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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Chapter 24

The Hebrew Worship.

The next point of enquiry is: "Have not the Jewish teachers of the law imposed unnecessary burdens upon the people, subsequently to their return from Babylon?" Every one knows how easy it is to denounce any body of men however exalted, and it is at the same time most curious, that those who denounce others do so, for the most part, without producing any other proof of their being in the right, than their own potent dictum. This has been done, I may say, by all those who have been so bitter against the wise men amongst the Jews, known at different times under the names of Scribes, Pharisees, and lastly, Rabbins. It therefore remains now to be enquired into, if in fact the rabbinical institutions are contrary to the written law, and therefore unlawful and useless, or if they are conformable to the laws and the prophets, and therefore proper and necessary. — But let me premise, that it is an error, though a very common one, that the Rabbins had their origin only in the time immediately preceding the destruction of the second temple: for if we come to investigate the Jewish antiquities and to fix the period of the first rise of these Scribes, we must at least lay it in the days of Ezra, for to him and his council are ascribed the first rabbinical institutions.

A great outcry has of late been raised against the use of the sacred language, the Hebrew, in our worship, because this language is no more universally spoken, and but little understood. Several attempts have therefore been made to substitute the languages of the countries in which we are dispersed, in lieu of the Hebrew. Of course the Rabbins have been saddled with all the blame and odium, as having been the first to force this mode of worship in an unknown tongue upon the Jews, and some good souls, more afraid of disturbing the conscience of others, than regardful of their own virtue and piety, have even dared to talk of thus restoring the purity of Judaism, as if any impurity had even been added. But let us investigate this subject without prejudice and partiality, and then determine according to the light which can be thrown upon it in the few following observations.

"Did those men, generally called Rabbins, force the Hebrew, contrary to reason, upon the people, and should it therefore be dispensed with? Or is the establishment of that language an ordinance emanating from the prophets, and which consequently ought not to be abolished?"

We read (Nehemiah, chap. 13. v.24,): "And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and did not understand the Jewish." It will from this single verse be discovered, that the Hebrew had ceased to be universally spoken, as early as the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. These two men were assisted in their reorganization of the Hebrew commonwealth by the three last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. If then they established the Hebrew to be read in the Synagogues in their time, we must admit, as believers in revelation, that this was necessary for the promotion of the proper worship; and that they did establish the Hebrew to be read publicly, is clearly deducible from Nehemiah 8. v.7-8; for according to this passage all that, which Ezra read, was explained to the people by the men named as being near him; and thus it happened, that though the Hebrew was not understood by a great part of those present, Ezra did nevertheless make use of it, but it was explained to the people in a language and dialect they understood. The expounder of the law was called מתרגמן (Meturgeman) or translator, and we find such a personage mentioned after the destruction of the temple. At present however this has become by far less necessary than formerly; for at that time books were scarce and could be procured by comparatively few, owing to the great difficulty of multiplying copies; but now the art of printing has reduced the price of books so low, the religious books especially, being printed in such immense quantities, that every individual, however poor, can procure himself the Bible and the prayer-books. Then again all parts of the Bible are carefully translated, as are also the prayers, and it is therefore easy for every person desiring it, and capable of receiving information of any kind, to make himself acquainted with the meaning of the law and of the prayers in general, though he may be altogether ignorant of the holy language. Let me not however be misunderstood, as saying that the Rabbins forbade the use of every language other than the Hebrew in public and private worship; on the contrary, they permitted the use of any language understood by the individual praying, nor is the language of the country prohibited in public worship. (Orach Hayim, Laws of Prayer, chap. ci. ยง.4.) It will therefore be evident, that the use of foreign tongues explanatory of the Hebrew service is permitted, but the recital of the regular prayers, the reading of the law, and the portion from the prophets, must ever be in the holy and original language.

The greater part of the daily and Sabbath prayers were composed before the destruction of the second temple, — some say by Ezra and his associates — as may be easily gathered from several passages in the Talmud, particularly the Mesechte Berachot (Tractate of Prayers) in which are enumerated the Berachot of blessings to be said before and after the Shemang. To any person acquainted with the Mishnah it would be entirely superfluous to draw his attention to this subject, and to those who are unacquainted with it, I hope it will be satisfactory enough, that the fact is stated in general terms without citing the several passages. Having thus seen that the use of the Hebrew was established as far back as the days of the last prophets, it remains to be enquired: "Would it be expedient, if we had the right to do so, to abolish the use of our holy language, and substitute the languages of the different countries, in whose boundaries the Israelites now sojourn?" — Let it be considered, that our abode in the countries, where we now reside, must not be considered as a permanent location; but God forbid, that I should insinuate, that we are to consider ourselves absolved from allegiance to the governments and obedience to the municipal laws of the countries in which we are protected, for this would be contrary to what we are commanded by God, through his faithful servant Jeremiah (chap. 29:7,); but I would only remind my brethren, that their abode in any country, other than Judea, is against their will. I hope that I am understood, but for fear of any misconception, I will explain myself a little more in detail. We were, in the first instance, driven from Palestine by the kings of Assyria, (see several passages in the second book of Kings,) and next the remaining two tribes Judah and Benjamin, together with the Levites who resided amongst them, were carried away captives to Babylon and Egypt by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. After seventy years spent in captivity the Jews were permitted by Coresh (Cyrus) king of Persia, who had subverted the Babylonian empire, to return to their own land. Those who did return were, with but few exceptions, either Levites or Jews, (Judah and Benjamin); but the other ten tribes did not return, and their existence has been a matter of doubt and speculation ever since; though according to some accounts they have been lately discovered in Bucharia, a country in the very heart of Asia. The Jews, after building the second temple (see Ezra and Nehemiah) lived for rather better than four hundred years in Palestine, though far from peaceable or independently, as they were often agitated by internal disturbance and molested by surrounding nations; but after this time, they were conquered by Vespasian and Titus, Roman emperors, who, though they are celebrated for their clemency and benevolence of disposition, did yet treat our ancestors in a manner too revolting and too horrible for words to describe. The remainder of the Jews not yet carried off by these barbarous emperors, (for such they were to us at least,) were driven out by Trajan and Hadrian, for which I refer to the histories of those days. — It will be discovered from this account of our people, that our abode out of Palestine is any thing but voluntary on our part. Our expulsion from our land was owing to our deviation from that holy law, which God, in his kindness and superabundant mercy, bestowed upon our forefathers. Our continuation in captivity is to be ascribed solely to our not yet having reformed our conduct sufficiently to merit the return of the blessings promised in Deut. chap. 30. (which see). It is well known that we hope to be ultimately restored to our land, and that this hope is well founded has been shown, I trust to every man's satisfaction in chapter 22. — Our residence in all countries, save one, must therefore be considered as a sojourning, though this is of necessity for an unlimited time; for, as we understand the prophecies, there is no specific period fixed in the Bible for Israel's restoration, but all depends upon our being worthy of this signal favor. That at all events the restoration will not be delayed for a longer period than God has fixed in His own wisdom, but which He has not imparted to any man, is not to be doubted. In short, if we Israelites are virtuous, our restoration, or what is the same thing, the coming of the Messiah, will take place immediately; but if, on the contrary, we continue in our wickedness, then at the appointed time. — Since then we are strangers, and as the time of our being reunited is of necessity unknown, it behooves us to be always united by a certain bond of union, to keep us one people, though at opposite corners of the globe; and secondly, to be united in the closest manner, when our captives be again restored and assembled in a body on the high-raised mountains of Israel. We have already a law which, if properly observed, will ever be that bond, which must, owing to its great purity, bind together the Israelites though the distance between them be as great as from pole to pole. But what would be the scene, if upon our restoration, we had in the course of time forgotten that very language, in which the law was first given? How could we be considered a reunited people, if different languages were used by the captives returning to Zion in their mode of worshipping God?

But even without going so far into the recesses of futurity, we can find many good reasons for employing the Hebrew in our prayers, and in reading the law and the other parts of Holy Writ, as it is now customary in the Synagogues. Let it be remembered, that we Jews are in fact a wandering people — we have no rest for the soles of our feet (Deut. chap. 28:65): we are either driven by circumstances or necessity from station to station, and it may truly be said, there is hardly a spot on earth where Jews are not to be found. It is for this reason chiefly that the Hebrew language ought to be retained both in public and private worship. If a Jew come from China even, as our worship is now constituted, he can enter any Synagogue even in America, and worship his God in company and unison with his brethren there assembled. He uses the Hebrew, and so do they. And this is an every day occurrence; for if Jews from every part of the world do meet and worship together, as if they were natives of the same land. And in our small synagogue at Richmond are frequently assembled natives of America, Germany, England, France, Poland, and Bohemia, some of whom hardly understand English. They can all join in the worship, solely because it is conducted in the Hebrew, when the use either of the English or any other language would evidently destroy the harmony thus existing. — There is, however, another very weighty reason why the Hebrew language should be used, and this is, the preservation of the purity of the law! "But is it possible that the purity of the holy law can be destroyed by the discontinuance of the Hebrew?" I will not assert precisely that its intrinsic purity could be asserted, without fear of contradiction, that if the Hebrew were once dispensed with in our Synagogues, the interpretation of the law would be rendered altogether uncertain, and thus its extrinsic purity would be so much marred, that it might be considered destroyed without a great stretch of the imagination. To establish this upon indisputable grounds, I beg leave to draw the attention of the indulgent reader to the following exposition. — If the Hebrew language were by universal consent banished from our worship, it would follow, as a necessary consequence, that translations or foreign originals must be substituted, unless we would consent either not to pray at all, or to suffer any fanatic or enthusiast to pray for the congregation in the wild and mad strains which shock us so much in the worship of some sects. — If now in addition to this we should have a translation of the law read to the people, we would soon find that no man would care to know Hebrew. For to what purpose should the Jew, whose intentions are not to become a classical scholar or a divine, apply himself to the study of a dead language, which would be of no earthly use to him when attained? Curiosity would not, I dare say, impel fifty out of five hundred to engage in its study, particularly as in the case of which we are speaking, they would have authorized translations of all the sacred books. — It is really deplorable, that not more are engaged in acquiring a knowledge of the holy language — a language which our ancestors spoke — a language in which the law was given. — But can this be a reason for banishing it altogether? And that this banishment of the Hebrew would be extremely injurious is susceptible of the easiest and plainest demonstration. — As it is, those who altogether use translations of the whole or a part of the Scriptures, are frequently caught in making the most absurd deductions from the Bible, which, upon examination of the Hebrew text, are no where to be met with. Let us take one example: there is a trite saying, man is born to sin, and many have attempted to fortify this position by reference to Psalm li. and Genesis vi.; and, if you come to investigate the meaning of these two passages, you would be surprised that no such thing is found in either of them; and this is not all, for as far as my acquaintance with the Jewish canon extends, I never could discover a single passage even to prove that man was born to sin. In the fifty-first psalm, David says: "Behold in iniquity I was conceived," but not to sin; in the sixth chapter of Genesis we read, that God determined to destroy mankind, "because the desire of the thoughts of their heart was the whole day directed to evil;" here is only stated the fact, that generation had degenerated, and were perpetually intent how they could do wrong; not because they were obliged to do so, but only because they chose this course of life in preference to doing right. — In the eighth chapter of Genesis we read that God said: "That He would never more destroy all flesh, as He had done, for the desire of the heart of man is evil from his youth." Now this sentence cannot mean that he is born to sin, and cannot of his own free will do right, without intervention of grace; but its obvious and only true meaning is: that as we have desires and passions, we are, from our earliest infancy, drawn on by these desires, but we are by no means obliged to yield to them, for in the fourth chapter God told Cain, that though he were inclined to sin; of course man had the inherent power to do right, though his inclinations should point the other way. But how is he to know what is right? Simply by revelation, and following that course which God had marked out for him. (See above, chap. i.) The investigation of this subject would lead me too far, besides I am fearful of engaging at present in the discussion of the philosophy of our law, as I do not think myself qualified to discuss the points which it would present to me, as they deserve; I will therefore rest here, only assuring the reader that this is not the only popular error which men have attempted to demonstrate as true with arguments drawn from the Bible.

What I intend to prove by the foregoing example is this. We have seen that by justly investigating the Bible we have overthrown a position so generally admitted as true, that to some it may appear to be but little better than skepticism even to doubt it. — If the Hebrew language were now altogether neglected, as some desire, we should be unable to make these investigations. Whatever were asserted upon the authority of any translation, would then of course pass for sound truth, and instead of Holy Writ being the light of the world, it would become the cause of contention. Every man would explain every thing as he liked best, and we should have just as many laws as there were Bible readers. But as long as the Hebrew continues to be studied, there is no danger that any thing of this kind will ever occur, I mean amongst ourselves. It is this which makes the Jews so very formidable in argument; we have the original records, and if any man comes to argue from his copy, we ask him: "Let us see how your copy agrees with our original;" and we have thus maintained the superiority in argument and controversy in every age and in every country, unless our reasons were answered by the sword or the faggot. — The Bible must be literally given; and every word, every letter, nay every point, has its meaning, which must not be lost sight of; no passage must be wrenched from its position to mean any thing or nothing; but, as the whole from the first word in Genesis to the last in the Chronicles (which books are the last in order with us) is one revelation, because all emanates from one source, the HOLY ONE of Israel (whose name be praised for eternity!) it is but fair that one passage should be used to explain the other. And the Bible may be compared to an arch, where one stone supports the other; so, generally speaking, will every obscure passage receive elucidation from another part of the Bible.

This is no fanciful defense of the use of the Hebrew, for the experience of every day proves its correctness; now let me ask my brethren who have not yet resolved to abandon all: Are you prepared to give up the superiority you possess over every other nation and sect upon the face of the earth? Pause before you strike the fatal blow; the nations are not so alive to your strength, that in some countries they will not allow a clergyman to be licensed who has not some knowledge of the Hebrew. In Germany and England they teach the Hebrew at all their universities, and I verily believe their object in so doing is to be the better able to cope with us. Therefore, for the sake of Heaven, for the sake of your own honor and eternal salvation, listen not to what irreligious men wish to instil in you, and consider and know that your ancestors were fully as wise and as will informed of right and propriety as any modern infidel, and, if I err not, even greatly more so!

I do, with every lover of his people, and venerator of the word of God, deeply deplore the condition in which many Jews, particularly in this country, are found. — Many, and I am sorry to confess, most are altogether ignorant of the Hebrew; this is no doubt an evil, which is of sufficient magnitude to alarm any man who seriously reflects. But this evil is not yet great enough to break down on its account the limits which our ancestors have set! No — instead of finding fault, let those who have the abilities set about enlightening and informing those who are less favored, let them explain the law, the ceremonies, the object and meaning of the prayers, and my life for it, the outcry against the not understanding of our service will cease. It requires a great deal of labor perhaps to remove the great mass of ignorance — to root out prejudices against the ancient system; but is he a brave man, who turns back at the sight of any obstacle opposed to him? Yet would I not recommend to those, who may be disposed to follow up my humble beginning, to lose sight of discretion; far from it, they must use language mild and becoming; they must endeavor to convince the understanding rather than captivate the fancy; they must endeavor to be plain and intelligible at the expense of being tedious — lest by a display of wit and great learning, they might astonish more than improve. We may be met at the very beginning by difficulties not thought of perhaps, for we may by chance rouse those spirits to greater activity, which have been and are even now at work to destroy all that is venerable for sanctity and antiquity: but let us work unremittingly, and the victory is ours. Let no man, who bears the honorable name of Israelite, and who has the good of this brothers at heart, be caught sleeping at his post, but let us oppose our enemies with perseverance, and use our watchfulness against theirs, and our God will bless our endeavor. — We ought not however to be too much elated by success, for our battle is for truth and not for fame, and if our object is attained. — if we once have succeeded — if we have reached the goal of our desire in convincing all of the righteousness of our law: we should lay down the arms of attack, and only continue to improve our advantage — teach the law which we have proved true — spread amongst our brethren the knowledge of their God — and by gentle means lead them back to the fold from which they have strayed! And should we fear to encounter ridicule — or hatred — or scorn — or even persecution? No — we must act and do our duty, regardless of what men may think, say, or do; and will not God prosper our undertaking? Most surely; success must await us, for never was war waged in a cause more holy; and our enemies need not then be ashamed to confess themselves vanquished, for not by us were they conquered, but by our God, who influences our minds, and to succumb to Him is honor, for to Him we all must bow in humble adoration!

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