J. (Joshua) Abelson.

The immanence of God in rabbinical literature online

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the son of Levi, said, " that if the nations only knew of
what benefit the Tabernacle and Temple have been to
them, they would surround them with impenetrable
approaches''^ in order to guard them all the more
safely. And why so ? Because, before the erection of
the Tabernacle, the Word ('Dibbur') used to enter
the homes of the nations, and they were frightened to
death. . . . And so it was before the erection of the
Temple. . . ."(^>

The Tanhuma on nonn follows up this with the
remark : " Before the Temple was built the world stood
upon a throne of two legs ; but with the erection of the
Temple the universe received its proper and permanent
basis (dSii^h DDinD)." The meaning of this curious
saying probably is, that the world without God
immanent in it, is like a chair which has only two
legs to stand on — a useless chair. This immanent God
only reached the world via the Tabernacle or Temple.

A passage in the Introduction to Lamentations
Rabba, speaks of God weeping at seeing the destruction
of the Temple. God had previously said, " All the
while that I dwell therein the nations will be unable
to enter it." At His withdrawal the nations entered,
and then God said, " I have no longer an abode in the
earth, and my Shechinah shall therefore depart to its
original seat. . . . Woe is me ! AVhat have I done ? It
was for Israel's sake that I caused my Shechinah to dwell
below, but now (that I have seen their unworthiness
and sin) I have returned to my heavenly home." The
ideas in this passage are : — ( 1 ) That in Rabbinic usage,


not only are God and Shechinali interchangeable terms,
but that Shechinah is often spoken of as one of the
qualities or possessions of the Deity ; thus the latter
speaks of "My Shechinah." (2) The Shechinah is
a boon given to the world only because of Israel.
The world enjoys the Divine Immanence only through
the original virtue of Israel. ^"'^

A far more concise statement than any yet given
concerning God's Immanence in Palestine is found in
T. B. Yebamoth 105b (reproduced in Yalkut on 1 Kings
viii.), to the effect that "he who prays must direct his
eyes below but his heart above." ^^°^

The eyes must be below, because God is immanent
in Palestine, as proved from 1 Kings ix. 3, " And mine
eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually." The
heart must be above, because God is above, as it is
written (Lam. of Jeremiah iii. 41), " Let us lift up
our hearts with our hands unto God in the heavens."
The correct prayerful attitude is therefore the recognition
of God as everywhere, as filhng all space from heaven
to earth.*

The Immanence of God in the Synagogue is a
kindred theme to the preceding, and is treated in
Rabbinic literature by very much the same methods.
There is one long passage in T. B. Berachoth (6 and 7)
where the subject figures very prominently. Its main
ideas briefly summed up are : ( 1 ) God is in the
synagogue (derived from the Psalm Ixxxii. 1, " God
standeth in the congregation of the mighty ") ; (2)
when God does not find ten males in the synagogue
He is angry ; (3) God prays, and the synagogue is His
house of prayer (derived from Isaiah Ivi. 7, " Even

* And it is another illustration of the difference between Immanence and
Pantheism. In saying that man should look below when praying, the Rabbins
were careful to add the qualification that "the heart must look above." God,
said they rightly, is immanent but transcendent.


them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them
joyful in my house of prayer " ^"^) ; * (4) as a corollary
of the preceding, the prayer of man is only heard when
prayed in synagogue/^^"^

A passage in Numbers Rabba xi, 2 represents God
as skipping (iSio) from synagogue to synagogue in
order to bless Israel/^"^ The same passage a little
further on speaks of God's glory (a synonym for
Shechiuah as we shall see later) as standing in the
synagogue at the time when the Israelites enter it
in order to read the " Shema." And more than this.
At the time when the priests in synagogue pronounce
their benediction, God stands at the back of them. He
is visible from between the shoulders and fingers of
the priests.

A variant of the last passage occurs in Deuteronomy
Rabba vii. 2, based on Proverbs viii. 34. God is present
at the door of the synagogue, and counts the steps of
the worshipper as he wends his way to the holy house,
giving him a separate reward for each additional step
that he takes. When man leaves the synagogue he has
not only had the merit of seeing the " Face " of the
Shechinah, but bears away also ever so many blessings.^^^^

A passage in Yalkut on Ezekiel i. gives some quaint
mathematical figures regarding the distance of God from
the earth, and yet God hears prayers in the synagogue.
" From earth to the firmament is a distance of five

* For a very fine poetic-philosophic description of the Shechinah in the
Holy Land, see the Kusari of Jehuda Ha - Levi, chap. ii. 14-18. After
dwelling on the meaning of such terms as "Shechinah," "Glory of God,"
"Angel of God," etc., and their connexion with prophets and prophecy
(d'k'dj.t "ji'N D•K^J Dn2i hy d'Ssu moc onci, "these are names which apply to
things seen by the prophets "), the author proceeds to show how it was that
the immanence of God in Palestine had the inevitable result of causing that
country to be the first exclusive land for the use of prophecy. The way in
which he connects all three ideas — Palestine, Shechinah, Prophecy — is most
interesting. The Shechinah, he says, which existed in the first Temple was
the means by which all Israelites who had the necessary qualifications of mind
and soul attained the degree of prophecy (nVjono nh ]31c.t S3 nxn:'? y*:a n-r\).


hundred years' travel. The distance from one extremity
of the firmament to the other, is another five hundred
years' travel. And yet God, though above these, is at the
side of the Israelite when he whispers a prayer into
His ear in synagogue." ^^^^


(1) This was one of the ten " Firsts " for which that day was
celebrated ("lai nrn mix hai nnay ncj?).

(la) The Tanhiuna on i<m has a slightly different version. When
God tells Moses to build the Tabernacle, He admits that He has His real
Tabernacle above, as it is said, ub'tpd oipn jicnid one ni33 ndd (Jeremiah
xvii. 12), and "i3i wip h3^'n2"n^ (Habakkuk ii. 20), etc. ; but His object is to
show His love for Israel : " For the sake of my love for you I will leave
the upper Temple {]yhvn ''ipon n'a), and will come down and dwell among

A shorter form, based on the same version as that of Exodus Eabba
xxxiv. 1 given above, is to be found in the Pesikta Rabbati and Pesikta
De R. Kahana on Exodus xxv. 8. It is also quoted in Yalkut on
Psalm xci.

(2) The Mechilta, p. 1 (Friedmann), has the following: "The
Shechinah does not reveal itself outside Palestine (pN*? nisina), as it is
said, ' And Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish ' (Jonah i. 3). Could he then
flee from God ? Is it not said, ' Whither shall I go from Thy spirit
. . . ? if I ascend to heaven Thou art there, etc. etc' Also, ' They are
the eyes of the Lord, which run to and fro through the whole earth '
(Zechariah iv. 10). Also, ' The eyes of the Lord are in every place,
beholding the evil and the good ' (Prov. xv. 3). Also, ' Though they
dig into hell, thence shall mine hands take them ; though they climb up
to heaven, thence will I bring them down . . . ' (Amos ix. 2-4). Also,
' There is no darkness nor shadow of death, where the workers of iniquity
may hide themselves' (Job xxxiv. 22). But what Jonah said was
this : ' I will go outside Palestine, because there the Shechinah does
not reveal itself . . .' " One notices in this striking passage that an
antithesis is drawn between God and Shechinah. The latter is every-
where, but the former only shows itself in the Holy Land.

(3) Friedmann points out here that a better reading is nst-m "^'Dtya
(not nirnmDE'a).

(4) It is hard to see how R. Aha can prove that the Shechinah never
left the Western Wall by reference to the verse, " His eyes behold. His
eyelids try, the children of men " (Psalm xi. 4). But possibly the idea
of the Shechinah's constant presence at the Western Wall is to be taken
as synonymous with its constant presence in the world in general.
Though God is no more in the Temple, He is nevertheless outside it, i.e.


in the world where all men are : His eyes see and try all men. This
dictum of R. Aha would then agree with that of R Yannai. The latter
says distinctly: "Although He appears to have withdrawn His Shechinah,'
i.e. from the world, still it is there.

(5) Those two opinions are reproduced in a passage of the Yalkut on
1 Kings viii. " R. Samuel b. Nahmeni said that until the Temple was
destroyed, the Shechinah abode in the '^yn. After it was destroyed it
departed to heaven. R. Eliezer b. Pedath said whether it is destroyed
or not destroyed, the Shechinah does not stir from the spot, as it is said,
* And mine eyes and my heart shall 1je there perijetually.' "

(6) This is found also in Tanhuma on nonn.

(7) The Mid rash ic word used here is nvnanp, which the author of the
commentary n:i.i3 ni:n3, says, means a^ym nix-ioinj, " balconies in buildings."
Most probably it is a Hebraised plural of the Latin " castra " = camp.

(8) The Tanhuma derives these ideas from certain passages in the
prayer of Solomon at the dedication of his Temple. The idea of being
terrified by the Shechinah, or, as here, by the " Dibbur," is of frequent
occurrence. For several instances of this, see T. B. Sabbath 88b.

(9) In the Yalkut on Lamentations ii. God is represented as sitting
in the Temple while the flames encircle it. He is likened to a human
king whose place has been set on fire by the enemy. He sits inside it
so as not to show any fear or weakness to the enemy, until at last, at the
instigation of his friends, he takes his departure.

(10) The author of this statement in T. B. Yebamoth 105b is R.
Hiya, who was a Palestinian Amora. It is easy to infer, therefore, that
when he speaks of directing the eyes downwards during prayer, he must
mean Palestine.

(11) "It is not said in the house of their prayer (on'^sn), but in the
house of my prayer ('nVsn). Whence we learn that God prays."

(11a) That prayer is only heard when prayed in synagogue, is the
opinion of Abba Benjamin in T. B. Berachoth 6a. It is, of course, not
univei-sally accepted by the Rabbins.

(12) This idea of God "skijjping from synagogue to synagogue" is
found also in Song of Songs Rabba ii. on verse Dn;in hy j'^id.

(13) According to a passage in Exodus Rabba xxi. 4, the angels take
the prayers of the Israelites in synagogues and weave them into a crown
for the head of God.

(14) There are seven heavens according to Rabbinic theology. The
phrase ypii ypn '?3 'aiy = (literally) " thickness of each firmament." I have
translated it by " the distance from one extremity to the other," as thick-
ness would be unintelligible. The seven heavens are laid in separate
strata, one above another. The thickness of each stratiun is a matter of
five hundred years' travel. The distance intervening between this stratum
and the next above it, is again a matter of five hundred years' travel.

With this saying cp. Ben Sira, " The prayer of the humble pierces
the clouds" (xxxv. 17).


(d) the personified shechinah as the
immanent god in israel

Perhaps the finest and most poetic expressions on
Divine Immanence to be found anywhere in the pages
of Rabbinic literature, are those which speak of God's
ever- constant presence in the midst of Israel. This can
be accounted for by the fact, that the subject appealed
to the old Jewish teachers in a far more personal sense
than did the other questions regarding Immanence.
The Rabbinical epoch was a time of Jewish political
subjection. Judea was under the heel of Rome. The
one hope of the Jew, which absorbed and eclipsed all
his other hopes, was for the speedy advent of a redemp-
tion from all these troubles. And underlying that
hope, and fomenting it, was the innate confidence in the
Immanence of God in Israel. All those Biblical passages
which speak of God as walking in the midst of Israel's
camp, as dwelling in the midst of the praises of Israel, as
being ever-mindful of Israel's troubles, and of watching
over Israel with the love and solicitude with which
a father watches over and guards his own son, were
interpreted in a strictly literal and realistic sense. If
joy befell them, God was to be praised for having
brought it about. If sorrow, then God had not done it.
It was the just and deserved retribution for their
failure to realise the highest and best. God was the



ever-present and ever-near One. He was all love and
all forgiveness, and would " never willingly afflict nor
grieve the children of men."

The best-known of all the Rabbinic sayings on this
head, is that which speaks of the Deity following the
Israelites whithersoever they happened to be exiled.
It is found with great frequency, the versions differing
from one another in wording, but the meaning and
purport always the same. The commonest version is
that of T. B. Megillah 29a : " Come and see how beloved
are the Israelites before God ; for wherever they went
into exile the Shechinah followed them. When they
were exiled to Egypt, the Shechinah followed them, as
it is said, ' Did I plainly reveal myself to thy father's
house when they were in Egypt?' (1 Samuel ii. 27).
In Babylon the Shechinah was with them, as it is said,
' For your sake have I [been] sent to Babylon ' (Isaiah
xliii. 14).^^^ And when, in the future, Israel will be
redeemed, the Shechinah will then be with them, as it
is said, ' The Lord thy God will turn thy captivity ' ^"^
(Deut. XXX. 3), i.e. God will return with thy captivity."
A longer and fuller passage is Exodus Rabba xv. 16,
which fills up the intermediate experiences of Israel
between the Babylonian Captivity and the redemption
of the future. God was with Israel in their Persian
and Median exile, and in their Grecian and Roman
exile. And, concludes the Midrash, it was this un-
failing presence of God in their banishment and sub-
jugation that enabled them to rise superior to their
conquerors and prepare themselves for the triumph of
a great future yet to come.^^^ A parallel passage in
Numbers Rabba vii. 10 gives the variant reading
" the Shechinah is with them in their dispersion." This
is an important addition. God is present among scattered
Israel, in Israel of to-day. This is certainly an improve-


ment on the original idea. A parallel passage in the
Mechilta ^^^ (edit, Friedmann, p. 16) has the following
important addition, n^-rs ^d12; ii"2.''pn ^3dS^ni»^ linN/'The
Israelites (at the time of their deliverance from trouble)
used to say unto God, ' Thou hast redeemed thyself.'
' So close was the bond riveting Israel to God and, vice
versa, so fully merged was God in Israel, so complete
was the oneness of God and Israel, that in redeeming
Israel, God redeemed Himself. Israel was part of God
and God was part of Israel.' " ^^^ This has all the appear-
ance of paradox, but it is, for all that, an unmistakable
and great pronouncement on the Immanence of God in

All those passages in the Bible which speak of
angels exercising guardianship over Israel, w^hether in a
collective or individual sense, are taken by the Rabbins
to be an indication of the ever-constant presence of the
Shechinah in time of trial or danger to Israel. This
seems to be the meaning of the assertion in Exodus
Rabba xxxii. 9, " Wherever an angel is seen, there the
Shechinah is seen." Another form of the same idea is
that of Exodus Rabba xxxii. 6, commenting on the verse
" The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them
that fear Him, and delivereth them " (Psalm xxxiv. 7).
It is to the effect that for every precept which a Jew
conscientiously performs, he has an angel given him as a
recompense. Thus, if he does one ' ' Mitzvah " ( " precept ' ' )
he receives one angel ; if two, then two angels, and
so forth. If he performs a multiplicity of precepts
then God gives him ')H2'm:i ^sn, " half of His camp." The
possession of an angel is thus a synonym for the posses-
sion of such and such a degree of Divine Immanence.
The worthiest man is the man possessed of most angels,
i.e. possessed of the highest degree of God's Immanence.
And this is tersely summed up in a sentence of


R. Simeon ben Yoliai (Genesis Rabba Ixxxvi. 6),
"Wherever the pious go, there the Shechinah accom-
panies them." *

According to a passage in Numbers Rabba i. 3 (to
which allusion was made before in connexion with Divine
immanence in the Temple), the ever-presence of God in
Israel is an indirect boon to the whole world. " Were
it not for Israel {i.e. for God's presence in Israel), the
rain would not come down, neither would the sun shine ;
and in the time to come, when the nations shall see how

* A passage such as this is important, in view of the constantly - made
allegation, that the post-exilic literature of the Jews tended in more and more
of a deistic direction, keeping God farther and farther away from direct inter-
vention and mingling in the affairs of the world. To bridge over the gulf, it is
alleged, the Jews of these times in^•ented (or introduced after borrowing) the
notion of angels to act as intermediary agencies between God and the world.
In this indirect way God influences the world while being Himself uninfluenced
by it. The number of Rabbinic dicta on the subject of angels is so great, and the
sayings are so variegated, that it is exceedingly hazardous to attempt to lay down
any hard-and-fast doctrine about them, except after a thorough-going study of this
large branch of Talmudic and Midrashic literature. One thing is certain even after
a superficial acquaintance — and that is, that there is not one doctrine but many.
Among these many doctrines is the one alluded to here, viz. an identiflcation of
the functions of an angel with that of the Shechinah. The angel is not the
intermediary nor the mediator, but is an emanation of the Divine, a portion of
the immanent God in His aspect of protector or patron ; and thus more or less
an equivalent of Shechinah. The falsity of the random statements usually
made about the Rabbinic angelology being merely a device for bridging over the
chasm between God and the world, is seen from such a passage as the following
(from Genesis Rabba xcvii. 2), "R. Samuel b. Nahman said that nons : i.e. the
earning of one's livelihood, is a greater thing than nSiNJ, i.e. redemption from
trouble. And M-hy ? because the latter is effected by means of an angel, as it is
said, 'The angel that redeemed me from all evil' (Gen. xlviii. 16), but the
former can only be brought about by God Himself, as it is said, ' Thou openest
thine hand and satisfiest the desire of every living thing.' " It is quite obvious
here, that the difl'erence between the two is not one of fact, but of degree.
Redemption by an angel, is not meant to be a different thing from redemption
by God, but only a different degree of care or providence exercised by God.
Both are aspects of the Divine omnipresent fatherhood, only the one is less
intense than the other. It is obvious from this, as from the passages quoted
above, that the Rabbins had ideas of varying degi-ees of intensity as to
the immanent providence of God. A man ha^ang one or two or three angels
given him, means merely the vouchsafing to man of increasing quantities of
Godliness, man's ascent higher and higher in the scale. The ilidrash already
quoted, has a further allusion to Joshua v. 14, "Nay, but as Captain of the
Lord of Hosts am I come." Joshua's visitor is an angel, and the Rabbins
interpret his words as meaning : "In every place where I am seen, there God is
seen." The angel is thus merely a visible Divine manifestation upon earth,
similar to the Shechinah (see Commentary n:in3 m^na ad loc).



God is in Israel, they will all anxiously come to ally
themselves with Israel, as it is said, ' In those days it
shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of
all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the
skirt of him that is a Jew, saying. We will go with
you ; for we have heard that God is with you '
(Zech. viii. 23)."

An imaginative Midrash in Lamentations Rabba
(Introd. 15) gives us a variant to the idea of the
Shechinah accompanying Israel in all the places of his
pilgrimage. " When the Israelites were in captivity
God used to go round the houses of the nations
and listen to what they were saying. ^'^^ And what
did He hear them saying ? How the God of Israel
had brought retribution upon such wrongdoers as
Pharaoh, Sisera, Sennacherib, etc., and how oS^ii^S
Nin ~ii73, i.e. God is always young." This latter idea of
the unchanging youth of the Deity seems to be a poetic
attempt to picture the Immanence of God as far as
Israel is concerned. God is with Israel, and ever the
same, whether yesterday, or to-day, or in the coming
time. An adjoining Midrash (Lam. Rabba, Introd. 16)
declares God to be the heart of Israel. A striking
illustration of these God-in -Israel ideas is afforded by
a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud Berachoth, piD
HNmrT (repeated in brief in Deuteronomy Rabba ii. 16).
A ship whose passengers consisted of heathens with the
exception of one only Jew, was once in great difficulties
when in mid-ocean. In the greatest dismay an appeal
was made to the Jew to pray to God for help. The
Jew prayed and the ship was saved. When the harbour
was reached, the passengers, feeling the pangs of hunger
badly, asked the Jew to disembark and get them some
food. But the latter replied, " Am I not a stranger
here as well as you ? I do not know this place any


more than you do." To which they replied, " Is a Jew
a stranger anywhere ? Is not God with you wherever
you go ? Does not your Bible say, ' For what nation
is so great who hath God so nigh unto them ? ' "
(Deut. iv. 7).

Another passage in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta'anith,
chap, ii), quoted also in Yalkut on Joshua v., gives this
God-in-Israel idea in the form of God being lotD finmn
^Nim"'!, i.e. putting His name into fellowship with Israel.
God expressed the fear that Israel might lose his
identity by being swallowed up among the nations.
To avert this, He merged His name, i.e. Himself, in
fellowship with Israel.^'^ The parable given in this
connexion is curious and interesting. A king once had
a key belonging to one of his most cherished palaces.
One day fear seized him, lest this key might accidentally
become lost. What did he do ? He attached it to a
chain, thus making it more tangible and its loss more
easily perceptible. The case of Israel is analogous.
Left to himself, he might have perished unknown.
But with God merged in fellowship with him, his
eternity is assured.*

* I have already alluded to the mysteriousness with which in several parts of
the Bible, the name of God is hedged round. The earliest Kabbalistic and eosmo-
logical speculations of the Talmudic teachers arrived at all sorts of mystical con-
clusions, by means of the combination and permutation of the letters composing
the Divine name. So did the Sefer Yetsirah, the Zohar, and other mediaeval
Kabbalistic productions.

The idea here alluded to, of God and Israel in fellowship with one another,
is worthy of note. It occurs in different forms throughout Rabbinic literature.
It is worthy of note because of a somewhat similar usage of " fellowship " in the
New Testament. The Epistles of St. Paul, which are the earliest sources for an
historical picture of the primitive churches, make it clear that the first followers
of Christ did not constitute a church in the modern sense, but a fellowship. The
group of Jerusalem Christians depicted in Acts ii. is described in verse 42 of
that chapter as a Koivwvla, i.e. fellowship. This fellowship seems to have had
both a material and a mystical side. The former meant the binding together
of men for mutual help, strength, and consolidation (see 1 Corinthians xii.
14-26). The latter seems but an adaptation of the Rabbinic idea of Israel and
God being merged in one fellowship. Christ is made to take the place of God.
Paul's central idea that "he that is joined to the Lord is one spirit" has

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