The sermons in shul over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are usually the longest and hopefully the most inspiring of the year. Week in, week out, however we are used to regular derashot, and, based on the amount of post-match analysis that the rabbi’s sermon receives, you would think that this is the most important part of the service.
Surprisingly, perhaps, for much of Jewish history Shabbat Shuvah was one of the very few time times when the rabbi spoke on Shabbat.
In Eastern Europe, many Jews lived in remote areas and prayed with a community only on the High Holy Days. Shabbat Shuvah was a rare opportunity for the rabbi to reach many people.
As the Nobel-winning Israeli novelist S.Y. Agnon describes: “For it is a law unto Israel and a custom of ancient days that for Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur, the villagers went down to the city to pray in the House of God three days a year.” (Some things don’t change!)
The German Reform movement introduced a weekly Shabbat sermon, some say to be more in line with Church services.
The practice spread to Orthodox synagogues — with plenty of controversy — and today the sermon, for better and worse, is a mainstay of Shabbat morning services.