The Future World as a Universal Temple
One of the highlights of the High Holiday mussaf service is the recitation of Aleinu. It was apparently composed in late antiquity as the opening of the Malchiyot section of the Rosh Hashana mussaf. In medieval France it became part of the daily liturgy, and only during the seventeenth century was it chosen to close each daily prayer service in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi rites.
The theological program of Aleinu is noteworthy in a number of respects. In a different essay, I discussed both its universal vision of the divine, and the prayer’s connections to the Shema. In this essay, I would like to consider Aleinu’s idea of God’s heavenly presence coming down to the world.
God beyond the Temple in Isaiah 66
In the final chapter of the book of Isaiah (66:1-2), the prophet begins his attack on Judeans who prefer ritual to righteousness with a critique of the utility of the Temple itself:
א כֹּה אָמַר יי:
וְהָאָרֶץ הֲדֹם רַגְלָי;
ב אֵי-זֶה בַיִת אֲשֶׁר תִּבְנוּ-לִי,
וְאֵי-זֶה מָקוֹם מְנוּחָתִי.
1 Thus said the LORD:
The heaven is My throne
And the earth is My footstool.
2 Where could you build a house for Me?
What place could serve as My abode?
This verse challenges the priestly concept that God’s presence resides only in the Temple. It envisions the earth as God’s footstool, and emphasizes that no building or place could possibly contain God. It is likely that the author of Aleinu shared this vision with the prophet; the image of God in the heavens with feet on the earth resonates with Aleinu’s focus on the manifestation of God’s heavenly might on earth.
The Shekhinah in the Heaven
Aleinu’s vision of a heavenly God on earth is expressed in a unique phrase that appears in the prayer’s first paragraph, in its description of God as seated in the heavens:
וּמושַׁב יְקָרוֹ בַּשָּמַיִם מִמַּעַל
וּשְׁכִינַת עֻזּו בְּגָבְהֵי מְרוֹמִים
Whose dwelling of glory is in the heavens above
And whose manifestation of might (shekhinat uzo)
is in the supernal heights.
It is striking to see shekhinah used this way particularly in reference to God’s presence in the heavens. As a verb, the Bible uses the verbal root ש-כ-ן , “to dwell,” to indicate God’s presence on earth. Some examples include:
וַיִּשְׁכֹּ֤ן כְּבוֹד יְ-הֹוָה֙ עַל הַ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַיְכַסֵּ֥הוּ הֶֽעָנָ֖ן שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים:
The Presence of Yhwh abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days (Exod 24:16).
וְלֹא יָכֹ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה לָבוֹא֙ אֶל אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד כִּֽי שָׁכַ֥ן עָלָ֖יו הֶעָנָ֑ן וּכְב֣וֹד יְ-הֹוָ֔ה מָלֵ֖א אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּֽן:
Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of Yhwh filled the Tabernacle (Exod 40:35).
וְלֹ֧א תְטַמֵּ֣א אֶת הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתֶּם֙ יֹשְׁבִ֣ים בָּ֔הּ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲנִ֖י שֹׁכֵ֣ן בְּתוֹכָ֑הּ
You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I Yhwh abide among the Israelite people (Num 35:34).
וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם שֹׁכֵ֖ן בְּצִיּ֣וֹן הַר־קָדְשִׁ֑י
And you shall know that I Yhwh your God Dwell in Zion, My holy mount (Joel 4:17).
In rabbinic literature the noun shekhinah, (divine) manifestation, is used similarly, to express God’s immanence, that is, His presence on earth.
Why does Aleinu use the word shekhinah in such an unusual way to specifically express divine transcendence? This is especially troubling since there are so many straightforward biblical and rabbinic expressions available that could be used to describe God residing in heaven.
We can appreciate the genius of the coinage “whose manifestation of might (shekhinat uzo) is in the supernal heights,” since this phrase creates an expectation of closeness (immanence) only to revert to distance (transcendence). The expectation is also advanced by the previous line in Aleinu that declares:
שֶׁהוּא נוֹטֶה שָׁמַיִם וְיוֹסֵד אָרֶץ
God spans the heavens and founds the earth.
We would have expected the double expression that follows to mirror it, dealing first with heaven and then with earth. Instead, our next line provides two descriptions of heaven,
וּמוֹשַׁב יְקָרו בַּשָּמַיִם מִמַּעַל
וּשְׁכִינַת עֻזּו בְּגָבְהֵי מְרוֹמִים
Whose dwelling of glory is in the heavens above
and whose manifestation of might is in the supernal heights
Now we find that the second part is surprisingly located even higher, in the supernal heavens. Instead of immanence, we have further transcendence.
The Movement of God from Heaven to Earth: From שְׁכִינַת עֻזּוֹ to תִפְאֶרֶת עֻזֶּךָ
The second paragraph of Aleinu, although never discussing where God will be seated, does use imagery that focuses on an earthly kingdom accepting God’s kingship. One expression is particularly revealing:
עַל כֵּן נְקַוֶּה לְּךָ יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ:
לִרְאוֹת מְהֵרָה בְּתִפְאֶרֶת עֻזֶּךָ.
Therefore we put our hope in You, A-donai our God:
To see soon the radiance of Your might;
The phrase, “the radiance of Your might (תִפְאֶרֶת עֻזֶּךָ)” recalls the expression in the above-quoted phrase, “the manifestation of His might (שְׁכִינַת עֻזּוֹ).” Both terms are in the construct form, calling our attention to their connection.
Here, however, in contrast to “the manifestation of His might (שְׁכִינַת עֻזּוֹ),” the “radiance of God’s might” can be seen by the dwellers on earth and is associated with the new order of recognizing that “He is our God, there is no other.”
לְפָנֶיךָ יְי אֱ־לֹהֵינוּ יִכְרְעוּ וְיִפֹּלוּ וְלִכְבוֹד שִׁמְךָ יְקָר יִתֵּנוּ.
Before You, A-donai our God, they will bend and kneel, thereby rendering glory to the honor of Your name.
וִיקַבְּלוּ כֻלָּם אֶת עֹל מַלְכוּתֶךָ
וְתִמְלֹךְ עֲלֵיהֶם מְהֵרָה לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד.
And they all will accept the yoke of Your kingship
so that You will reign over them soon and forever.
The transition from שְׁכִינַת עֻזּו in the heavens to תִפְאֶרֶת עֻזֶּךָ implies that the shekhinah (“divine manifestation”) of the supernal heavens is now to be radiated on earth, thereby making the God of creation acknowledged by all.
The Implications of תפארת עזך
As it turns out, the implied meaning of the coinage תִפְאֶרֶת עֻזֶּךָ in Aleinu is the key to understanding the presence of שְׁכִינַת עֻזּו.
The words תפארת and עז often, though not exclusively, appear in Temple related contexts.
- The word תפארת appears with עז in Psa. 78:61 and 96:6 with reference to the Temple.
- עז appears alone in Psa. 132:8 with reference to the ark.
- 60:6, 63:15, 64:9 also associates תפארת with the Temple.
This may be its primary usage in the biblical text, but the phrase is not always connected with the Temple. The Dead Sea Scrolls (11Q5 = 11QPsa 18 1) and Sefer Ha–Razim, for instance, use תפארת עוזו without reference to the Temple.
What is the implied meaning of תפארת עוז in Aleinu? In this case, I believe the character of the phrase, as one with Temple associations but not absolutely referring to the Temple, is the key to understanding its utility here. The phrase alludes to the Temple, and, in the present context suggests the idea of the whole world as a Temple wherein all worship God.
The World as Temple
The idea of the world as a temple is found at the end of Exodus, in the account of the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. Through its usage of certain key terms and turns of phrase, the construction of the Tabernacle is meant to have resonance with God’s “construction” of the world in the beginning of Genesis 1-2:4a. The implied homology between the two is further developed by Philo and the Midrash, who envision the whole universe as one macrocosmic temple. This is implied by the Psalmist’s parallelism:
עח:סט וַיִּ֣בֶן כְּמוֹ־רָ֭מִים מִקְדָּשׁ֑וֹ
כְּ֝אֶ֗רֶץ יְסָדָ֥הּ לְעוֹלָֽם:
78:69 He built His sanctuary like the heavens,
Like the earth that He established forever.
Thus, by reverse engineering, the world can become the Temple.
The World-Temple link follows the conceptual shift of the Isaiah passage quoted above. While other biblical sources identified God’s footstool with the Temple (Lam 2:1; Ps 132:7) or the ark (1 Chron 28:2), Isaiah identified it with the world.
God’s Kavod Fills the Tabernacle; God’s Kavod Fills the World
The dichotomy concerning God’s presence on the earth or the heavens is also reflected in texts that state where God’s kavod resides. The Torah states: “The kavod (“presence”) of God filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34), whereas according to Psalms: “His kavod fills the whole world” (72:19). Which is it, tabernacle or world?
Midrash Esther Rabbah (1.4) resolves the apparent contradiction by distinguishing present reality from future reality,
ר’ כהן אחוה דר’ חייא בר אבא אמר כשם שהשכינה מצויה מהיכל לירושלם, כך תהיה השכינה ממלאה מסוף העולם ועד סופו, הה”ד וימלא כבודו את כל הארץ אמן ואמן.
Rabbi Kohen, brother of Rabbi Chiyah bar Abba said: Just as the Shekhinah is found in the Temple in Jerusalem so the Shekhinah will fill the world from one end to the other, and this is what [scripture] means when it says (Ps 72:19): ‘And his kavod will fill the entire world, amen and amen.’”
Replacing the biblical kavod by its Rabbinic equivalent, shekhinah, Rabbi Kohen describes God’s presence filling the world, just as we find in the second paragraph of Aleinu.
The Physical Expansion of the Temple and Jerusalem: An Inverse Concept
In a related move to bridge the gap between world and Temple, some rabbinic texts envision the earthly Temple expanding across the world on a horizontal axis, just as they imagined Jerusalem and Israel, located at the center of the world, expanding at the End of Days in all four directions, encompassing all the earth.
Songs Rab. 7
עתידה ירושלים להתרחב ולעלות ולהיות מגעת עד כסא הכבוד עד שתאמר צר לי המקום.
In the future Jerusalem will expand in its width and height and reach God’s very throne, until it says, “the space is too narrow for me.”
Sifrei Deut. 1
…מניין שעתידה ירושלם להיות מגעת עד דמשק… שעתידה ארץ ישראל להיות מרחבת ועולה מכל צדדיה…
…How do you know that in the future Jerusalem will reach Damascus…. In the future the land of Israel will be expanded and grow on every side.
Peskita Rabbati 1
א”ר לוי עתידה ירושלים להיות כארץ ישראל וארץ ישראל ככל העולם כולו.
Rabbi Levi said: “In the future, Jerusalem will become [as large as] the land of Israel, and the land of Israel will become [as large as] the entire world.”
This concept inverts the conception in Aleinu, but leads to the same basic idea. In the future, the world will be entirely devoted to God, whether because God brings His Divine presence down to earth (=Aleinu) or because Jerusalem, God’s land, will expand physically until it takes up all of human inhabited space.
Access to the temple-world is achieved by mentally conceiving of the world as God’s Temple and verbally making God’s presence palpable. As once God’s presence permeated the tabernacle so, tells us the Aleinu, is it destined to be perceived throughout the world.
Blessings as a Way of Making the World into God’s Temple
Not only does this idea inform the grand image in the second paragraph of Aleinu of God’s radiance on earth bringing all the people of the world together, but it also informs the Rabbinic theology of the more “mundane” or standard blessing formulary, which the rabbis make use of for virtually all their blessings: “Blessed are You, the Lord our God, Sovereign of the world (ברוך אתה ה’ א-להינו מלך העולם).”
According to the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 35a), the verse, “the earth and all its fullness is the Lord’s” (Psa. 24:1), could theoretically render the enjoyment of the earth’s bounty off limits except in the Temple. By acknowledging God’s authority everywhere through affirming God as “sovereign of the world” the blessing makes God’s bounty available to all, as it says: “the earth is given over to humanity” (Ps. 115:16).
The world as God’s Temple (“the earth and all its fullness is the Lord’s”) is made accessible to humanity (“the earth is given over to humanity”) through the blessing. The result is the world as sanctuary where God, in the words of Jeremiah, “fills both heaven and earth” (23:24). The goal is to expand the precincts of the Temple to allow one to experience God wherever the person may be.
The blessing resolves the tension between the mundanity of the world and the conception of the world as God’s Temple by expanding God’s presence throughout space. Through blessings, the presence of God once concentrated in the tabernacle is made palpable throughout the world by extending the focus from ה’ א-להינו, “the Lord our God,” to מלך העולם, “sovereign of the world.”
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September 21, 2015
April 2, 2020
Professor Rabbi Reuven Kimelman is Professor of Classical Judaica at Brandeis University. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in religious studies. He is the author of The Mystical Meaning of ‘Lekhah Dodi’ and Kabbalat Shabbat’ and The Rhetoric of Jewish Prayer: A Historical and Literary Study of the Prayer Book. His audio course books are The Hidden Poetry of the Jewish Prayer Book and The Moral Meaning of the Bible.
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