Kedushah: Did the Angels Actually Say It?
Angelic Utterances in the Kedushah
In Jewish liturgy, the Kedushah (“sanctification”) is considered an especially holy prayer. It appears in slightly different forms in multiple places in the prayer service, sometimes with poetic embellishments. Nevertheless, the core of every Kedushah is a responsive reading of two biblical verses within a basic frame. Here, for example, is the weekday Kedushah (Ashkenazi text) which appears during the repetition of the Amidah (“standing [prayer]”):
נקדש את שמך בעולם כשם שמקדישים אותו בשמי מרום, ככתוב על יד נביאך (ישעיה ו:ג): וקרא זה אל זה ואמר: קדוש קדוש קדוש ה' צבאות מלא כל הארץ כבודו. לעומתם ברוך יאמרו (יחזקאל ג:יב): ברוך כבוד ה' ממקומו.
Let us sanctify Your name in the world, the way that they (=angels) sanctify it in the heavens above, as it has been written by your prophets (Isa 6:3): “And one would call to the other, ‘Holy, holy, holy! The LORD of Hosts! His Glory fills all the earth!’” Opposite them, they (=other angels) say “Praise” (Ezek 3:12): “Praise be the Glory of the LORD in its place.”
These two verses are linked together because they are both ostensibly quotes from angels about God’s Glory (כבוד).
The Trisagion (Isaiah 6:3)
The first of these passages is taken from Isaiah’s call narrative (Isaiah 6), in which the late eighth century B.C.E. prophet is given his commission to prophesy to Israel. Transported in a vision to the heavenly court, Isaiah sees YHWH sitting on His throne and hears the angels speak:
ישעיה ו:ב שְׂרָפִ֨ים עֹמְדִ֤ים׀ מִמַּ֙עַל֙ ל֔וֹ שֵׁ֧שׁ כְּנָפַ֛יִם שֵׁ֥שׁ כְּנָפַ֖יִם לְאֶחָ֑ד בִּשְׁתַּ֣יִם׀ יְכַסֶּ֣ה פָנָ֗יו וּבִשְׁתַּ֛יִם יְכַסֶּ֥ה רַגְלָ֖יו וּבִשְׁתַּ֥יִם יְעוֹפֵֽף: ו:ג וְקָרָ֨א זֶ֤ה אֶל־זֶה֙ וְאָמַ֔ר קָד֧וֹשׁ ׀ קָד֛וֹשׁ קָד֖וֹשׁ יְ־הוָ֣ה צְבָא֑וֹת מְלֹ֥א כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ כְּבוֹדֽוֹ׃ ו:ד וַיָּנֻ֙עוּ֙ אַמּ֣וֹת הַסִּפִּ֔ים מִקּ֖וֹל הַקּוֹרֵ֑א וְהַבַּ֖יִת יִמָּלֵ֥א עָשָֽׁן:
Isa 6:2 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. 6:3 And one would call to the other, “Holy, holy, holy is YHWH of Hosts! His Glory (or “Presence”) fills all the earth!” 6:4 The doorposts would shake at the sound of the one who called, and the house kept filling with smoke.
The quote about YHWH’s triple holiness (Trisagion in Greek) is recited here by seraphs, a type of (fiery) flying serpent, and the Kedushah prayer is our request as humans to imitate this heavenly praise.
YHWH’s Glory (Ezek 3:12)
The second core passage is Ezekiel 3:12, which is towards the end of Ezekiel’s call narrative (Ezek 1:1-3:15). Ezekiel, a Temple priest exiled from Jerusalem in the first Babylonian deportation of 597 B.C.E., has a vision five years later of the Glory (or Presence) of YHWH (כְּבוֹד יְ־הוָה, kevod YHWH) arriving among the first group of exiles living in Babylon. In this vision, YHWH sits on a throne in a divine chariot (or merkavah מרכבה as it is known in later Judaism) borne aloft by four fantastical ḥayyot (חַיּוֹת, “creatures”) with ʾophanim (אוֹפַנִּים, “wheels”).
At the end of his call narrative, the divine chariot departs, and Ezekiel, like Isaiah, apparently hears the speech of the angelic beings:
יחזקאל ג:יב וַתִּשָּׂאֵ֣נִי ר֔וּחַ וָאֶשְׁמַ֣ע אַחֲרַ֔י ק֖וֹל רַ֣עַשׁ גָּד֑וֹל בָּר֥וּךְ כְּבוֹד־יְ־הוָ֖ה מִמְּקוֹמֽוֹ׃ ג:יג וְק֣וֹל׀ כַּנְפֵ֣י הַחַיּ֗וֹת מַשִּׁיקוֹת֙ אִשָּׁ֣ה אֶל־אֲחוֹתָ֔הּ וְק֥וֹל הָאוֹפַנִּ֖ים לְעֻמָּתָ֑ם וְק֖וֹל רַ֥עַשׁ גָּדֽוֹל:
Ezek 3:12 Then a spirit carried me away, and behind me I heard a great roaring sound: “Blessed is the Glory of YHWH, in His place,” 3:13 with the sound of the wings of the creatures beating against one another, and the sound of the wheels beside them—a great roaring sound.
The text never says who says these words, but as the roaring sound is accompanied by the sound of wings beating, the implication is that it was said by the ḥayyot, or perhaps also by the ʾophanim. (Jewish mystical traditions assume that the wheels were themselves angelic beings with the power to speak.)
In short, the Kedushah juxtaposes two quotes from angels about YHWH’s holiness or glory; certainly the phrase “Glory of YHWH” (kevod YHWH) in Ezekiel resonates with the reference in Isaiah 6:3 to “His Glory” (kevodo), binding the two passages together in the linguistic sphere.
Problems with the Ezekiel Verse
In contrast to the straightforward description in Isaiah 6:3, the phrase in Ezekiel is actually difficult to parse:
- What does it mean that YHWH’s kavod is blessed in His place? To what place does it refer?
- What is the connection between the spirit carrying Ezekiel away and the quote?
- Is it clear that this is a quote? If not, what else could it be?
- If it is a quote, why is it introduced as a roaring sound?
- Who is saying the quote? While the text does mention the ḥayyot (beasts) and ʾophanim (wheels), the text does not indicate that either is speaking (or even that either is capable of speaking).
The second century C.E. Aramaic Targum Jonathan, attributed to the tanna Jonathan ben Uziel, recognized some of these problems, and added to the verse so that it would make sense:
וּנְטַלְתַּנִי רוּחָא וְשִׁמְעֵית בַּתְרֵי קַל זִיעַ סַגִי דִמְשַׁבְּחִין וְאָמְרִין בְּרִיךְ יְקָרָא דַייָ מֵאֲתַר בֵּית שְׁכִינְתֵּיהּ
A spirit took me away and I heard behind me the sound of a great rumbling of those praising and saying, “Blessed be the glory of the LORD from the place of the house (temple) of his indwelling (Shekhinah).”
Targum Jonathan’s translation resolves a number of problems. First, it is clear that “blessed be” is a quote, and that it was uttered by heavenly bodies, though he doesn’t specify which (ḥayyot or ʾophanim). Second, he explains the strange phrase “his place” as a reference to the Jerusalem Temple, where YHWH dwells. This latter point, however, was a matter of debate among traditional commentaries.
Thus, for example, while Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi, ca. 1160–1235) also sees “his place” as a reference to the Temple (specifically the spot above the cherubs in the Temple), R. Joseph Kara (11th cent.) believes it refers to a mysterious place unknown to the angels, and Moses Maimonides (Rambam, 1138–1204) believes it refers not to a physical place but to God’s exalted station (מדרגת מציאותו).
All of these interpreters, however, agreed that the phrase “blessed…” is a quote coming from the divine beings. In their opinion, it is difficult to understand it any other way. An alternative approach, however, was brought forth in the 19th century, when Shadal (Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800–1865) challenged the two-thousand-year-old consensus.
A Text Critical Approach—Shadal
One of the outstanding leaders and lights of Italian Jewry, Shadal was a brilliant scholar who began his prolific writing career already in his teenage years. Although he was – at least formally – quite strict in following the traditional position that the text of the Torah had been preserved throughout the centuries in an accurate fashion, he did concede that scribal mistakes may have entered the Prophets (נביאים) and Writings (כתובים) during the course of their transmission. Indeed, he even went so far as to posit a few emendations (corrections for which there are no textual witnesses) to these latter two collections of texts, one of the most famous of which is his emendation of Ezekiel 3:12.
As already noted, the syntax of Ezekiel 3:12 is problematic: the lack of any indication that what follows the “roaring sound” is a direct quote is unusual and ungrammatical. The difference between this verse and the one in Isaiah, which indicates explicitly that the seraphim are talking, is noteworthy. Thus, Shadal writes:
קול רעש אינו מתיישב על קול של דבור, אלא על קול כנפי החיות בלכתן. וכן הנביא חוזר ומפרש וקול כנפי החיות משיקות וגו' וקול רעש גדול. הרי מפורש כי קול הרעש הגדול הוא קול הכנפים, לא קול של דבור.
The “great roaring sound” does not sit well as a description of the sound of a speaking voice, rather, it refers to the sound of the wings of the ḥayyot as they move. And so, the prophet returns in the next verse to explain “with the sound of the wings of the creatures beating… a great roaring sound.” It is thus explicit that the great roaring sound was the sound of wings, not the sound of speech.
Shadal then makes a further point:
ועוד בכל ספור המרכבה לא מצאנו מיוחס אל החיות שום דבור.
Moreover, in the entire story of the chariot, we do not find speech imputed to the ḥayyot at all.
In other words, unlike the seraphim in Isaiah 6, or even the agents YHWH appoints in Ezekiel 9, the heavenly beings here are not a retinue with whom YHWH converses, but they are literally the bearers of his chariot. The creatures fly and the wheels turn; they do not talk. But if the line isn’t a quote, what is it?
To answer this question, Shadal focuses on the strange term ממקומו “from his place.” We already noted above that the commentators debate the meaning of “his place,” but Shadal is more interested in the preposition “from.” According to the most common traditional interpretation, “his place” refers to the Temple, but shouldn’t the text then read “in his place” (במקומו)?
Radak tried to explain this by saying that the blessing rises from God’s place in the Temple, but another traditional commentator, R. Eliezar of Beaugency (12th cent.), offered a creative solution:
ממקומו – מוסב על ואשמע אחרי, לומר: ואשמע ממקומו – ממקום שחנה שם הכבוד, שנרעש המקום לקראת סילוקו מעליו,
“From his place”—This connects grammatically to “and I heard behind me,” meaning to say “I heard from its place” from the place where his Glory had been parked, for the place was filled with noise when it (the Glory) rose from it.
Shadal did not know this commentary, but he too intuits that what is being described here is the noise coming from the place whence the kavod is taking off, but he takes the point a step further. Shadal points to other places that describe the kavod taking off, and calls attention to the verb used (ר.ו.מ):
יחזקאל י:ד וַיָּ֤רָם כְּבוֹד־יְ־הֹוָה֙ מֵעַ֣ל הַכְּר֔וּב עַ֖ל מִפְתַּ֣ן הַבָּ֑יִת וַיִּמָּלֵ֤א הַבַּ֙יִת֙ אֶת־הֶ֣עָנָ֔ן וְהֶֽחָצֵר֙ מָֽלְאָ֔ה אֶת־נֹ֖גַהּ כְּב֥וֹד יְ־הֹוָֽה: י:ה וְקוֹל֙ כַּנְפֵ֣י הַכְּרוּבִ֔ים נִשְׁמַ֕ע עַד־הֶחָצֵ֖ר הַחִיצֹנָ֑ה כְּק֥וֹל אֵל־שַׁדַּ֖י בְּדַבְּרֽוֹ:
Ezek 10:4 But when the kavod of YHWH ascended from the cherubs to the platform of the House, the House was filled with the cloud, and the court was filled with the radiance of the kavod of YHWH. 10:5 The sound of the cherubs’ wings could be heard as far as the outer court, like the voice of El Shaddai when He speaks.
Here Ezekiel describes how YHWH’s kavod rises from its seat on the cherubs (i.e., the ḥayyot) and moves to the entrance of the Temple. The movement of the wings is again described as a loud noise. Later in the chapter, Ezekiel describes the return of the kavod and the flying away of the chariot, again with this same verb:
יחזקאל י:טו וַיֵּרֹ֖מּוּ הַכְּרוּבִ֑ים הִ֣יא הַחַיָּ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָאִ֖יתִי בִּֽנְהַר־כְּבָֽר: י:טז וּבְלֶ֙כֶת֙ הַכְּרוּבִ֔ים יֵלְכ֥וּ הָאוֹפַנִּ֖ים אֶצְלָ֑ם וּבִשְׂאֵ֨ת הַכְּרוּבִ֜ים אֶת־כַּנְפֵיהֶ֗ם לָרוּם֙ מֵעַ֣ל הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹא־יִסַּ֧בּוּ הָאוֹפַנִּ֛ים גַּם־הֵ֖ם מֵאֶצְלָֽם: י:יז בְּעָמְדָ֣ם יַעֲמֹ֔דוּ וּבְרוֹמָ֖ם יֵר֣וֹמּוּ אוֹתָ֑ם כִּ֛י ר֥וּחַ הַחַיָּ֖ה בָּהֶֽם: י:יח וַיֵּצֵא֙ כְּב֣וֹד יְ־הֹוָ֔ה מֵעַ֖ל מִפְתַּ֣ן הַבָּ֑יִת וַֽיַּעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־הַכְּרוּבִֽים: י:יט וַיִּשְׂא֣וּ הַכְּרוּבִ֣ים אֶת־כַּ֠נְפֵיהֶם וַיֵּר֨וֹמּוּ מִן־הָאָ֤רֶץ לְעֵינַי֙ בְּצֵאתָ֔ם וְהָאֽוֹפַנִּ֖ים לְעֻמָּתָ֑ם וַֽיַּעֲמֹ֗ד פֶּ֣תַח שַׁ֤עַר בֵּית־יְ־הֹוָה֙ הַקַּדְמוֹנִ֔י וּכְב֧וֹד אֱלֹהֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל עֲלֵיהֶ֖ם מִלְמָֽעְלָה:
Ezek 10:15 The cherubs ascended; those were the creatures that I had seen by the Chebar Canal. 10:16 Whenever the cherubs went, the wheels went beside them; and when the cherubs lifted their wings to ascend from the earth, the wheels did not roll away from their side. 10:17 When those stood still, these stood still; and when those ascended, these ascended with them, for the spirit of the creature was in them. 10:18 Then the kavod of YHWH left the platform of the House and stopped above the cherubs. 10:19 And I saw the cherubs lift their wings and ascend from the earth, with the wheels beside them as they departed; and they stopped at the entrance of the eastern gate of the House of YHWH, with the kavod of the God of Israel above them.
Noting Ezekiel’s consistent use of this verb to describe either the kavod or the chariot rising from the ground, Shadal suggested that what Ezekiel 3:12 contains a scribal error. The original text must have read:
וַתִּשָּׂאֵנִי רוּחַ וָאֶשְׁמַע אַחֲרַי קוֹל רַעַשׁ גָּדוֹל בְּרוּם כְּבוֹד יְ־הוָה מִמְּקוֹמוֹ.
Then a spirit carried me away, and behind me I heard a great roaring sound as the Glory (kevod) of YHWH ascended from where it had been standing.
Shadal supported this suggestion with two further, mutually reinforcing observations. First, he noted that mem/kaf errors can be found in other places in the biblical text, and second that in the Hebrew alphabet used by the Samaritans, which he believed to be the original Hebrew script, the two letters look similar.
Leviticus scroll, 3rd c. B.C.E.
Siloam inscription, 8th c. B.C.E.
While Shadal was mistaken about the Samaritan script being the original Hebrew script, he was correct that in Paleo Hebrew script, the mem and kaf do, in fact, look much alike and are easily confused with each other. The error must, then have occurred very early on, when Paleo Hebrew writing was still standard. This is clear from the fact that the Greek Septuagint (LXX) follows the same textual tradition as the Masoretic Text here:
And a spirit lifted me up, and I heard behind me a sound of a great shaking, “Blessed is the glory of the Lord from his place.”
Following Shadal’s emendation, Ezekiel 3:12 does not actually contain a quote from angelic beings, and in that sense, the conceptual connection of this with Isaiah 6:3, which forms the core of the Kedushah, derives from a scribal error.
The Modern Critical Response to Shadal’s Conjectured Emendation
Although traditional commentaries on the Bible and the Siddur do not take Shadal’s suggestion into account, in the world of critical biblical scholarship it has been almost universally accepted since it was first proposed. This is surprising for two reasons. First, unattested emendations are rarely accepted universally. Second, it contravenes one of the basic principles of textual criticism: lectio difficilior preferenda est (“the more difficult reading is to be preferred”). Nevertheless, the argument speaks for itself. Indeed, Shadal’s emendation is so perfect that it has been called “one of the most brilliant conjectures ever made in OT [Old Testament = Tanakh] studies.”
Tradition Has a Life of Its Own
According to Shadal, the final four words of Ezekiel 3:12 are not meant to be a quote and the first of these words should not be read as barukh but as berum. If Shadal is correct, what is the average Jew reciting the Kedushah supposed to think? Should this verse be erased from the Siddur? While this might be the logical conclusion, I would argue, as Michael Fishbane has phrased it, “Between the scribal slip and the lip of praise, a great religious motif was formed.” Similarly, Rabbi Gunther Plaut (1912–2012) has written:
For the Jewish reader this possible restoration of the text has only academic value, since the accepted reading has become an important part of the liturgy.
In this case, as in so many others, the weight of centuries of tradition across the Jewish spectrum outweighs any recent scholarly insight. From the modern scholarly perspective, the angels may not have been singing ברוך כבוד ה' ממקומו, “blessed is the Glory of the LORD from His place,” but the Jewish community continues to do so, since this time-honored phrase expresses a deeply felt communal and spiritual need and has come to be a text with its own merits, regardless of its origin.
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Prof. Carl S. Ehrlich (Ph.D. Harvard ’91) is Professor of Humanities and Director of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. His Ph.D. is from Harvard. His most recent publications include the (co-)edited collections From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature and Purity, Holiness, and Identity in Judaism and Christianity: Essays in Memory of Susan Haber
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