Palestine Calling
by
W. M. Christie

Chapter XXXI

Israel's Daily Portion


There is a universal yearning in the awakened human soul for a nearer union and communion with the Divine. The Psalmist expressed it in the words, "My soul panteth after God," and the same thought has been set down in modern speech, "O for a closer walk with God." This attitude of mind has been described as a desire for a subjective as contrasted with an objective revelation, a seeking to hear the still small voice in the silence of the soul, a longing for a clearer, inner light. Such purpose, be it in Jew, Moslem, or Christian, we name, in its intensity at least, "mysticism." We hardly like to use that word in association with faith, for it has often degenerated into the material and sordid.

Still, there is to the living, earnest seeker, a pure and undefiled mysticism, and the question for him is: "How is the desired relationship to God to be reached?" For the Christian the answers have been given: "By Thy Word and Spirit," "Pray without ceasing," "Waiting on God," and toward this faithful, waiting condition of heart, guidance has been sought and given. Some churches have their "Christian Year," individuals have their "Daily Portion," with note and comment, and handy little volumes like "Daily Light" are great favourites.

Now, though we never acknowledge it, (indeed few people know it), we owe to the Jew the suggestion and first attempt at arranging Daily Portions. We, too often consider the Israelite as stiff-necked, hard-hearted, self-seeking, worldly and unspiritual; but contact with earnest Jewish souls, and with the literature of Judaism soon dispels that illusion. With the Destruction of the Temple (70 A.D.), Jewish worship became less material. Prayer took the place of sacrifice, and the first lesson on prayer was, "Know before whom thou standest" (B. Ber. 28 b), "Know who is higher than thou art" (Aboth. ii. 1), while the primitive Jewish saints were wont to spend an hour in silent meditation before the time of prayer (M. Ber. v. 1), and every Israelite was, in addition, required to bless God one hundred times every day (B. Men. 43. b).

And since the beginning of the Christian Era, the history of the Jew has been a record of trial and persecution, a trail of blood right down through the centuries to the present day. This has generally driven him back upon God, and thereby there has been produced not only many a beautiful section in the Jewish Prayer Book (itself the most beautiful liturgy in the world), but also the incomparable laments (Piyyutim) over "man's inhumanity to man," associated with a confident outlook on the future as linked with Israel's God. These were all based on the Written Word, which was "the heritage of Israel" (B. Succah 42 a); and the meditation of the Israelite by day and by night (B. Men. 99 b).

The meditation very soon came to be guided by the Weekly Synagogue Readings. The Jew was induced to look forward to and prepare for the Sabbath, and accordingly the sections of the Law and the Prophets to be read on that day occupied his thoughts during the six preceding days. In such mentality and practice did the Israelite through the centuries seek to maintain his spiritual life. In the days when books were in manuscript, they were scarce and dear, and private libraries of even modest dimensions were few. The Jew had accordingly in these past ages a closer association with the synagogue and its library, and there his reading, meditation and prayer generally found place. No sooner, however, did the printing press appear, than the Jew recognised its value, and turned out volumes of all kinds for the individual. Then the "portions" that had been hitherto mentally carried, or searched out in the synagogue, could be had in convenient form, and, even when notes and comments were added, the books did not become burdensome. Accordingly, we find that one of the earliest and most popular volumes issued was the "Hoq-le-Israel," and from that day to this its popularity has never declined among the pious of Israel.

But the "Daily Portion" did not begin either in connection with the printing press, nor with the coincident mystic cabbalistic movement in Judaism, though it received a mighty impetus from both. The practice had been maintained from the first and second centuries; and further, in the literature that has survived, we find directions from great leaders in Israel for daily reading and prayer, and some of these are even set down as a kind of introduction to "Hoq." Most notable of these is the counsel of Nachmanides (Ramban) who was forced to leave Spain, and died in Jerusalem in 1270 A.D. He writes: "Be careful to read the Law continually, that thou mayest be able to fulfil it; and when thou risest from the Book, thou shalt ask if there be in what thou hast read any matter that thou canst fulfil; and thou shalt examine thy deeds morning and evening, and thus thou shalt be all thy days in repentance. And in all thy works, thy words, and thy thoughts, consider in thy heart that thou art standing before the Holy One, and that His Shechinah is over thee, for His glory fills the world; and let thy words be with reverence and fear as of a servant before His Lord.

In the next generation R. Asher ben Yechiel, a distinguished German rabbi (ob. 1327), gives an outline of the subjects of prayer for the seven days of the week: "Words on which one should meditate that he may turn from the snares of death, and be illumined by the light of life." He then gives his instructions in summary: "One should not meditate on vain things, but observe to study in the night, till he actually fall asleep in the midst of the words of the Law."

From the Jewish point of view no better guidance could be desired for "the Practice of the Presence of God," than a daily use of Hoq-le-Israel in the spirit of the teaching of these great rabbis. From the very first it kept him in touch through the Written Word with the prophets and priests of his faith, and with the God of Israel, and as it grew, he came into contact with the great teachers of his nation, and finally (if he wished it) by means of the later comments with the expositions of men in every age and in every land.

Of the earlier history and subdivisions we know very little. They must have been coincident with the arrangement of the Law into fifty-four sections, while with them the Prophetic Sections must have also found a place. The addition of the Targum suggests that "Hoq" was thus far completed when it was still obligatory to read the Aramic Translations, in the tenth century. We read of a certain Isaac Baruch, in the pre-Reformation period, as having something to do with the arrangement of the sections, but beyond his name we have no definite information. We get clear light on the book in its present form when the first printing press was set up in Palestine. Then we are told that Isaac Luria, the mystic and cabbalist, gave it orally to his disciples, and that Chayyim Vital (born 1543) took it "from his mouth." There and then we have the body of the work in its present form. Later editions differ from those of the sixteenth century, mainly in the addition of commentaries to the various items contained in the book. Some of these commentaries were written as early as 1050 A.D., and contained all the best that could be drawn from the earlier centuries. Notes and comments by later authors, down to 1800, were added, and in this way the pious student had access to the Jewish interpretations of every Christian century, and from the whole Jewish world from Babylonia to Spain, Germany and Bohemia.

We now examine the contents of the book itself. As already indicated, the Sections of the Law and the Prophets found the first place. There were added the Psalms and the Proverbs. These four were so cut up that a few verses of each had to be read each day. The translation of each of these portions in Aramaic (the language of Christ on the Cross, and on other occasions of deep emotion), which we call Targums, had also to be recited. Then there followed a small portion from the Mishnah (the Traditions of the Elders), a work that was completed in 188 A.D., and another small portion from the Talmud (completed in 499 A.D.). A few sentences from the mystic-cabbalistic Book of Zohar concluded each day's portion.

A better understanding of the Jew's "Daily Light" will be got from a consideration of, say, the readings connected with the first section of the Law. For the week there is to be read from the Bible, Gen. 1:1-6:8; Isaiah 42:5-43:10; and Proverbs 1:1-26. From each of these, four or five verses have to be read each day, so as to sum up the verses to the number of twenty-six for each day till Thursday. On Thursday evening another twenty-six verses are read. Twenty-six is the numerical value of the name JHVH, and this is one of the "memoriae technichae" of which the Jew is so fond, and which appeals to his mentality. What was left over of the Law and the Prophets was read on the Friday. Each of these sections, as well as those from the Mishnah, Gemara, and Zohar was preceded by an appropriate prayer. Accordingly there are six readings and six prayers. This private service would require on ordinary days nearly an hour, and on Friday an hour and a-half.

Now all this was undertaken, in the first place, with a view to "Daily Light," but further it had in view (as we have indicated) a preparation for the coming Sabbath, when the Law and the Prophets would again be read in the synagogal service, and when the sermon would be based on these Scripture portions. What a magnificent position for the preacher, entering the pulpit with the knowledge that his congregation had come to the service fully prepared, and that he need not presume on their ignorance. But, on the other hand, the preacher, too, must be in the fullest touch with every aspect of his subject. No shallow philosophical essay, no collection of platitudes will satisfy. There must be nothing that will compel the hearers to declare, "We want quality, not quantity." How many of our modern preachers could risk facing a congregation that came together after such preliminary studies?

"Hoq-le-Israel" then was (oral, written, or printed) the daily portion of the Jew through long ages. There is a good deal that is formal and mechanical in the manner in which the various works were broken up and studied, and the formal sets limits to the spiritual; but when we venture to estimate the Jew, we must confess that his association with this book greatly aided him in his meditation on the Written Word, and in his loyalty to the God of Israel. And for the Jew as well as for the world at large this book served a grand and noble purpose. Think of the nations among whom the Jew was scattered in the dark ages, of the Bible forbidden, and of idolatry rampant everywhere--crosses, crucifixes, blasphemous pictures (which fell down from heaven) and madonnas on every hand, with teachings and practices that made Islam almost a necessity, for was not Mohammed's rejection of Christianity based on the supposition that the Trinity consisted of the Father, the Son and Mary, the mother of Jesus (Koran, Surah ii)? The Jew was kept apart from the pollutions of a false Christianity, and from the defilements of the Church, and his influence helped the glorious Reformation. "Si Lyra non lyrasset Lutherus non saltasset."

But Israel's Daily Portion did more. Faithful meditation kept the Jew familiar through the Targums with the older Jewish and the real Christian interpretation of the Messianic prophecies. Every thing that is Messianic to us in the Old Testament Scripture was Messianic to the early Jewish Synagogue. One has but to search and see and find Christ. And even the Zohar and the Cabbalah with all their fantastic reveries have given guidance. Many a Christian position is set forth there by Jews, and in such a way that it appeals to Jewish mentality. Indeed, it is a common saying among Jews that, "If a man know the Cabbalah thoroughly, he must be a Christian." There are strange ways that lead to Christ, but the main thing is that men get there.

And further still on the path to Christ has the Jew gone. On every returning New Year, at the beginning of the Days of Repentance, with the blast of trumpets, he prays, "In the Name of Jesus, Prince of the Presence, and Prince of the Metatron," which last word means "The Co-partner of the Throne," or as others interpret it, "Meta-tyrannos," with the meaning of "Co-Ruler" or "Mit-herrscher." No Jew can tell exactly what this means, or how it got there. It must be very old, too, because it is found in all the differing liturgies. It has come down to our day from the time when there was no distinction between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Jewish lips must have uttered the prayer during the terrible massacre in Rheinland in 1096 and...under the Inquisition in Spain. Was it, is it, a confession of Jesus as the true Messiah, of the Lord Himself, in contrast to the false Messiah, of an anti-Christian faith? With such a Messiah the Jews could not deal; with Christ Himself they could. In all their agonies through centuries were the Jews sustained by a half-conscious faith in the Redeemer of Israel, as set forth in this confession, "Jesus, Prince of the Presence, and Prince of the Metatron"?

Be that as it may, from the seventh to the sixteenth century, in most of the lands of Europe, and especially in the Spanish Peninsula, the Jew was in faith and practice, in righteousness and purity, and in loyalty, at least, to Old Testament Christianity, more truly Christian than the priests and populace that brutally persecuted him in the name of the meek and lowly Jesus.

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