J. (Joshua) Abelson.

The immanence of God in rabbinical literature online

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branch, or an outcome, of the subjective mysticism of
many an individual Rabbi whose first-hand experiences


are indicated in the titles n"^tn.s~il "d and nnDio "d.
These mystical experiences of a few, became a matter
of knowledge among the many. If individual men, it
was argued, had had visions of God, these visions must
have had some material embodiment, and as the phrase
" Holy Spirit " was taken to mean the universal in-
dwelling of God in the world, His constant self-revelation
to man and man's ever-present capacity to see visions
of God, it follows that when the sages spoke of this
aspect of the Deity's activity by the employment of
the term "Holy Spirit" their language was largely
couched in terms of the material.

Instances of this material conception of Holy Spirit
take various forms : —

(A) As Light or Fire

There are three different words used largely in this

They are (1) hdd, (2) rjDi, (3) pisn.

Examples of (1) are T. B. Megillah 14a, mm it nDD""
oiiprr riMi nnDom riDD^ note NipD nnSi, " Iskah (in
Genesis xi. 29) is Sarah ; why was Sarah called Iskah ?
Because she looked (ttdd) by the Holy Spirit." Instances
of (2) are : Leviticus Rabba ix. 9, " R. Meir looked (nsis)
by the Holy Spirit " (in the quaint anecdote of the
extreme measures which Meir once took in order to
make peace betw^een husband and wife). Instances of
(3) are : Leviticus Rabba xxxii. 4, " The Holy Spirit
enlightened (psn) Moses" (in allusion to Leviticus
xxiv. 10-12 — the Midrash making Moses play a more
elaborate part than is assigned to him in the Scriptural
text). Other references where another form of this
same verb, viz. n^DS3, is used are Genesis Rabba Ixxxv. 9,
n'S ni HiiDSD, "the Holy Spirit illumined her" (viz.


Tamar). Genesis Rabba xci. 7 has the same phrase
alluding to the brethren of Joseph when they exclaimed
" We are all one man's sons" (Genesis xlii. 11).

These illustrations are enough to make it clear that
the " Holy Spirit " was somehow associated with some
kind of visual sensation. The possessor of the Holy
Spirit actually saw some kind of light.

To strengthen the argument the following passages
may be further quoted : —

T. B. Makkoth 23a (cp. Genesis Rabba Ixxxv. 12 ;
Eccles. Rabba xiv. 16 ; Midrash Tehillim, Psalm xvii.,
Psalm Ixxii.) we read : "iDi n"i ni'''D"in nioipiD n^'pmn,
" The Holy Spirit shone forth in three places : in the
court of Shem ; in the court of Samuel ; in the court
of Solomon." Here, obviously, the Holy Spirit is
materialised as a luminous body. That the passage
is capable of being interpreted in the higher intellectual
sense of enlightenment, or in any religious or ethical
sense implying Divine guidance, etc., vouchsafed to
those who sat in these courts, does not at all disturb
the ten ability of our theory.

Leviticus Rabba i. 1, vhv mim ^"'^ n^nm ni?t&i onDD
Dn"^D^D mniJii VDD vn, " At the time when the Holy
Spirit rested upon Phinehas the latter's face was
burning like flames." Here the material is not so
much liorht as fire. We saw much of this in our


" Shechinah " investigation. Clearly both departments
of our subject have this in common, viz. that the
mystical phenomenon of the Divine Presence was
materialised as light or fire.^^^ A reference to Leviticus
Rabba i. 1 will show the close association between this
"fire " idea ^"^ and the idea of an angel ; one order of
angels was the " Seraphim," whose essence was fire.
This again proves that the average opinion of Christian
theologians about the Jewish view of angels, viz. that


the angels are mere intermediate links arbitrarily in-
troduced to bridge the gulf between a distant tran-
scendent God and the world, is partially false. The
angel is often a synonym for Shechinah or Holy Spirit,
and denotes the energising activity of a God im-
manent in the universe/^^

Genesis Rabba xci. 6, 13dd np^riDD ^dv I3:i3tz? oi^o
''iDl n'S. " From the day that Joseph was stolen the
Holy Spirit left him (Jacob) ; as a consequence, his
sense of sight became imperfect and his sense of
hearing also." This is a remarkable statement. The
Holy Spirit is here materialised as the inner light in
man's eye — the luminant which throws the image upon
the retina ; and it is the medium of man's hearing ; the
instrument which brings the auditory sensations to
the drum of the ear. ^^^

(B) As Sound

The well-known passage in Acts ii. 2, which speaks
of the sudden heavenly sound of a " mighty rushing
wind," is a mystical experience to which there are
parallels in the regions of our present investigation.^^^
And, by the w^ay, the next succeeding verse about the
appearance of " cloven tongues like as of fire " brings
out the close association of the two material ideas
of fire and sound in the case of the Holy Spirit in
Rabbinical literature. The one source of all these
"sound" passages is Ezekiel iii. 12, "The Spirit took
me up, and I heard behind me a voice of a great
rushing." But it is quite possible that the ambiguous
meaning of Ruah in Genesis i. 2, associated as it is
with the word ncmrD, " making a fluttering sound,"
gave the impetus to much of this kind of speculation.
I have already alluded to the remarkable statement


in the T. B. Sotah 9b about the " Shechinah making; a
ringing sound before Samson like a bell." Leviticus
Rabba viii. 2 develops the same extraordinary thought
in connexion with the Holy Spirit's influence upon
Samson. " As soon as the Holy Spirit began to knock
{wyw:ih = wpwph as Commentary n^inD m^nD points out)
Samson took two mountains and knocked them together
just as a man knocks two pebbles together." Further
on it is said, " At the time that the Holy Spirit rested
upon Samson, his hairs stood up and knocked against
one another like a bell, and their sound was heard
from Zarah to Eshtaol."

A curious association of sound and Holy Spirit is
alluded to in Yalkut on Psalm xxiv. " What is the
difference," asks the Midrash in effect, " between the
heading i^ih "iimtD and Ttmo T\ih> ? " And the answer it
gives is that in the former case David first played upon
his harp and then the Holy Spirit came unto him ; in
the latter case the Holy Spirit came first and then
David played his harp. This, of course, raises the
important question as to the relation, from the Biblical
standpoint, between music, prophecy, and spirit.*

From the general mystical standpoint, the ideas
of Shechinah and Holy Spirit are identical. There
are variations in detail, but the terms are used too
indiscriminately to permit of any general statement
as to the exact shades of difference implied. (See,
however, Appendix L)

There is a passage in the Commentary of that
delightful mystic of the Middle Ages — Nahmanides
— which touches my present subject so vitally, that
I cannot forbear from making a reference to it. It is
in his commentary on Genesis iii. 8, "And they heard

* Cp. T. B. Pesahim 117a where the same is said of the Shechinah. Cp.
also Jerusalem Talmud Sukkali 55a.


thevoiceof the Lord God walking in the garden at the cool
of the day." He is in agreement with Ibn Ezra, and
at variance with Rashi in holding that the verb iSnnn
(" walking ") refers to the voice and not to God. It was
the voice that was walking in the garden of Eden.
And he puts this idea in the same category as the
phrase DDDinn ^riDSnnm, " And I will walk among you."
In other words, the Voice is the perceptible symbol
of an indwelling God. The phrase Dvrr mnS also
strikes Nahmanides as echoing the same mystical strain.
Whenever the Divine Presence makes itself known
there accompanies it the sound of a great and strong
wind, as it is said, " And, behold, the Lord passed
by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains,
and brake in pieces the rocks, before the Lord " (1 Kings
xix. 11). Also, "Then the Lord answered Job out of
the whirlwind" (Job xxxviii. 1). The presence of God
made itself known to our first parents by wind-noises.
" But although these noises were not as strong as those
heard and felt mNiiDrr i>^c?d mnoi in a vision, as in the
case of other prophecies, so that Adam and Eve should
not be terrified, nevertheless the latter hid themselves
DiT'D'njJD "^DDD through their crafty and cunning devices."
What Nahmanides here expounds from the objective
standpoint, has been the subjective experience of the
mystics among the Rabbins, as well as among the
adherents of primitive Christianity.

(C) As OTHER Material Objects

In T. B. Haggigah 15a it is said : " Ben Zoma said
unto him [i.e. to R. Joshua b. Hananya, who was standing
on an ascent of the Temple, and was angry at Ben Zoma's
failure to rise before him], ' I was gazing at the space
between the upper and lower waters, and I see there
is only an interval of about three fingers' breadth


between tliem, as it is said, And the Spirit of God
was hovering upon the face of the waters, i.e. as a dove
which hovers over her young, but does not touch
them.'" In Targum on Canticles ii. 12, the phrase
"voice of the turtle-dove" is paraphrased as "the
voice of the Holy Spirit concerning redemption." Cp.
Mark i. 10, " And the Spirit, like a dove, descending
upon Him"; also Matthew iii. 16, Luke iii. 22. In
Pesikta Eabbati, p. i (edit. Friedmann), Genesis Eabba
Ixx. 9, the Holy Spirit can be " draw^n up" like water
which is drawn from a well. Cp. Matthew iii. 11, "He
shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and fire," where
the two Rabbinic ideas of water and fire are combined.
On the latter point it should be added that in a passage
on page 55a of Jerusalem Talmud Sukkah — quoted also
in Ruth Rabba iv. 12 — the phrase mNimrr rr^l is said
to be applied to the second Temple, because it was from
the latter that the people " used to draw up, like water,
the Holy Spirit." The association with Ruth is a most
happy one. Boaz says to her (ii. 8, 9), " Go not to glean
in another field . . . but abide here fast by my maidens
. . . Have I not charged the young men that they
shall not touch thee ? and when thou art athirst, go
unto the vessels, and drink of that which the young
men have drawn." What is that which the " young
men have drawn " ? It is the Holy Spirit, which,
like the Shechinah, was focussed in the Temple. Thither
young and old came to quaff the invigorating draughts
of the Spirit's teaching and influence. The Rabbins
discerned in this advice of Boaz to Ruth, his desire
that Ruth should enter the fold of the Israelitish faith.

The third materialisation of the Ruah is denoted
by a passage in Leviticus Rabba xvi. 2. We meet
there with a curious commentary on Job xxviii. 25,
"to make the weight for the winds" (A.V.). The


literal meaning of the verse, taken in consonance with
the context that precedes and follows, is probably that
" God weighed out the due quantity of air for the
world." Light though air is, yet its weight is seen to
be very real when we experience it in the form of
wind/''^ But in the above-mentioned Midrash, R. Aha
says ^pcjon nSn mitD id^n n^N"'i3rT h'j mitt?m n'S iS^dn,
" Even the Holy Spirit which rests upon the prophets
only rests by weight." In illustration we are further
told that " some prophesy to the extent of one book
and some to that of two." The allusion is probably
to what is said in T. B. Baba Bathra (15a) about
certain Biblical personages having composed more
books than one by means of the Holy Spirit. What
has to be observed, however, is the strongly material
sense in which Holy Spirit is conceived. It has weight
like an article of food or clothing.

This concludes the instances of materialistic re-
presentation of Holy Spirit which I have been enabled
to cull in the course of my investigations into some of
the more prominent realms of Rabbinical literature.
Viewed from an objective standpoint, the material re-
presentation of the Holy Spirit would seem to belong
to an inferior stratum of thought regarding the mystical
relation of God and man. From the subjective aspect,
however, they can be recognised as part and parcel of
the experience of the immanent Presence of God which
mystics in all ages have felt.

We now pass on to consider what objectively is a
more exalted conception of the meaning and work of
the Holy Spirit in Rabbinical literature.


(1) For this association of Holy Spirit witli fire, cp. Acts ii. 3, 4,
"And there appeared unto them cloven tongues, like as of fire, and it


sat upon eacli of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost,
and began to speak. . . ." This is certainly a reflexion of the Rabbinic
idea. When the fire sits upon them {i.e. □it'^j? mic in the Eabbinic
phraseology) they have the Holy Spirit and then begin to speak — ^just
as in the Rabbinic sense, when a man has the Holy Spirit he becomes,
in a sense, a prophet — prophecy being used in an extended sense. Swete
on p. 72 {Holy Spirit in the New Testament) speaks of the O.T. having
no " precedent " for this idea of tongues of fire in Acts ii. 3. This is so ;
but Rabbinic literature has much that is akin to it.

(2) In Tanhuma on pnnxi we get a phrase like B-iipn nn nmpn:, " the
Holy Spirit waxed cold." Such a word as nmpn: could only be applied
to something which is hot, fiery.

(3) Cp. Numbers Rabba x, 5 as follows : " During the interval when
the prophets were executing the Divine errand, the Holy Spirit resting
upon them used to inspire dread in those that looked upon them ; every
one stood in awe of them because they resembled angels."

(4) See Tosafoth on T. B. Baba Bathra 121a where he quotes
from the Tanhuma on 3b"i as follows : " The Shechinah did not rest
upon him, hj'db' v^u nmu- k^ qor '?j?, all the time that he was in mourn-
ing for Joseph." Another instance of identity of idea in Holy Spirit
and Shechinah.

(5) Baron Von Hiigel in his great work. The Mystical Element of
Religion (vol. ii. pp. 90-94), gives several instances from Neo-Platonic
mystical philosophy, of the usage of fire and light as symbols of God's
immanent action. Thus he quotes from Dionysius : " Let us then elevate
our very selves by our prayers to the higher ascent of the Divine
rays ; as though a luminous chain were susj)ended from the celestial
heights and reached down hither, and we, by ever stretching out to it
up and up . . . were thus carried upwards." Von Hiigel learnedly
points out how this simile of a luminous chain from heaven is to be
traced back through Plato {Theatetus 153 c, Republic x. 61b, 99 c) to
Homer. In the Iliad, viii. 17-20, Zeus tells the gods in Olympus that in
order to see all things that go on in the earth, they [the gods] " hang a
golden chain from heaven and seize hold of it." One notices in all this,
some strong traces of resemblance to the Biblical ideas of angels ascending
and descending from earth to heaven, etc. — and also of the general
missions of angels in the universe. Rabbinic mysticism might thus be
said to find itself very largely anticipated in its pronouncements upon
the nature and function of angels, and we have already pointed out the
proximity between the angel and the Shechinah or Holy Spirit. Von
Hiigel again, on pp. 69, 70 (vol. ii.) points out how Philo "had held Him
[God] to be in some way ethereal and luminous." And the same teaching
clusters round St. Paul. " St. Paul, under the profound impression of
the Historic Christ and the great experience on the road to Damascus,
perceives the risen heavenly Jesus as possessed of a luminous ethereal
body, a body of glory" (Acts xxii. 11). Von Hugel, following the N.T.
theologians, identifies this risen Christ with the " Spirit " alluded to in
2 Corinthians iii. 1 7 and in three other places. " In all four cases," says
he, " we get Christ or the Spirit conceived as an element, as it were an


ocean of ethereal light, in which wouls are plunged and which penetrates
them." The Rabbinic notions of Holy Spirit as light, echo this beautiful
mystical thought.

(6) From Professor Peake's " Job " in the Century Bible. Professor
Budde says on the same verse : " Auch dem Winde hat Gott bet der
Schopfiing sein Maximalgewicht d.h. seine aiisserste bewegende Kraft
gegeben." Cp. St. John iii. 34, "For God giveth not the Spirit by



The Rabbinical aversion to a too-frequent usage of the
Divine Name is a truth too well known to need much
dwelling upon, at this stage of our inquiry. We have
seen how the objection really rests upon a twofold basis.
This consists of (a) the ever-constant possibility of the
'^^ infringement of that mysterious sanctity which hedges
round the name of God ; (6) the risk of giving counte-
nance to the doctrine of the existence of nr*it&"i '% " two
Divine Powers." Too much latitude in the pronounce-
ment of God's name whether in speech or literature might
lead, thought the Rabbins, either to careless, disrespectful,
irreligious handling of it, or to a scepticism as regards
the doctrine of the Unity. What the Rabbins taught to
others, they were foremost in carrying out themselves.
Hence a term like " Shechinah "or " Holy Spirit " or
"Kabod" (glory) is often inserted in the course of
a sentence where the word " God " might have stood
just as well. No further positive teaching is conveyed
l)y the usage of these particular modes of speech ; the
object is the purely negative one of keeping out what
might seem a too easy-going and glib usage of the
Divine name. But on the other hand, in many other
passages, though these various designations of God
may serve the purpose just alluded to, they also have
another and greater object as well, viz. to express



the nearness of the Deity to man, His concern in the
well-being or pain of man, His presence in the world
and man at certain crises in their experiences ; in other
words, Ilis Immanence — in so far as the primitive
thought of the ancient Rabbins may be said to have
had glimmerings of that theological idea.

Here a point must be mentioned which arrests
the attention of the student and often puzzles him.
According to the Rabbins all the Books of the O.T.
were composed by the Holy Spirit. This means that
the latter influenced their authors ; so that in uttering
or writing their remarks, they were to an extent the
passive tool of the Holy Spirit. The O.T. Holy Writ is
thus one of the great visible results of the activity of the
Holy Spirit. So much is this the case that the two are
often identified, i.e. Holy Spirit is another name for
Holy Writ and vice versa ; and where we get the phrase
*' Holy Spirit says," the meaning is equivalent to " Holy
Writ says." But, wliat is so very arresting, is the extra-
ordinary ways in which the Holy Spirit is personified
in all such passages. Not only does it quote single
verses or words of Scripture. It also cries. It holds
a duologue with God, or some person. It pleads. It
laments and weeps ; it rejoices and comforts.^'^ But
it always effects these things by introducing quota-
tions from Scripture. The explanation is this : Holy
Scripture is the Holy Spirit ; the Holy Spirit is God.
Hence all this pleading, crying, exhorting, blaming,
punishing, comforting, etc., on the part of the Holy
Spirit is a graphic attempt on the part of the
Rabbins to show the abiding presence of God by the
side of man.^^*^ The Deity is not merely transcendent ;
He is not isolated by immeasurable distance, by im-
penetrable walls, from the joys and woes of the world.
He mingles in it. When man does right. He is



next to him to cheer him on in his upward course.
When man sins, He is so near that the sin touches
Him ; and He reprimands man not only by chastise-
ments, but by making clear to him the folly of his
ways, by pleading with him for the choice of the
better path and the forsaking of the evil way. And
as with individuals so with communities. God is
present in Israel. His voice is audible. He is a
pleader, an advocate, and nothing escapes His ken.

Thus, Rabbinic personification of Holy Spirit is but
another means whereby to express the conception of
an Immanent God.

These general statements must now be illustrated in
detail : —

(A) The Holy Spirit as nniis "Crying"

Tanhuma on Genesis n^iibin "b v. reads : nn^ns n'^T
"132;"' "imN:D"i nSn r^^1 nS "t[ ms ni^ns r^^1 vh "n -^nn") idn ht "'d
p"iD^ ]D"i nm^ p imN.

" The Holy Spirit cries. Who is he that saith, and it
Cometh to pass, when the Lord commandeth it not ? ^^
Pharaoh commanded [the wholesale destruction of
Jewish male children] but God commanded it not ; on
the contrary, the more they afflicted them, the more they
multiplied and grew."

The Holy Spirit is here depicted as vitally concerned
in the preservation of the Jewish male babes from
destruction. " Pharaoh commanded." But a greater
power, an unseen Divine force was at work the whole
time, making Israel immune from Pharaoh's wiles. It
was the immanent Holy Spirit in Israel. Tanhuma on
Exodus N"nN") "b vii. reads: "The Holy Spirit cries,
and says, Wherefore I praised the dead which are already
dead, more than the living which are yet alive." ^^^


This is the oft-repeated Midrashic passage about the
inability of Solomon to convey the Ark into the Holy
of Holies. The difficulty was overcome only after
Solomon had prayed to God, asking Him to " remember
the mercies of David Thy servant " (2 Chronicles vi. 42).
The paternal merit of David turned the scales in
Solomon's favour. And the Holy Spirit attests the
greater virtue of the dead David than the living Solomon.
This passage shows that the Holy Spirit is conceived as
an ever-present Divine principle. Even though David
had passed away, it existed, so to speak, in the Davidic
environment. It came to the help of David's son in
the hour of the latter's perplexity. ^*^

Tanhuma on Exodus d^i^dwd "b reads : " And the
Holy Spirit cries, So may all thine enemies perish,
Lord" (Judges v. 31). Aquila becomes a proselyte
to Judaism. Hadrian is enraged at his taking what
he considers so retrograde a step. Hadrian's minister
counsels the king forthwith to put him to death. But
Hadrian, strangely enough, thereupon admits that his
conversion to Judaism was a right act ; it was pre-
ordained for Aquila before his birth. In despair and
shame the minister, seeing his counsel set at nought,
jumps down from the roof of his house and is killed.
And the Holy Spirit exclaims, " So may all thine
enemies perish, Lord."

I hold that the Holy Spirit is here regarded as the
immanent Divine principle in Israel, safeguarding Israel's
honour and the life of those who attach themselves to
Israel ; seeing in the death of Israel's traducers the
realisation of the Divine sense of justice.

Tanhuma on Leviticus •^d^dq? "d reads : " The Holy
Spirit cries, Who hath woe ? Who hath sorrow ? . . .
they that tarry long at the wine (Proverbs xxiii.
29, 30)." The Holy Spirit here protesting against


intemperance is clearly the innate Divine principle
immanent in man which urges him to shun the wrong
and choose the right. Tanhuma on Leviticus i^iisn "b
reads : " The Holy Spirit cries, and says unto him,
Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin,"

Plagues come upon man, say the sages, as the Divine
retributive punishment for any slander that he utters
against his fellow-man. The Holy Spirit is the immanent
voice of God in man warning him against this sin.

Tanhuma on i^-nso ii. conveys a similar sentiment
to the preceding, based on Proverbs xxi. 23, " Whoso
keepeth his mouth and his tongue, keepeth his soul from
trouble." ^'^

Lamentations Kabba i. 45 reads : " The Holy Spirit
cries, and says, For these do I weep (Lamentations i. 16)."

Vespasian, emperor of Rome, sends three ship-loads
of Jews and Jewesses to inhabit a certain immoral
quarter of the city of Rome. They shun the ordeal and
throw themselves into the sea. The Holy Spirit weeps
over their sad fate. The idea here is rather that of the
nearness of Grod than of His immanence — although,
as I have repeatedly indicated, nearness is one of the
essentials of the immanent idea. God is so near His
distressed people that their sorrows are His. It is a
form of the doctrine to which we have alluded before,
viz. that God is ^Nim^'i *iq2? f]nmD. " He merges His

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