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Shiur 06: Kedusha

  • Rav Ezra Bick




This week of Torah learning at the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion is being sponsored by
Ronni & Nachum Katlowitz in honor of Ronni's mother's birthday - Happy Birthday Mrs. Lucia Pasternak!




A.  Davar She-bikdusha


            The third berakha of the Shemona Esrei is called "kedusha" - holiness.


You are holy, and Your name is holy,

And holy ones every day praise You, sela.

Blessed are You, the holy God.


            The appropriateness of the name is clear here.  The problem is the very meaning of the term "holy."  What do we mean by it?  To what are we reacting when we make a blessing over it?  Why does it have a special berakha of its own in the Shemona Esrei?


            To answer these questions, we shall examine the halakhic category of "devarim she-bikdusha," prayers which deal with holiness, a category which includes kaddish, barkhu, and most importantly for us, the kedusha recited during the public repetition of the Shemona Esrei within this third berakha. 


Holy, Holy, Holy, God of Hosts, His glory fills the earth.

Blessed be the glory of God from His place.

Forever shall HaShem rule; your God, Zion, for generation upon generation, praise God!


            "Devarim she-bikdusha" means "matters of sanctity;" and it is tempting to think that the terms refer to prayers that are about sanctity and holiness, such as the kedusha, which begins "Holy, holy, holy."  The only problem is that none of the other devarim she-bikdusha speak about holiness as a topic, including the final two verses of kedusha itself.


Blessed be the honor of God from its place.

Forever shall HaShem rule; your God, Zion, for generation upon generation, Hallelukah!


            "Barkhu" simply says, "Blessed be God the blessed for ever and eternity."  The main line of the kaddish is the refrain, "May the Great Name be blessed for ever and for all eternity."  It seems that the common theme of these examples is not holiness, but "barukh," blessedness, benediction.  But why, you may ask, is this the defining characteristic of "matters of holiness?"  Even more to the point, why is not every berakha, which has the phrase "blessed be You," a davar she-bikdusha?


            Understanding the category of davar she-bikdusha will also help us understand the meaning of kedusha, sanctity, which is one of the central and most basic categories of Judaism.


B.  Sanctifying God (Kiddush HaShem)


            The basic law applicable to the category of davar she-bikdusha is that one requires a minyan of ten to recite it (Megilla 23b).  Rabbeinu Yona, a Spanish commentator of the 13th century, remarks parenthetically that this principle cannot be taken at face value, for:


Undoubtedly the recitation of the Shema is included in the category of davar she-bikdusha, since there is no greater davar she-bikdusha than the acceptance of the yoke of heaven ("ol malkhut shamayim").  (Talmidei R. Yona, Berakhot 12b)


            Why does R. Yona assume that Keriat Shema, the recitation of the verse, "Hear O Israel, HaShem our God, HaShem is one," is not only a davar she-bikdusha, but the davar she-bikdusha par excellence?


            The aspect of Keriat Shema that R. Yona views as having the character of davar she-bikdusha is defined by him as "kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim."  When we recite the verse of "Shema," we are accepting upon ourselves the kingship of God.  R. Yona explains that there are two kinds of davar she-bikdusha - those that require a minyan and those that do not, but both are exemplified by Shema.  This is the key for us to open the door to understanding this concept.


            In Judaism, the kingship of God is not understood as a static absolute state.  We are charged with the job of creating the kingship of God by accepting upon ourselves His rule.  This is explained by an ancient saying: There cannot be a king without a people.  While it is true that in the absolute sense, God is king as an aspect of His existence, in another sense, God is only king in relation to the world, to people, who accept His rule and abide by His will.  The attribute of kingship is a relative one by definition; there cannot be a king without a people.  This is a difficult concept to comprehend, but, amazingly enough, it is sung by children as well as adults all over the Jewish world.


Adon olam asher malakh.....

Master of the world

who ruled before any creature was created.

When everything shall be done according to His will,



            There is no other attribute of God which exhibits this point as clearly as kingship.  This is the theme of the Rosh HaShana prayers as well - we pray and look forward to the day when God will be king, even as we say that He has always been, and will always be king.  But even more so, on Rosh HaShana we actively crown God as our king, and by doing so, we add, qualitatively and quantitatively, to His kingship.  The Sages state that the blowing of the shofar is an act of coronation, and God ascends, as it were, His throne, the throne which can only be set up by His willing subjects.


            This idea, however, is not limited only to kingship.  All of God's attributes, as exhibited within the world (rather than in their absolute aspect), are dependent on the world, on the acts of people.  If no one turns to God, then He is absent.  If no one calls on His name, then His name is not found, and He is not present.  While God, in His absolute transcendence, is wholly independent of the world, His presence in the world is dependent on a vehicle, on someone who will bear His honor and glory.  Abraham is called "God's friend," and is said by the Sages to have "mended the rift" because he "called on the name of God" in a world where previously God had been absent.


This means that, paradoxical as it sounds, God the absolute and supremely transcendent, in His aspect of relating to the world is dependent on our blessing.  My master, the Rav zt"l, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, explained that this is the meaning of all berakhot: "Blessed are You, our God, King of the world" means that we indeed add power and glory to the presence of God by discovering Him and recognizing Him in the world.  The act of prayer, whereby, as I explained several weeks ago, we turn to God to receive everything from He who needs nothing from us but from whom we need everything, becomes itself an act of giving to God, of increasing His presence and glory, of adding to His holy Name.  Psalm 114 opens, "My soul, bless God," and immediately continues "HaShem my God, You GROW VERY GREAT, You are clothed with beauty and majesty."


            This is the meaning of kedusha, of holiness in this world.  God told the Jews, "I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel" (Lev. 32:22).  Holiness is an attribute of God which, properly speaking, belongs to nothing else.  It means the presence of God.  A place, a time, a person, is holy because it bears the name of God, or rather, because through him the name of God is revealed and the presence of God is strengthened.  And so, the proper verb of an act of sanctification is as much "bless" as it is "be holy."  To bless God, as audacious as it sounds, is to add to His revealed holiness, to imbue the world with His holiness, to increase the revealed presence of God. 


            This aspect of God, God-in-the-world, is called by the Sages the "name" of God.  A name is what someone is called by others.  The name of God, as opposed to God Himself, is God's presence in people's mouths.  And so in kaddish we say, "May His great name be blessed forever."  It is also called, in verses in Tanakh, "kevod HaShem," God's honor (or glory), for honor is also something that appears in reflection, as something given by others; and so we say in the kedusha, "His honor fills the world."  It is also the meaning of "malkhut," of kingship, as we saw in the statement of R. Yona; and so we find that the kedusha concludes with the exclamation, "God shall rule forever, Your God Zion for generation upon generation."  In Keriat Shema, which, as we saw, is also thematically a davar she-bikdusha, we find all three terms together - "Blessed be the NAME of the HONOR of his KINGSHIP for ever."


C.  Minyan


            As we saw, the term "davar she-bikdusha" is used to indicate certain prayers which require a minyan of ten.  R. Yona pointed out that the theme of a davar she-bikdusha is not limited to those prayers, but is more widely found.  What then is the criterion for requiring a minyan for some of these prayers, for instance the "kedusha" which we are discussing?


            I think the answer is simple.  The minyan rule is derived from the verse I quoted above, "I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel" (Lev. 32:22).  This process is described by the Torah as being real - under certain conditions, we actually add to the (revealed) kedusha of God and realize the immanence of God's presence in the world.  This, God says, should be done by the community, by the children of Israel.  A minyan of ten represents a community; it is identical in type with "Knesset Yisrael," the Jewish people as a whole.  The job of supporting God's presence is given to Israel, not to the individual Jew.  Those prayers designated as "davar she-bikdusha" are actually attempting to do just that - to uncover and, in a sense, create kedusha, to reflect the absolute holiness of God in ourselves, as a community.


            When I recite the Shema, on the other hand, I am not directly creating the majesty of God.  The purpose of the Shema is inward - a Jew has the duty to daily reaffirm his loyalty.  It is a sort of "pledge of allegiance."  Of course, as I said above, the act of acceptance of God's rule adds automatically to the reality of the rule.  But the purpose of the recitation of Shema is not to act upon God's presence, but to act upon myself.  "Hear O Israel ..." - it is directed to me, to us.  In the wider sense, every mitzva I perform will bring about an increase in the presence of God and actualize kedusha in myself.  Davar she-bikdusha, in the technical halakhic sense, is the relatively rare act of directly affirming my duty, my ability, and my opportunity to create kedusha, to actually increase kedusha.  The kaddish begins, "May His great name be sanctified and magnified."  "Yitgadel" means to be made greater.  It is a cardinal belief of Judaism that God can be made greater, or rather, that His name can be made greater.  When this takes place, kedusha ensues.  Holiness is the increase in the presence of God in the world.


[For this reason, there are prayers which are identical in content to a davar she-bikdusha, but may be recited in private, because they are not active - they are describing the process of sanctification, but are not acts of sanctification.  This is the status of the "kedusha" recited before the Shema and again before Aleinu - the text either describes the kedusha recited by the angels, or quotes the verses upon which the kedusha is based.]


D.  Humanism or Theocratic Monism?


            There are two dominant answers to the question, what is the source of values in the world?  Secular humanism answers that man creates value and is the source of value.  Human experience is the basis for its own "sanctity."  Theological monism states that God is the only source of value, and that man is inherently worthless.  Judaism, following what I explained above, stakes out a different position, not so much in the middle as on both ends.  God IS the only source of value, because only absolute value, metaphysically transcendent, can be the source of kedusha.  However, this world is by definition not metaphysically transcendent and is of necessity deficient, relative, and imperfect.  In this world, there is a different kind of value, one which reflects absolute value by striving TOWARDS it from a base of imperfection.  Kedusha in this world is found in the process of perfection (hishtalmut), not in the state of perfection (sheleimut).  The process of perfection is inherently meaningless if it is not directed and powered by the existence of the absolute perfection we call God, but it can also only exist in a place where God is not present totally; i.e. only where absolute perfection does not exist.  There is a midrash (Bereishit Rabba 8:5) which expresses this idea in a wonderfully clear, yet paradoxical form:


R. Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create the first man, the angels divided into two camps and two parties.  Some said: He should not be created; and some said: He should be created.  This is what is written, "Kindness and truth met, righteousness and peace kissed" (Psalms 85:11).

Kindness said: He should be created, for he will do acts of kindness; but Truth said: He should not be created, for he is only lies.

Righteousness said: He should be created, for he will do acts of righteousness, but Peace said: He should not be created, for he is only conflict.

What did God do?  He took Truth and flung him to the earth, as is written, "[You] flung truth to the earth" (Daniel 8:12). 

The angels said to God: Master of the worlds, how can You degrade your royal seal (truth is the "seal" of the kingdom of God)?

[He answered:] Let truth rise from the earth, as is written, "Truth shall grow from the earth" (Psalms 85:12).


            There is no more absolute and more demanding value than truth - a little lie is totally untruthful.  Truth allows no compromise.  Truth cannot live within a lie.  For absolute truth, man cannot exist.  So God, to create man, threw Truth down.  But, cry the angels, without Truth there is no kingdom of heaven, so what has been accomplished?  God answers - an answer which the rationally logical and straightforward angels cannot understand - that Truth, a different kind of truth, shall GROW from the ground.  From imperfection shall values strive towards the perfect heaven, and that is also truth, also value, also kedusha.  It is not divorced from the truth of heaven, it IS the truth of heaven, growing in a bed of lies (for the angels do not err when they state that man is all lies), aspiring towards the clear and pure truth of God's seal.


            All value in this world is from Man, but only if it reflects the absolute value of God.  Kedusha is what we create when we recognize and realize the absolute transcendent kedusha of God.


            When God wished to dwell in the world, He commanded the Jews to "Make Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell in THEIR midst" (Exodus 25:8).  We have to make the temple; God does not make it.  If we do, He dwells not in the temple, but in ourselves.  The sanctuary itself, states the Torah, "dwells with them, in the midst of their impurity (= imperfection)" (Lev. 16:16).



            I thought we would get to the text of the kedusha prayer, but our time is up, so that will wait for the next shiur.  But as a preview: The text of kedusha - the opening introduction and the three verses that follow - are based on the paradoxical nature of kedusha, rooted in heaven but created on earth.  Try looking at the text in advance and seeing how.