MEANING OF SHEMONA ESREI
Rav Ezra Bick
in memory of both Zissel Bat Yitzchak Gontownik, and Avraham Ben Yosef Halevi
on the occasion of his tenth yahrzeit, by his children, Anne and
Jerry Gontownik, and Sidney Gontownik,
and his grandchildren, Ari and Shira,
Zev and Daniela, Yonatan, Ranan, Hillel, and Ezra Gontownik.
After spending the previous two shiurim exploring the idea of kedusha in
general, and of being "mekadesh," of sanctifying God's name, in particular, we
have finally returned to the third berakha of the Shemona Esrei, the berakha of
are holy, and Your Name is holy,
holy ones every day praise You, sela.
are You, Hashem, the holy God.
The explanation of the first line follows from the previous two shiurim.
"You are holy" - God is intrinsically holy, in-and-of-Himself. "And Your name is
holy" - The name of God, the presence of God on the lips and in the souls of
those who worship Him, is holy as well. God's perfect holiness is reflected
within the imperfect world of Man, and this "imperfect" holiness is holy as
The line which requires special attention here is the second one. "The
holy ones every day praise" God. Who are the holy ones, and why is their praise
of God relevant to a berakha which is clearly about the holiness of
Holiness and Miracles
R. Yehuda b. Yakar, the 13th century Provencal commentator on the Siddur,
explains this line by reference to a midrash:
language refers to the Mekhilta (Beshalach):
Meir says: "If for the first man, who was alone, I made the dry land, as is
written, 'God said, let the waters gather' (that is, just as I am alone and one,
so he was alone and one), for the congregation of the holy shall I not turn the
sea into dry land?" (That is, since I am holy).
- that God says that he does the miracles for the holy congregation since He
himself is holy - must be the proper interpretation of the Mekhilta, for if the
explanation was that they are many and the first man only one, it should simply
have said "for the many shall I not turn the sea into dry land." Why were they
called "the holy congregation?"
we pray and say: Just as He did miracles for us since we are called "holy" like
He is, so too we should praise Him for we are called "holy" like He is.
This enigmatic explanation raises more questions than it seems to solve.
What is the connection between kedusha and miracles (specifically, the splitting
of the Sea)? Why is praise engendered from those who share the quality of
holiness with God? Finally, what is the meaning of the "just as" clause - what
is the connection between the miracles that God did for "the holy congregation"
and the praise of the "holy ones" for God?
Holiness and Nature
If you have been following these shiurim for the last two sessions, the
answer to all these questions will be clear. Kedusha, we have explained, is the
increase in God's presence in the world as produced by Man's ability to reflect
the absolute perfection of God. Man does this by perfecting himself, by striving
upward to transcend himself, to be more than he naturally is. In other words,
kedusha is transcendence, real increase in value, producing more than the sum of
the parts. This is precisely what a miracle is - the revelation of God's POWER
in the world, so that something is produced beyond the natural sum of the parts
and means. There is, therefore, a direct connection between the increase in
kedusha, that is, the increase in the non-natural presence of God, produced by
the free act of man's perfection, and the phenomenon of miracle, the presence of
God's power acting freely beyond the confines of natural cause and
Hence, since God is holy, He performs miracles for the "holy
congregation." The holy congregation is the public body of those who sanctify
God's name, who bear the increase of kedusha in this world. Since God is holy,
His presence in this world is dependent on the holy congregation, who call upon
His name, and that presence naturally is expressed in
The second equation is now equally clear. Since we are called holy like
God, we should praise Him who is the "holy God." Praising God, as we saw in the
previous shiurim, is itself the act of making kedusha. Since God is holy and the
source of all holiness, people - who have the potential to reflect the
absolutely perfect holiness of God, should praise God, make His presence felt in
the world, support His glory (kavod), and bless the name of the glory of His
kingdom, for that is what makes the holiness of God present in this world. The
end of the berakha, then - "Blessed be You, the holy God" - is not merely
descriptive, but declaratory - we, the holy congregation, bless You, God, and
therefore You are, in this world and in our midst, the holy God. Of course, this
is circular, as we saw last week that kedusha is always circular. The holy ones
are the ones who should praise God and sanctify Him - which is the reason that
they are themselves holy, for they reflect the holiness of God in their own
This explains the lack of an apparent "m'ein chatima" before the
conclusion of the berakha. In Nusach Sefarad, there is an extra line before the
You are a great and holy God and king.
are You, the holy God.
This is a classic "m'ein chatima," which, as we have seen, is a halakhic
requirement before the conclusion. But in Nusach Ashkenaz, this line is absent,
and the introduction to the conclusion is "and holy ones every day praise You,
sela." What happened to the "m'ein chatima?" According to my explanation, the
answer is clear. "Holy ones every day praise You" IS the "m'ein chatima," for
the praise of the holy congregation is the basis for the holiness of God, not in
the absolute sense, but in the immanent sense, God as present in the world. In
other words, the berakha is not about God's perfect transcendence, but about
kedusha in the world. Since the holy ones praise You daily, therefore You are
the holy God. There is no need to
add the "missing" line.
There is another, rather different version of this berakha, which is
today reserved for the repetition of the Shemona Esrei by the chazan. It is
recited in every repetition in Nusach Ashkenaz, and in Musaf of Shabbat in
Nusach Sefarad (Ari).
every generation we shall recite Your greatness,
for all eternity Your sanctity we shall sanctify,
Your praise, our God, shall never ever leave our lips.
You are a great and holy God and king.
are You, the holy God.
The general theme of this blessing is similar to the one we have already
discussed, and indeed it emphasizes even more clearly the point I have made.
Sanctification consists in praise, by humans, of God, for thereby His presence
and sanctity become part of this world. There is, though, one striking theme
present here not found in the regular version of the berakha. This berakha
repeatedly emphasizes one aspect of this praise of God - eternity. In every
generation ("L'DOR VA-DOR"), and for all eternity ("NETZACH NETZACHIM"), the
praise of God shall never ("L'OLAM VA-ED") leave our lips. This seems to be the
main point of the berakha - not so much that we shall praise God, but that we
affirm that this praise shall be constantly on our lips, for now and for all
eternity. What is the significance of this affirmation?
If we understand the thesis I have been advancing in an exclusive manner,
that the ONLY basis for God's presence in the world and the existence of kedusha
within mundane existence is the free act of man's sanctification of God, then
the affirmation of eternal constancy becomes crucial. The berakha is not about
praise, about an obligation of Man to praise his creator. It is about the
connection between God and the world, about the redemption of the world from
secularity. Let me go one step further. It is about the basis for the world's
existence, for if the world would have no sanctity, if the world would not
reflect the glory of God's majesty at all, it could not exist. Nothing can exist
outside of God's presence. Hence, we promise that this process of sanctification
shall be constant, for all generations. If I were merely saying that I wish to
praise God, for He is worthy of praise, then it would be fitting that this
obligation should find its measured place amidst my other obligations, perhaps
once a week, or several hours during the week, when I am not fulfilling other
important duties. But if we are discussing the ONLY basis for sanctity in the
world, if this is what defines Man's existence as the "image of God," then not
even for one second can I imagine a world where the praise and sanctity of God
are not on human lips - for if not there, then sanctity is nowhere at all. A man
who does not reflect the sanctity of God is not a man at all, not a living image
of God. Since You are a KING who is holy ("king," as we saw, refers to God
ruling over the world), we must keep your name on our lips at all times, for
God's kingship exists within the world only when we accept it and affirm it.
Hence - l'dor va-dor, for ever and at all times,
There is a fine paradox in this affirmation, worthy of a berakha that
states that we bear the quality of God's holiness. If there is one quality that
we should fear attributing to Man (other than sanctity itself), it is constancy.
As Coleridge stated, "Constancy lives in realms above." "Netzach," eternity, is
not an attribute at home within flesh and blood. But kedusha allows no
compromise - it is either eternity or nothing; either you agree to reflect God
Himself, eternally king, or you are no more than yourself, no growth, no
unlimited striving, no transcendence, no kedusha. L'dor
From Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, there is a special need to emphasize
God's kingdom, since Rosh Hashana is the day of God's ascension of the throne.
Since it is a time of judgment, and God judges Man as part of His role as king,
we understand why the berakha of judgment becomes "the KING of judgment." But
why is our berakha of holiness also changed, from "the holy God" to "the holy
king?" What is the connection between sanctity and
The answer is, based on the previous shiurim, clear. The kingship of Rosh
Hashana is one which we accept upon ourselves. The shofar is a declaration, an
act of crowning God. This is, as we have seen, the principle of kedusha - the
acts of Man are the basis for God's presence in the world. God as king WITHIN the
world is "the holy king," ha-melekh ha-kadosh. Malkhut and kedusha, kingship and
sanctity, are two sides of the same process.
With this we have finished the first section of the Shemona Esrei, the
praise of God which must precede the requests and supplication which is the
central component. We now begin the thirteen requests which the Sages felt are
basic to human existence. No man can appear before God and not request these
requests. These are the needs of man; service of God is the recognition of these
needs. Next week we commence with the first need of man -