Many rabbis use the High Holiday sermons as an opportunity to showcase their talents and to showcase crucial ideas and themes. Considering the large crowd, rabbis may spend months preparing just the right combination of information and inspiration. In other words, it’s a big deal. Some congregants enjoy the sermon while others flee the room. Some envy those who escape and feel trapped themselves.
Rav Yaakov Reischer (Shevus Ya’akov 1:28) addressed a question by someone who felt trapped. One Rosh Hashanah morning, an elderly man felt a bit ill. His family encouraged him to hear the shofar at home early, make Kiddush, eat, and then go to shul (we can leave for a different time the question of whether you may eat before hearing shofar — this man would not). However, this man refused and even vowed not to eat until after shul was over. Unfortunately, that year the rabbi spoke at the very end of services and extended his sermon for almost two hours. Was the old man required by his vow to wait for all that extra time, or could he slip out to make Kiddush and eat?
Of course, health trumps all other considerations. But if that is not a concern, Rav Reischer concludes that the time for shul continues until it ends completely, including any extended speech by the rabbi. Rav Reischer quotes Rosh Hashanah (28b) that a Kohen is never done with blessing people even after he finishes the three blessings because if another congregation needs him, he must recite another three blessings. Rather, a zman mitzvah, its time, continues throughout the eligible time even if the act has finished as long as something can be added. From there he deduces that the zman for shul continues even after the usual fare concludes because if the rabbi decides to add a sermon at the end, he extends the mitzvah.
In this responsum, Rav Reischer does not discuss the importance of the rabbi’s sermon. Elsewhere, he emphasizes the importance of gathering to hear Torah. The Gemara (Chagigah 3a) explains why the Torah (Deut. 31:11) explicitly commands men, women and children to come to Jerusalem to hear the Torah reading of Hakhel. Men come to learn; women come to hear. Why do children come? To give reward to those who bring them. In his Iyun Ya’akov commentary to Ein Ya’akov, Rav Reischer notes the Talmud Yerushalmi’s version has, “Rather, to give reward to those who bring them.” The word “rather” implies a rejection of the prior interpretation.
In other words, explains Rav Reischer, all people — men, women and children — come to Hakhel not primarily to learn, but to join with others. They can stay home and learn Torah. They come to Jerusalem for Hakhel in order to join with others in learning Torah together, as a community, in a public setting. The same idea applies to the rabbi’s sermon, when the community gathers together to learn as a unit. Even if we can learn Torah better at home, we join together with our community to learn Torah as a group.
The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni (Vayakhel 408) says that Moshe was commanded to gather the nation for a lecture as a lesson to future generations that they too should gather for lectures every Shabbos. Rav Chaim Palaggi (Tochachas Chaim, Vayakhel) explains that Moshe’s lecture in Vayakhel (Ex. 35) begins with the laws of Shabbos. The Midrash deduces from this start that Shabbos — when people are free from work — is the proper time for a Torah lecture.
In an unusually long comment, Rashi (Shabbos 115a s.v. bein she-ein) explains that, in the times of the Gemara, there would be Torah lectures for the community. Because people are busy during the week, they use Shabbos to attend Torah classes. It is better to attend a lecture, Rashi says, than to learn Torah on your own.
The Gemara (Yoma 87b) says that you are allowed to travel on Yom Kippur through water up to your neck in order to hear the rabbi’s lecture, his sermon. The Gemara continues that Rafram challenged Ravina why he missed Rav Nosson’s lecture on Shabbos. Ravina explained that he was sick. Otherwise, he would have been obligated to attend the Shabbos lecture. Rav Chaim Palaggi deduces from this episode that not only are congregants obligated to attend their rabbi’s Shabbos sermon, Torah scholars are required to attend as well. In addition to the aspect mentioned above of joining together as a group to learn Torah, attending is a display of respect for the Torah and the speaker when anyone, particularly a Torah scholar, attends a lecture.
Staying for the rabbi’s sermon serves to unite the community in an act of Torah study. It also offers the opportunity to show honor to the Torah by attending and listening carefully to the speaker.