Shabbat Shuva is the name given to the Shabbat that falls between Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur. Shuva means “return” and it is named after the passage in Hoshea that is always read on this Shabbat – Chapter 14, verses 1 to 9 (or verses 2 to 10, depends on your version).
“Return, Israel, to the Lord your God. Your sins have been your downfall! Take words with you and return to the Lord . Say to him: Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.”
Hosea 14:1-2 NIV
This is connected to Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. But how old is this Jewish liturgic tradition? Is it possible that this goes back as far as Jesus’ time?
It’s hard to know, especially since most customs of the synagogues developed after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. We know there were synagogues at Jesus’ time, but we can’t be sure what the liturgy looked like and how much of it was carried over into the post-destruction era.
I think however that I might have found a clue in the letter to the Hebrews. See, Shabbat Shuva doesn’t have a specific parasha (Torah portion) but because of when it falls in the year, it’s usually either vaYelech or Haazinu (this year it’s Haazinu).
So it was very interesting to notice that the letter to the Hebrews in chapter 13 quotes Deuteronomy 31 (I will not leave or forsake you) which is part of vaYelech – and just a few verses later alludes to “offer fruit of our lips” which is from the Hosea portion we read on Shabbat Shuva.
Did the writer do this on purpose? I’m not so sure. I think he maybe wrote it shortly after Shabbat Shuva, and he had just heard these passages in the synagogue, so they were fresh in his mind.
Or is it just a strange coincidence…? Some who claim to a later date of the synagogue liturgy could claim that the NT author and the later developed liturgy just happened to both see the same connection between Deut 31 and Hosea 14. Correlation does not necessarily imply causation.
But no, I don’t think so. It’s too much of a coincidence. Also, it’s in the letter to the Hebrews for crying out loud. I think this does imply causation. I see this as an indication that parts of the synagogue liturgy goes further back in time than we think.
We know that the believers were kicked out from the synagogues around 100-ish AD with the minim-curse added (see my previous blog post about the stages of separation for that). This implies that many hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish believers took part in the synagogue liturgy of the time, even if we don’t know how much of it stayed around until today.
So what does this mean for us? Do we have to apply Jewish liturgy in our churches?
Nope. But it means we shouldn’t look down on the Messianic synagogues who do so, and we shouldn’t be too quick to judge. We should accept the fact that the early Christians were all very Jewish, and they never stopped being Jewish. Jesus never fought the Jews or went against them. Neither did Paul nor Peter. Jesus challenged the religious authorities, just like he probably would challenge many Christian religious authorities of today. But he never left Judaism. The letter to the Hebrews was written specifically to Jews, so it’s not surprising at all to find an allusion to synagogue readings – it’s on the contrary exactly what we would expect.
So thank God that he will never leave or forsake us. Let’s use this Shabbat to prepare for Yom Kippur and ask God to “Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.” Let’s also pray for the people of Israel. They are all reading today “Return, Israel, to the Lord your God. Your sins have been your downfall!” May they learn that the only way to really return to the Lord is through his Messiah, Yeshua.