Understanding Kedusha

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

One of the more famous, and according to many, most profound revelations of Yishayahu is the focus of the haftorah recited after Parshas Yisro. The revelation includes confusing imagery and convoluted messages, all implying that deep and fundamental ideas are being transmitted. In the beginning of this prophecy, in the midst of this obscure vision, one of the most famous verses describing God’s kedusha is introduced. In looking at this verse, we will see some important questions that, when answered, help clarify its prominence in tefilah. 

The revelation to the prophet Yishayahu is a very difficult one to understand at face value.  We see the following (Yishayahu 6:1-4):

“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and His train filled the temple.  Above Him stood the seraphim; each one had six wings: with twain he covered his face and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.  And one called unto another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.  And the posts of the door were moved at the voice of them that called, and the house was filled with smoke.”

While the declaration should be very familiar to us, as we recite it throughout tefilah, angelic prayers are not the norm. 

Let’s take a look at how it is worded in our tefilah. When the chazzan begins the recitation of Kedusha, he says the following:

“We shall sanctify Your Name in his world, just as they (angels) sanctify it in heaven above, as it is written by Your prophet, ‘And one called unto another and said, ‘Holy…”

We see in this statement that we are comparing our sanctification of God to that of the angels. How can we relate these two expressions of praise? 

The Rambam explains (both in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah and in the Moreh Nevuchim) how angels are in fact intelligences differentiated from all other created beings. Whereas humans have a soul “fixed” to a physical body, the angels are pure intelligences, not bound by the physical world. The consequence of this differentiation is the ability to perceive God. As humans, we are limited in our ability to understand God due to our physicality. However, angels do not have this type of impediment. As such, their knowledge of God is of a higher level than ours. While this demarcation is evident, there is one crucial idea that does unite the species of man with that of angels. We are both created beings – this means there is an inherent limitation in the knowledge of God we can have.  In other words, while it may be true that angels possess a higher quality of yediyas (knowledge of) Hashem, this does not mean they can have complete yediyas Hashem. In this sense, they are no different than mankind. Therefore, when we recite the Kedusha, we recognize this idea, noting how together we give praise to God - an acknowledgment of this common denominator.

Turning to the verse itself, we see an obvious problem. In the first part, kadosh is repeated three times. What is the need for this? There is an overall debate as to the rationale for this repetition. The most well-known of the interpretations comes from the Tirgum (recited in the tefilah of uva l’tzion :

“Holy in the most exalted heaven, the abode of His Presence, holy on earth, product of His strength, holy forever and ever is Hashem.”

One can see from this explanation that there are three distinct ideas of God’s kedusha – one as it pertains to the metaphysical world, one to the physical world, and the third….well, what exactly is the third referring to? Is this simply stating that God is separate from time? Or that God’s kedusha “lasts forever”?

In the first two descriptions of God’s kedusha, we see how God’s existence is unique and separate from both the metaphysical and physical world. However, it would insufficient to leave it at that. The very concept of existence, when describing creatures in both the above realms, includes an ending. In the case of the physical world, all that exists comes to a natural end, whether it is man, a star, or quite possibly the universe. And in the metaphysical realm, God has the means of terminating the existence of any non-physical entity (i.e., an angel) as He sees fit. So the potential of an end exists in the very term existence. However, God’s existence is qualitatively different, an essential existence. It is an existence without the concept of an end to it. Therefore, after understanding how God’s existence is different, we conclude by understanding how God is a different existence altogether.

There is another type of approach used to explain the three enunciations of kadosh. Rather than each one reflecting a different idea, it is the total of three that is the focus here.  The Gra as well as the Malbim write that with “just” two recitations of kadosh, one realizes how God is greater than something else with the same description (yoser mechavairo). What does this mean? An example they both give is comparing one king to another, where this king is more powerful than the other. However, when we describe God as king, we say “melech malchei hamelachim”. The same applies to kadosh. Saying kadosh twice merely means God is more kadosh than something else that possesses this trait. A third time means that God’s kedusha is distinct. 

This explanation is quite problematic. We are being told that with two expressions of kadosh, we would be stating that God’s kedusha is greater than anyone or anything else. Why is three any better? Is this merely a quantitative increase, and if so, why not four? Furthermore, how do we even understand the logic of this sequence of repetitions? The phrase “melech malchei hamelachim” certainly has a nice ring to it. But it makes absolutely no sense when trying to follow the rationale of these commentaries. When stating that a king is the greatest of all kings, one is comparing this unique king against all others. Yet this does not seem adequate when describing God. Instead, God is the greatest king of the greatest king of kings. How does this make sense? The same can be said by the seemingly superfluous kadosh. If God is the most sanctified of all things sanctified, what sense does it make to say that God is the most sanctified of the most sanctified of all things sanctified. It lacks any clear meaning.

It could be the answer lies in the correct way to view the description of God being the “most” of a particular description. To say that God is the greatest of all kings certainly implies a qualitative distinction to his kingship. Yet more is required. We must understand that the very idea of kingship itself, when directed to God, is of a completely different nature than our normal understanding of a king. It is not that He is the greatest of kings. It is that his kingship is of a completely different nature. The same can be said of his kedusha, that which separates God from everything. As a description, it extends beyond God as the “most” kadosh. The third enunciation tells us that the very idea of kadosh in reference to God is an exclusive one. It is unlike any concept of kadosh we normally understand. This could then be the reason for repeating kadosh three times. 

One common theme between these two explanations, as well as the inclusion of the recitation of the angels, is how the idea of God being kadosh is really an insight into how far removed we are from Him. When we approach God in tefilah, heaping praise and thanks to Him, we must always recognize that we are distant from Him. And this does not mean a quantitative distance. God is removed from us in a way that is insurmountable. Our definition as created beings means we can never truly have positive knowledge of God. It is a humbling thought, one that must be in our minds as we stand before God.