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The Homily in Synagogue Liturgy
Maria Gallo (Adapted from)
An important moment in the proclamation of the Word of God in the synagogue, as indeed in the church, is when that Word is explained and concretized by the person appointed to do so. The homiletic style is a very ancient one, as Maria Gallo shows clearly in the introduction to her excellent book entitled: Sete del Dio vivente (1) (Thirst for the Living God). It comprises a selection (with explanatory notes) of rabbinic homilies on Isaiah, taken from a very ancient collection of homilies for the annual cycle of Jewish feasts: Pesikta Rabbati. It is a book that cannot be too highly recommended. In the following article, the author has kindly given us permission to quote or summarize some of her introductory ideas which are particularly revelant to our present study.
"The origin of the proclamation of the Word of God and of the homily during the liturgical assembly goes back very far in history?
As we read in Ex. 19:7, Jewish thought attributes it to Moses, who received and transmitted the divine Word at Sinai.
"By its very nature this divine Word needs to be proclaimed and understood, and those who receive it can allow themselves to be shaped existentially by its demands and transforming energy, so that it builds the assembly of believers into a single body."
According to Deut. 31:9-13, Moses was undoubtedly the first teacher, the first homilist, the first catechist. He it was who first commanded the people of Israel to assemble in order to listen to the Word of God. But in Nehemiah the almost perfect model of synagogue worship is to be found. If we read Neh. S we see that not a single element is missing, and the pattern proposed there has, in broad outline, remained unchanged. Carefully preserved over the centuries, it has also had considerable influence on Christian liturgy.
The Public Reading of the Torah by Ezra: Neh. 8
After Ezra had solemnly carried the Book of the Torah to the place prepared for it, he was aided in his proclamation of the Word by the levites, who busied themselves with helping the people understand the text which had been read (verse 7), that it to say, they either explained it or else simply translated it from Hebrew into Aramaic for the people who, after the return from exile, no longer understood Hebrew.
The expressions used in Neh. 8:7,8 to define the action of the Levites can have many meanings: to explain, to interpret, to translate, to comment. All four meanings need to be held on to in order to define the complex action which should give rise to an effective and existential understanding of the Word and to the joy and thanksgiving which would normally flow from it. In this text and its following verses are to be found the origins of the homily and traces of its permanent characteristics: the Word which is proclaimed must above all be understood; therefore it must be translated, paraphrased, explained each time, according to circumstances. In Neh. 8 the levites are there at the side of the one who is proclaiming the Word in order to help him interpret it. This role is maintained in different ways in synagogue worship.
Making the Word Understood
Often there was recourse to translators who would translate and paraphrase the spoken word into the language of the listeners; the Targumim sprang from this practice. Originally in Aramaic and Greek, then in the languages spoken by the Jews of the diaspora, Targumim nevertheless never replaced the proclamation of the Word in the original text.
"If we consider the origin and development of the homily in the history of Jewish worship, the Targum represents the first step in the explanation of and commentary on the biblical text. Apart from any historical consideration, however, when one considers the intrinsic value of the Targum for exegesis, it remains the one document essential to every exegesis based on faith."
Another important element in the explanation of Torah, after the reading of the text and its Targum, is the Haftarah or reading of the prophetic books. This second reading was introduced later into the synagogue liturgy at a date which cannot be fixed with any precision, but which preceded the writings of the New Testament, as is illustrated by such texts as Luk. 4:16-30 or Acts 13:15. This second reading, contrary to the custom of the continuous Torah reading, is chosen according to the feast of the day or the parashah (Torah portion) of the week, and is an important element in the explanation of any particular passage of the Torah.
Finally it is the homily or derashah (from the Hebrew: explain) which deepens this understanding of the text so that it enlightens the hearts of those who listen, transforms them and leads them to take action — "all that the Lord has spoken we will do° Ex. 24:7. This is also described in Ezra's assembly: Nehemiah, Ezra and the levites are all anxious that the Word which has been heard should produce its effect. A mere understanding of the text is not enough. There must also be enlightenment of the heart followed by compunction and finally by the consolation and joy which impel one to act in conformity with that same Word (Neb. 8:9,10,12).
The sacred meal which follows in the people's houses is like the climax of this liturgy. It confirms the double rhythm, both public and domestic, of Jewish worship. In fact, we find all the elements of a true theology of the homily in this chapter 8 of Nehemiah.
What is the Homily?
`The homily should never be literary, philosophical, linguistic or historical commentary on the text. It has a very precise and practical objective which comprises four elements whose ultimate aim is a new way of acting, transformed by the power of the Word."
The homily is therefore an instruction, a true lesson which, beginning with the Word, ends by embracing every aspect of this present life, which is constantly in tension with the eternal good for which one hopes. In fact the most ancient derashot or homilies remain very close to the text. Later on they take more liberty, but the darshan (the one who delivers the homily) sets out to affirm the faith of the assembly through Scripture, to affirm its hope in the expectation of the Messiah and of redemption, and thus to offer an effective "word of exhortation", like the one asked of Paul and his companions in the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:15).
The most ancient expression used to define the exegetical link with the text is the verb "to teach", lelammed in Hebrew, didaskein in Greek. The New Testament offers numerous examples of this teaching on the Scriptures or starting from the Scriptures, given by Jesus himself or his disciples: Luk. 2:46; Matt. 26:55 and parallel passages; Matt. 4:23 and pp.; Matt. 5:1, etc.; Acts 2:14; 5:21, 42; 9:20; etc. If derashah is born in the liturgical assembly in so far as it is an integral part of the proclamation and explanation of the Word, over the centuries, it has gained more substance and become so to speak autonomous, less bound to the liturgical setting. There can be liturgical worship without derashah, or derashot can be given in a public place other than a synagogue and outside a liturgical celebration. Moreover, if at the beginning anyone at all who was capable could give a derashah (cf. Luk. 2:46; Acts 9:20; 13:15), since the second century the homily has been reserved for qualified teachers.
The Pesikta Rabbet!
The Pesikta Rabbati is a collection of midrashic homilies which, unlike the other great collections of midrashim, does not offer a complete commentary on a biblical text but follows the annual cycle of feasts and bases its commentary on one or two verses taken from the reading for the day, that is to say, on the text of the Torah or of the Haftarah fixed for each of the feasts. This probably explains the name Pesikta Rabbati which means Major Divisions or Pericopes in Aramaic. Pesikta Rabbati could mean "Great Anthology of Commentaries on Biblical Pericopes" or "Anthology of Long Homilies". It is indeed a question of homilies, but of a unique type, forty-seven homilies, some short and others very long, of uncertain date, even though the language, style and names of the masters who are quoted (all Palestinians of the fourth and fifth centuries) point to a Palestinian origin and midrashic material which must have developed at the same time as the Talmud. These forty-seven homilies cover the liturgical cycle of feasts, with the exception of Tabernacles, the last in the Jewish year, which makes one think that the last part of the scroll on which they were written must have been lost. On the other hand, for other feasts, there are often a number of homilies or fragments of homilies. In any case, we are speaking of the oldest collection of Jewish homilies that exists, homilies with a disconcerting exegetical approach because their only point of departure is the Word of God and they juggle, so to speak, with other divine Words for mutual enlightenment.
Maria Gallo's book, which gives only eight of these homilies, all of them on the text of Isaiah, can greatly help us to enter into this world of Jewish homiletics which, if it leaves us nonplussed, can also enrich and enliven our faith in the absolute priority of the divine Word illuminated by the Holy Spirit.
* Maria Gallo is a member of the Piccola Famiglia dell’annunciazione of Monteveglio near Bologna. Some members of this community live in Israel and make a serious study of Jewish tradition.
1. Sete del Dio Vivente. Omelie Rabbiniche su Isaia, Citta Nuova, Rome 1981.