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I have often heard the statement that, historically, rabbis gave sermons only twice a year, on Shabbat HaGadol and Shabbat Shuva. My Jewish Learning and Judaism 101 are among the places where I have seen unsourced statements to this effect. When was this the common practice? How far back does it go? Does "historically" mean "a couple hundred years ago" or something much older?

I think I once heard that there's a reference to this practice somewhere in the g'mara, but I don't know where or I would have just looked there.

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    I have the impression that some communities still do this – Double AA Jul 3 '16 at 17:43
  • @DoubleAA probably. (I haven't seen it myself, but it seems plausible.) I really meant when was this the common practice; will clarify. – Monica Cellio Jul 3 '16 at 17:46
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    It is customary to give a special sermon on those weeks to expound on the laws of the upcoming festivals of Pesach and Yom Kippur/Sukkos, respectively (Mishna B'rura 429:2; the Shabbos Shuva drasha should also serve to inspire the people to repent). Shibolei HaLeket (205) posits that "Shabbos HaGadol" is named after the lengthy exposition given. However, it is also customary to have a standard, weekly sermon/exposition (Shabbos 116b, Rashi s.v. "במקום בהמ"ד"). – Fred Jul 3 '16 at 18:10
  • @MonicaCellio Kippur and Pessach has a problem of Karet, not succot and Shavuot or Rosh Hashana. Chamets for pessach and Ynuy for kippur. The drashot are traditionnally to teach people basic halachot. – kouty Jul 3 '16 at 19:33
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R. Dr. David Katz discusses this phenomenon:

There were only two occasions where the communal rabbi was actually expected to preach to his community. First there was the pair of Sabbaths, the Sabbath before Passover, and the Sabbath before Yom Kippur. These were occasions where, according to the Talmud (Megillah 32a) since the days of Moses the official communal rabbi was supposed to instruct his flock as to the halakhic regulations of these two holidays.

[...]

In addition to dry halakhic material, the communal rabbi was expected to deliver a kind of religious "State of the Community" address in which he called attention to, and admonished them to repent from whatever sin or sins were popular at the moment.

[...]

The two pre-holiday speeches were basic to the communal rabbinic funtion, and were routinely included in rabbinic contracts, including Ezekiel Landau's contract with the community of Prague...There was one other occasion when the Polish rabbi was expected to speak publicly, although this was not formally stipulated. The rabbi was expected to deliver eulogies for distinguished men and women, especially famous rabbis.

Outside of these occasions the communal rabbi was not expected to deliver public addresses. However, the rabbi was not restricted to these occasions. He could speak whenever he deemed appropriate, especially on special calendar dates, such as the annual religious festivals, the special penitential periods of the months of Elul and Tishrei, and the anniversary of the death of Moses (the 7th of Adar). There were also inaugural sermons, farewell sermons, and celebrations of publication of a book, the concluding of the study of the Talmud or one of its tractates, or the founding of a school or a society.

This preaching flexibility allowed those rabbis with an inclination and/or talent for preaching to exercise their abilities, while relieving those who were not so inclined. It seems that most Ashkenazic rabbis preached the minimum: The two Sabbaths per year, a funeral or two, and perhaps a little more.

The above discussion discusses central and Eastern Europe about 250-300 years ago.

Source: unpublished doctoral dissertation: A Case Study in the Formation of a Super-Rabbi: The Early Years of Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, 1713-1754, pp. 302-304.

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    Note I am aware that this answer leaves room for additional information. However it addresses several points of the question; it shows that the practice was at least around a few hundred years ago, providing a terminus ante quem, where it was practiced, and the degree to which rabbis were limited to these two speeches. – mevaqesh Jul 10 '16 at 15:08
  • It also provides the requested talmudic precedent. – mevaqesh Jul 10 '16 at 15:14
  • +1. To clarify your preceding comment: This answer implies a talmudic precedent that rabbis would give sermons on those occasions, not necessarily that those are the only occasions they would have to give sermons. And the baraisa doesn't even really go that far. All it says is: "ת"ר משה תיקן להם לישראל שיהו שואלין ודורשין בענינו של יום הלכות פסח בפסח הלכות עצרת בעצרת הלכות חג בחג", "The Rabbis taught in a baraisa, 'Moshe enacted for Israel that they inquire and expound on matters of the day: The laws of Pesach on Pesach, the laws of Shavu'os on Shavu'os, and the laws of Sukkos on Sukkos.'" – Fred Jul 10 '16 at 18:37
  • @Fred Correct. The idea was that the cited Talmudic passage was almost certainly the one referenced by the OP. – mevaqesh Jul 10 '16 at 19:03

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