Shekhinah – Ruach HaKodesh – sakana

The concept of shekhinah is also associated with the concept of the Holy Spirit in Judaism (ruach ha-kodesh), as can be seen in the Yiddish song: Vel ikh, shkhine tsu dir kumen “Will I, Shekhinah, to you come”.

The Talmud also says that “the Shekhinah rests on man neither through gloom, nor through sloth, nor through frivolity, nor through levity, nor through talk, nor through idle chatter, but only through a matter of joy in connection with a precept, as it is said, But now bring me a minstrel. And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him (II Kings 3:15)”. (Tractate Shabbat 30b)

Their prophet said to them: “The sign of his kingship is that the Ark will come to you in which there is tranquility from your Lord and a relic from the family of Moses and the family of Aaron, borne by the angels. In this is a sign for you if you are true believers.

The Shekhinah (שכינה) is the English transliteration of a Hebrew word meaning “dwelling” or “settling” and denotes the dwelling or settling of the divine presence of God. This term does not occur in the Bible, and is from rabbinic literature.

The word shekhinah is not present in the Bible, and is first encountered in the rabbinic literature. The Semitic root means “to settle, inhabit, or dwell”. The root word is often used to refer to birds’ nesting and nests (“Every fowl dwells near its kind and man near his equal.”) and can also mean “neighbor” (“If two Tobiahs appeared, one of whom was a neighbour and the other a scholar, the scholar is to be given precedence.”)

The word for the Tabernacle, mishkan, is a derivative of the same root and is used in the sense of dwelling-place in the Bible, e.g. Psalms 132:5 (“till I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.”) and Numbers 24:5 (“How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!” where the word for “your dwelling places” is mishkenotecha). In classic Jewish thought, the shekhinah refers to a dwelling or settling in a special sense, a dwelling or settling of divine presence, to the effect that, while in proximity to the shekhinah, the connection to God is more readily perceivable.

The concept is similar to that in the Gospel of Matthew 18:20, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in their midst.” Some Christian theologians have connected the concept of shekhinah to the Greek term parousia, “presence” or “arrival,” which is used in the New Testament in a similar way for “divine presence”.

In Judaism

The shekhinah represents the feminine attributes of the presence of God, shekhinah being a feminine word in Hebrew, based especially on readings of the Talmud.

Manifestation

The shekhinah is referred to as manifest in the Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem throughout rabbinic literature. It is also reported as being present in the acts of public prayer. In the Mishna the noun is used twice: once by Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion (c. 135 CE): ‘If two sit together and the words between them are of the Torah, then the shekhinah is in their midst’; and Rabbi Halafta ben Dosa: ‘If ten men sit together and occupy themselves with the Law, the shekhinah rests among them.’ So too in the Talmud Sanhedrin 39a, we read: “Whenever ten are gathered for prayer, there the Shekhinah rests”; it also connotes righteous judgment (“when three sit as judges, the Shekhinah is with them.” Talmud tractate Berachot 6a), and personal need (“The Shekhinah dwells over the headside of the sick man’s bed.” Talmud tractate Shabbat 12b; “Wheresoever they were exiled, the Shekhinah went with them.” Talmud tractate Megillah 29a).

In particular, the shekhinah is a holy fire that resides within the home of a married couple. The shekhinah is the highest of six types of holy fire. When a married couple is worthy of this manifestation, all other types of fire are consumed by it.

There is no occurrence of the word in pre-rabbinic literature such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is only afterwards in the targums and rabbinic literature that the Hebrew term shekhinah, or Aramaic equivalent shekinta, is found, and then becomes extremely common. McNamara considers that the absence might lead to the conclusion that the term only originated after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, but notes 2 Maccabees 14:35 “a temple for your habitation”, where the Greek text (Koinē Greek: ναὸν τῆς σῆς σκηνώσεως) suggests a possible parallel understanding, and where σκηνώση skēnōsē “a tent-building”, a variation on an early loanword from Phoenician (Ancient Greek: ἡ σκηνή skēnē “tent”), is deliberately used to represent the original Hebrew or Aramaic term.

The shekhinah is associated with the transformational spirit of God regarded as the source of prophecy:

After that thou shalt come to the hill of God, where is the garrison of the Philistines; and it shall come to pass, when thou art come thither to the city, that thou shalt meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a timbrel, and a pipe, and a harp, before them; and they will be prophesying. And the spirit of the LORD will come mightily upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man.

— 1 Samuel 10:5–6

The prophets made numerous references to visions of the presence of God, particularly in the context of the Tabernacle or Temple, with figures such as thrones or robes filling the Sanctuary, which have traditionally been attributed to the presence of the shekhinah. Isaiah wrote “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and his train filled the Temple” (Isaiah 6:1). Jeremiah implored “Do not dishonor the throne of your glory” (Jeremiah 14:21) and referred to “Thy throne of glory, on high from the beginning, Thy place of our sanctuary” (Jeremiah 17:12). The Book of Ezekiel speaks of “the glory of the God of Israel was there [in the Sanctuary], according to the vision that I saw in the plain” (Ezekiel 8:4).

Targum

In the Targum the addition of the noun term shekhinah paraphases Hebrew verb phrases such as Exodus 34:9 “let the Lord go among us” (a verbal expression of presence) which Targum paraphrases with God’s “shekhinah” (a noun form). In the post-temple era usage of the term shekhinah may provide a solution to the problem of God being omnipresent and thus not dwelling in any one place.

Talmud

The Talmud also says that “the Shekhinah rests on man neither through gloom, nor through sloth, nor through frivolity, nor through levity, nor through talk, nor through idle chatter, but only through a matter of joy in connection with a precept, as it is said, But now bring me a minstrel. And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him (II Kings 3:15)”. (Tractate Shabbat 30b)

Jewish prayers

The 17th blessing of the daily Amidah prayer said in Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform services is “[Blessed are You, God,] who returns His Presence (shekhinato) to Zion” (הַמַּחֲזִיר שְׁכִינָתוֹ לְצִיּוֹן) as can be seen in any siddur (Jewish daily prayer book).

Liberal Jewish prayer-book for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Machzor Ruach Chadashah) contains a creative prayer based on Avinu Malkeinu, in which the feminine noun shekhinah is used in the interests of gender neutrality.

The concept of Holy Spirit in Judaism

The concept of shekhinah is also associated with the concept of the Holy Spirit in Judaism (ruach ha-kodesh), as can be seen in the Yiddish song: Vel ikh, shkhine tsu dir kumen “Will I, Shekhinah, to you come”.

Kabbalah

Sabbath Bride

The theme of the shekhinah as the Sabbath Bride recurs in the writings and songs of 16th century Kabbalist, Isaac Luria. The Asader Bishvachin song, written in Aramaic by Luria (his name appears as an acrostic of each line) and sung at the evening meal of Shabbat is an example of this. The song appears in particular in many siddurs in the section following Friday night prayers and in some Shabbat song books:

Let us invite the Shechinah with a newly-laid table
and with a well-lit menorah that casts light on all heads.

Three preceding days to the right, three succeeding days to the left,
and amid them the Sabbath bride with adornments she goes, vessels and robes

May the Shechinah become a crown through the six loaves on each side
through the doubled-six may our table be bound with the profound Temple services

A paragraph in the Zohar starts: “One must prepare a comfortable seat with several cushions and embroidered covers, from all that is found in the house, like one who prepares a canopy for a bride. For the Shabbat is a queen and a bride. This is why the masters of the Mishna used to go out on the eve of Shabbat to receive her on the road, and used to say: ‘Come, O bride, come, O bride!’ And one must sing and rejoice at the table in her honor … one must receive the Lady with many lighted candles, many enjoyments, beautiful clothes, and a house embellished with many fine appointments …”

The tradition of the shekhinah as the Shabbat Bride, the Shabbat Kallah, continues to this day.

As feminine aspect

Kabbalah associates the shekhinah with the female. According to Gershom Scholem, “The introduction of this idea was one of the most important and lasting innovations of Kabbalism. …no other element of Kabbalism won such a degree of popular approval.” The “feminine Jewish divine presence, the Shekhinah, distinguishes Kabbalistic literature from earlier Jewish literature.”

“In the imagery of the Kabbalah the shekhinah is the most overtly female sefirah, the last of the ten sefirot, referred to imaginatively as ‘the daughter of God’. … The harmonious relationship between the female shekhinah and the six sefirot which precede her causes the world itself to be sustained by the flow of divine energy. She is like the moon reflecting the divine light into the world.”

Nativity and life of Moses

The Zohar, a foundation book of kabbalah, presents the shekhinah as playing an essential role in the conception and birth of Moses. Later during the Exodus on the “third new moon” in the desert, “Shekhinah revealed Herself and rested upon him before the eyes of all.”

The Tenth Sefirah

In Kabbalah, the Shekhinah is the tenth sefirah, and the source of life for humans on earth below the sefirotic realm. Shekhinah is sometimes seen as a divine winged being, dwelling with the people of Israel and sharing in their struggles. Moses is the only human considered to have risen beyond Shekhinah into the sefirotic realm, reaching the level of Tiferet, or the bridegroom of the shekhinah.

In Christianity

Merged with the Ruach Hakodesh (Holy Spirit)

The Shekhinah, as understood by Judaism, is directly merged into the related Jewish concept of the Ruach HaKodesh to create a common theology which becomes in Christianity the presence or indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the believer, drawing parallels to the presence of God in Solomon’s Temple. As a result of the merged Christian understanding, “Shekhinah” is occasionally used as a secondary Hebrew name for the concept of the Holy Spirit, but not often in mainstream denominations.

Where references are made to the Holy Spirit as manifestations of the glory of the Lord associated with his presence, Christians find numerous occurrences in the New Testament in both literal (as in Luke 2:9 which refers to the “glory of the Lord” shining on the shepherds at Jesus’ birth), as well as spiritual forms (as in John 17:22, where Jesus speaks to God of giving the “glory” that God gave to him to the people).

In accord with Judaism’s understanding of the Ruach Hakodesh(and the Shekhinah), the Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit is linked to prophecy: “For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.”

Islam

In the Quran

Sakīnah (سكينة‎) signifies the “presence or peace of God”. As “support and reassurance” it was “sent by God into the hearts” of Muslims and Muhammad, according to John Esposito. A modern translator of the Quran, N. J. Dawood, states that “tranquility” is the English word for the Arabic meaning of sakīnah, yet it could be “an echo of the Hebrew shekeenah (the Holy Presence).” Another scholar states that the Arabic Sakīnah derives from the Hebrew/Aramaic shekhinah. In the Quran, the Sakīnah is mentioned six times, in surat al-Baqaraat-Tawba and al-Fath.

Their prophet said to them: “The sign of his kingship is that the Ark will come to you in which there is tranquility from your Lord and a relic from the family of Moses and the family of Aaron, borne by the angels. In this is a sign for you if you are true believers.

Sakīnah means “tranquility”, “peace”. “calm”, from the Arabic root sakana: “to be quiet”, “to abate”, “to dwell”. In Islam, Sakīnah “designates a special peace, the “Peace of God”. Although related to Hebrew shekhinah, the spiritual state is not an “indwelling of the Divine Presence” The ordinary Arabic use of the word’s root is “the sense of abiding or dwelling in a place”. A story in Tafsir and Isra’iliyyat literature relates how Ibrahim and Isma’il, when looking for the spot to build the Kaaba found sakīnah. Newby writes that it was like a breeze “with a face that could talk”, saying “build over me.” “Associated with piety and moments of divine inspiration, sakinah in Islamic mysticism signifies an interior spiritual illumination.”

Comments regarding Sakina

Al-Qurtubi mentions in his exegesis, in explanation of the above-mentioned verse [2:248], that according to Wahb ibn Munabbih, sakinah is a spirit from God that speaks, and, in the case of the Israelites, where people disagreed on some issue, this spirit came to clarify the situation, and used to be a cause of victory for them in wars. According to Ali, “Sakinah is a sweet breeze/wind, whose face is like the face of a human”. Mujahid mentions that “when Sakinah glanced at an enemy, they were defeated”, and ibn Atiyyah mentions about the Ark of the Covenant (at-Tabut), to which the sakina was associated, that souls found therein peace, warmth, companionship and strength.

According to Sunni Islam, when Muhammad was persecuted in Mecca, the time came for him to emigrate to Medina. Seeking to be hidden from the Meccans who were looking for him, he took temporary refuge with his companion, Abu Bakr, in a cave.

Contemporary scholarship

Raphael Patai

In the work by anthropologist Raphael Patai entitled The Hebrew Goddess, the author argues that the term shekhinah refers to a goddess by comparing and contrasting scriptural and medieval Jewish Kabbalistic source materials. Patai draws a historic distinction between the shekhinah and the Matronit. In his book Patai also discusses the Hebrew goddesses Asherah and Anat-Yahu.

Comparative religion

  • The Quran mentions the sakina, or tranquility, referring to God’s blessing of solace and succour upon both the Children of Israel and Muhammad.
  • Shekhinah, often in plural, is also present in some gnostic writings written in Aramaic, such as the writings of the Manichaeans and the Mandaeans, as well as others. In these writings, shekinas are described as hidden aspects of God, somewhat resembling the Amahrāspandan of the Zoroastrians.

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