Preaching in the Local Language

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by R. Gil Student

I. Preaching and Change

Proponents of religious change offer many different arguments for justification, some more plausible than others. One argument that I’ve seen seems convincing until you understand the historical context. This claim refers to the ban on rabbis giving sermons in the local language, e.g. German or English. This was once denounced as forbidden but now is commonplace. Clearly, the argument goes, perceptions of forbidden and permissible change over time. Sometimes rabbis declare an unfamiliar practice as forbidden but as they become more comfortable with the practice change their mind. Therefore, the argument continues, if rabbis forbid something I want to do, I can still do it because they will eventually change their minds. While this argument might contain a kernel of truth, it is wrapped in cynicism and — in this case — historical inaccuracy.

Early Reform Judaism bears little resemblance to its counterpart today. Some of that is intentional — they want to be current rather than grounded in tradition. In its initial phase, much of Reform’s energy was spent on making Judaism more similar to Protestant Christianity, which was the dominant and “respectable” religion in Western Europe. Many of the changes instituted were designed to make synagogue services resemble church services. Among these was a transition from a traditional rabbinic derashah, a relatively brief midrash-style analysis of the weekly Torah portion, to an edifying sermon, a longer lesson designed to teach key ideas. The Reform emphasis on edifying sermons mirrored Christian practices and moved the focus of the services to the sermon, rather than prayer.

II. Speak Jewish

Leading rabbis sensed the significance of this change. Some responded by focusing on the language of these sermons — the local language rather than Yiddish. They forbade giving a sermon in the local language and some went so far as to insist that people get up and leave if a rabbi starts to preach in the local language. However, this reaction was not universal, even among leading rabbis.

Proofs to the prohibitive view include the midrash that the Jews in Egypt merited redemption because they did not change their names, clothing or language. While the midrash varies among texts, the point about language finds ample attestation. Additionally, Rav Moshe of Coucy (Semag, prohibition 50) includes language in a list of forbidden gentile practices.

III. Lenient Views

Relatively early in the debate, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Chajes (Minchas Kena’os, p. 990) wrote in 1849 that there is no sin in preaching in the local language. He points out that this was common practice in Spain, Italy and Arabic countries. If anything, it is better to preach clearly and eloquently than in Yiddish, which he calls “a stammering language that cannot be understood” (Isa. 33:19). He approves of sermons in the local language. Even before this, both Chakham Isaac Bernays and Rav Ya’akov Ettlinger had begun preaching in German.1

In 1865, a rabbinical conference in Michalowitz, Hungary resulted in a legal ruling signed by 71 rabbis, chief among them Rav Chaim Halberstam, the Tzanzer Rav. The first of nine rulings declared that rabbis are forbidden to preach in the local language. Additionally, if someone attends a synagogue and the rabbi begins to preach in the local language, the attendee must get up and leave. Generally speaking, those who signed this legal ruling affiliated with what we now call Ultra-Orthodox or Charedi Judaism.

Perhaps more interesting than those who signed the legal ruling are those who did not. Rav Azriel Hildesheimer, at the time the leading figure of moderate Orthodoxy (or Modern Orthodoxy) in Hungary, opposed the legal ruling. He issued his own analysis (of which I am preparing an annotated English translation for publication), disagreeing with many of the specific rulings. On this first issue, he wrote: “This cannot be found in any legal authority. Of the proofs brought for support, some are inconclusive and others can be conclusively disproven.” Regarding attendees, he added that “it is clear that there is no hint anywhere that listeners must go outside.”

Rav Moshe Schick, a leader of mainstream Hungarian Orthodoxy at that time, also refused to sign the legal ruling. In a responsum on preaching in the local language (Responsa Maharam Schick, Orach Chaim 70), he explains his views on the issue to a rabbi whose entire congregation only understood the local language. He agrees that those who leave Torah belief and practice start by learning the local language and studying secular studies. Because it can lead, and has led, to assimilation, Maharam Schick believes the secular language and studies should be avoided. Additionally, even if you believe that you are safe from assimilating, your example could give others false confidence that leads to their abandonment of religion.

Rav Schick quotes the Gemara (Bava Basra 60b) which says that we do not impose a decree on the people that they cannot uphold. He explains, based on a teaching of his mentor, Rav Moshe (Chasam) Sofer, that we cannot act strictly if it would give the advantage to religious deviants. If rabbis refuse to reach out to their congregants in the local language, people will be overwhelmed by the influence of deviationist preachers and publishers. Therefore, a rabbi who speaks the local language and wants to counter the influence of non-Orthodox preachers, in a place where people only understand the local language, he need not worry about leading others astray with his example. In such a case, where they will find a less worthy rabbi who will preach in a local language, Maharam Schick writes, “I have not found any prohibition for someone who fears God to preach in the local language.”

IV. Local Prohibition

However, Maharam Schick concludes by saying that his colleagues disagreed with him and he must accept their conclusion and forbid preaching in the local language. If this is an enactment to protect the Torah, we must uphold it. This makes it sound like a decree by Hungarian rabbis. Similarly, when writing about an issue addressed in another section of the legal ruling, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim 2:42) dismisses the ruling as a local matter for a specific time and place. It may have been a necessary measure to counter trends in 19th century Hungary but it does not bind others in different situations.

Additional support for the idea that the prohibition against preaching in the local language is, at best, an enactment rather than a Talmudic law can found in a story about Rav Moshe Sofer, known as the Chasam Sofer. Rav Akiva Yosef Schlesinger published the Chasam Sofer’s ethical will with a commentary. Lev Ha-Ivri, as the work is titled, serves as a textbook of Charedi ideology. While questions have been raised about the book’s historical accuracy, this story may have additional credibility because it runs counter to the author’s views until he attempts to turn it around.

As Rav Schlesinger tells the story (Lev Ha-Ivri, vol. 1 p. 21a n. 2), a town was considering a rabbinic candidate who was willing to preach in the local language. Despite the attendant controversy, the Chasam Sofer approved of the appointment because the rabbi was otherwise learned and God-fearing. However, as Rav Schlesinger tells the story, after his appointment this rabbi became a constant liberal nuisance and the Chasam Sofer lived to regret his support. While Rav Schlesinger focuses on the regret, we can see that the Chasam Sofer was more concerned that speaking in the local language was a sign of assimilation than a violation of a prohibition.

V. Conclusion

Does Jewish law change over time? You will not learn the answer from the issue of preaching in the local language. From the beginning of the declarations that the practice is forbidden, other leading rabbis dissented and permitted it. The communities that allow the practice today ideologically descend from those that were led by Rav Azriel Hildesheimer and Rav Moshe Schick or leading rabbis with similar views. Even those rabbis who forbade the practice because of its socio-religious implications would probably reconsider in America of our time. And even today, the communities that ideologically descend from those led by Rav Chaim Halberstam and his colleagues, who forbade the practice completely, still only allow sermons in Yiddish.

 


  1. See R. Shnayer Leiman, “Rabbinic Openness to General Culture in the Early Modern Period” in R. Jacob Schacter ed., Judaism’s Encounter With Other Cultures, p. 171 n. 57, p. 176. 

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

2 comments

  1. I think the closing implication, that change only happens when another already-existing opinion gains currency, is misleading.

    C polemics often invoke heter isqa and pruzbul, or mechiras chameitz. The end of polygyny. Not sitting shiv’ah when a child intermarries.

    There are cases of change in practice even when a conflicting consensus was established because the facts on the ground changed in a way that makes the situation a new question. Even though it looks superficially like the same case. I think these are more common.

    Ethan Tucker’s recent article tries to make this case for counting women toward a minyan and a number of other such changes. As he explained in an interview on Dr Alan Brill’s blog:

    … [W]e engage the possibility that the root of the obligation gap in rabbinic sources is in fact about social status (a bolder category than honor/dignity). We argue that this too must be reevaluated in a society where women would never be compared to slaves and minors (as they have been, without angst or embarrassment, in most earlier patriarchal societies).

    He argues that the standard ruling is about women given a societal background, not woman qua women. Demonstrating that he is in error is straightforward. But to keep to this post’s focus on the halachic procedure issues…. he has the issue correctly identified. He isn’t trying to claim that we can just ignore precedent, he is wrongly invoking proper halakhos in kelalei pesaq.

    And so this post omitting that channel for change may provide a strawman for them to argue against.

    • I think you over-read this essay. The only point is that: “You will not learn the answer from the issue of preaching in the local language.” Nothing more than that.

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