The Obligation to Sanctify God's Name

  • Harav Yehuda Amital



The Gemara in Yoma (86a) states:


But if he has been guilty of profaning [God's] name, then penitence has no power to suspend punishment,[1] nor Yom Kippur to procure atonement, nor suffering to finish it, but all of them together suspend the punishment and only death finishes it. As it is said: "And the Lord of hosts revealed Himself in my ears; surely this iniquity shall not be expiated by you until you die" (Yeshayahu 22:14).


In the continuation of the passage, the Gemara defines what is meant by sanctification and desecration of God's name:


As it was taught [in a baraita]: "You shall love the Lord your God" (Devarim 6:5) - that the name of Heaven shall become beloved through you.

[This means] that one should read [Scripture], learn [Mishna], serve Torah scholars, and his dealings with people should be conducted in a pleasant manner. What do people say about him? "Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah; fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah. Woe unto people who do not learn Torah. This person who learned Torah, see how pleasant are his ways, how refined are his deeds." Regarding him Scripture says: "He [God] said to me, You are My servant, Israel, through whom I am glorified" (Yeshayahu 49:3).

But as for one who learns [Scripture], studies [Mishna] and serves Torah scholars, and but his business transactions are not conducted faithfully, and whose manner of speaking with people is not pleasant - what do people say about him? "Woes unto his father who taught him Torah; woe unto his teacher who taught him Torah. See how perverse are his deeds and how ugly are his ways." Regarding him Scripture says: "[They came among the nations… and they profaned My holy name] when it was said of them, These are the people of the Lord, but they departed His land" (Yechezkel 36:20).


            The name of God is desecrated when a person who studied Torah fails to relate to other people in a fitting manner. The sanctification of His name is just the opposite - when the name of Heaven becomes beloved through him. Chazal teach us that the name of Heaven becomes beloved not only through articles, debates, and sermons, but first and foremost, through personal example that is moral and humane, and arouses a positive attitude on the part of the surrounding society. A special obligation falls upon those who study Torah to make the name of Heaven beloved to other people.


            Rambam (Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim 10:7) lists eight ascending levels of charity. One of the highest levels is "one who gives charity to the poor, but does not know to whom he gives, nor does the recipient know his benefactor, for this is performing the mitzva for its own sake. This is like the Secret Office in the Temple. There the righteous gave secretly, and the good poor drew sustenance anonymously. This is much like giving charity through a charity box" (halakha 8). These words, which were originally applied to the mitzva of giving charity, are equally true in the realm of education. Every educational institution, by its very nature, has a built-in problem, that the student knows by whom he is supposed to be taught, and the teacher knows whom he is supposed to teach. This situation - direct education of which both sides are fully conscious - frequently arouses internal opposition on the part of the student against accepting the teacher's world outlook and moral admonitions. This situation is liable to hurt the teacher as well, who, knowing that he is serving as a role model, may conduct himself in an unnatural manner. The greatest educational impact is achieved when the teacher is unaware that he is teaching and the student is unaware that he is learning. This is the meaning of "that the name of Heaven shall become beloved through you" - that a person through his ordinary conduct should bring about a sanctification of God's name, without even being aware that he is influencing others through his behavior.


            If it is generally true that a Torah scholar is obligated to cause God's name to become beloved, all the more so does this apply in a generation in which so many have abandoned the way of Torah and mitzvot. This is especially true in Israel, where the tension between the religious and non-religious worlds expresses itself in political contexts as well, and the media often present the negative aspects of the observant community. In our day, the best way to establish lines of communication with the non-religious is through conduct that sanctifies God's name. Debating the issues is usually ineffective, and the best way to draw people close to Torah is by way of personal example.


            Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook writes (Eder ha-Yakar, p. 37):


The denial [of God] on moral grounds always serves as the foundation for the denial [of God] that pretends to be scientific, which has no foundation of its own. Therefore, the more the faithful upholders of the Torah improve their traits and actions, so will moral denial diminish naturally…


According to Rabbi Kook, the denial of God always begins with the immoral conduct of people who claim to represent the faith. As a rule, the denial of God has spread across the world as a result of the criticism leveled against the faithful. Among the Jewish people as well, the denial of God always begins not with criticism of Him, but with criticism of the conduct of those who believe in Him. It is such criticism that causes the loss of faith.


            It follows from this, argues Rabbi Kook, that the way to deal with the denial of God is through the sanctification of His name (ibid., p. 43):


There should be no place whatsoever for this fraudulent denial to spread in the world… But it comes with moral objections raised against unfit conduct seen among people of Torah and faith…

The basic cause for all the confusion, which brings evil into the world by way of evil ideas, is the sin of desecrating God's name. Corresponding to it is the great power of the sanctification of God's name that issues forth from a Torah scholar who conducts his business dealings in a pleasant manner and speaks gently to others… For good and moral conduct, good actions and good traits issuing forth from righteous and God-fearing Torah scholars, constitute the best way to remove the mistaken foundation of moral denial.




            As stated above, in discussing the desecration of God's name, the Gemara cites the verse, "And they profaned My holy name when it was said of them, These are the people of the Lord, but they departed His land" (Yechezkel 36:20). The verse is taken from a prophecy of rebuke aimed at those who had gone into exile and desecrated the name of God among the nations (verses 16-21):


And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, Son of man, when the house of Israel dwelt in their own land, they defiled it by their way and their doings; their way was before Me as the uncleanness of a menstruating woman. So I poured My fury upon them for the blood that they had shed upon the land, and for their idols with which they had defiled it. And I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries: according to their way and according to their doings I judged them. And when they came to the nations, into which they came, they profaned My holy name, when it was said of them, These are the people of the Lord, but they departed His land. But I had concern for My holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations, into which they came.


Rashi in his commentary to the Yoma passage explains:


This is what Scripture calls a desecration of the name of God: when a distinguished person commits a transgression and calamity comes upon him, and all say, "What did [his piety] help him? See the pious and the wise, how evil comes upon them." As it is stated: "They profaned My holy name." How did they profane it? "When it was said of them" by the gentiles among whom they were exiled, "See, these are the people of the Lord, and He could not save them from exile." Thus, the name of Heaven is desecrated and His glory is diminished.


            We see, then, that Rashi views individual acts involving a desecration of God's name as part of the larger desecration of His name on a worldwide scale resulting from the fact that the Jewish people are in exile and God does not save them.[2]


            Rabbi Menachem Ziemba, Hy"d, Rabbi of Warsaw and author of Totza'ot Chayim, related to the Zionist movement and the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael in a speech delivered before the Great Assembly of Agudath Yisrael in 1937:


The question of Eretz Yisrael which is currently under discussion involves sanctification of God's name. There are various opinions, pro and con. Those who wish to see the speedy establishment of Jewish sovereignty are driven by a great yearning to sanctify the name of Heaven before the eyes of the nations, to show them that even after thousands of years have passed during which the Jewish people have wandered across the earth, they have not given up hope and they will yet live. (Chiddushei Ha-GRMZ, no. 54)


            Rabbi Menachem Ziemba interprets the position of those who were ready to accept the partition of Eretz Yisrael as stemming from the desire to sanctify the name of Heaven in the eyes of the nations and counter their claim that God has forsaken the Jewish people. Rabbi Ziemba further argues that the position of those who oppose the establishment of a Jewish state is also based on the consideration of the sanctification of God's name. They, too, agree that the establishment of a Jewish state sanctifies God's name, but they maintain that it should be put off to a time when the sanctification of His name will be even greater:


Those who oppose [the establishment of a state], their intention is also to sanctify God's name…  For the primary sanctification of God's name is when God is exalted and sanctified in the midst of the Jewish people. Therefore, they maintain that, while indeed the establishment of Jewish sovereignty at this time would be a sanctification of God's name in the eyes of the nations, it would be an even greater sanctification of God's name amidst the Jewish people if we would have the courage to throw away [the establishment of a state] and clearly show the Jewish people our strong confidence and true faith in the complete redemption accompanying the coming of the Messiah.  This would illuminate the hearts [of the Jewish people] with one of the principles of our faith, namely, the belief in the coming of the Messiah, at which time God's name will be sanctified also for the nations.


            As stated above, these words pronounced shortly before the Holocaust, which was the greatest desecration of God's name in all of history. All the more so are these words meaningful after the Holocaust. The fact that a calamity unparalleled in all of history befell, in Yechezkel's words, "the people of the Lord" constitutes a terrible desecration of God's name.


I believe that we merited a Jewish state only because of God's desire to sanctify His name in the aftermath of the terrible profanation of His name during the Holocaust. The establishment of the state and its victories in war against the Arab armies that rose up against it constitute a response involving the sanctification of God's name.


            Precisely for this reason, the obligation to sanctify God's name has special significance in our time for those of us who live in the State of Israel, the entire establishment of which stemmed from the principle of sanctifying God's name. This is why on various occasions over the years I felt obligated to protest against instances of the desecration of God's name. This was the only cause for which I felt a need to speak out publicly.


            The way to deal with the desecration of God's name is through the sanctification of His name, as described in the Gemara. This occurs on two levels.  First, on the personal level, every individual, both while learning in yeshiva and afterwards, can act in a manner that sanctifies God's name. Second, on the national level: if the State of Israel can sanctify God's name if it is governed according to the principles of justice and morality.  This would fulfill the words of Scripture (Yechezkel 36:23-27, in the continuation of the prophecy cited in the aforementioned passage in Yoma):


And I will sanctify My great name, which was profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in the midst of them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes. For I will take you from among the nations, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean; from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will clean you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My spirit within you, and cause you to follow My statutes, and you shall keep My judgements, and do them. And you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and you shall be My people, and I will be your God.



Translated by David Strauss

[1] Following the reading of Rabbi Yoel Sirkes (the Bach).

[2] It must still be clarified why the Gemara, when dealing with an individual's conduct in the eyes of others, cites a verse dealing with the profanation of God's name caused by the Jewish people's low status in the eyes of the nations; see also Rashash (ad loc.).