J. (Joshua) Abelson.

The immanence of God in rabbinical literature online

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the world is not His dwelling-place." The relations
between God and the world, are quaintly compared
with those subsisting between the horse and its rider.
The horse is subservient to the rider and not vice
versa* So the world is subservient to God. God is
upon it, and in it, and moulds it as He wills. This is
a very fine dictum of the Rabbins on the world as.
spirit. If all these sayings are compared with a state-
ment like, " There is no spot on earth unoccupied by
the Shechinah," it is clear that the Immanence of God is
identical with the Immanence of the Shechinah.

Another interestino; view of the aforeo-oinof is that
of T. B. Berachoth 10a (given in slightly altered form
in Leviticus Rabba iv. 8).^''^ It takes the form of a
comparison between God and the soul. Just as the
soul fills the body, so God fills the world.f Just as the

* i.e. The rider is dependent upon the horse for whatever he wants to do,
and yet he is gi-eater than the horse ; any success that attends his errand is
due to him and not to the horse ; in the last resort it is he that holds the
horse ; the horse does not hold him. He far transcends it.

t This analogy between God and the soul has a larger import than would
at first thought appear. It really touches the root-problem of Immanence. It
is true that the soul fills the body, but only in the sense that its energies flow
through the body. But in reality it far transcends the body. It is not inside
the body in any physical sense. The body is merely its organ and its instru-
ment. Exactly so with God and the world. The traces of Divine action are
everjr^vhere. But there are spheres of Divine action which transcend the limits
of the universe. The Immanence of God is accordingly not opposed to the
idea of the Transcendence of God. Unless we admit this, we land ourselves
in Pantheism. God is not coterminous with the universe as Pantheism would
say. He is in the universe and above it, at one and the same time. This
Rabbinic analogy between God and the soul has thus a true philosophical
bearing, although couched in the usual childlike language of the Rabbins.


soul bears the body, so God endures the world. Just as
the soul sees but is not seen, so God sees but is unseen.
Just as the soul feeds the body (i.e. spiritually, in-
tellectually) so God gives food to the world.

Other forms of the same idea are the following:
Song of Songs Rabbi i. " The throne of God exerts its
sway from world's end to world's end." A truly poetic
description of Omnipresence.'^ Song of Songs Rabba
iii. 8 : comparison of the Shechinah to a cave by the Sea.
The sea rushes into the cave, filling it, but the sea is
just as full as before. So the Shechinah pervades the
Tabernacle, or the Temple, but yet is quite as immanent,
all-pervasive in the world at large.

Deuteronomy Rabba ii. 10, God is both far and
near. Far, because the distance of earth to heaven is
" a five hundred years' journey." Near, because when
man utters or even meditates a prayer, God is at hand to
hear it, as it is said, " Thou that hearest prayer, unto
Thee shall all flesh come." <^^ (Psalm Ixv. 2). As the
commentary HDiriD ''no points out, "it" = Nil"' i^i^n i^
^SsriDrr = He that prays approximates to God, God is

* A more common designation of the "Throne" in Kabbinic literature as
well as in the Jewish Liturgy is " Kisse Ha-Kabod." "The throne of Glory," the
" glory" being a synonym for Shechinah, the omnipresent manifestation of God.
In T. B. Haggigah 12b and 13a there is a considerable amount of matter on
this point, the pivot on which it rests being Psalm Ixxxix. 14, "Justice and
judgment are the habitation of Thy throne : mercy and truth shall go before
Thy face." All these ideas of justice, throne, mercy, truth, face, figure so pre-
eminently in the mediaeval Kabbalah ! There is to be found within the
large domain of the Rabbinic writings, a higher and a lower, a more spiritual
and a more material line of thought about the Throne. Thus in T. B.
Sabbath 88b when Moses ascends the mount to receive the tables of stone,
the angels object ; whereupon God tells Moses to take a firm stand by holding
on to the throne. This is a very materialistic conception. On the other
hand, the saying of R. Eliezer (in Sabbath 152b) about the souls of the righteous
being concealed under the throne, certainly sounds a high S2)iritual note.
There is a fine remark in the Zohar (on Genesis xlv. 27, based on a similar
idea to be found in the Talmud) about the likeness of Jacob being engraven on
the throne. This is a beautiful piece of mystical teaching. The oneness
of man and Deity which is the result of the highest communion between man
and God, could not be more poetically summai-ised ! See also Kimhi on
Isaiah Ix. 13, — one of the rare instances of a mystical quotation by Kimhi,


at his side ; He is with him. If this is so, in spite of
God's immeasurable distance from earth, the remark can
only be plausibly interpreted in the sense of the Divine
Immanence in man. When man prays, he arouses the
Divine element that is imbedded in him, that is part
of his natural constitution.

Euth Rabba v. 4 speaks of the saints as dwelling
" not in the shadow of the morning, nor in the shadow
of the wings of the north, nor of the wings of the sun
of Chayott, or Cherubim, or Seraphim, but only in the
shadow of Him through whose word the world was."
It is a quaint picture of God as overshadowing, brood-
ing over, the universe ; and the saints nestle within the
sphere of this Divine world-embrace.

An important Rabbinic idea found in different
forms in many places in Talmud and Midrashim, is to
the effect that the Divine voice at Sinai came to
each one ^'ni "i^ f?D roi, " according to the comprehension
of each." ^^^ This is a commentary on the Psalmist's
expression (xxix. 4), " The voice of the Lord is power-
ful." It was not the outwardly audible voice of God,
for the universe would be unable to endure this. It
was the inner voice as each one comprehended it. At
the time of the Revelation on Sinai every man felt a
Voice within him — a Voice which gave him the counsel
which best answered his own needs. We have here, a
very fine attempt on the part of our ancient teachers,
to strip the Biblical account of the Revelation of its
materialistic dress, and to spiritualise the whole episode.
The God of Sinai was the sacred Divine Voice within
as well as without man.*

* I am aware that this interpretation is open to question. I find much
support, however, from the way in which the Midrashim attribute the origin of
the prophetic power among Israelites to the fact of their having received the
Voice at Sinai (see particularly Exodus Rabba xxviii. 6). It shows that accom-
panying and corresponding to the " outwardness " of the Voice, there must have
been an " inwardness " in the hearers.


An interesting instance of how the Eabbins actually
deduced a series of important ceremonial laws, from the
fact of God's omnipresence, is given in the Sifri on Nsn ^D,
" For the Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy
camp" — "hence we learn [says Sifri] that man may
not read the ' shema ' inside a wash-house, nor may he
enter a bath if he has Phylacteries or Hebrew books in
his hands." Although God is everywhere, the emblems
which proclaim His holiness must not intermingle with
impure agencies. ^^^

A similar instance to the aforesaid is that of T. B.
Kiddushin 31a (repeated in Yalkut on Isaiah vi.),
*' Man is prohibited from walking four cubits with a
proud mien, because it is said, 'The whole earth is
full of His glory.' " The sin of pride amounts to a
denial of God's Immanence in the world. ^^"^ E. Hun a
in the same passage relates that he never walked four
cubits with uncovered head because he recognised that
the Shechinah was above his head. The " Shechinah " is
here an equivalent to the Immanent Deity. E. Isaac
says in the same connexion, " He who sins in secret
acts as though he were pressing against the feet of the
Shechinah." The underlying idea of the latter passage
is that the immanent God permeates all space. When
sin comes on the scene it naturally collides with this
Divinity. The sinner is thus the antithesis to the
immanent God.

The Yalkut on Jeremiah chap, xxiii. v. 24, " Can
any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see
him, etc.," . . . illustrates God's Immanence in the
universe by the figure of an architect who planned a
city full of caves and subterranean passages. After
a time misfortune befell the citizens, and they hurried
to deposit secretly what valuables they possessed inside
these dark places. Whereupon, the architect said,


" You may strive to bide your possessions as you will,
from one another or from the enemy. But you can
hide naught from me. For I have planned not only
the city, but also the secret hiding-places." ^"^ *

To the preceding instances which have been intended
to show what the Rabbins thought on the fact of God's
Immanence (whether by the usage of the term " God "
or " Shechinah," both being interchangeable), I add
the following series of quotations which deal with His
immanent activity in man and the world.

Genesis Rabba xi. 11, "God on the seventh day
ceased from the creation of His world, but not from the
creation of good and evil men."

Genesis Rabba viii. 13, "God blesses bridegrooms.
He adorns brides. He visits the sick, He buries the
dead."^^^^ This is a graphic way of showing God's
close participation in the afiairs of man. He is mth
us in our joy, as He is with us in our pain and sorrow.

Genesis Rabba xlix. 3, " No day passes unless God
is rrSiJO hw "r^ni TTDhn ojino, i.e. introduces a new law in
the Beth Din of Above. The Rabbins were fond of
representing God as presiding over a court composed
of angels. The drift of the saying would therefore
seem to be, that God is daily creating new rules and
regulations for the guidance of mankind. No day but
reveals the activity of God's finger in mundane events.
This activity at times takes on almost a humorous
turn. Because God, or rather, because His Shechinah is
so beneficently imbedded in man and the world, — He is
the universal marriage-maker. It can be no other than
the Divine hand which will bring man and woman
together in the bonds of love, although separated from
one another by immeasurable distances. AVhat a bizarre

* i.e. Just as an architect may be said to be immanent in his sketches and
plans, or just as a poet is immanent in his poems.



statement is the following, although very true to
experience : iiii^oi ]N^nD 'n"i"pn . . . thn -iidd iS^d«
. . . (Genesis Rabba Ixv. 2). And for the same
reason the successes and failures of men are the results
of the Divine plans brought to bear unremittingly upon
the things of the world/^^^ " God is engaged in making
ladders upon which one man climbs to success, but down
which another descends to failure " (Genesis Rabba Ixviii.
4). Leviticus Rabba xxvii. 5 speaks of God's ceaseless
activity in the interests of the wronged and persecuted.
Commenting on Ecclesiastes iii. 15 fi~n3 nw mpi"' DTr'pNni,
it adduces several Biblical examples of Divine inter-
ference for the sake of the persecuted, no matter
whether the latter be a worthy or unworthy man/^*^

Genesis Rabba Ixxvii. i. tells how God allows His
beneficent work to be anticipated by good men. This
is a similar idea to God causing the Shechinah to rest
upon men possessed of certain qualifications. The work
of good men is a phase of God's immanent beneficent
activity in the world.^^^^

A favourite Rabbinic expression is that of man,
under certain circumstances, being " a co-worker with
God in the work of creation." The Mechilta on nn"'
ascribed this function to Moses in his judicial capacity.^^"^
The basic idea is that of God's immanent activity in
the world. When man adds his quota of usefulness he
ipso facto becomes a co-worker with God. The sum
of Divine blessedness in the universe is increased.

A quaint portrayal of God's immanent activity in
nature is the following : " Man can only fashion an image
on dry land, but God can do so in water also. When
man builds a dwelling, he can only place the dwellers
in the upper and lower stories : but God can place
them in the hollow also. ..."

But the boldest and most pictorial representation of


these same immaneut ideas of Divine activity is that of
Yalkut on Exodus xxxi., where the Almighty is repre-
sented as declaring, " From the day of the world's
creation even unto this hour I sit upon the Throne of
my G-lory, spending one-third of the day in study of
Torah, the other third in executing justice, and the last
third in practising benevolence and giving sustenance
to all mundane creatures." If this passage means
anything at all, it alludes to the Divine implanting of
these virtues in the hearts of mankind. God's day is
eternity, His throne is the universe. The study of the
Torah is the emblem of righteousness, truth. The Divine
tendencies making for righteousness, truth, benevolence
are ingrained in the world ; they are the traces of God,
which are part and parcel of the texture of the human


(1) In Aboth. De R. Nathan, chap, xxxvi., it is said, " All the time
that the Israelites are immersed in immorality (nmyn D'^-ns) the Shechinah
keeps away from them, as it is said, ' That He see no unclean thing in
thee, and turn away from thee' (Deut. xxiii. 14)." Here the Deity is the
personified Shechinah, and there is the antithesis between Shechinah
and sin.

(2) In Genesis Rabba xlviii. 1 on the passage Genesis xviii. 1, the
Shechinah stands and allows Abraham to be seated.

(3) We treat of this subject further on.

(4) In his edition of the Sifri, Friedmann has an interesting note on
noip'BJN. It = ante Caesar.

(5) That the Shechinah resides in the company of ten, is in T. B.
Berachoth 6a.

(6) See also for same, Deuteronomy Rabba ii. 37, Tanhuma on
ntv "n (a much curtailed form).

(7) Exodus Rabba xxi. 4 has a long excursus on this verse from
Psalm Ixv. It gives some beautifully poetic sentiments on Prayer.

(8) It is found in the Mechilta, Tanhuma, Pesikta De R'Kahana,
and Yalkut in their comments on Exodus xix. and xx. (the Revelation on
Sinai), as well as in Exodus Rabba v. 9 and xxix. 1. In Exodus Rabba
xxxiv. 1 this idea of "ai "n h2 n32 is elaborated by the remark, " God does


not come to man oppressively, but commensurately witt man's power of
receiving Him."

(9) A good view of tlie Rabbinic ideas of ceremonial purity and
impurity in conjunction with tbeir ideas of God's omnipresence is to be
obtained from T. B. Beracboth 22-25. In Tanliuma on nbti o there is
a similar combination of ritual ideas, with the teaching of the Divine
omnipresence. The Eoman emperor asks R. Akiba why God is permitted
to work on the Sabbath ? Why just as on week-days ? He " causes
the winds to blow, the clouds to ascend, the rain to fall, the sun to
shine, etc." And the answer which Akiba gives is that God dwells in a
n^n'n mn by Himself. No one else is with Him and cannot be, because
the whole earth is filled with His glory. Therefore in doing the things
He does on the Sabbath, He is merely carrying out the kind of work
which the Rabbins call ^it:'?B, and hmha is permitted in a Tn'n niB'n on the

(10) The author of the Dnia.i Vya (Jacob Ben Asher, fourteenth
century) in his comments on Exodus xvi. 20 has an interesting homiletical
remark on the word d-;;i. Unlike Rashi (who associates it with nBi =
worm) he dwells on its connexion with on = to be high, i.e. to be proud,
haughty. Connecting this again with the passage in Ezekiel x. 4,
" Then the Glory of the Lord went up from the Cherub . . ." where
the word for " went up " is dti [from the same root, and the Rabbinical
interpretation refers it to the departing of the Shechinah, see T. B. Rosh
Hashana 31a ; Lamentations Rabba, Introduction xxv. ; Aboth De R,
Nathan 34], he dwells on the fact that the haughty man causes the
Shechinah to depart, because he as much as belies the existence of the
Shechinah. The end of such a man, continues he, in a moralising strain,
is that, just like the manna (in Exodus xvi.), he " breeds worms and
stinks" (where the same root dti is employed).

(11) This Yalkut Midrash seems a reproduction of Tanhuma on ncj
(Numbers v. 12).

(12) That God buries the dead is curiously derived by the Rabbins
from Deuteronomy xxxiv. 6, "And He buried him in the valley" ; the
first " He" alludes to God. See T. B. Sotah 9b, 14a.

(13) C]). Genesis Rabba Ixviii. 3, 4, for God as the marriage-maker
and the fiasco of the woman who thought to do likewise.

(14) Rashi on Eccles. iii. 15 reproduces this view. God seeks
eternally to punish the evil-doer. What advantage has he therefore out
of his evil, seeing that in the end he must be caught in the Divine net and
receive his retribution ?

(15) Exodus Rabba xii. 1 says in a similar sense, "God strengthens
the strength of the righteous in order that they should do His Mdll."

(16) Mechilta on nn' "s ; T. B. Sanhedrin 7a ; T. B. Sabbath 10a.



It is only to be expected that the immanent God of the
universe should, in the minds of the Rabbins, be in an
even truer and more emphatic sense, the immanent God
of the Holy Land. And that God should be immanent
in Temple and Synagogue, is a doctrine, the foundation
of which, is seen in nearly all the more familiar pass-
ages of the Bible and the Jewish Prayer Book. The
possibility of an unevenness in the distribution of
Immanence, or, in other words, the question whether it
can feasibly be said, that God is present in any one
place in a greater and higher degree than He is present
in any other place, is a matter upon which the Rabbins
did not stop to think. For, as has been said before,
the Rabbins were no philosophers. They spoke from
the heart, not from books. They elaborated no systems
and laid down no categories. The gems of the Talmud
and Midrash make better poetry than philosophy. We
can understand on many grounds how, when treating
of such themes as God in the Temple or the Synagogue,
in the Holy Land and amidst the praises of Israel,
these old Rabbinic theologians should assume the
mantle of the poet, and give out their message under
the halo of the poet's imagination. But yet, although
the Rabbins do not seem to have felt any insuperable



inconsistency between Grod being supremely immanent
in the Temple, Palestine, etc., and His Immanence
in the universe generally, there can be no question
that they noted the difficulty. This can be seen from
many passages. Genesis Rabba iii. 9 (and more fully in
Numbers Rabba xiii. 6, also quoted in brief in Yalkut on
^D^D2?, Tanhuma on mpD, and T. B. Sabbath 87b)* says
that from the first day of creation, God was desirous
of dwelling, not above but within the universe (miNna
vm"^ii Di? TnS). But He did not do so until the
Tabernacle was erected. Then the Shechinah rested
within it, and God said, " Let it be written that this
day the world was created." " And," continues the fore-
going passage, " that day (on which the Tabernacle was
erected and consecrated) was, among other things,
m'^DmS jitDNi, i.e. the First day of the Shechinah's
existence in the universe." ^^^ The basic idea here seems
to be, that God's Immanence in the Tabernacle was, so
to speak, the origin, source, and fount of His Immanence
in the world. The world received this privilege through
the Tabernacle.

A passage of a kindred nature but of another trend
is that of Exodus Rabba xxxiv. 1 : " When God said
unto Moses, ' Make me a tabernacle,' he (Moses) began
to wonder, and exclaimed, ' God's Glory fills the upper
and lower worlds, how can a tabernacle suffice to hold
Him ? ' And more than this, Moses saw, by prophetic
inspiration, that Solomon would one day build a Temple
more spacious than the Tabernacle, and yet Solomon
would have to exclaim, ' Behold, heaven and the heaven
of heavens cannot contain Thee ; how much less this
house that I have builded ? ' 'If Solomon's Temple
was too small, will not my tabernacle be too small ? ' . . .
Then God replied, ' Your thoughts are not as my

* There is much to the same effect also in Pesikta Rabbati.


thoughts, ... I can come down if I so will, and make
the Shechinah abide in the smallest possible compass,
even in a space of one cubit by one cubit.' " ^^"^ Numbers
Rabba xii. 3 adds the following significant remark :
*' God who dwells in the nh^s hm nno secret recesses
of the universe, who sees and is not seen, He is yhh
niiNnD "iD^iii, i.e. He desires to dwell in our shadow."
If there is any possible difficulty in reconciling the fact
of God's immanence in the small space of the Taber-
nacle or Temple with the fact of His Immanence in
the world at large, the Rabbins forestalled and ex-
plained it by saying that it is God's will that it
should be so.

Another quaint attempt to solve the difficulty is
that of a passage in Sifri on ipi?. The question is
there asked, " Does God seek the welfare of Palestine
only? Does He not seek the welfare of the lands as
well ? " And the reply given is as follows : " Speaking
from a human standpoint, God only seeks the welfare of
Palestine ; and as a consequence of His seeking Palestine's
welfare, He also seeks that of all other lands wdth it." ^^^

From this point of view, then, God's Immanence in
the universe generally, is a corollary of His Immanence
in the Holy Land. The same Midrash dwells in a
similar strain, on the relation between Divine Immanence
in Israel and in all Mankind. The latter is a favour
granted as a consequence of the former. And so with
the Temple in Jerusalem and all other places. It is
said of the former, " And mine eyes and mine heart shall
be there perpetually" (I Kings ix. 3). Yet, is it not
also said, " The eyes of the Lord run to and fro through-
out the whole earth" (Zechariah iv, 10)? But the
latter is a favour granted in consequence of the former.^^^

There is no philosophic reasoning here. It is a
good specimen of the Rabbinical style of exegesis.


Yet another striking passage on God's Immanence
in the Temple and, as a consequence of this, in the
universe generally, is to be found in Exodus Rabba ii. 2,
" Until the Temple was destroyed the Shechinah abode
in it ; after its destruction the Shechinah departed and
ascended up to heaven, as it is said, ' The Lord hath
established His throne in the heavens' (Psalm ciii. 19)."
R. Eliezer, however, said that the Shechinah never left
the Western Wall, as it is said, " And mine eyes and
mine heart shall be there perpetually" (1 Kings ix. 3),
and as it is further said, " I cried unto the Lord with
my voice, and He heard me out of His holy hill"
(Psalm iii. 4) ; although it is in ruins it is nevertheless
the holy hill, the holiness remains still. What does
Cyrus say ? He says, " And build the house of the
Lord God of Israel, He is the God which is in Jerusalem "
(Ezra i. 3). Cyrus hereby implies that although the
Holy City was as yet in ruins, nevertheless God was
there still. R. Aha said that the Shechinah never
departed from the Western Wall, as it is said, " Behold,
He standeth behind our wall" (Song of Songs ii. 9),
and it is further written, " His eyes behold, His eyelids
try, the children of men " (Psalm xi. 4). R. Yannai said
although His Shechinah is in heaven, nevertheless His
eyes behold. His eyelids try, the children of men."^*^

Thus we have three different opinions : —

(1) That after the fall of the Temple the Shechinah
left the universe entirely.

(2) That it abode in the Western Wall, i.e. that it
was still, so to speak, hovering round the spot once so
sacred, but went no farther.^^^

(3) That it became the possession of the whole
world. The latter is the broad view of R. Yannai, when
he says that the Heavenly Shechinah still tries and
proves the children of men. God's Immanence, which


was concentrated in the Holy House, disseminated itself
universally after the House was no more.

According to a passage in Numbers Rabba i. 3, this
concentration of the Shechinah in the Temple was a
boon to mankind, saving them from death/*^^ R. Joshua,

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