unrestrained; but we have no means of altering the lamentable state of things which meets our view. But when we look upward the immeasurable sky, and behold millions of suns revolving around their common centre; when we reflect on the immense number of intelligent beings for whom all these vast worlds were created; when we contemplate on the immeasurable reach of that almighty Strength by which all this was called into being and is sustained without fatigue, without weariness, with watchfulness untiring and with intelligence unflagging; we must come to the conviction that there is hope for the needy and consolation in store for the afflicted, of which nothing on earth can ultimately deprive them; since He, who is alike the God of the poor and the God of the great, is able to fulfil the desire of all the living, and heal the wounds of all those who suffer, and restore oppressed humanity to the full dignity of an immortal spirit.

It is owing to this that we so often find such expressions אני ה׳ or אני ה׳ אלהיכם “I am the Lord,” or, “I am the Lord your God,” as the reason assigned for the observance of any particular precept either of simple religion or morality; for instance “And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, and what droppeth in thy vineyard thou shalt not gather up; for the poor and the stranger shalt thou leave them; I am the Lord your God,” (Lev. xix. 10;) which Rashi explains, “I am the judge to demand recompense;” and so to verse 17, “Thou shalt not go about as a talebearer among thy people; thou shalt not stand idle by the blood of thy neighbour; I am the Lord;” which is expounded, “Faithful to bestow reward, and faithful to bestow punishment.” It is because God is ever living and ever present, consequently always ready and well informed of the affairs of man, that He is emphatically our God, and capable to supervise mankind to <<128>> see whether or not they are faithful to their trust, and sedulous in fulfilling the various duties which He has assigned.

In this respect now, namely, that there is bet One; to whom all are responsible and all are compelled to look for the fulfilment of their wishes, we must consider all men upon one and the same level, wherefore it is also but just that all should love the same relative obligations towards each other. Station and wealth are merely accidental circumstances which in the present state of society must be assigned to the few for the benefit of the many, wherefore their possession does not absolve any from the smallest requirement which is obligatory on others; and so likewise the humbleness of our position is no reason why we should permit ourselves trespasses and violations of the rights of our fellow-men, since neither the possession of worldly goods or their absence can absolve us from a strict regard of the personal rights of our neighbours.

But it is not alone simple moral rules which the Scriptures contain, and which we are bound to observe; for there are other precepts which have reference more to the dependence which we have on God, as our immediate Sovereign, and which are not less necessary for our happiness, than the mere rights of humanity. I have already told you, that all duty depends on the revealed will of God; philanthropy, therefore, and charity in its most extended sense, are only obligatory on us because they are part of the divine ordinance, which to enforce He announces himself as the Judge, who is sure to measure out a recompense for our deeds, be this reward or punishment. But in order to impress us the more strongly with the acknowledgment of his sovereignty, and thus to render us the more energetically the friends of our species, He has assigned to us other duties, which in appearance only refer to our position to the Lord alone, although they are secondarily calculated to govern our will, and to render us therefore more obedient in all other things.

To this class of duties, we may reckon the observance of the Sabbath and festivals, as also the resort to places of worship, wherein the name of God is especially invoked. Our text accordingly says in the same strain, as of the moral precepts, to which we have already <<129>> referred: “My Sabbaths shall ye observe, and my sanctuary shall ye reverence, I am the Lord;” which close of the verse we may freely expound as the others, “Ready to reward those who obey me in this, and to punish those who wilfully refuse obedience.” It says, then, that as much as we look to God to reward and punish us according as we are merciful and just, or the contrary, so also will our observance of Sabbath-keeping, sad propriety in public worship, or the neglect thereof, entitle us to God’s mercy or his wrath. It would detain us too long to exhibit all the requirements which the observance of the festivals of the Lord demand; we can only deal with generalities, and I must therefore confine myself to them. We may, therefore, inquire what effect will the keeping holy of a particular day have upon us? Simply this, that whenever it recurs it will impress on our mind the well-attested fact, that it is a part of the law revealed to us by our Benefactor, Who gives us life and intellect, who moreover extends to us his helping hand to aid us in our distress, just as He acted towards our fathers, when He appeared as the Avenger of their wrongs, and broke asunder their bonds of slavery, and bid them go forth to an everlasting freedom. It is this God also who demands of us to be kind to the poor, and to love each other, inasmuch as we have been servants to Pharaoh in Egypt consequently, the observing of any festival will awaken us to reflect that in addition to the mere act of resting which we do as a religious duty, we offer our homage to the Lord for the benefits we have received from Him, under so many and varied circumstances, and we tell at the same time, that we will do something, however little it may be, to deserve the continuance of his mercy; consequently, we shall be incited to make the rest from labour a happy day to all our dependents, to grant them respite from toil, so that they too may have leisure to devote their thoughts, withdrawing them from the constant routine of exertion, to the reflection on Him who made us all, both servants and masters, after his own image, which means, making man but little less than angels, by imparting to him an intelligent soul, which is destined to live for ever.

This view of the Sabbatic rest is not a mere fancy, an orato<<130>>rical figure of speech; on the contrary, it is a literal transcript of various texts of the Law, which any one, who is even moderately familiar with it, will readily recognise. It is therefore quite proper to distinguish it as one of those precepts for which especially reward and punishment are indicated by the addition of the words “I am the Lord;” for, as respects our fellow-creatures, the brute even, it inculcates humanity the most elevated and universal, since all shall rest, and on God’s day all shall cease from; all shall be refreshed and recover new strength for the coming period of labour, and all shall thus have leisure to rise from the earth, and elevate themselves above its cares and disappointments, and enjoy a day of undisturbed serene repose, a fit emblem of the rest of everlasting life, when the labour of the child of sorrow shall be over, and no more shall be heard the groans of those heavily oppressed. And as regards our relation to the Creator, we testify, by our devoting to Him one-seventh part of our time, that we believe in his having made us, that we trust in the correctness of his word, which teaches us that out­ward nature is not a necessary pre-existing thing, but the effect of his potent will, which called all forth, and it was, when He commanded that it should, and everything stood forth obedient to his nod. And there is need for us all so to acknowledge God in our heart and in our deeds; we all are apt to forget that we are accountable, we are all too eager to lay up treasures in this world, to labour for self-aggrandizement, for the advancement of ourselves and our immediate connexions; we fancy that success is in our hands, that we can mould circumstances to our purposes; we forget that we ourselves are but flowers of the moment, that are easily cast down and scattered broken to the four winds of heaven; and the longer we continue to toil, the more we became self-reliant, the less are we troubled by the reflection that our end is drawing on apace. If, however, we occasionally halt for a period; if on the weekly rest which we devote to God we impress on our mind that it is not by our strength, but by his blessing that prosperity attends us as a handmaiden, ready at our bidding: we shall be humbled in his presence and think less of time than eternity, and be willing to listen to his commands, and <<131>> take Him as our Counsellor in every period and phase of our existence.

So it is also with the other precept which our text contains, “And my sanctuary shall ye reverence,” as it is likewise calculated to engender fear of God and love for man. The house where the name of the Most High is invoked, is not designed for those only who live at ease, but for all who feel themselves burdened with the weight and afflictions incident to the human state. The poor has indeed sore necessity for seeking the aid of his God, who is ever near to listen to his cry; the affluent however, is not exempt from cares and troubles, and the brightest day seldom passes away without some little cloud, to obscure the brilliancy of our horizon; he too should therefore not be absent when the worshippers assemble to do honour to their glorious King, especially on the festivals and Sabbaths, when a universal repose dwells among the children of Israel. The sanctuary is to unite all the sons of man in one brotherhood, it is to encircle them with a universal bond of love and attachment towards their God and towards each other; one shout of praise should burst from all lips, one universal acclamation should attest the faith of all in the One who is the sole Lord and Saviour of mankind, and one feeling should animate all, to leave nothing undone to attest the sincerity of their faith and the truth of their attachment to their religion, which is the immediate gift of the Supreme, and which all our forefathers received as their portion when they exclaimed, “Whatever the Lord hath said will we do.”

Thus acting, we shall best testify that we believe in the Lord as the Rewarder and Avenger, and we shall thus earn his approbation, and prepare ourselves for that happiness which is the treasured portion of those who love Him and keep his commandments. Amen.

May 1st, Nissan 29, 5611.