Introduction - Preparing a Jewish Sermon

ONE OF THE MOST bewildering problems that a young man who entered the rabbinate some forty years ago had to face, was how to go about preparing a sermon. The Yeshivot at that time did not have departments in homiletics or drush, worthy of the name; and the graduates had to shift and improvise for themselves.

I am glad to note that progress has been made in that area of rabbinic training, particularly at Yeshiva University. But I can also report from personal observation that to this day on the eve of Shabbats and holidays a number of our colleagues become frantic in search of an idea or a story.

The best advice one can offer is that instead of preparing for a particular sermon, there should be continuous preparation for preaching. To amass material for sermons, a rabbi should continue to study throughout his life, particularly major Jewish works such as the bible and its greatest Commentaries, Midrashim, Talmud and other sources.

A few years ago, Herman Wouk outlined a long list of literary masterpieces that a good preacher should read and be familiar with. One may argue with him on whether this or that book belongs on that list, or point to some classics that he has left out, but one must agree with him that it is essential for a rabbi to be acquainted with literature in general and Jewish literature in particular, for by building a literary reservoir he is safeguarding against drying up his own font of creative preaching.

Unfortunately, the nature of our calling is such that we are so absorbed with executive duties, fund raising, funerals, unveilings, weddings, meetings, visitations and trivia that we have little time left for reading, study and creative writing. No wonder the phrase applied to one who studies regularly is, kovea ittim latorah, which, when translated literally means, "he appoints or steals time for Torah." In our circumstances there is no other way but "to appoint or steal time" for study if we are to preach meaningful sermons.

My practice has been to jot down on index cards passages or ideas that I like, and to file them under proper headings, sidrahs, or festivals. When I read a book I make my own index on the inside cover, and jot down the ideas or illustrations that impress me.

Incidentally, one should not hesitate to use as illustrations books, plays, movies, or TV programs that have a bearing on ethical, moral, or religious problems. This is one more way of "sanctifying the secular" to which the late Chief Rabbi Kook alluded.

We can also dig into our personal experiences and use them as illustrative material. From our varied contacts and work with people we know incidents and stories that are "stranger than fiction." They should be used as one uses powerful beams of light to illuminate dark and shadowy areas. Life experiences can help clarify the points we wish to make and the ideas we wish to convey.

The question has often been asked whether a sermon should be put into writing. I write most of my sermons, in full. This I do mainly for future reference and use, in the words of Jeremiah lemaan yaamdu yamin rabim" that they may last many days." When I deliver the sermon, however, I seldom follow the written text. I have only an outline before me to which I refer when there is a long quotation to be read. Otherwise my eyes are on my people. A dangling participle, a split infinitive, or some other occasional grammatical slip will not bother them as long as they feel that the rabbi talks "to them."

Whenever one feels that the audience will get the meaning of his message better, he should not hesitate to use colloquial expressions. "What gives," "no holds barred," "put the squeeze on," "what's the pitch!" -- are pungent and meaningful phrases to a modern congregation. "Fancy language" which may or may not impress a few linguistic feinshmekers in the audience, or gain the admiration of two or three elderly Yiddish-speaking men and women who are impressed with "big" words that they do not understand, will not help make the message effective to the rest of the people.

In other words, one should sacrifice elegance of language for clarity of thought. The first concern of the rabbi should be that of reaching the congregation with his message in as convincing and inspiring a manner as he can. In every sermon he must make an effort to interpret and revitalize old theological and ethical teachings. Unless he presents his ideas in contemporary idiom, in language that the average congregant understands, he has missed his target; and once the target is missed, no matter how flowery the language and how noble the thought, the sermon is a failure.

Let me now say a word about the rabbi's personal conviction. Regardless of how good the sermon looks on paper, unless the preacher is convinced of its validity and truth, and wishes his people to share that conviction with him, he will find it hard to transmit his message to his people. I once heard a colleague deliver a sermon, and he made me feel that he was not convinced of the truth of his message. Both he and the audience were relieved when the sermon was over.

How long should a sermon be, I usuary limit myself on Saturdays to about 15 minutes, on festivals to about 20 minutes, and on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur to about 25 minutes. If it is interesting, another five minutes will not be boring; if it is poor, a sermon of ten minutes is too long. The important thing is not to bore. When a point has been made, one should move on to the next--if there is another point to be made. Otherwise, the right and sensible thing to do is to say "Amen" and sit down. It is a high compliment when people say to the rabbi that they would have liked to hear more on the subject that he discussed; it is painful, and regrettable, when they say that "he is long-winded," or that he should cut his speeches in half.


It is no secret that some of our colleagues find preaching distasteful because they seem to be singing the same tune every Sabbath and festival. The trouble is that not only the rabbis, but the people also know the tune all too well and are tired of it. We seem to concentrate on three major themes-- education, observance of mitzvot, and help for Israel. But there are literally dozens of themes that deserve the attention of pulpit and pew. Let me suggest a few aspects of life that can serve as topics for sermons, and bring variety and freshness to the pulpit.

For example, although we are not professional psychiatrists, economists, or political scientists, it is right and proper for us to comment from time to time on burning issues of the day. Care should be taken, however, that we treat them not as partisans -- as Democrats, Republican, or Liberals, or as pro or anti-capital or labor -- but as professional teachers of religion whose only interest is seeing that right is done. We live in an age in which spokesmen for the government tell elaborate lies, as in the U2 spying incident; in which big business is guilty of monopolistic practices; in which labor unions are ridden with racketeers and bossed by tyrannical "czars"; in which billions of dollars worth of food are left rotting in the storage houses of America while millions are starving abroad; in which segregationists are entrenched in positions of power. In such an era it is the rabbi's prerogative, nay it is his duty, to express in a forthright manner the Jewish view on these and similar matters. Because of his special training and character he is well qualified to distinguish between right and wrong, and to inform his people about his conclusions. The fact that some congregants may differ with him or criticize him for his stand, ought not to deter him.

By this I do not mean that he should take unfair advantage of the freedom of the pulpit, particularly in borderline cases, and pontificate from it. Some time ago, I heard a rabbi speak on a "hot" issue, and he sounded as if he was saying to the people., "Take it or leave it," or "like it or lump it." His dogmatic and uncompromising approach alienated the sympathies of the intelligent people within the congregation. If he had invited his people to join in reasoning with him, even when some would not have agreed with him, they would have been interested in, and shown respect for, his point of view.

The dreadful divisiveness in American Israel in general and in orthodox ranks in particular deserve the attention of the rabbi. On every level of activity Jewish organizations are competing, overlapping and working at cross purposes with one another. One can name a long list of individuals and groups within the ranks of traditional Judaism that squander their time, talent and energy in arguing and contending among themselves and doing little to underscore the principles and interests that are common to them all.

Another theme that deserves sermonic treatment is the religious climate of America today. The "Peace" books that were written in the past two decades by clergymen of several denominations - books such as Peace of Mind by the late Joshua Loth Liebman, and Peace of Soul by Fulton Sheen-- have created an impression, not only upon laymen, but upon segments of religious teachers, that religion is a sort of a nostrum for all kinds of ills and aberrations. Instead of adhering to ethical and moral principles, people find it easier to invent excuses for faulty conduct in poor parental relationships, traumatic experiences in tbeir childhood, unfair competition with siblings in the home, and on what is referred to as the "rat race" in school.

This philosophy should be challenged from the pulpit Our people should be told that Judaism is neither an aspirin tablet nor a sleeping pill. The prophets and seers of Israel were revolutionaries who did not hesitate to disturb the peace of mind of their people. While it is true that the afflicted and bereaved seek, and should find, solace and comfort from religion, it is equally true that the comfortable and smug need to be disturbed from their lethargy and apathy.

In contrast to Christianity which thinks in terms of nouns, Judaism speaks with verbs. With us action is the big thing. Except in specifically philosophical contexts, there is little discussion about the nature of God, but repeatedly there are powerful affirmations of His deeds and His will. Whereas many Christian ministers preach doctrinal sermons which emphasize articles of faith, we should address ourselves to what to do and what not to do. We should stress that our people ought to bring their living in line with their believing, and that instead of conforming to the standards of modern life, they should try to transform them.

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