Many concepts have crept into mainstream Judaism through the persistent teachings of mysticism. While average Jews do not always understand the concept they are accepting, mystics repeat new notions in a manner that causes non-mystical Jews to believe that the concepts must have been ancient tradition. At times, mystics have taken ideas that originally had no mystical connections and twisted them into mystical concepts. The evolution of the term shekhinah is a good example of this. Originally a term with a simple, easily acceptable connotation, it was later radically transformed in the minds of some Jews into an anthropomorphic and polytheistic concept that is totally alien to traditional Judaism.
- What is the shekhinah?
- When was shekhinah introduced into Jewish thinking?
- How was shekhinah understood when it was first introduced?
- What new meaning did the mystics give to shekhinah?
- How do rationalists employ the term?
Shekhinah: Related Terms in the Torah
The noun shekhinah (meaning dwelling or presence) is not found in the Torah, but is the rabbinic term employed in discussions of what is called kavod (glory or presence) in the Torah. Saadiah Gaon, in his Beliefs and Opinions 2:10, explains that the terms are identical. The term kavod is used in the Torah in cases in which Israelites are exposed to God’s presence (as in Exodus 16:7–10 and 24:17). However, the Torah is obscure about what it is that the Israelites actually saw on these occasions.
The Generally Accepted – But Mistaken – Understanding of the Term
If asked, a knowledgeable Jew might say that shekhinah is used today as a noun to refer to God’s presence in the world. However, this answer is far from satisfactory. First, how could God, who is understood by most Jews to be omnipresent – that is, present everywhere – be said to be “dwelling” in one area? Second, if shekhinah is separate from God, how could Jews, who believe in a single deity, imagine that there is another being with divine powers? Third, since different people describe shekhinah differently, mustn’t we recognize that there is no single definition of shekhinah and its function?
These quandaries do not trouble many Jews. Hearing the term shekhinah repeated frequently by their pious teachers and rabbis, they assume that it must be expressing a profound religious truth, and they do not dwell on the questions it raises.
Some Facts about Shekhinah
- Some people use shekhinah as an alternative way of referring to God. Thus, when the Midrash Sifrei Numbers 94 states that God placed His shekhinah in the midst of Israel, it is understood by these people as a figurative way of saying that the Israelites felt the presence of God (who is everywhere). Similarly, Maimonides understands Isaiah 6:3, “The whole earth is full of His kavod” to mean that the earth bears witness to the divine perfection (Guide of the Perplexed 1:21). This insight, seeing kavod and shekhinah as figures of speech and not separate entities, resolves the three questions just raised, and is the rational way of understanding the term.
- However, many people understand kavod and shekhinah as divine manifestations of God; not “God Himself,” but rather some type of divine emanation or outflow from God. When they hear a statement such as “May the shekhinah rest on you,” they picture the shekhinah as an entity separate from God. When they read in the Bible, for example, that God sent His kavod, they understand that God placed some other divine entity among the Israelites. There are examples of some sages who think of the shekhinah as a distinct entity, separate from God. For example, Midrash Proverbs to 22:28 pictures the shekhinah talking to God. The Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 7a and Shabbat 22b, and the Midrash Numbers Rabbah 7:8 state that while God is everywhere, the shekhinah is with Israel. This view of a separate divine-like entity is the current belief of most mystics and many non-mystics. It is the way many rabbis speak about the shekhinah in their sermons. It is problematic because, as we have seen, it creates a notion of the existence of many Gods. This danger of plural deities would be dispelled if the separate shekhinah were understood only figuratively, as a way of understanding how God functions or how the people feel about the presence of God. However, all-to-many people insist that the shekhinah is a reality, a radical anti-monotheistic outlook that reflects all the dangers of a polytheistic belief.
- A third approach considers shekhinah an expression that certain acts draw one closer to God. For example, the Talmud states that when one learns, the shekhinah is present; it also states that the one who gives charity receives the shekhinah. In short, in contrast to the first and second views, this viewpoint and the next one do not consider shekhinah to be God or a part of God or a being separate from God. It is a figurative statement. As Rabbi Yossi said in the Babylonian Talmud, Succah 5a, “The shekhinah never came down to the world below.”
- Others, similarly, envision the term expressing a sense that something is holy. When thought of in this way, the blessing “May the shekhinah rest on you” means “may you feel sanctified.”
Early Usage of Shekhinah
Never used in the Hebrew Bible, the term shekhinah was first employed around the beginning of the Common Era and is found in rabbinical documents such as the Midrashim and Talmuds.
The Bible uses figurative descriptions of God performing human-like activities speaking, as Rabbi Ishmael taught, in human language, in order to ensure that people understand. However, most people accepted the figurative language literally. To dispel this error, the late fourth century Aramaic translation called Targum Onkelos replaced hundreds of blatant anthropomorphic biblical statements to teach readers a higher concept of God. The translator did so by using substitute words, one of which was shekhinah.
The Onkelos translator is very careful in the employment of shekhinah. He places the term into his translation only to indicate the presence of God on earth or in heaven. By restricting his usage in this fashion, he does not portray a physical presence of God, but the feeling that the people have of God being immanent (on earth) or transcendent (in heaven).
Other Aramaic translations of the Pentateuch, such as Pseudo-Jonathan and Neophyti, exist. These translators were not as careful in restricting the usage of shekhinah and pictured shekhinah as a separate entity performing corporeal acts, such as walking. Thus shekhinah, like its predecessor kavod, was first used to express human feelings about the presence of God, but the term metamorphosized in the minds of many, including these translators, into a separate divine entity.
Other popular ideas bear striking similarities to kavod and shekhinah. The most widely known are midat hadin and midat harakhamim. These picture God functioning through “the stern attribute of justice” or “the attribute of compassion and mercy,” respectively. Like kavod and shekhinah, it is possible to view them as figurative expressions of how God functions – sometimes God seemingly exacts strict and proper justice, while at other times God seemingly ignores the mandates of justice and is compassionate. However, one can also believe that these are not figurative descriptions, but two separate parts of the divine. Indeed, many mystics came to believe that there are ten parts to God, ten sefirot (emanations). According to their beliefs, these are two of the ten elements of God, and shekhinah is another, the tenth of the sefirot.
Where Did these Mystical Theories Develop?
The understanding of kavod, shekhinah, midat hadin and midat harakhamim as parts of God originated in Neo-Platonic philosophy and in Gnosticism. (There were various Gnostic beliefs, but most of them stressed the attainment of knowledge through a mystical-type method.) The two address the question, “How could an incorporeal deity create corporeal matter?” These thinkers answer that God radiated a substance, as the sun emanates rays. This material was slightly corporeal. It, in turn, emitted another body that was more corporeal. Each of the imparted items was to some extent divine. The final substance was able to create the corporeal world. Thus kavod, shekhinah, midat hadin and midat harakhamim were understood by some Jews as somewhat corporeal emanations from God that were separate from God.
The Shekhinah in Exile: An Example
The distinction between shekhinah as a figurative expression or as a distinct entity can be understood by addressing the midrashic expression “the exile of the shekhinah.” This phrase is used to soften the impact of the exile in the thinking of Jews. What does the Midrash mean by saying that the shekhinah is also in exile?
Those who understand the term as a figurative depiction of God’s function or how humans emotionally feel about God, would say that the term states: “Do not despair, Jews. Remember that wherever you are, God is always with you, even outside of Israel, just as God was before the exile. All you have to do is turn to God and you will feel the divine presence.”
In contrast, the people who take the term as a description of a real entity, as do most mystics, understand it to say: “Jew, you must realize that just as you have been exiled from Israel, the shekhinah is caught, restrained and exiled in the terrestrial world, far from the other sefirot. As long as this situation exists, the messianic era cannot begin. You, Jew, must find a way to help release the shekhinah.” The mystics then detail a procedure by which this can be accomplished.
The figurative approach is rationally acceptable. The mystical system borders on polytheism, belief in multiple Gods. This near-polytheism changes the very relationship of a person with God, altering his or her beliefs and actions in relation to God.
Judaism is not monolithic. Numerous beliefs, vital to some Jews, are entirely unknown to others. One example is the understanding of shekhinah. While clearly originally an expression of a human feeling about God, mystics twisted and distorted the ancient concept and insisted that the shekhinah is a separate divine entity. Maimonides, clearly a proponent of the understanding of shekhinah as expressing a personal experience of God’s presence, would most certainly have frowned upon such an anti-rationalist interpretation.
 Readers can learn more about Targum Onkelos by reading my five book series Onkelos on the Torah, which translates and explains all ten thousand differences between the Aramaic of the Targum and the biblical Hebrew and explains the fourth century dating, among much else.