What is the Shekhinah?

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by R. Gil Student

I. Divine Presence

The Bible and Talmud refer frequently to the Shekhinah, God’s presence, without explaining the term. This leaves students relying on their intuition. When informed by years of study, this intuitive understanding usually fares well. However, historically, some people have reached theologically dangerous conclusions on these matters, leading important thinkers to explain this term a little more.

I make no claims to expertise on mystical matters, and the presumably multiple views on this subject. Instead, I turn to Rav Yechezkel Landau, author of the Noda Bi-Yehudah, for guidance. He was asked to explain the language of the Le-Shem Yichud formulation many recite before praying or performing a mitzvah. The brief prayer calls for the unification of the Shekhinah. What does that mean? The Noda Bi-Yehudah (2:YD:107) begins by referencing an earlier responsum (1:YD:93) in which he opposes recitation of Le-Shem Yichud. He says: “Who permitted these things for them? The earlier days in the earlier generations when they did not know about this text were better than now.”

II. Two Meanings

He continues that he will discuss the term Shekhinah and its exile because they are mentioned by the Sages. To explain them, he turns to Rambam’s discussion in Moreh Nevukhim. In the first section of Moreh Nevukhim, Rambam devotes a good deal of space to explain language about God that implies physical form. God does not literally walk or speak like a person. These terms are borrowed from our experience to refer by analogy to divine activity. In multiple places, Rambam defines Shekhinah as either a created light or continuous guidance (providence). The created light means that when the Shekhinah dwells on a place (e.g. the Temple in Jerusalem), a miraculous radiance illuminates the area, a visible marker proving sanctity to all observers.

In Moreh Nevukhim, Rambam uses the term “created light” in many places. At the end of 1:5, Rambam says that visions of the supernatural refer to intellectual understanding. However, he adds, if you want to believe that they refer to created light or something similar, there is nothing wrong with that. That strongly implies that he does not believe visions of the Shekhinah are created light. However, in 1:27, he praises Onkelos for translating anthropomorphic terms referring to God’s motion as meaning the created light, which is the Shekhinah or divine guidance. This implies that he believes the visions of the Shekhinah are created light.

While he does not mention the above passages, the Noda Bi-Yehudah focuses on the passage that resolves this difficulty. At the end of 1:25, Rambam says that when the Shekhinah dwells on a place, it is a created light. When it dwells on something (like a person), it is divine guidance. We can now understand that in 1:5, he implied that not every mention of Shekhinah should be understood as a physical phenomenon (created light). That intention only applies to Shekhinah resting on a place. In 1:27, the created light (on a place) refers back to the Shekhinah.

III. Providence in Exile

The Noda Bi-Yehudah makes another point: both interpretations mean the same thing. The Shekhinah refers to divine providence, heavenly guidance of earthly affairs. When the Shekhinah rests on an individual, he experiences obvious divine intervention in his life. While primarily supernatural involvement, divine providence also includes a physical representation, which is the created light.

At face value, this interpretation seems to contradict the Rambam’s distinction at the end of 1:25, where he says explicitly that the created light refers to the Shekhinah resting on a place. Is it plausible to say that when the Shekhinah rests on the Jewish people, we glow with a visible divine light? Presumably, the Noda Bi-Yehudah meant that the divine presence rests in this world through providence. On people, that providence shows in our experiences. On places, the providence can be seen in a miraculous light. [1]I found that the Divrei Shaul (Gen. 28:16) explains the Noda Bi-Yehudah this way.

When the Jewish people fulfill God’s will, divine providence in this world falls primarily on them in the land of Israel, overflowing onto other nations and countries. If we sin, we are sent into exile and the process inverts. Divine providence rests primarily on the other nations who experience great success, with a bare minimum overflowing to the Jewish people. This Shekhinah in exile is the divine providence primarily guiding other nations. With this, the Noda Bi-Yehudah concludes, quoting only the Rambam and not even the Ramban (Gen. 46:1) who disagrees. [2]See also his Tzelach, Chagigah 12b and, more generally, Noda Bi-Yehudah Al Ha-Torah, index sv. shekhinah.

IV. Shekhinah Today

The Gemara (Chagigah 12a) says that the light that God created during the six days of Creation spanned the entire world. When God saw that the wicked were unworthy of using this light, He diminished it. Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson (Divrei Shaul, Ex. 30:12) explains this passage based on the Rambam above, as explained by the Noda Bi-Yehudah. Initially, the world was created with intense divine guidance, causing the created light to radiate across the entire world. Like the Jews in exile, the wicked of the world did not deserve this special level of providence. Therefore, God decreased his providence to special places in the world in specific times, thereby diminishing the created light. At first, the Shekhinah was supposed to be everywhere. Now we have to strive in order to receive it.

The Gemara (Berakhos 6a) says that when ten men pray together, the Shekhinah dwells among them. Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern (Responsa Zeikher Yehosef, Orach Chaim, no. 48), in discussing a break-away synagogue, quoted the commentary of the Chasid Ya’avetz to Avos (2:5) in which he said that a person should not think that he may pray someplace else rather than next to a wicked man in synagogue. After this responsum was published, Rav Stern received a letter from his friend, Rav Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim, known as the Aderes. The Aderes points out that Sefer Chasidim (no. 770) requires you to ensure that you do not pray next to a wicked man. Additionally, the Aderes notes that the Shekhinah will not rest on a place where there is a wicked person.

Rav Stern replied to the Aderes in a later responsum (no. 240). He suggests that you do not need to be concerned with the Sefer Chasidim’s statement if you are praying in your regular place and a wicked man sits next to you. You are doing your own thing and he entered your area (cf. Avodah Zarah 44b). Regarding the Shekhinah, Rav Stern quotes the Rambam and Noda Bi-Yehudah we have been discussing. The Shekhinah refers to divine guidance, not a heavenly visitor. Therefore, it has the ability to rest on one person and not his neighbor — one will benefit from a high level of providence but not the other. [3]See also Rav Stern’s Zeikher Yehosef Al Haggadah Shel Pesach, p. 12a, s.v. U-ve-mora’im; Tahalukhos Ha-Aggados, ch. 5, p. 7a.

 

Endnotes

Endnotes
1I found that the Divrei Shaul (Gen. 28:16) explains the Noda Bi-Yehudah this way.
2See also his Tzelach, Chagigah 12b and, more generally, Noda Bi-Yehudah Al Ha-Torah, index sv. shekhinah.
3See also Rav Stern’s Zeikher Yehosef Al Haggadah Shel Pesach, p. 12a, s.v. U-ve-mora’im; Tahalukhos Ha-Aggados, ch. 5, p. 7a.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

3 comments

  1. See my discussion of what the nature of prophecy, who is the Man in the Throne at the end of parashas Mishpatim (or the Merkavah, I guess) which includes a machloqes on how to define Shechinah (or shechinah) at Mesukim miDevash for Mishpatim.

    There is also a collection of translations of relevant sources from the book “Daas Torah” posted by its compiler at Avodah v12n75.

  2. See Shemos 34:30.
    When Moshe Rabbeinu descended from Har Sinai, his face radiated a with the “created light,” or as stated by the Noda Bi-Yehudah, “Divine Guidance.”
    I’m surprised that the essay failed to mention Moshe’s face as a manifestation of the Shekhinah!

  3. Very nice article. I would find it helpful if when translating terms (divine light/divine guidance) at least the first time you wrote the term you also wrote the original term/transliteration. If possible. Thank you

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