Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Yitro 5768/ January 26, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Holy, Holy, Holy—the Haftara of Mattan Torah


Prof. Yaakov Klein


Department of Hebrew Language and Department of Bible


One of the most important prayers in our prayer book is the Kedushah. [1]   This short but central prayer is recited at least four times a day:  twice in the Amidah, once in the morning prayers and once in the afternoon prayers. It is said before the blessing of attah kadosh (“Holy are You”) in the repetition of the shemoneh esreh by the cantor – known as the Kedushah d-amidah. In addition, Kedushah is included in the blessing of yotzer or (“who creates light”) before the reading of Shema – known as the Kedushah d-yeshivah; [2] and also in the prayer u-va le-Zion go’el (the Redeemer shall come to Zion) at the end of the morning service – known as the Kedushah de-sidra. [3]   On holidays and festivals, when an additional Amidah prayer is recited (Musaf), the Kedushah is recited five times in all, and on Sabbaths and the Day of Atonement, six times. [4]   Below, we shall investigate the sources and significance of this central prayer, which has gained such prestige and special sanctity in our tradition.

The Kedushah is comprised primarily of but two sentences:  “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of Hosts; His presence fills all the earth,” and “Blessed is the Presence of the Lord (Kevod Adonai), in His place.”   These two verses form the kernel of the Kedushah and are taken from the praises sung by the angels, heard in the visions by the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel (Is. 6:3; Ezek. 3:12).  The rest of the words in the Kedushah are only an outer wrapping; we encase the very core of this precious prayer in an emotional robe of spiritual elation and focused intent, such as it deserves. [5]

The origin of the first verse is from the vision that the prophet Isaiah beheld on the day he was sanctified, a passage read for the haftarah of this week’s Torah portion. [6]   In the Temple, the prophet saw the Lord revealed him, “seated on a high and lofty throne, and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple” (Isa. 6:1), [7] surrounded by Seraphs (Isa. 6:2) [8] praising their Maker in the following manner:  “And one would call to the other, ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of Hosts!  His presence fills all the earth’’ (Isa. 6:3).

According to the tradition of the Sages, the Seraphs sang these words in unison. [9]   However, according to the plain sense of Scripture, the Seraphs would praise the Lord in a chorus, one group singing His praises, then another responding, repeating the same words. [10]   What did this singing signify?   In their song, the angels expressed two theological tenets:  one, that the Lord is the absolute embodiment of holiness, and hence the source of all sanctity in the world.  The threefold repetition of the adjective “holy” has been interpreted variously in our tradition, [11] but by the plain sense of the text it was to emphasize that the Lord’s holiness is absolute, eternal, and infinite. [12]   Here is not the place to go into a thorough discussion of the concept of holiness in the Bible.   When G-d Himself is at issue, the concept of sanctity expresses the sublime awe that attaches to Him, He being set apart from any material thing, far from human beings and ruling over them in ways beyond our comprehension. [13]   Therefore, the holiness of G-d has two aspects:  on the one hand, being set apart, and on the other, being lofty and awesome.   Not only is the Lord holy; holiness also pertains to all that has been set apart and dedicated to Him and to His worship, including the Temple, Jerusalem, and the people of Israel. [14]

The second theological tenet is that the Presence (kavod, lit. honor) of the Lord fills all the earth. [15]   Generally the phrase “presence of the Lord” in Scripture expresses the honor and greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, as revealed in the world through Nature which He created, [16] through the miracles He wrought, and through His continued hand in history. [17]   Indeed, human beings are commanded to acknowledge the honor due the Lord and to express this acknowledgment in various ways, such as offering sacrifices, praying, singing the Lord’s praises, giving thanks, and the like. [18]   In several places in Scripture, however, the expression Presence of the Lord is none other than a refined and indirect way of referring to the Lord Himself, [19] and perhaps it is that way in the expression “the Presence of the Lord fills all the earth”:  the Lord Himself fills all the earth, i.e., He is everywhere, and He is the vital force that sets in motion all that we are capable of perceiving with our senses and our intellect. [20]

The second principal verse of the Kedushah comes from the vision of the divine chariot beheld by Ezekiel on the day he was sanctified to become a prophet.  After he described his vision and the chariot disappeared, the prophet said (3:12):   “then a spirit carried me away, and behind me I heard a great roaring sound:  ‘Blessed is the Presence of the Lord, in His place.’”

Scripture does not say explicitly who uttered these words, but according to the Sages, this blessing was said by an angel (or angels). [21]   The “Presence of the Lord” as used by Ezekiel undoubtedly is a subtle way of referring to G-d Himself, [22] therefore we should understand the text as if it said:   Blessed is the Lord in His place.   The difficulty in comprehending this blessing lies in the meaning of the expression “in his place.”   A variety of views have been put forward.  The Sages interpreted this as referring to every place where He is to be found, for He is concealed and His place is not known. [23]   Another interpretation is that after the Temple was destroyed and the Divine Presence had departed from it, the Divine Presence dwelled wherever the Lord revealed Himself, even in the Diaspora, by the Chebar Canal. [24]   Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency interpreted:  in His place – this means from the place where the Presence of the Lord rested, and it is an adverbial form describing the expression, “behind me I heard.” [25]

We noted that in Isaiah’s vision the angels (Seraphs) were standing around the Holy One, blessed be He, singing to him in a chorus:   “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of Hosts; His presence fills all the earth.” In Ezekiel’s vision, the angels (sacred creatures) were standing and singing:  “Blessed is the Presence of the Lord, in His place.”   The Sages juxtaposed these two visions by means of connective words which we still recite in the Kedushah (le-umatam--“towards them they exclaim, Blessed”), thus composing a “dramatic scene of contrapuntal song of choruses of angels.” [26]   In this way they created this precious and important prayer, the Kedushah, which we say repeatedly. [27]   The more it is recited, the more dear it becomes, so that when we say it we reach the high point of spiritual elation in our prayers.  The Kedushah became so beloved of the people, that mystics said in one midrash attributed to Rabbi Akiva that the angels do not utter the word “Holy” in heaven until Israel says the “Kedushah” on earth.  We quote that midrash:

v-m-r-- do not read vmr, but rather ve-amar (= and they said). [28]   What does this mean, “and they said”?   It is the flaming Seraphs, the Host of Angels, and the Guards of [His] abode, who cannot say “Holy” on high until Israel first open their mouths to recite the Kedushah down below and exclaim the thrice-repeated “Holy, holy, holy.”  Only then do the ministering angels make their blessing, as it is said:  “When the morning stars sang together and all the divine beings shouted for joy” (Job 38:7); the morning stars are Israel, who have been likened to stars… whence do we know that ve-amar refers to none other than the ministering angels?   For it says, “And one would call to the other saying (ve-amar) …” (Isa. 6:3). [29]


[1] On the history of the Kedushah and its formulations, see Ismar Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History, trans. R.P. Scheindlin, Philadelphia-New York-Jerusalem: JPS- JTSA, 1993, 9a, “The Kedusha,” pp. 54-62.   The present article is based to a large extent on the above study.  The quotes from Rashi and other commentators come from Mikraot Gedolot HaKeter, Isaiah, Ramat Gan, 1996; Ezekiel, 2000.

[2] This Kedushah is recited as a polemic against those who maintain that the heavenly bodies are autonomous and shine of their own accord, not being subject to the dominion of the Creator or functioning by His command.

[3] This Kedushah was instituted on weekdays so that those who came late to synagogue would not miss the public recitation of the Kedushah.

[4] On the Sabbath the Kedushah de-sidra is recited once more as the Sabbath goes out in order to delay the return of the wicked to the underworld.   On the Day of Atonement, a sixth Kedushah d-Amidah is added in the Ne’ilah service.

[5] The principal additions to this prayer are:  the verse from Psalms 146:10, “The Lord shall reign (yimlokh) forever, your G-d, O Zion, for all generations.   Hallelujah,” which concludes the Kedushah of the morning service, and the verse from Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel!  The Lord is our G-d, the Lord alone,” which is added to the Kedushah in Musaf.   All the other additions are introductory words in which we express our sincere intent in the recitation of this prayer, namely to sanctify the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, on earth just as the angels sanctify His name in heaven (“We shall extol You and sanctify You, as the holy seraphs do in their mystic words,” the Sephardic ritual, which is the original formulation, and “We shall sanctify Your name in the world as it is sanctified in the heavens on high,”the Ashkenazi version, a later formulation).  In the Musaf service on the Day of Atonement the Kedushah has a longer introductory prayer than on all other days, namely the prayer Netaneh Tokef, which draws a connection between the sanctity of the day and the importance of the Kedushah.   In the Kedushah de-sidra we recite the core verses of the Kedushah (Isa. 6:3, Ezek. 3:12) with their Aramaic translation/interpretation.  For a detailed discussion of the various formulae of the Kedushah, see Elbogen, loc. sit.  Elbogen notes that the ancient core of the Kedushah, the biblical verses, was preserved without variation; the introductory and connective material, however, developed many variations over the years. 

[6] Two themes relate Isaiah’s vision to Parashat Yitro.   One is the idea of Revelation:   just as the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, in fire and smoke, and sanctified them, making them his special people (Ex. 19-29), so the Lord reveals Himself in smoke to Isaiah and sanctified him, making him a prophet.  The other is the concept of sanctity:  in this week’s reading the Israelites undertake to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6), while Isaiah’s vision strongly contrasts the eternal and absolute sanctity of the Holy One, blessed be He, with the uncleanness into   which the people and have sunken, having betrayed their destiny (Isa. 6:5)  so that they no longer merit being in a state of sanctity (see Y. Jacobson, Hazon ha-Mikra I, 1962, pp. 184-186).

[7] This refers to the edges of the robe on the figure that the prophet saw in his vision, and some say it refers to the edges of the throne on which the Holy One, blessed be He, was seated, as it were.   In any event, it seems that the figure of the Lord in the prophet’s vision was not sitting in the Temple itself, rather in heaven (see Rashi on this verse, where he follows Targum Jonathan; also see the enlightening discussion by Yair Hoffmann, on “Ha-Mar’eh ba-Heikhal,” in Olam ha-Tanakh, p. 46).

[8] According to the generally accepted interpretation, the Seraphs were angels of fire who would consume (Heb. soref =burn) all that came close to them (Radak and others).  R. Eliezer of Beaugency in his commentary on Ezekiel says that they were angels in the form of flying snakes called seraphs (see Num. 21:6-9).

[9] Rashi (following the Sages and the Targum) interprets “and one would call to the other” as follows:  “[the Seraphs would consult one another, so that one of them would not begin ahead of the other and then have to be burned, unless they all began in unison.”   As supporting evidence Rashi cites the introductory formulation of the Kedushah in the blessing Yotzer Or:   “… and they all take upon themselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven one from the other, and give leave one unto the other to declare the holiness of their Creator:   in tranquil joy of spirit, with pure speech and holy melody they all respond in unison, and exclaim with awe:   ‘Holy, holy, holy…’”

[10] See Amos Hakham’s commentary on Isaiah, Da’at Mikra, p. 67.

[11] Targum Jonathan, following the Sages, gives individual significance to each iteration of “holy”:  holy in the heavens, His abode; holy on the earth, His great work; holy forever and to all eternity.  A similar interpretation is given by Radak:  “‘Holy’ is said three times, for each of three worlds:  the upper world, which is the world of the angels and souls; the middle world, which is the world of the spheres and stars; and the lower world, which is this world.”

[12] This was noted by R. Joseph Kaspi:  Holy, holy, holy – these three are titles of the Holy One, blessed be He.”   R. Eliezer of Beaugency interpreted:  Holy, holy – this is like ‘strictly to the highway’ (Heb. ba-derekh ba-derekh; Deut. 2:27), or, ‘higher and higher (ma’ala ma’ala),’ ‘lower and lower’ (matta matta) [Deut. 28:43], and the like, the repetition being no more than an emphatic form, indicating that it is exactly thus and none other; so, too, here:  He is surely holy.”

[13] A similar definition is given by Radak, citing the Kuzari:   Kadosh is a name, for He is too holy and lofty for any attribute of form to be appropriate to Him, and if He should be called by any such name, it is only metaphorically.”

[14] See Y. S. Licht, “Kodesh, kadosh, kedushah,” Encyclopedia Mikra’it 7, 1976, p. 44.

[15] This motif also appears in Ps. 72:19.

[16] Cf., for example, “The heavens declare the glory of G-d (kevod El), the sky proclaims His handiwork” (Ps. 19:2).

[17] Cf., for example, Ps. 96:3; 97:6.

[18] See I. Heinemann, “Kevod Ha-Shem,” Encyclopedia Mikra’it 4, 1963, pp. 4-6.

[19] Several passages in Scripture describe the Lord revealing Himself inside a cloud, and there Scripture uses the expression, “Presence of the Lord,” as in, “they turned toward the wilderness, and there, in a cloud, appeared the Presence of the Lord” (Ex. 16:10); or, “the Presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days” (Ex. 24:16; I Kings 8:11).   Sometimes the Lord is revealed in fire:  “Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on top of the mountain” (Ex. 24:17).

[20] My definition here is not meant to refer to pantheism, which is a philosophical system akin to atheism, and which denies the deity any “personality” and independence.  On the difference between pantheism and Jewish belief, see I. Epstein, Emunat ha-Yahadut le-Or Ba’ayot Yameinu, 1961, pp. 84-69; as well as the enlightening article of Y. Ben-Shlomo, “Be’ayat ha-Pantheism be-Mystica Te’istit,” in Hitgalut- Emunah- Tevunah, ed. M. Halamish and M. Schwarz, 1976, pp. 86-71.  (These sources were called to my attention by my wife, Ahuvah.)

[21] A similar interpretation is given by R. Isaiah Mitrani:   “The creatures would sing praises, exclaiming:  Blessed is the name of the Presence of the Lord in His place.”

[22] This expression is used by the prophet no fewer than 15 times; it is first used in his vision of sanctification, at the climactic point (Ezek. 1:28):   “Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance.  That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the Lord” (see the discussion in G.Brinn, Ezekiel, Olam ha-Mikra, p. 25, commentary on verse 18).

[23] See Hagigah 13b:  Blessed is the Presence of the Lord in His place – from which we learn that no one knows His place.”  R. Joseph Kara interprets similarly.

[24] See M. Buber, Darko shel Mikra, 1964, pp. 335-336.

[25] In his opinion this blessing should be seen as taking leave of the Divine Presence when it departs.  R. Menahem ben Shimon, a medieval commentator found in the HaKeter Ezekiel, gives a similar interpretation but qualifies his remarks, saying that one should not imagine that the Lord reduced Himself to a single place on the Chebar Canal, for “we know that the Creator is in all the world, and that He has no place because He Himself is all places, as the Sages said:  He is the Omnipresent of the world, and His place is not [confined in] His world; Ezekiel only said this metaphorically.”

[26] See I. M. Elbogen, loc. sit.

[27] It is impossible to know when this prayer was composed and where it was first incorporated into the liturgy.  The most ancient source in which the Kedushah is mentioned is Tosefta Berakhot 1.9.

[28]  This is not a biblical word (v-m-r) but a combination of letters which the midrash reads as a word.

[29] J. D. Eisenstein, Ozar Midrashim, 1915, Midrash Alpha Beta de-Rabbi Akiva, pp. 429-430;  S. Wertheimer, Batei Midrashot, 1950-1953, Part II, Otiyyot de-Rebbi Akiva, s.v. v-m-r.