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How Many Rabbis Does It Take To Write a High Holiday Sermon?

For one rabbinic family, the answer is nearly 100

Stephanie Butnick
October 03, 2014
Flik47 /
Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, Israel.Flik47 /
Flik47 /
Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, Israel.Flik47 /

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the two holidays on which most Jews attend synagogue–and for many Jews, the High Holidays are the only days each year they attend services. The stakes are high for rabbis, who need to engage and inspire congregants packed into pews and overflowing into synagogue hallways. One key to a successful service is a sermon that is meaningful, profound, and educational, and leaves congregants thinking about its messages long after it’s over.

Bari Weiss, associate books editor at the Wall Street Journal—and former Tablet senior editor—reports that while many rabbis brainstorm ideas among colleagues, no one does it quite as well, and quite so widely, as the Hecht family, who count among their clan more than 125 Hasidic rabbis. The rabbis Hecht, all of whom are affiliated with Chabad, hold an annual sermon swap each fall, where they gather to crowdsource their best High Holiday material.

Weiss, who attended this year’s gathering in Brooklyn, was advised by one family member to bring “Advil and oxygen.”

Sitting around a large wooden table in a windowless room—once an office of one of the family’s patriarchs—were 25 rabbis. Most of the rest—another 54 Hechts—called in from cities including Bangkok, Edinburgh and Capetown. The 22-year-old Rabbi Yankel Raskin was the youngest, a member of the family’s seventh generation. The oldest, at 68, and unofficial master of ceremonies, was Rabbi Sholem Ber Hecht.

The rules were laid out: Each rabbi gets three minutes to convey his best material. I was skeptical, for reasons voiced by Rabbi Asher Hecht from McAllen, Texas: “You have to understand, you have 100 rabbis keeping it to three minutes—it’s a miracle!”

Are you attending a Hecht-led Yom Kippur service? If so, let us know what they decide to go with for their sermon.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.