Before discussing the experience at Sinai, I would like to explore the meaning of Shechinah as it relates to God’s presence. Rav Sa’adyah Gaon in his Hanivchar Be’emunot Vede’ot (Ma’amar 2:10 – page 103 in the Rav Kafieh edition) writes that God creates a form of extreme light and brilliance that takes on different forms which is a representation of God Himself. That creation is referred to as Kevod Hashem and Shechinah. Its purpose is to verify for the prophet that the vision he apprehends in his meditation is really God. It is clear that RSG sees this as a concession to human limitation in apprehending the transcendental.
כי הדמות הזו ברואה, וכן הכסא, והמושב הנישא8
ונושאיו, כולם נבראים, בראם הבורא מזוהר9
כדי שיתאמת לנביאו שהוא אשר ניבא אותו בדבריו, כמו שנבאר במאמר השלישי.10
ועליה הוא שתיאר אחד הנביאים:
חזה הוית עד די כרסון רמיו ועתיק יומין יתיב11,
ועליה מה שמתארים החכמים
In the passage (Exod. xxiv. 10, lit., "And there was under his feet, like the action of the whiteness of a sapphire stone"), Onkelos, as you know, in his version, considers the word (raglav) "his feet" as a figurative expression and a substitute for "throne"; the words "under his feet" he therefore paraphrases, "And under the throne of his glory." Consider this well, and you will observe with wonder how Onkelos keeps free from the idea of the corporeality of God, and from everything that leads thereto, even in the remotest degree. For he does not say, "and under His throne"; the direct relation of the throne to God, implied in the literal sense of the phrase "His throne," would necessarily suggest the idea that God is supported by a material object, and thus lead directly to the corporeality of God. He therefore refers the throne to His glory, i.e., to the Shechinah, which is a light created for the purpose… You are acquainted with the version of Onkelos [of the passage quoted]. He contents himself with excluding from his version all expressions of corporeality in reference to God, and does not show us what they (the nobles of the children of
In other words, Rambam concedes that this explanation of Shechinah as a created representation of God is a possible interpretation of the metaphor of God being present in a place and time - it may possibly have that meaning. However, he does not believe it to be true - but it may also refer to something else. It is good enough for the plain people, who by accepting this explanation, can accept that when the verse refers to God in physical terms it really talks about a created representation thus negating physicality to God himself. Rambam then continues to give a completely different explanation to the verse in question which I will not address here. The words Shechinah and the root Shachen are discussed in several other places in the Moreh. First, I want to turn to Rambam’s understanding the word Avar – passed – as it refers to God discussed in MN1:21. When God said (Shemot 12:12)
יב וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ-מִצְרַיִם, בַּלַּיְלָה
הַזֶּה, וְהִכֵּיתִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, מֵאָדָם
וְעַד-בְּהֵמָה; וּבְכָל-אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים, אֲנִי יְהוָה.
12 For I will go through the
The meaning is quite clear; we see an action that we attribute to God, we say that He passed through, because that would be how we, as humans, would accomplish such a result. That would apply to any observation on our part of any result that we would attribute to a specific action had we been responsible for it. We therefore say that God acted in such a manner knowing that He does not act in any physical sense. But then we have a much more difficult verse where the word Avar is used about God and there is no action or result to explain it. After the Egel when Moshe wanted to apprehend God’s essence and was denied it but was told that he could only apprehend God’s “back”, he was taught all sciences (MN 1:54). “The words "all my goodness" imply that God promised to show him the whole creation, concerning which it has been stated, "And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good" (Gen. I. 31). When I say, "to show him the whole creation," I mean to imply that God promised to make him comprehend the nature of all things, their relation to each other, and the way they are governed by God both in reference to the universe as a whole and to each creature in particular”. He was then told to go up the mountain and (Shemot 24:5-6)
ה וַיֵּרֶד יְהוָה בֶּעָנָן, וַיִּתְיַצֵּב עִמּוֹ שָׁם; וַיִּקְרָא בְשֵׁם, יְהוָה.
וַיַּעֲבֹר יְהוָה עַל-פָּנָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, יְהוָה יְהוָה, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן--אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת.
6 And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed 'The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth;
Rambam explains that God told Moshe to refrain from focusing on His essence – His face – and concentrate on his deeds which are the attributes that follow in the verse.
“Moses sought to attain to a certain perception which is called "the perception of the Divine face," a term occurring in the phrase "My face cannot be seen"; but God vouchsafed to him a perception of a lower degree, viz., the one called, "the seeing of the back," in the words, "And you shall see My back" (Exod. xxxiii. 23). We have mentioned this subject in our work Mishne Torah. Accordingly, it is stated in the above-mentioned passage that the Lord withheld from Moses that perception which is termed "the seeing of the Divine face," and substituted for it another gift, namely the knowledge of the acts attributed to God, which, as I shall explain (chap.54.) are considered to be different and separate attributes of the Supreme.”
In this context it was not God that passed by but rather God made Moshe pass through, namely turn his mind away from seeking to understand the impossible, His essence (face), and concentrate on His actions (back). When the verse said earlier that God descended in a cloud, God does not descend but rather Moshe, in his concentration felt God’s presence unclearly, as if in a fog, a presence that we know rationally is always there. Realizing that he could never pierce the fog, he refocused on God’s actions trying to learn them to emulate Him.
This idea that God is always present is called Shechinah. A person perceives or “feels” the Shechinah when he concentrates on that idea. I will flesh this out in the next post.
הוא ייחס, כידוע לך, את כינוי השייכות שבמלה רגליו אל הכסא ואמר: ותחות כורסי יקריה7.
הבן זאת והתפעל מה רחוק היה אונקלוס מן ההגשמה ומכל מה שגורם לה אפילו בדרך הרחוקה ביותר. שהרי לא אמר: ותחות כורסיה8
שכן אִילו ייחס את הכיסא אליו על-פי המשמעות המובנת בראשונה היה מתחייב שהוא יהיה יושב9
על גוף והיתה מתחייבת הגשמה. לכן ייחס את הכיסא אל יקריה10,
כלומר, אל השכינה אשר היא אור נברא
את פירושו של אונקלוס אתה יודע, אבל תכליתו של דבר שהוא שלל את ההגשמה ולא הבהיר לנו איזה דבר הם15 השׂיגו, ולא לאיזה דבר הכוונה במשל זה. וכך בכל מקום, הוא איננו מתייחס
לעניין הזה אלא לשלילת ההגשמה בלבד. כי שלילת ההגשמה היא דבר מוכח הוכחה
מופתית, הכרחי לאמונה
16. לכן הוא קובע באופן חד-משמעי שיש לשלול את ההגשמה ומפרש בהתאם לכך.
הבהרת משמעות המשל, לעומת זאת, היא עניין של סברה. אולי הכוונה לדבר זה או
לדבר אחר. כמו כן דברים אלה נסתרים מאוד, אין הבנתם מיסודות האמונה ואין
השׂגתם קלה להמון. לכן לא נגע בעניין זה
(Michael Schwartz Translation)