MEANING OF SHEMONA ESREI
Rav Ezra Bick
Rav Ezra Bick
week of Torah learning at the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat
Har Etzion is being sponsored by Ronni & Nachum Katlowitz in honor of
Ronni's mother's birthday - Happy Birthday Mrs. Lucia
The third berakha of the Shemona Esrei is called "kedusha" -
are holy, and Your name is holy,
holy ones every day praise You, sela.
are You, the holy God.
The appropriateness of the name is clear here. The problem is the very meaning of the
term "holy." What do we mean by
it? To what are we reacting when we
make a blessing over it? Why does
it have a special berakha of its own in the Shemona Esrei?
To answer these questions, we shall examine the halakhic category of
"devarim she-bikdusha," prayers which deal with holiness, a category which
includes kaddish, barkhu, and most importantly for us, the kedusha recited
during the public repetition of the Shemona Esrei within this third
Holy, Holy, God of Hosts, His glory fills the earth.
be the glory of God from His place.
shall HaShem rule; your God, Zion, for generation upon generation, praise
"Devarim she-bikdusha" means "matters of sanctity;" and it is tempting to
think that the terms refer to prayers that are about sanctity and holiness, such
as the kedusha, which begins "Holy, holy, holy." The only problem is that none of the
other devarim she-bikdusha speak about holiness as a topic, including the final
two verses of kedusha itself.
be the honor of God from its place.
shall HaShem rule; your God, Zion, for generation upon generation,
"Barkhu" simply says, "Blessed be God the blessed for ever and
eternity." The main line of the
kaddish is the refrain, "May the Great Name be blessed for ever and for all
eternity." It seems that the common
theme of these examples is not holiness, but "barukh," blessedness,
benediction. But why, you may ask,
is this the defining characteristic of "matters of holiness?" Even more to the point, why is not every
berakha, which has the phrase "blessed be You," a davar
Understanding the category of davar she-bikdusha will also help us
understand the meaning of kedusha, sanctity, which is one of the central and
most basic categories of Judaism.
B. Sanctifying God (Kiddush
The basic law applicable to the category of davar she-bikdusha is that
one requires a minyan of ten to recite it (Megilla 23b). Rabbeinu Yona, a Spanish commentator of
the 13th century, remarks parenthetically that this principle cannot be taken at
face value, for:
the recitation of the Shema is included in the category of davar she-bikdusha,
since there is no greater davar she-bikdusha than the acceptance of the yoke of
heaven ("ol malkhut shamayim").
(Talmidei R. Yona, Berakhot 12b)
Why does R. Yona assume that Keriat Shema, the recitation of the verse,
"Hear O Israel, HaShem our God, HaShem is one," is not only a davar
she-bikdusha, but the davar she-bikdusha par excellence?
The aspect of Keriat Shema that R. Yona views as having the character of
davar she-bikdusha is defined by him as "kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim." When we recite the verse of "Shema," we
are accepting upon ourselves the kingship of God. R. Yona explains that there are two
kinds of davar she-bikdusha - those that require a minyan and those that do not,
but both are exemplified by Shema.
This is the key for us to open the door to understanding this
In Judaism, the kingship of God is not understood as a static absolute
state. We are charged with the job
of creating the kingship of God by accepting upon ourselves His rule. This is explained by an ancient saying:
There cannot be a king without a people.
While it is true that in the absolute sense, God is king as an aspect of
His existence, in another sense, God is only king in relation to the world, to
people, who accept His rule and abide by His will. The attribute of kingship is a relative
one by definition; there cannot be a king without a people. This is a difficult concept to
comprehend, but, amazingly enough, it is sung by children as well as adults all
over the Jewish world.
olam asher malakh.....
of the world
ruled before any creature was created.
everything shall be done according to His will,
HIS NAME SHALL BE CALLED KING.
There is no other attribute of God which exhibits this point as clearly
as kingship. This is the theme of
the Rosh HaShana prayers as well - we pray and look forward to the day when God
will be king, even as we say that He has always been, and will always be
king. But even more so, on Rosh
HaShana we actively crown God as our king, and by doing so, we add,
qualitatively and quantitatively, to His kingship. The Sages state that the blowing of the
shofar is an act of coronation, and God ascends, as it were, His throne, the
throne which can only be set up by His willing subjects.
This idea, however, is not limited only to kingship. All of God's attributes, as exhibited
within the world (rather than in their absolute aspect), are dependent on the
world, on the acts of people. If no
one turns to God, then He is absent.
If no one calls on His name, then His name is not found, and He is not
present. While God, in His absolute
transcendence, is wholly independent of the world, His presence in the world is
dependent on a vehicle, on someone who will bear His honor and glory. Abraham is called "God's friend," and is
said by the Sages to have "mended the rift" because he "called on the name of
God" in a world where previously God had been absent.
means that, paradoxical as it sounds, God the absolute and supremely
transcendent, in His aspect of relating to the world is dependent on our
blessing. My master, the Rav zt"l,
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, explained that this is the meaning of all berakhot:
"Blessed are You, our God, King of the world" means that we indeed add power and
glory to the presence of God by discovering Him and recognizing Him in the
world. The act of prayer, whereby,
as I explained several weeks ago, we turn to God to receive everything from He
who needs nothing from us but from whom we need everything, becomes itself an
act of giving to God, of increasing His presence and glory, of adding to His
holy Name. Psalm 114 opens, "My
soul, bless God," and immediately continues "HaShem my God, You GROW VERY GREAT,
You are clothed with beauty and majesty."
This is the meaning of kedusha, of holiness in this world. God told the Jews, "I shall be
sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel" (Lev. 32:22). Holiness is an attribute of God which,
properly speaking, belongs to nothing else. It means the presence of God. A place, a time, a person, is holy
because it bears the name of God, or rather, because through him the name of God
is revealed and the presence of God is strengthened. And so, the proper verb of an act of
sanctification is as much "bless" as it is "be holy." To bless God, as audacious as it sounds,
is to add to His revealed holiness, to imbue the world with His holiness, to
increase the revealed presence of God.
This aspect of God, God-in-the-world, is called by the Sages the "name"
of God. A name is what someone is
called by others. The name of God,
as opposed to God Himself, is God's presence in people's mouths. And so in kaddish we say, "May His great
name be blessed forever." It is
also called, in verses in Tanakh, "kevod HaShem," God's honor (or glory), for
honor is also something that appears in reflection, as something given by
others; and so we say in the kedusha, "His honor fills the world." It is also the meaning of "malkhut," of
kingship, as we saw in the statement of R. Yona; and so we find that the kedusha
concludes with the exclamation, "God shall rule forever, Your God Zion for
generation upon generation." In
Keriat Shema, which, as we saw, is also thematically a davar she-bikdusha, we
find all three terms together - "Blessed be the NAME of the HONOR of his
KINGSHIP for ever."
As we saw, the term "davar she-bikdusha" is used to indicate certain
prayers which require a minyan of ten.
R. Yona pointed out that the theme of a davar she-bikdusha is not limited
to those prayers, but is more widely found. What then is the criterion for requiring
a minyan for some of these prayers, for instance the "kedusha" which we are
I think the answer is simple.
The minyan rule is derived from the verse I quoted above, "I shall be
sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel" (Lev. 32:22). This process is described by the Torah
as being real - under certain conditions, we actually add to the (revealed)
kedusha of God and realize the immanence of God's presence in the world. This, God says, should be done by the
community, by the children of Israel.
A minyan of ten represents a community; it is identical in type with
"Knesset Yisrael," the Jewish people as a whole. The job of supporting God's presence is
given to Israel, not to the individual Jew. Those prayers designated as "davar
she-bikdusha" are actually attempting to do just that - to uncover and, in a
sense, create kedusha, to reflect the absolute holiness of God in ourselves, as
When I recite the Shema, on the other hand, I am not directly creating
the majesty of God. The purpose of
the Shema is inward - a Jew has the duty to daily reaffirm his loyalty. It is a sort of "pledge of
allegiance." Of course, as I said
above, the act of acceptance of God's rule adds automatically to the reality of
the rule. But the purpose of the
recitation of Shema is not to act upon God's presence, but to act upon
myself. "Hear O Israel ..." - it is
directed to me, to us. In the wider
sense, every mitzva I perform will bring about an increase in the presence of
God and actualize kedusha in myself.
Davar she-bikdusha, in the technical halakhic sense, is the relatively
rare act of directly affirming my duty, my ability, and my opportunity to create
kedusha, to actually increase kedusha.
The kaddish begins, "May His great name be sanctified and
magnified." "Yitgadel" means to be
made greater. It is a cardinal
belief of Judaism that God can be made greater, or rather, that His name can be
made greater. When this takes
place, kedusha ensues. Holiness is
the increase in the presence of God in the world.
this reason, there are prayers which are identical in content to a davar
she-bikdusha, but may be recited in private, because they are not active - they
are describing the process of sanctification, but are not acts of
sanctification. This is the status
of the "kedusha" recited before the Shema and again before Aleinu - the text
either describes the kedusha recited by the angels, or quotes the verses upon
which the kedusha is based.]
D. Humanism or Theocratic
There are two dominant answers to the question, what is the source of
values in the world? Secular
humanism answers that man creates value and is the source of value. Human experience is the basis for its
own "sanctity." Theological monism
states that God is the only source of value, and that man is inherently
worthless. Judaism, following what
I explained above, stakes out a different position, not so much in the middle as
on both ends. God IS the only
source of value, because only absolute value, metaphysically transcendent, can
be the source of kedusha. However,
this world is by definition not metaphysically transcendent and is of necessity
deficient, relative, and imperfect.
In this world, there is a different kind of value, one which reflects
absolute value by striving TOWARDS it from a base of imperfection. Kedusha in this world is found in the
process of perfection (hishtalmut), not in the state of perfection
(sheleimut). The process of
perfection is inherently meaningless if it is not directed and powered by the
existence of the absolute perfection we call God, but it can also only exist in
a place where God is not present totally; i.e. only where absolute perfection
does not exist. There is a midrash
(Bereishit Rabba 8:5) which expresses this idea in a wonderfully clear, yet
Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create the first man, the
angels divided into two camps and two parties. Some said: He should not be created; and
some said: He should be created.
This is what is written, "Kindness and truth met, righteousness and peace
kissed" (Psalms 85:11).
said: He should be created, for he will do acts of kindness; but Truth said: He
should not be created, for he is only lies.
said: He should be created, for he will do acts of righteousness, but Peace
said: He should not be created, for he is only conflict.
did God do? He took Truth and flung
him to the earth, as is written, "[You] flung truth to the earth" (Daniel
angels said to God: Master of the worlds, how can You degrade your royal seal
(truth is the "seal" of the kingdom of God)?
answered:] Let truth rise from the earth, as is written, "Truth shall grow from
the earth" (Psalms 85:12).
There is no more absolute and more demanding value than truth - a little
lie is totally untruthful. Truth
allows no compromise. Truth cannot
live within a lie. For absolute
truth, man cannot exist. So God, to
create man, threw Truth down. But,
cry the angels, without Truth there is no kingdom of heaven, so what has been
accomplished? God answers - an
answer which the rationally logical and straightforward angels cannot understand
- that Truth, a different kind of truth, shall GROW from the ground. From imperfection shall values strive
towards the perfect heaven, and that is also truth, also value, also
kedusha. It is not divorced from
the truth of heaven, it IS the truth of heaven, growing in a bed of lies (for
the angels do not err when they state that man is all lies), aspiring towards
the clear and pure truth of God's seal.
All value in this world is from Man, but only if it reflects the absolute
value of God. Kedusha is what we
create when we recognize and realize the absolute transcendent kedusha of
When God wished to dwell in the world, He commanded the Jews to "Make Me
a sanctuary, and I shall dwell in THEIR midst" (Exodus 25:8). We have to make the temple; God does not
make it. If we do, He dwells not in
the temple, but in ourselves. The
sanctuary itself, states the Torah, "dwells with them, in the midst of their
impurity (= imperfection)" (Lev. 16:16).
I thought we would get to the text of the kedusha prayer, but our time is
up, so that will wait for the next shiur.
But as a preview: The text of kedusha - the opening introduction and the
three verses that follow - are based on the paradoxical nature of kedusha,
rooted in heaven but created on earth.
Try looking at the text in advance and seeing how.