01 Apr WHAT IS THE SHECHINAH?
I. DIVINE PRESENCE
The Bible and Talmud refer frequently to the Shechinah, God’s presence, without explaining the term. This leaves students relying on their intuition. When informed by years of study, this intuitive understanding usually fares well. However, historically, some people have reached theologically dangerous conclusions on these matters, leading important thinkers to explain this term a little more.
I make no claims to expertise on mystical matters, and the presumably multiple views on this subject. Instead, I turn to Rav Yechezkel Landau, author of the Noda Bi-Yehudah, for guidance. He was asked to explain the language of the Le-Shem Yichud formulation many recite before praying or performing a mitzvah. The brief prayer calls for the unification of the Shechinah. What does that mean?
II. TWO MEANINGS
Rav Landau turns to Rambam’s discussion in Moreh Nevuchim. In the first section of Moreh Nevuchim, Rambam devotes a good deal of space to explain language about God that implies physical form. God does not literally walk or speak like a person. These terms are borrowed from our experience to refer by analogy to divine activity. In multiple places, Rambam defines Shechinah as either a created light or continuous guidance (providence). The created light means that when the Shechinah dwells on a place (e.g. the Temple in Jerusalem), a miraculous radiance illuminates the area, a visible marker proving sanctity to all observers.
In Moreh Nevuchim, Rambam uses the term “created light” in many places. At the end of 1:5, Rambam says that visions of the supernatural refer to intellectual understanding. However, he adds, if you want to believe that they refer to created light or something similar, there is nothing wrong with that. That strongly implies that he does not believe visions of the Shechinah are created light. However, in 1:27, he praises Onkelos for translating anthropomorphic terms referring to God’s motion as meaning the created light, which is the Shechinah or divine guidance. This implies that he believes the visions of the Shechinah are created light.
While he does not mention the above passages, the Noda Bi-Yehudah focuses on the passage that resolves this difficulty. At the end of 1:25, Rambam says that when the Shechinah dwells on a place, it is a created light. When it dwells on something (like a person), it is divine guidance. We can now understand that in 1:5, he implied that not every mention of Shechinah should be understood as a physical phenomenon (created light). That intention only applies to Shechinah resting on a place. In 1:27, the created light (on a place) refers back to the Shechinah.
III. PROVIDENCE IN EXILE
The Noda Bi-Yehudah makes another point: both interpretations mean the same thing. The Shechinah refers to divine providence, heavenly guidance of earthly affairs. When the Shechinah rests on an individual, he experiences obvious divine intervention in his life. While primarily supernatural involvement, divine providence also includes a physical representation, which is the created light.
At face value, this interpretation seems to contradict the Rambam’s distinction at the end of 1:25, where he says explicitly that the created light refers to the Shechinah resting on a place. Is it plausible to say that when the Shechinah rests on the Jewish people, we glow with a visible divine light? Presumably, the Noda Bi-Yehudah meant that the divine presence rests in this world through providence. On people, that providence shows in our experiences. On places, the providence can be seen in a miraculous light.
When the Jewish people fulfill God’s will, divine providence in this world falls primarily on them in the land of Israel, overflowing onto other nations and countries. If we sin, we are sent into exile and the process inverts. Divine providence rests primarily on the other nations who experience great success, with a bare minimum overflowing to the Jewish people. This Shechinah in exile is the divine providence primarily guiding other nations. With this, the Noda Bi-Yehudah concludes, quoting only the Rambam and not even the Ramban (Gen. 46:1) who disagrees.2
IV. SHECHINAH TODAY
The Gemara (Chagigah 12a) says that the light that God created during the six days of Creation spanned the entire world. When God saw that the wicked were unworthy of using this light, He diminished it. Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson (Divrei Shaul, Ex. 30:12) explains this passage based on the Rambam above, as explained by the Noda Bi-Yehudah. Initially, the world was created with intense divine guidance, causing the created light to radiate across the entire world. Like the Jews in exile, the wicked of the world did not deserve this special level of providence. Therefore, God decreased his providence to special places in the world in specific times, thereby diminishing the created light. At first, the Shechinah was supposed to be everywhere. Now we have to strive in order to receive it.
The Gemara (Berachos 6a) says that when ten men pray together, the Shechinah dwells among them. Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern (Responsa Zeicher Yehosef, Orach Chaim, no. 48), in discussing a break-away synagogue, quoted the commentary of the Chasid Ya’avetz to Avos (2:5) in which he said that a person should not think that he may pray someplace else rather than next to a wicked man in synagogue. After this responsum was published, Rav Stern received a letter from his friend, Rav Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim, known as the Aderes. The Aderes points out that Sefer Chasidim (no. 770) requires you to ensure that you do not pray next to a wicked man. Additionally, the Aderes notes that the Shechinah will not rest on a place where there is a wicked person.
Rav Stern replied to the Aderes in a later responsum (no. 240). He suggests that you do not need to be concerned with the Sefer Chasidim’s statement if you are praying in your regular place and a wicked man sits next to you. You are doing your own thing and he entered your area (cf. Avodah Zarah 44b). Regarding the Shechinah, Rav Stern quotes the Rambam and Noda Bi-Yehudah we have been discussing. The Shechinah refers to divine guidance, not a heavenly visitor. Therefore, it has the ability to rest on one person and not his neighbor — one will benefit from a high level of providence but not the other.