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The Object of the Festivals,

A Sermon

By Jacob J. M. Falkenau, of the Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Delivered in the Elm Street Synagogue, New York, on Wednesday, The First Day of Shebuoth, 5605.

Brethren of the House of Israel and all my hearers, may the Lord bless you.

When I stand here to address you, my brethren! in a vernacular, which to many of you, is the native tongue—and to me, a few years since, was but strange and unknown; when moreover I reflect that it is on this holy spot that you have been accustomed to hear able production of eloquence and oratory—when finally I am fully aware of my own feebleness and humble capacities:—then surely must I feel discouraged and depressed! were it not for two reasons; first, the confidence I repose in your kind indulgence and friendly dispositions; and secondly, my own wishes and pure intention, that this production may succeed to be, what it should be—a religious discourse—devoted to expose revealed wisdom, heavenly principles, and holy truths, contained in the sacred volume of our Divine Law.

The text we have selected is from the chapter to be read tomorrow, the second day of this festival:

שלש פעמים בשנה יראה כל זכורך את פני ה׳ אלהיך במקום אשר יבחר בחג המצות ובחג השבעות ובחג הסכות ולא יראה את פני ה׳ ריקם׃ איש כמתנת ידו כברבת ה׳ אלהיך אשר נתן לך׃ דבר׳ ט״ז ט״ז י״ז

“Three times in a year shall all thy males appear before the Lord thy God in the place he shall choose; in the feast of unleavened bread, and in the feast of weks, and in the feast of tabernacles: and they shall not appear before the Lord empty. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessings of the Lord thy God, which he hath given thee.”—Deut. 16:16, 17.

After the three holy festivals had been ordained and the special laws of every one individually been described, the above injunction folows, as a conclusion and explanation for their being here repeated (since they had been already instituted in the other volumes of the law) that, notwithstanding the difference of one festival from another, in their precepts and istitutions—there is one great design, equally intended and ordained to be performed on each and all of them: “Three times in a year shall all thy males appear before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose.”

Though it is a law, the literal fulfillment of which is dependent on time and locality; and though it belongs to those precepts, which were only obligatory at the period when the nation dwelt in the land of their inheritance, and were in possession of the holy temple in Jerusalem—בזמן הבית—: still there is wisdom, weight, and spirit enough in it, to hold it up as a divine lesson, to be Israel’s guide at any period or time, in every state or place, and in all its principles and future significance.

It is a natural cause, that separation of space, change and distance of place, variety of vocations and employments, diversity of faculties and qualifications, difference of situations, characters and dispositions—should induce the mind of men, to adopt different principles, different rules, different doctrines, different feelings and sentiments. It might thus happen, that the stately citizen would think himself loftier than the rustic husbandman; that the rich and wealthy merchant would arrogate superiority over the poor working mechanic; that the elevated in society, would overpower the inferior class of people;—so that discord, hatred, and malignity might ruin Jacob’s household. And to prevent all this; to stop the sources of evil; to impede the perils and dangers of passion; to open the way for calm reasoning and friendly intercourse; to renew the sacred bonds of law and virtue;—and to maintain a peaceful unity, a general love for one another in the house of Israel: does the law in our text ordain,

“Three times in a year, shall ALL thy males appear before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose.”

There is no reason whatever in the bare idea, that only three times in a year man should appear before the Lord—that He can behold man in a certain place only; when of “his majesty the whole earth is full,” and “the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain Him.” Nor is it left at the disposal of any members to appear at the same place at a different time from each other. But the precept was intended to effect in its real sense and true meaning: a general meeting called by the divine voice by holy command; “a general meeting of all the males of Israel at the place which the Lord chooseth.'”

And what a glorious, what a godly meeting! a holy meeting, of a holy people, at a holy place, on a holy day, called by the Holy One, the Lord God of Israel.—How every faithful one of Jacob’s sons must have been filled with the purest and sincerest wishes, to walk up in faith, and meet his brother Israelite in the same pilgrimage, animated by the same feelings, sympathizing in the same spirit, each and all recalling to their mind, that the Lord. has vouchsafed the convocation; that it was his wisdom, his mercy, his benevolence which commanded all the males of Israel to appear before Him, that they themselves might appear before one another—that they might see one another—reach the helping hand one to another; deliberate, take counsel, advise with one another; teach, instruct and guide one another, to walk one way before one God, in one law, as one holy people.—The most secluded hermit, the sullen misanthrope, the sordid miser, the selfish brute, the haughty scorner, the proud oppressor, the violent ruffian, the lawless rebel—they ALL had to make the pilgrimage at the same time, to the same spot, to meet and to join with the kindest philanthropist, the most benevolent favourite of God and man, the generous nobleman, the virtuous hero, the meekly resigned, the peaceful friend, and the faithful observer of the laws; no distance of the field of labour; no separation of space; no distinction of character; no difference of qualities; no superior dignity; no highness of rank, should ever be a cause to separate Israel from Israel; to part Jacob’s sons; to divide the members of the holy covenant from each other.—To produce mutual affection; friendly intercourse; kind disposition; peace, harmony and unity in the house of Israel, is the very tendency—the real meaning, of the Holy command: “ALL thy males shall appear in the place which He shall choose.”

Let us then also be animated with the same devoted feelings; let us be of a pure heart and pious mind, when we appear in this land “in a place which the Lord chooseth,” since He vouchsafed to tell us through his prophet Ezekiel: “To be to Israel as a little sanctuary מקדש מעט in the countries where they shall come.”

Let our prayers be in the very spirit they were instituted by our prophets, our holy fathers, and wise men. No daily prayer, no essential and public part of our liturgy is written for the individual only; for the Israelite should not in his daily and public prayers to God pray for himself alone, for his family or his friends;—but all his prayers, his wishes, his heart and his mind shall be one for all and all for one. The text of our liturgy is generally in the plural term; because we should pray for all and include ourselves in common with all.

Indeed, I wonder, how, it is and has been possible, that feelings of hatred and envy, calumny, discord, opposition and animosity ever could have existed amongst brethren Israelites, united in the same country, the same city, the same congregation, the same house of worship.—I wonder how any one, imbued with an evil mind, can daily in his prayers, repeat the words: “Gather us all together from the four corners of the world,” “unite our hearts in love,” “give us peace and bless us all united as one man;”—when even in the Musaph prayer of this and both the other festivals we pray for the happy restoration of our state, when Israel shall be blessed to fulfil literally the words of our text, to walk up united hand in hand “To the place which He shall choose.”

Now these prayers are not the production of some fantastical modern inventor; they have the sanction as Israel’s standard of devotion more than two thousand years ago; they were composed by that holy body called “the men of the great Synod,” a body of a hundred and twenty of the greatest and wisest, and inspired men; for it counted as members many of our divine prophets.—Even with all the present prevalence of error and denial of religion in some places of Europe, no violent hand, no sacrilegious power has dared to touch the sanctity of this holy standard of Israel’s devotion—equally sacred to every Israelite from one part of the globe to the other, whether adhering to the Portuguese, Polish, or German liturgy.

Nor need we to stop here at this period of antiquity; we may trace as far back as our divine law itself. No special form of prayer is specifically prescribed in the book of law, except the one benediction of the priests to the people, and the end of this, the very last expression are the words: “And may He give thee peace.” In imitation, therefore, of this divine text, the very last terms of the very last section in our eighteen benedictions, are the words: “Blessed be thou, Lord, who blesseth his people, Israel, with peace.” Let no son of Jacob, no man of Israel, ever enter the Synagogue, or open the book of prayers, without being in his heart fully penetrated with that love of peace—that spirit of harmony—that high sense of unity, which essentially constitutes all our prayers, and which is the divine will in the sense of our text, that on the three holy festivals all the males of Israel shall meet as one man at the chosen place before God.

When we act, and feel, and pray in this way, them may we in another sense apply the next words of the text: “Then shalt thou not appear in vain before God,” for our prayers shall not be in vain, He will hearken to our voice, for “the Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth;” He will give strength to our efforts—He will enlighten our minds—He will be our Shield, our Help, our Guide, that we may learn to know the way of righteousness, our duties towards God, towards our fellow-creatures, and towards ourselves, revealed in the laws, the commandments, and the statutes, that lead Israel to eternal happiness, to glory, and salvation.

For verily, even when we do strictly observe all our duties in the Synagogue, when the service is really attended in the best order, and the highest decorum, and the most solemn dignity, reign during worship, then, even then, much remains, the most important remains yet to be done, to be practised and performed; since the Synagogue alone is not Judaism, to stand in a holy place, is not the evidence of being a holy people, to sit with demure face and solemn air, is not the fear of God; yea, to sit immovable, without remembering the holy command: “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the wise and learned,” is not obeying the divine will; to beep order and decorum in the Synagogue, is not keeping the holy law, and the commandments of God. The Israelite, in the time and places of his dispersion, has still to observe three hundred and three score and nine divine commandments, including affirmative and negative precepts; and “to pray to God” is but one of the former, leaving yet three hundred three score and eight more, to be accounted for. It is not within the means, the capacity, the duty of any individual to fulfil them all; some cannot in any way be performed by an individual, and others can only be done correctly by a congregation of persons. It is therefore the duty of every Israelite to unite with his brethren, living with him in one and the same place, and to exert all his efforts to support, maintain, and share in the work of sacred duties, and to participate and sympathize in the holy cause.

But, hitherto, (I must confess,) in this country it has been but too generally considered, that a congregation have done all their duties in the holy cause of the people of God, when a massive building as a Synagogue with its appurtenances, a casher place in the market has been provided for the living, and when a burial-ground has been furnished for the dead. With this, congregations have ever been too much satisfied, as having thus done all that Israel is commanded to do; all that is required for the benefit, welfare, and glory of the members of Jacob’s household. These remarks are intended to say, that it has been so collectively as a body, not individually; for we must neither thoughtlessly forget, nor carelessly and ungratefully disparage the high merits of societies for the promotion of religious education and instruction of the youth; those for the performance and practice of religious duties, and the various different branches of benevolence and charity. But, as we have said before, with regard to a congregation, societies are to be considered individuals, and that the instituting of many of them was left to individuals, and their having never yet been comprehended and considered as indispensable with the whole body, is the very reason, the cause, the impediment, that checks their good intentions, and hinders their course of progression and improvement.

We do not deem it proper to enter into any particulars, but let every one of you, my brethren! make the comparison himself; let him represent to his mind, what great things he has seen or could have seen, in a city numbering more than ten thousand Israelites, on the other side of the Atlantic. We wish you to make that comparison with Europe as it was about a quarter of a century back, in every place, or (in the present times of turbulence) in such places only where the destroying hand of modern infidels, scattering the mental poison of sophistical arrogance, has not reached, violated, or broken down the sanctuary of Israel’s covenant; and after you have compared one with another, you will justly perceive, that and how we could have here in this country, in this city, all that is good and useful, all that promotes religion and science, all that would lead to our salvation, our glory and happiness, here and hereafter.

For indeed the settlement, of our brethren in America is not of so late a date, as generally is supposed.

When the illustrious rabbi, philosopher, and physician, Menasseh Ben Israel, in behalf of his brethren, our nation, sailed over from Holland to England, and delivered his successful documents to the then reigning Protector Cromwell, he declares and informs us, that at that time, already a period of nearly two hundred years ago, America numbered some of our brethren amongst its inhabitants;—here, in this city, a congregation was formed, a Synagogue built, much more than a century ago; and this very building—our Synagogue—we might call (if I am rightly informed*) the first and oldest in this city, this state, and all the United States—of those conducted according to the German and Polish rites.

* Mr. F. is misinformed in this; as the German Congregation of Philadelphia is at least forty years old—whereas the Elm Street Congregation of New York was established only about eighteen years ago.—Ed. Oc.

But when we are conscious that a great deal is yet to be done in the holy cause of our sacred religion, and the knowledge thereof: we, at the same time, must not be unmindful of all the good and the benefits, that have been obtained—especially the stranger coming within our gates should be impressed with the import of this assertion and its true facts. Let me represent to you, my brethren, the sentiments of the brother Israelite, who leaves his native home, coming here to find a better—a liberal home; he confidently expects that he will find it so, and his mind feels easy and satisfied, as to his worldly affairs. But how anxious, how sorrowful, how deeply afflicted must not be the heart and soul of that man, who is really pious—a faithful and true Israelite how dejection, gloom, and sadness will bear hard on his mind and conscience, revolving the momentous thought, the dubious and awful conjecture: “Shall I in that liberal home, also find my religious home? And for those brethren at home, will I see others in the new home, who also will be my brethren? Will I find there the people of God? the law of God? the house of God?” And with all these righteous scruples—with all these pious reflections: let this man come near our sacred shrine—let him approach our holy Synagogue, and all his fears, all his religious panic will vanish at once;—overtaken by joyful surprise his eyes will overflow with admiration and delight at the very ASPECT of the noble structure—at the mere SIGHT of the magnificent building; and with a sincere heart, he will loudly proclaim: “Here is the place my soul wished for; the place of holy service; the house of God, the God of Israel—let me enter it:” and he does enter it. No barrier limits the entrance of the stranger; no vacant seat is denied to his convenience; he joins his brethren; he sees himself kindly received, and beholds the house of God in splendour and brightness—profusely decorated with lamps of the shining metal; the massive portal of the holy ark, garnished with silken drapery richly embroidered; the sacred rolls crowned with pure silver, ornamented with embroidery of gold—all consecrated to glorify the name of the holy One of Israel; all designed to dignify, to exalt the pious devotion, the fervent prayer of the large assembly of intelligent, worthy members of the house of Israel. The hoary head of old age, the high brow of wisdom, the strength of autumnal manhood, the blooming youth, and even in the galleries the fair daughters of Zion—all sympathize and sincerely respond, when the new-comer rises in praise and thanks to Him, who has mercifully guided and protected him in dangers and perils of the foaming ocean, and has graciously brought him in safety to the desired haven;—and the stranger really forgets, that he is a stranger—all calls to his mind, that Israel is but one family; has but one law; one faith; one worship;—he is gratified in witnessing the order and decorum prevailing with many of the attendants; he rejoices at the recital of the prayers, and the correct reading in the sacred roll—and most of all yet, is his pious mind delighted, that there he can pray in the same book, the same style, the same form, those pure and devotional prayers received from a long line of pious forefathers sanctified from age to age, from generation to generation, and from century to century; unaltered by the modern spirit of arrogance, the sophistical doctrines of novelty;—and the stranger deeply impressed in his mind, exhorted, edified and instructed, truly remembers the words of our text: “Thou shalt appear before the Lord thy God in the place which He chooseth, and thou shalt not appear in vain before him.”

Nor does the Synagogue comprehend all the benefits he enjoys; there are other things which in their nature offer nothing of display or ostentation; but they are of more intrinsic and vital necessity and importance in the code of our laws. We allude to things belonging to the domestic arrangement of the family; and, amongst others, the stranger finds ample supply of that which we are allowed to eat, without any tax whatever being levied upon it, an exaction by the government most generally in vogue in the stranger’s own country. He also sees a noble institute for the religious and moral education of the youth, the highest duty of every father to his son; and besides these are the deeds of a generous hospitality, and other benefits of equal importance, which every man, in whatever circumstances he may come to his new home, enjoys for nothing, or comparatively nothing; his contributions being left to his own liberality and generosity.

These considerations, therefore, should not fail to strike deeply in the Jewish mind, to take root in the sensitive heart of every stranger, every strict and pious foreigner, when he recalls to his mind his former anguish and anxiety: “Whether he should be able to find but one of all these religious bounties in the western hemisphere, in a strange home, a new world;” when he compares his present situation with the affliction and sorrow he would feel, if indeed his sincere scruples had been realized, if indeed nothing had yet been done in the new world for the holy cause of Israel. If on all this he ponders earnestly and seriously, if he reminds himself that his brethren here assembled have prepared for him “A Religious Home,” If he beholds that “B’nai Yeshurun” have done all this: then, overwhelmed with feelings of thanks and gratitude, he will actively join the customary benedictions said on this festival, and he will solemnly and loudly exclaim: “Blessed be the founders of this sacred building: the founders of this congregation. Blessed be those who have at present the trust of its holy management, those who ever had, and those who ever will have it. Blessed be those who are at present, those who ever were, and those who ever will be its worthy members. Blessed be its munificent associations, and all who belong to it.”

We are now necessarily led to the end and last verse of our text. The lessons disclosed in the first might bias the feebleminded, and cause him to retreat from one side of the field of error and fall into another. When he has learned that all the males of Israel shall meet at one place: he might also think, that they all must be equal with each other, that there must be no distinction, no rank, no degree, no difference of characters, situations, dispositions, and abilities. And to prevent such notions, equally impracticable as they are immoral—the verse in our text says: “Every man as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord thy God which he hath given thee.”

It is the divine word, the divine wisdom and providence, the divine prophecy, that the members of the human family never have been, neither are, nor will be of a perfect equality with each other: “Every man as he is able.”

The English version adds the words “shall give” to the original text: “Every man shall give as he is able.” The rich and wealthy man “shall give,” he shall freely spend and offer according to his wealth and riches; those of more confined means “shall give” according to their lesser ability; and the command “Every man shall give” indicates the blissful assurance, that however small and trifling, and however different and dissimilar the gifts, every man shall be blessed with some means, to do some good, to make some beneficial offering to the common cause of Israel. It is a wrong-placed delicacy to assert, that it would hurt the feelings of those in narrower circumstances, when the rich man loudly speaks forth his liberal munificence; it is a misconception, rejected alike, both by the spirit and letter of our text: “Every man shall give as he is able.” To bring such a notion in practice, would rather become an act of dissimulation on the one hand, and a display of an evil disposition and envious feelings on the other.

As we have said before, the Hebrew original has not the words “shall give,” but shows by this elliptical expression, all that is thus far explained, and still much more than that; it indicates that in all conditions of life, in every social relation, in all claims of justice and honesty, man should consider himself and others: “Every man as he is able.”

There shall be amongst the members of Jacob’s household neither arrogance, haughtiness, ostentation, selfishness, and pride on the one, nor animosity, envy, turbulence, disregard of true religiousness, disrespect of wisdom, talents and merits on the other hand—all powers, faculties and abilities are but a boon, a gift from heaven, mercifully bestowed and granted: “according to the blessing the Lord thy God which He hath given thee.”

Before we dismiss our text we deem it proper to address ourselves to that portion of our hearers, who are more intimate in the knowledge of Hebrew grammar and literature, and we bring to their notice that the celebrated German classic and professor, William Gesenius, in the preface of his Hebrew Lexicon, speaking in high terms of the lexicographal authority of the Mishnah and Talmud, still finds reasons for criticism and censure, on three different places.—The parallel verse of our text, שלש רגלים “three festivals,” is pointed out as one of those three.—If, however, we dive a little deeper into the structure of the language and knowledge of the Bible, it might be proved by biblical and, grammatical argument that in all three the Mishnah is fully correct—the more yet with regard to the שלש רגלים the learned professor has overlooked that the definition he proposes and considers his own original discovery has been long since anticipated by the Talmud itself.

To dwell any longer upon and discuss the subject would neither answer the present purpose, nor suit the general taste of my hearers; we have, therefore, to refer this to some other occasion, but think ourselves justified in making this little remark for the salve of truth and in vindication of our holy tradition.

In conclusion, my brethren! let us hope that the intentions, the sentiments, the spirit and the lessons of that great and glorious “General meeting” in our text, may ever be before your eyes; let them be deeply imprinted in your mind; write them upon the tablets of your heart; remember them and keep them holy, for they are divine lessons.—It is the heavenly Father who teaches his children—it is the King of kings who watches his people—it is the King of Glory who glories in his nation—it is the Lord of hosts who deigns to invite us worms of the earth to appear before Him; and He will ever graciously look down upon us when we appear with good actions, with a pure mind, and good faith; when we do not appear empty before him; when we learn and know the ways of righteousness, and justice, and law, and virtue; when we think, and feel, and live as brethren—as religious brethren; when we meet, and vote, and act, to elevate, to dignify, to raise and to exalt the name of Yeshurun in the manner we are taught by our great teacher to raise and to exalt if: “For this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes and say: Surely this great nation is a wise end understanding people.” And may the time of redemption speedily approach, and may it be fulfilled what the prophet predicts: “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” Amen.