The Lord and The Shekhinah

The Shekhinah (also Shekhina or Shekina), means in Hebrew "Divine Manifestation," "Divine Presence," "Divine Power," "Glory," and "Grace." (Shekhinah is a feminine word in Hebrew.)  It is the Talmudic term for the visible and audible manifestation of Deity's presence on Earth. The Shekhinah is considered so large that She overshadows the world (i.e., is transcendent), but so small She can dwell in the Temple and in each aspect of creation (i.e., is immanent).

The Shekhinah first appears in the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Targum Onkelos (circa 1st to 4th century CE). In this Bible, wherever Deity is indicated to have acted directly with humanity, the Shekhinah is interpolated because Deity is considered an abstraction, and it is considered taboo to anthropomorphise Deity.

The Shekhinah is believed to have dwelled in the Temple, filling it with love. According to Rabbi Yehoshua, who lived at the end of the 1st century CE:

"[W]hile the Children of Israel were still in Egypt, the Holy One, blessed be He, stipulated that He would liberate them from Egypt only in order that they build Him a sanctuary so that He can let His Shekhinah dwell among them....As soon as the Tabernacle was erected, the Shekhinah descended and dwelt among them."

While the Shekhinah is believed to have lived in the First Temple, there is disagreement whether She ever graced the Second Temple. Shekhinah's presence was marked by the sound like the tinkling of a bell.

However, the sins of Israel caused the Shekhinah to go into exile into the desert or onto the Mount of Olives, reflecting that sin resulted in separation of the people from Deity, and separation of Shekhinah from the Lord. When the Hebrews were taken into captivity and exiled--to Babylonia, Egypt, and Rome--the Shekhinah is believed to have accompanied them all. This exile is considered to have been an exile of the Shekhinah from the Lord, as well as an exile of the people from their promised land.

The Shekhinah is believed to have shown Herself to people (including Adam and Moses) and to animals. Shekhinah comforts the sick, the sad, and the repentant. She embraces those who commit good deeds, even idolaters. She also dwells with the wise and with husband and wife in a loving marriage.

Having inherited the attributes of Hokhma, by the late Midrash literature, the Shekhinah was considered an independent feminine aspect of Deity. By the 3rd century CE, the Shekhinah was considered capable of opposing and influencing the Lord. Her compassionate nature compelled Her to argue with the Lord in defense of humanity. She was thought to have admonished the Lord not to practice retribution and to refrain from punishing Israel. Rabbi Aha said:

"The Holy Spirit comes to the defense [of sinful Israel by] saying first to Israel: 'Be not a witness against thy neighbor without a cause,' and thereafter saying to Yahweh: 'I will do to him as he hath done to me.'"

The Shekhinah is also thought to intervene at judgment after death. According to Midrash Mishle and Rabbi Hananel (died 1050 CE):

"When the Sanhedrin wanted to add King Solomon to ... [those] who had no share in the World to Come, Shekhinah rose up before the Holy One, blessed be He, and said: 'Master of the World! Seest Thou a man diligent? They want to count him among mean men!' In that hour, a divine voice was heard saying to them: 'Let him [Solomon] stand before kings, let him not stand before mean men!'"

Just as the Shekhinah represents divine love and mercy, She also represents just punishment. She is believed to have destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of its depravity, when not even one good person was found to dwell there. She is believed to have led the Hebrews through the Red Sea when fleeing captivity in Egypt, and to have drowned the pursuing Egyptians. It is believed that She will descend to fight in the battle between good and evil at the end of time.

In the Middle Ages, the mystical Jewish movement of the Kabbalah flowered. It was first evident in the 7th century CE, was in full force in the 13th century CE, and was eminently popular in the 16th and 17th centuries CE. The most important work in the Kabbalistic movement was the Zohar (Book of Splendor), written circa 1286 CE by Moses de Leon.

In the Kabbalistic doctrine of Deity, the feminine plays a significant role. The Kabbalah recognizes Shekhinah to be the feminine aspect of Deity, just as the Lord is considered the masculine aspect.

[Primary Source: R. Patai, The Hebrew Goddess (1990). See also C. Matthews, Sophia, Goddess of Wisdom (1991); T. Schipflinger, Sophia-Maria (1998); G. Scholem, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead (1991); G. Scholem, Kabbalah (1974); G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (1965).]