Thursday, October 05, 2006

‘Crazy Kedushah’ - Part One

The Kedushah prayer, in which human worshippers join the heavenly hosts in praise of God, is a pinnacle of Jewish liturgical experience [1] . But despite being a major component of Jewish liturgy, the Kedushah prayer is probably the least understood of all the prayers. This two part Dvar Torah will aim to explain the origin of the ideas behind the prayer, elucidate its principal components in context and sketch a history of its development. Part one, ‘Isaiah’s Temple Vision’, will try to contextualise and interpret the biblical texts that make up the Kedushah prayer. Part two, (upcoming), will build on the biblical texts and argue that the Kedushah prayer originated in the rituals of mystical ascension practiced by the Merkavah mystics in late antiquity. Ultimately, we hope to conclude at each stage with some ideas as to the significance of the prayer in our own day.

Part One: Isaiah’s Temple Vision

Our story begins around 734 BCE, [2] while the First Temple stood in Jerusalem, capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. Rezin, king of Syria, had succeeded in convincing the northern kingdom of Israel to join with him in attacking Judah, aiming to force Judah into joining his anti-Assyrian axis (2 Kings 15-16). He hoped to bring down the dominant Assyrian Empire and create an empire of his own. It was at this time of crisis that Isaiah was first [3] called upon to begin his prophetic ministry. The introductory passages of the Book of Isaiah [4] make clear that the military crisis had been brought on by a parallel crisis in Judean society at that time,

11 "What need have I of all your sacrifices?" Says the Lord. "I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, And suet of fatlings, And blood of bulls; And I have no delight In lambs and he-goats. 12 That you come to appear before Me -- Who asked that of you? Trample My courts 13 no more; Bringing oblations is futile, Incense is offensive to Me. New moon and sabbath, Proclaiming of solemnities, Assemblies with iniquity, I cannot abide. 14 Your new moons and fixed seasons Fill Me with loathing; They are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them. 15 And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime -- 16 Wash yourselves clean; Put your evil doings Away from My sight. Cease to do evil; 17 Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow. (Isaiah 1:10-17)

In this initial oracle, Hashem rails against the lack of social justice in Judean society. The people oppress the poor and needy whilst believing that their sins can be atoned for through mechanical sacrifices and prayers. Emphasis is placed on how these actions defile the Temple precincts, where Hashem’s presence is to be found. In these initial oracles, the possibility for repentance still exists, “Wash yourselves clean; Put your evil doings Away from My sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good…”. However, Isaiah’s vision (chapter 6) paints a much darker picture,

In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple. 2 Seraphs stood in attendance on Him. Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly. 3 And one would call to the other, "Holy, holy, holy! The LORD of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!" 4 The doorposts would shake at the sound of the one who called, and the House kept filling with smoke. 5 I cried, "Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips And I live among a people Of unclean lips; Yet my own eyes have beheld The King LORD of Hosts." 6 Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 He touched it to my lips and declared, "Now that this has touched your lips, Your guilt shall depart And your sin be purged away." 8 Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me." 9 And He said, "Go, say to that people: 'Hear, indeed, but do not understand; See, indeed, but do not grasp.' 10 Dull that people's mind, Stop its ears, And seal its eyes -- Lest, seeing with its eyes And hearing with its ears, It also grasp with its mind, And repent and save itself." 11 I asked, "How long, my Lord?" And He replied: "Till towns lie waste without inhabitants And houses without people, And the ground lies waste and desolate – 12 For the LORD will banish the population -- And deserted sites are many In the midst of the land…” (Isaiah 6:1-12)

In this ominous vision, there is no longer any room for repentance to avert retribution, the divine decree is sealed (See ff. [8] and [10] below regarding vv. 13). It is the verse that becomes the centrepiece of the Kedushah prayer that is proclaimed by the Seraphim (angelic beings) in this dark scene. But where is this “Temple” in which Hashem sits on a “high and lofty throne” and the Seraphim attend on him? The Hebrew word used is ‘Hekhal’ which can mean both ‘sanctuary’ and ‘palace’; it often refers to the earthly Jerusalem Temple, but in this case that interpretation does not seem to fit the ethereal context of the passage. Psalm 18 appears to provide some assistance,

7 In my distress I called on the LORD, cried out to my God; in His temple He heard my voice; my cry to Him reached His ears…10 He bent the sky and came down, thick cloud beneath His feet. 11 He mounted a cherub and flew, gliding on the wings of the wind….17 He reached down from on high, He took me; He drew me out of the mighty waters; 18 He saved me from my fierce enemy, from foes too strong for me. (Psalm 18:7-17)

Hashem is here portrayed as dwelling in a heavenly “temple”, a ‘Hekhal’ in Hebrew. The idea that Hashem dwells in a heavenly temple is in fact a very common one in the Bible [5]. It is precisely this interpretive direction that is proposed here by the Radak [6],

The “Hekhal” refers to the earthly Temple, or [alternatively] explain “Hekhal” to refer to the heavenly ‘Hekhal’, as in the verse “the Lord in his holy Hekhal // the Lord whose throne is in the heavens” (Psalm 11:4).

Before attempting to establish the meaning of the enigmatic Seraphic liturgy which became the centrepiece of the Kedushah prayer we must first work to establish the content of the passage. Most modern scholars [7] label this a ‘throne room vision’, a genre in which the prophet sees a vision of Hashem enthroned, consulting with and being attended to by a retinue of angelic courtiers. A similar ‘throne room vision’ can be found in 1 Kings 22:17-22, where Hashem consults his angelic courtiers as to how to tempt Ahab into going to war and various courtiers offer opinions. In our passage, as in many other passages, consultation is suggested by the use of the first person plural, “Who will go for us”? Classing this scene as a ‘throne room vision’, however, ignores a crucial detail in our passage,

6 Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 He touched it to my lips and declared, "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt shall depart and your sin be purged away."

If this scene is taking place in a simple throne room, what need is there for an altar? Rather, it is clear that this passage conceives of Hashem dwelling in a combined throne-room and temple, in which angels perform the temple service before him, and in which the angelic choirs sing his praises. The implications of this are truly startling: this passage must therefore conceive of the earthly temple as an imitation of the divine realm, of the earthly priests engaged in service paralleling that of angelic priests, of levitical choirs singing Hashem’s praises in parallel to the “Holy, holy, holy!” of the seraphic chorus.

Yet, the focal point of the passage is the impending disaster about to befall Judah. There is a disconnect between heaven and earth, between the heavenly and earthly temples: Isaiah is not able to join in the angelic praise due to the sins of the people, "For I am a man of unclean lips And I live among a people Of unclean lips…”. Repentance cannot avert the impending crisis; all that remains is for the retribution to occur. (There is a significant problem with our passage regarding this retribution, see ff. [8]). Judah is doomed and the Jerusalem Temple is doomed.


The significance of the seraphic praise is that Hashem is too Holy to dwell in the defiled Jerusalem temple; rather than his presence resting in the Jerusalem temple it “fills all the earth”. The Judean people have failed to live up to the ethical demands that Hashem makes of them. The Temple below has failed to imitate the Temple above. The world that is has become disconnected from the world that aught to be. The seraphic cry of “Holy, Holy, Holy!” marks the beginning of the departure of the divine presence from the First Temple [11].

The significance of this interpretation for the Kedushah prayer is immense [12]: we are reminded that Hashem’s presence can only dwell amongst a people that are worthy of it. The people of Judah were not punished for forgetting to sacrifice or pray, they were punished for behaving to each other unethically and not taking care of the vulnerable in their society.

The fact that with this cry the Seraphim were lamenting the loss of the divine presence was never truly forgotten. Despite variations in versions of the Kedushah prayer, this sense of loss was preserved:

From Your place, reveal Yourself and reign over us, for we are awaiting You. When will You reign in Zion? Let it be soon and in our time! [13]

Chag Sameach!
I’m looking forward to your reactions, ideas, comments and criticism. Scroll down past the endnotes and click the link below to add a comment.


[1] In the regular weekday morning service, the Kedushah prayer is recited three times: once as part of the blessings of the Shema, called the Kedushah of Yotzer/Yeshivah(?); once as part of the repetition of the Amidah, called the Kedushah of Amidah and once towards the conclusion of the service alongside its official Aramaic translation, called the Kedushah of Sidra.

[2] I have followed Blenkinsopp in the Anchor Bible’s ‘Isaiah 1-39’ (2000) for the dating here. Blenkinsopp indicates that he generally follows Albright. The reigning king of Judah, Uzziah (Chron.)/Azariah (Kings), had abdicated some years earlier due to contracting a skin disease (2 Kings 15:5) and his son Jotham and grandson Ahaz reigned in his place. The Book of Chronicles depicts Uzziah’s skin disease as a punishment for his attempting to perform the temple service, despite being a non-priest (2 Chron. 26:16-21). I suspect that there may be a link between Isaiah’s vision, especially in the actions of the coal-wielding seraph, and the tradition related in Chronicles. The vision is dated to the time of Uzziah’s death, some years following his abdication.

[3] Although this vision (ch. 6) is only recorded in the sixth chapter of the work, it has the earliest dateable superscription in the work. Blenkinsopp prefers not to see this as Isaiah’s first commissioning, he sees the arrangement of the material as primary. I have necessarily simplified these issues here for the expected audience.

[4] For a discussion of the source critical issues, see Blenkinsopp; “we might say that the eighth century prophet has been buried under an exegetical mountain” (pp. 90). I have necessarily simplified these issues here for the expected audience. Traditional Jewish justification for the modern critical position can be found in the commentary of the Ibn Ezra to Isaiah 40:1.

[5] Micah provides a similar picture,

2 Listen, all you peoples, Give heed, O earth, and all it holds; And let my Lord GOD be your accuser -- My Lord from His holy abode. 3 For lo! the LORD Is coming forth from His dwelling-place, He will come down and stride Upon the heights of the earth. 4 The mountains shall melt under Him And the valleys burst open -- Like wax before fire, Like water cascading down a slope. (Micah 1:2-3)

In the Hebrew, Hashem’s “holy abode” is in fact his holy ‘Hekhal’, and that ‘Hekhal’ is evidently in the heavens. See also Habakkuk 2:20 and Psalms 3, 11:4, 15, 20:2-7, 29, 150:1-2.

[6] Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235) lived all his life in Narbonne, France; he was renowned as a grammarian and commentator. For a general introduction to the classical commentators, see Louis Jacobs, ‘Jewish Biblical Exegesis’ (1973).

[7] For example, Blenkinsopp and the Isaiah volume in the Word Biblical Commentary series.


11 I asked, "How long, my Lord?" And He replied: "Till towns lie waste without inhabitants And houses without people, And the ground lies waste and desolate – 12 For the LORD will banish the population -- And deserted sites are many In the midst of the land. 13 "But while a tenth part yet remains in it, it shall repent. It shall be ravaged like the terebinth and the oak, of which stumps are left even when they are felled: its stump shall be a holy seed." (Isaiah 6:1-13)

The response to Isaiah’s question, presumably ‘How long [until the retribution occurs], my Lord?’ is problematic. We should expect a date or description of the agency by which the retribution would occur, but none is given. Instead, Hashem gives a ‘self-fulfilling’ answer: “It will have happened when a massive destruction has happened”. This answer, however, conceals a gargantuan problem that lies at the heart of our passage: the complete or almost complete destruction of Judah did not actually occur for approximately another 140 to 150 years, until the conquest and exile of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar in 597-587 BCE [9]!
The solution that would best preserve the veracity of the prophecy and its integrity (retains vv. 13) would be to identify the foretold destruction with that of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, who ravaged Judah and laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 BCE, but did not actually manage to conquer the city; some 33 years later. This would account for the ‘righteous remnant’, “its stump shall be a holy seed” [10], depicted here. Furthermore, some passages in Isaiah interpreted the Davidic promises as unconditional assurances of Jerusalem’s safety during Sennacherib’s invasion (see Isaiah 36–7; Ollenburger 1987; Brueggemann 1988: 74). This too would support the antiquity of vv.13. However, the correlation of this prophecy with the invasion of Sennacherib is problematic as no major exile occurred during Sennacherib’s campaign. Whatever its true significance, it is likely that this prophecy was reinterpreted by each community that received it and took on new significance as historical events unfolded.

[9] So Rachel Elior in ‘The Three Temples’, Littman (2004), pp. 1.

[10] Note that this phrase is only attested elsewhere in Ezra 9:2; I used the phrase ‘righteous remnant’ deliberately. Many scholars see this passage as reflecting later interests. It also seems to clash with the central message of the passage, that no repentance is possible. VHMY. Hence, in each mention of the possibility of repentance above, I have been careful to state that there is no room for repentance to avert the crisis, despite vv. 13, and omitted vv. 13 in my quotation from the passage. I was forced to simplify my treatment of these issues in the interests of brevity. See also ff. [8] on the problems of vv. 13.

[11] I am deeply indebted to Rabbi Menachem Leibtag ( for first proposing this direction of interpretation to me and for his pervasive emphasis on ‘righteousness and justice’ as a recurring theme in the Bible.

[12] I am not suggesting that this precise interpretation was foremost in the minds of those who began to use this seraphic liturgy, in fact, as we continue our study we shall see that it took on new significance altogether. However, the fact that this verse was lamenting the loss of the divine presence was never truly forgotten. The significance of this interpretation should be weighed in pragmatic terms: the difference it can make to our lives and the lives of our communities.

[13] From the Sabbath Morning Service Kedushah prayer according to the rites of Ashkenaz and Sephard. Note that this is in fact a response to “Blessed is the Lord from His place”; a full treatment of Ezekiel 3:12, which brevity did not permit, would have yielded precisely the same interpretation as did Isaiah 6:3. This verse marks the departure of Hashem after charging Ezekiel with the task of telling the first wave of exiles in Babylon about the impending destruction of Jerusalem,

"And you, O mortal, take a brick and put it in front of you, and incise on it a city, Jerusalem. 2 Set up a siege against it, and build towers against it, and cast a mound against it; pitch camps against it, and bring up battering rams roundabout it. 3 This shall be an omen for the House of Israel. Thus said the Lord GOD: I set this Jerusalem in the midst of nations, with countries round about her. 6 But she rebelled against My rules and My laws, acting more wickedly than the nations and the countries round about her; she rejected My rules and disobeyed My laws. 11 Assuredly, as I live -- said the Lord GOD -- because you defiled My Sanctuary with all your detestable things and all your abominations, I in turn will shear you away and show no pity. I in turn will show no compassion: (Ezekiel 4:1-3,6,11)

There are those that emend the text and instead read “as the Presence of the Lord rose from where it stood” (“BeRum Kevod Hashem MiMkomo”). They claim that this makes more sense contextually as an angelic liturgy is not expected at this point. It also fits better with the movements of the divine presence depicted in Ezekiel 10:18-24. Whether this emendation is correct or not, the context of the passage and Ezekiel’s own emotions as the divine presence departs are the same,

14 A spirit seized me and carried me away. I went in bitterness, in the fury of my spirit, while the hand of the LORD was strong upon me. 15 And I came to the exile community that dwelt in Tel Abib by the Chebar Canal, and I remained where they dwelt. And for seven days I sat there stunned among them. (Ezekiel 3:14-15)

As it stands, the meaning of Ezekiel 3:12, “Blessed is the Lord from His place”, is enigmatic anyway. Perhaps the ‘place’ of Hashem could be identified with the heavenly temple, in contradistinction to the earthly one. This is possibly the interpretation being posited by the passage from the Sabbath morning service Kedushah prayer quoted above, “From Your place, reveal Yourself”: “Your place”, being the heavenly temple.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Y'asher koach! After a dvar Torah like that, is a little imtimidating to post comments, but because you requested... I suppose an obvious question would be: why, if the Temple in Jerusalem wasn't fit to be the resting place of Hashem, then why would He instead choose to fill the rest of the world, which surely wasn't "living up to the ethical demands that He makes," not to mention being "a people that are worthy of it"? Also, considering recent reading I have attempted to undertake, to let references that seem to suggest the corporality of G-d (kivyakhol) slip by without comment seems to be doing them an injustice. (Also as a matter of grammar, isn't "us" the first person plural, whereas "them" would be the third person plural?) Chag sameach!

3:54 am  
Blogger Adam said...

Thanks for noticing the mistake; have changed it in the text.

4:00 am  

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