|Vol. II No. 9
Kislev 5605, December 1844
Faith And Practice,
Being the Eighth* and Last Discourse on the Chapter of the Shemang.
The Rev. D. W. Marks,
וקשרתם לאות על ידיך והיו לטטפת בין עיניך׃ וכתבתם על מזזות ביתיך ובשעריך׃
“And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hands, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes; and thou shalt write them upon the doorposts of thy house, and upon thy gates.”
The same remarks which I addressed to you, my friends, on the last Sabbath, in reference to the commandment והיו הדברים האלה אשר אנכי וכו׳ equally apply to the two verses now under consideration. The legislator exhorts us to take to heart all the words of the Law, to bind them for a sign upon our hands, to place them as frontlets between our eyes, and to inscribe them upon the door-posts of our houses. The words of our text cannot with propriety be restricted to one or two chapters of the Bible; but must be considered in reference to the Divine Pentateuch in its totality. And because these words admit of a general application, many persons have been led to consider them apart from their strict literality, and to assign to them the same exegesis which they bear in the 17th chapter of Jeremiah. “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond; it is graven upon the tablet of their heart.” Or in the 3d chapter of the Book of Proverbs: “Let not truth and mercy forsake thee; but bind them about thy neck, and write them upon the tablets of thy heart;” and indeed various other passages may be found in the Bible, where “to write,” “to bind” and “to engrave,” are not used in a literal, but in a figurative sense.
On the other hand, our rabbinical writers and profound commentators, whilst admitting the general application of the words of our text, are of opinion that they also refer to the rites of Tephillin and Mezoozoth, which observances (say they) the legislator had in view, when he addressed his flock. They regard the words of Solomon and of Jeremiah (just quoted) in a figurative sense; but they draw a distinction between the phraseology used by the poet, and that employed by the legislator; they hold that whilst the former indulges in metaphors, the latter avoids every kind of figure, and that in laying down laws he is clear and intelligible. They consider this opinion to be likewise strengthened by a passage in the 13th chapter of the Book of Exodus: “And it shall be unto thee for a sign upon thy hand, and for a memorial between thy eyes, in order that the law of the Lord may be in thy mouth,” which they explain (and the explanation is by no means a forced one) “that by the agency of certain outward ceremonies, you may be led to consider, and to perform the law of God.”
Influenced by these considerations, and further by the historical fact, that the rites of Tephillin and Mezoozoth date as far back as the second temple, our post-biblical teachers have enjoined upon us these ceremonies, not that the mere observances will of themselves afford us any spiritual advantage, but that by their agency we may be reminded of, and be led to perform, all the precepts of Moses.
When you are about to use your Tephillin (say our pious sages) reflect well that they contain the leading truths of your faith—1st, the existence and the unity of God;* 2dly, the promulgation of the Divine law for the government of the world;† 3dly, an exhortation to devote to God whatever is most dear to you‡ and, 4thly, a command to train your children to follow God and the Mosaic faith;§ and let these reflections induce you to comport yourselves agreeably to the Divine will. When also you regard the Mezoozoth on the door-posts of your houses, let it remind you that the safety of your dwellings depends not upon human inventions, but upon the gracious will of the Eternal. Let it remind you that all the contrivances of man may fail, that a storm may lay your house in ruins, that lightning may burn it, or the flood overwhelm it, and by means of these outward helps or ceremonies, you will be led to think frequently of your Maker, and to regard Him with gratitude and veneration.
In this spirit, my friends, do we receive these injunctions, and in this spirit only, do we adopt them. We consider them entirely apart from mystical and cabalistic notions. We attach no importance to them as mere ceremonials; we do not believe that they possess any charms, or that they can of themselves confer upon us any spiritual benefit. Nay more, we do not vouch that tradition assigns to them their correct signification, or transmits to us their proper forms; yet do we join with the rest of our Jewish brethren in adopting these ceremonies, regarding them as means only to a great end, that end being, to keep our minds constantly directed to God and to his law.
And this leads us to speak of ceremonials in general, which have all the same tendency, whether commanded by God, or ordained by man; although it well behooves us to draw a wide line of distinction between the binding force of the former, and (comparatively speaking) the less binding force of the latter. During the time we have been engaged in investigating the important chapter of the Shemang, we have had frequent occasions to remark upon the great tenets of Mosaism, which unfold to us a pure and spiritual system of religion, in every way suited to the nature of man, destined to be upon earth for a few years, and then to pass to life everlasting. From these sublime doctrines we are taught, that the purest religion consists in a holy life, that the love of God and of our neighbours is the firmest prop of righteousness; and that to attain to high and pure principles of thought and action, is the noblest worship, and in truth, the only way to know God, and to bring ourselves near to Him. This is the very spirit of the religion of Moses, and in this spirit it was taught to our fathers by the successors of the legislator, the inspired prophets.
Yet such is the character of man, and so prone is he amidst the turmoil of life, to forget his God, and his own dearest interests, that our Almighty Father has been pleased to enjoin upon us what the great Maimonides most properly terms מצות זכרוניות “Laws of Remembrance.” At our going out and our coming in, at our rising up and our lying down, we are charged to perform certain ceremonials which will bring the Holy One to our hearts and to our thoughts. Whoever is well acquainted with human nature, must be sensible that instrumental duties, which are not repugnant to reason, and which give no countenance to superstition, are of great importance to keep alive a sense of religion in the human breast, to disseminate its principles, and to promote its practice in the world. We are all creatures of habit; and it is therefore by the constant use, and the frequent and regular repetition of religious duties, that we are enabled to acquire the habits of a devotional spirit, and the correspondent virtues of piety and benevolence. The spirit of religion appears to us more clearly through the agency of outward observances; whilst the essence itself is preserved within its enclosure.
Thus has God, in goodness and in mercy, been pleased to appoint unto us customs and ordinances calculated to impress our minds and feelings; so that through their performance we may be led to a closer practice of our duties. The primary object of these ceremonials is, to purify our hearts, and to inspire us with a love for virtue and piety; and therefore we call these ceremonials themselves religion, because they are the ties by which we are to become indissolubly bound to God. This truth, Moses himself impresses upon us in his exhortation: “Ye shall observe and perform them, for this shall constitute your wisdom and your intelligence in the eyes of the world, who, when they hear of these observances, shall exclaim, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and intelligent people;’” and in this high estimation all our ceremonies will be held, as long as we keep within the spirit of the law; and as long as we do not permit the outward rites, by which we evince our duty to God, to supersede that duty itself.
But, my friends, as every institution is liable to abuse, and as there is nothing in nature which is not in danger of perversion or of excess, it must not surprise us that mankind should at various times have fallen into the error of attaching more importance to the form than to the essence, and that we of the house of Israel should in this particular instance have erred in common with other mortals. Yet, my hearers, never should we have confounded outward rites with inward religion, which are as wide apart as one pole from the other, if we had been duly mindful of the teachings of Moses, as they have appeared to us, in the development of the chapter of the Shemang. We needed no new revelation as it is pretended, to inform us that God desires inward piety more than outward observances, for of this doctrine Moses and the prophets have furnished us abundant evidence. The legislator represents circumcision itself, the most important and distinguishing rite of our religion—a rite which God commands us to keep for ever at the penalty of כרת excision, as of no avail, unless we circumcise the heart as well as the flesh.* ונמלתם את ערלת לבבכם “And ye shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart.”
The ordination of the Passover, which is commanded unto us as a perpetual observance, at a fixed time of the year, by the same high sanction, and the violation of which is threatened with the same awful punishment, is nevertheless permitted by the Scriptures to be postponed, under peculiar circumstances, from Nissan to the following month. Again, does the Pentateuch inform us, that owing to certain sanitary considerations, the covenant of Abraham was in abeyance during the whole of the forty years’ pilgrimage in the desert, and was not resumed until Israel had come to the banks of the Jordan.
I have here selected two of the most important Jewish ceremonies which no God-fearing Israelite can fail to observe, and that too, most strictly and minutely, in order to convince you, that great as these observances are, and ever must be, to Israel, they are not, however, regarded in so stern a manner by the Scriptures as the principles of truth, mercy, and justice; or as the doctrines of the unity of God, and the immortality of the soul, which cannot for a single hour be in abeyance, but must be in operation for ever and ever. Hence we infer that the great moral principles of the Bible are fixed and certain, and that God will never change them; but that ceremonials, however important, are changeable, at the will of God (and of God only), or by the fact of our being placed in such circumstances as to render our performance of them impossible.
Other ceremonies there are, however, neither few nor unimportant, enjoined upon us by our pious ancestors; but which of course are not addressed to us by the same high authority as those of the Bible, and are not therefore so fixed and inviolable in their character. Yet are they entitled to our respect and veneration, recommended as they are by good and great men—the channels of tradition, and the faithful guardians of the Bible—men who patiently endured every torment that tyranny could inflict, and not unfrequently yielded their bodies to the flames, rather than renounce those sublime doctrines of which they considered themselves the guardians.
Many centuries have rolled by since the days of the men of the Talmud; and though subsequent ages may have produced Israelites as pure and as wise: still has no body of men ever been found amongst us so truly devoted to Judaism, and so ready to sacrifice to its principles every worldly advantage. It is meet therefore that the opinions of such men should claim the regard of every Israelite; but it must not be forgotten that they were but men, and being mortal, cannot be expected to have been invariably free from mental error.
To place therefore the ordinances of men, how pious and wise soever they be, upon a level with the laws of God, is to throw discredit upon the perfect wisdom and integrity of the latter. Moreover, these worthy men have never themselves claimed so high a distinction for their enactments; nor did they ever contemplate, that the large majority of the observances which they enacted, in a troublous age, for the safety of Judaism, would outlive the times for the exigencies of which they had been introduced. They knew well the history and the constitution of the Jewish Synagogue, and could never have wished to deprive her of that privilege which she has exercised at all times, that of modifying outward forms derived from human authority which are contrary to the feelings, or at variance with the circumstances, of the time being.
There are three great ceremonials which have never varied, and which no human power can change, the Sabbath and Festivals, the covenant of Abraham, and the distinction of meats; these have ever been considered a part and parcel of our faith. But nothing has been subject to so many variations as the outward observances that relate to public devotion.
That which in the days of Moses was considered as the external form of worship, found a great contrast in the days of David and of Solomon. It differed again in the time of the second Temple, when many outward ceremonials used in the first Temple were discontinued. Again did it vary in the days of the “men of the Great Synagogue,” when formularies were first introduced, when independently of the Temple, numerous Synagogues sprung up, and in addition to the sacrifices, liturgies were read. That it again differed after the compilation of the Mishna, must be evident to every one acquainted will the Prayer Book in common use. Again have they varied in modern times; not because men have ceased to respect the opinions of the ancient teachers in Israel, but because the social position of Israel has called for a modification of formularies and of observances which were peculiar to the earlier ages.*
We hazard not much, in saying, that these forms will vary again and again; indeed, mankind will be forced to harmonize then with their social state. The Bible itself contemplates this necessity; for although it enjoins in the strongest manner upon Israel the necessity of public worship, it is quite silent as to the precise mode in which it shall be carried out, or as to the particular liturgy that shall be used; but it leaves these forms to depend altogether upon the social condition of our people.
But notwithstanding the ceremonials may be subject to, and from time to time demand, modification, still these changes are not to be made rashly, nor by the inexperienced or the unlettered; but should occupy the consideration of the acknowledged teachers of Israel. If then an authority were to be established of ecclesiastics of unquestioned piety, sound learning, and enlightened views, who would take their stand upon the principle that the laws of God are fixed, and cannot be changed, but that the laws of our ancestors are human enactments, and may, after mature reflection, be made to harmonize with our present condition, and with the existing desire for spiritual improvement, it would become the duty of every Israelite to bow to such an authority. But in the absence of this, and when we see indifferentism on the one hand, and apostacy (the effect of ignorance of the principles of Judaism) on the other hand, threatening to sap the very foundation of our faith, we are imperatively called upon to arouse ourselves to a sense of duty, and to manifest an active zeal for our holy religion. It is then our duty to avail ourselves of the right which the Synagogue confers, and which has at all times been exercised, to form ourselves into a religious communion upon the principles of the Mosaic faith, to make the doctrines of the Pentateuch our guide, to mark at the same time our veneration for our ancestors by adopting their enactments whenever they tend to carry out the principles of the holy Torah; but not to suffer them to supersede the divine law, nor to stand in the way of true devotion and spiritual advancement.. But whilst we have the full right to introduce such improvements into our Synagogue as our present circumstances may require, (always taking care not to encroach upon the biblical ordinances nor to pass by tradition without the most careful investigation,) we must nevertheless be serious and constant in our outward forms and practices. They are most sacred as auxiliaries to religion, and must therefore possess a fixedness of character; they must not lose aught of their seriousness by being changed from day to day; but our efforts must be directed to preserve them, so that they may command respect and veneration, and so that they may become the means of leading us to the mighty truths and exalted principles of which they are the emblems and the safeguards.
I have now, my friends, endeavoured to explain to you, as fully as the time would permit, the grand principles of our faith, as well as the character and force of the ceremonials of religion, distinguishing between principles and observances, and again between the observances commanded by God, and those recommended by our pious ancestors; and in doing this, I have accomplished all that I proposed from the present series of discourses.
Let us hope, my friends, that these hours, devoted to religious instruction, have not been spent in vain, but that we have all drawn some spiritual advantage from the contemplation of the sacred section which has formed our text. God grant that the duties it enjoins may ever be present to our hearts and our minds; so shall we constantly acknowledge the one true God, self-existent, eternal, and unchangeable,—so shall we love Him, with all our hearts, with all our mind, and all our means; so shall we take to heart the precepts of his holy law, and impress them upon our children, at all times—and so shall we avail ourselves of every outward rite that may bring our minds to the eternal God, and to our important calling here upon earth. And O! may the Lord God be with us, as He was with our fathers; may He cause us to walk in his ways, and attach us to his precepts; may He subdue in us every unruly passion, and every unamiable feeling. May He protect us by his merciful providence through every trial and every danger; may He guard our going out and our coming in; may his paternal goodness accompany us through our journey of life; and as we proceed towards the valley of the shadow of death, may He be with us in the hour of decaying humanity; and may He quicken our ebbing life as we press onward to eternity, proclaiming with our latest breath the stirring words of our text, ה׳ אלהינו ה׳ אחד אמן סלה.