The Kedusha: The Unity of Judaism and the Universe


Moshe Ben-Chaim




“Let us sanctify Your name in the world, just as the they sanctify it in the heavens on high, as it is written by the hands of your prophets, ‘And they called one to the other and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord of hosts the whole land is filled with your honor[1]’. Those facing each other said blessed, ‘Blessed is the honor of God from His place.’ And in Your holy words it is written saying, ‘God shall reign forever, your God of Zion, from generation to generation, praised is God’.” (Shmoneh Essray of the daily prayers; chazzan’s repetition)


What is the unique message of the Kedusha? That which is often repeated, seizes our attention least: precisely the fault of its familiarity. Our attention is normally aroused towards that which is novel and new. However, we must rethink whether this is proper, or if in fact, this counter-intuitive thinking should not remain self-guided. The Rabbis would not have instituted a four-times-daily recitation of that which is not crucial to Jewish thought. Although quite brief, the Kedusha contains ideas central to Jewish life.


Kedusha is recited three times in the morning prayers: once in after Borachu in the Yotzare Or blessing; once in Shmoneh Essray (if there are ten men) and once in Uva L’Tzion just prior to Alenu. We recite the Kedusha once again in the afternoon prayers in the Shmoneh Essray when ten men are present. (I only assume it is not part of evening prayers, since at their inception, evening prayers were not obligatory, although today all Jews treat them as obligatory.) But let us first understand the text of this Kedusha.


“Let us sanctify Your name in the world, just as the they sanctify it in the heavens on high, as it is written by the hands of your prophets.”

It is clear that we are ‘mimicking the angels’. This paralleled by our standing throughout the day on Yom Kippur, when again we desire to elevate our actions as high as possible. (Angels are said not to have knee joints, and thus, can only “stand” with no sitting. But this too is allegorical, as angels are not physical bodies.) Hence, mimicking angels demonstrates our wish to achieve the height of human perfection, both in ideas and actions. Now, since the angels “praise” God, we mimic their perfection of expression by repeating their words. Certainly, as God included the words of the angels in man’s Torah, “written by the hands of your prophets” we thereby derive proof that this is in fact God’s will: that we know what the angels “say”[2]. We must not overlook a central idea mentioned by a wise Rabbi: even the angels can only praise God’s “name”, but not God Himself: “Let us sanctify Your name in the world.” This means that nothing, not even angels, praise the true idea of what God is[3]. Certainly, man has no positive knowledge of God. Thus, praising the “name” of God means praising our “reference” of God, and not God Himself, since nothing knows His essence, but He alone.




“And they called one to the other”

What is this idea that they “called to each other”? Rashi states that if an angel would praise God independently, preceding the other angels, that angel would be “consumed by fire”. Of course, since angels are not physical, fire is a metaphor that the “angel would require destruction”, or better, it “deviated from its objective.” But we also know that angels are not human, and therefore have no “free will” to deviate from their course and design established by God. Thereby, Rashi states that no angel can ever deviate, and no angel would be destroyed for violating God’s will, as they cannot: they have no free will. Nonetheless, angels do “praise” God. Their “praises” are perfect, and we use them since our formulated praises of God would be lacking.


We do not know precisely what angels are, however, whatever information the Torah offers us is accurate, and if we perceive something clearly, we can discuss it, unless it belongs to the topic of Creation or the Divine Chariot, which must not be taught except one scholar to another, and even then, only by way of hints regarding the head categories. We do not violate this prohibition by discussing ideas, which King David stated in Psalm 104. And appropriately timed, King David’s Psalm, which we read this week on account of Rosh Chodesh, discusses angels. King David states, “He makes His angels the winds, His ministers, flaming fires (104:4).” Angels, then, may be understood as natural laws; things that govern the physical world, i.e., laws of wind and fire. The fact that King David states, “He ‘makes’ His angels wind”, and not, “His angels ARE wind” teaches that the elements of wind and fire are not themselves angels, but may be appointed at times as His angels or messengers. This appellation of “angel” or agent would depend on whether God desires wind, fire or any element to act in an altered manner to achieve His will. An example was when God suspended the effects of fire on Chananya, Mishael and Azarya when thrown into the furnace, and escaped unscathed. Here, fire was God’s angel or ‘agent’ in achieving Hs objective. Similarly, the Talmud states, “Each blade of grass has an angel that says 'grow'.” There are many cases of angels. We cannot do justice with few words, nor do I possess that understanding. But suffice to say that angels are created things, and in some fashion, offer perfected praise to God. How angels “praise” God is yet to be explained.


Psalm 104, referred to by its opening words “Borchi Nafshi” (“My soul will praise…”) is recited on Rosh Chodesh, and for good reason. Rosh Chodesh, the New Month, manifests the completion and renewal of God’s lunar and solar laws, which He established during creation. As such, creation becomes the theme of Rosh Chodesh. This is further seen when Rosh Chodesh and Sabbath coincide: the special “Atah Yatzarta” prayer (“You have created Your world from time immemorial”) replaces the regular Sabbath Musaf. This special prayer was coined to emphasize the dual aspects of physical creation embodied in the Sabbath, and its governing, cyclical natural laws, embodied in the New Moon. God created two things: 1) physical matter and 2) the laws governing that matter. Perhaps this explains Genesis that says that the Earth was “unformed and void”, and only afterwards, all creation manifested itself at God’s will. First, raw matter (“hyle” see Ramban) existed at God’s word, and then matter took form. Then formation of matter was due to God’s secondary will that matter possess self-governing laws.


The Borchi Nafshi also encompasses all of creation. King David describes the creation of light, the heavens, earth, oceans, their guiding laws, rivers, mountains, animals, man, the purpose of the seasons and times, our satisfaction in food, God’s wisdom, and His Earthly providence. Explaining angels as natural laws, we also understand why King David cites angels in the beginning verses of Borchi Nafshi: all else (the physical world) cannot exist without angels (laws) governing each element’s properties and interactions with other creations. Therefore, angels, or natural laws must be created during the initial phases of Creation. King David not only enumerates all in creation, but he does so in the order that each was created.


Note that King David concludes Borchi Nafshi with words “May the glory of God endure forever”, similar to the Kedusha’s conclusion. But we do see that angels are mentioned as part of creation, which King David praises in Borchi Nafshi. Although we have digressed, Borchi Nafshi does underscore our theme.


Returning to the angels, or natural laws, why must they “praise” God in unison, with no individual angel preceding another? Perhaps this idea is that anything created by God, has a purpose: the pronouncement of God’s existence and majesty. Perhaps, there can be no other reason that God would have produced physical entities bearing His wisdom, other than to attest to His role as Creator. We may then say that “angels praise God unanimously”, meaning, all of creation, including angels (natural laws) attest to the greatness of the Creator. All we see – be they objects, or laws governing those objects – have as their singular goal, the display of God’s wisdom. In a manner of speaking, creation “praises” God at all times, or “unanimously”. Perhaps for this reason, King David commences his Borchi Nafshi with those very words, “My soul praises God.” As King David sees this act of praising God to be God’s will, he conforms to the objective of creation by praising God himself.


We now understand one meaning of “angels praising God”. This means that the forces of nature[4] – the operation of the universe from the giant spheres to tiny ants – all reveal God’s infinite wisdom. Creation is then “praising God”. Similarly King David stated in his Psalm 148, “Praise Him sun and moon, praise Him all stars of light.” Inanimate objects as these magnificent, heavenly spheres, have no ability to conceptualize or verbalize. Therefore, the notion described by King David that these spheres “praise God” means their existence is a testimony to God’s greatness, “as if” they praise God. So too we read in the Iyun Tfila explaining the words in the morning prayers: “And they (angels) all open their mouths: This is stated in human terms.” Iyun Tfila states quite clearly that angels are not capable of “utterances”, but it is “as if” they offer praises to God when man witnesses the precision and orchestration of the universe’s laws. He also says, “angels are forces with no bodies”. This describes natural law. He further explains the words angels “standing” as “prepared” to do God’s will. Now, returning to the Kedusha, what did the angels say?





Text of the Kedusha


Principle I: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord of hosts, the whole land is filled with Your honor”[5]

The word holy properly translated means “distinct” or “separated”. Similar, of a person makes his cow “holy” for the Temple, he “distinguishes” it for Temple service, exclusive to all other uses. God is the one who is most distinct, and to whom the description “holy” is most befitting: He is far above everything. How can we elaborate on this idea? How may we cover all of creation, stating that God is above “all”?


Radak offers two views for the threefold praise of “holy”. We can state that God is distinct from the three categories of creation: 1) the world of souls and angels, 2) from the heavens, and 3) from Earth. These are the three worlds created by God, and why the angels said, “holy, holy, holy” or, “distinct, distinct, distinct”. This is Radak’s view. But Radak also records the view of the Targum and the Kuzari who say that God is, 1) distinct from the metaphysical world “where” He dwells, 2) God is distinct from the physical world, where He performs His might, and 3) He is distinct eternally. (Recall that King David too concluded Borchi Nafshi with this idea of “eternal” grandeur.)


This second view of the Targum and the Kuzari is the path I will take in explaining the Kedusha. To reiterate, the praises of the angels which we mimic, are that God is distinct from both parts of creation; from the metaphysical world, from the physical, and that His greatness is eternal.



Principle II:Blessed is the honor of God from His place”

Now, although we praise God based on what is perceived, we must counter any false understanding that we have perceived God Himself. We state that He is distinct “from His place”. We are again mimicking the angel’s words (Ezekiel 3:12), “Blessed is the honor of God from His place.” This means that God is unknowable. Of course, God has no “place” just as an idea takes up to space. We mean that God is to be praised, “whatever He is”, or “from His unknowable place”. God killed many Jews for violating the idea that He is unknowable. They include the 57,000 Jews who looked inside the Ark when returned by the Philistines, as well as Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu, who sought to worship God in a manner not commanded. Similarly, God commanded the Jews not to ascend Mount Sinai at Revelation, lest they do so out of a desire to “see” something in connection with God. Moses warns the Jews “you saw no form” at Sinai[6] again reiterating the gravity of sin harbored by any person who attributes corporeality to God.


These two concepts regarding God, which the angels praise, that 1) He is the creator and His glory is seen everywhere, and 2) that He is not physical or knowable, form the first of Maimonides’ 13 Principles. We appreciate how unified the Rabbis were regarding the fundamental ideas of Judaism.



Principle III: “God shall reign forever, your God of Zion, from generation to generation, praised is God”

As the Targum and the Kuzari stated, the third and final “holy” refers to the idea that God is eternal. This is of vital importance to our notion of God. For how may we hold God in such esteem, were it not for the fact that His greatness is essential to His nature, meaning, that He is certainly eternal? Had God been limited in His power and rule, we would understand that something other than Him placed this limitation on Him. He would not be God. But limitation is a phenomenon of the physical world, like division and location, and thus, cannot be predicated of God. He is eternal, since He has no limitations.


The structure of the Kedusha is therefore designed to imbue man with three vital ideas: A) God is Creator and evidence of His wisdom is seen throughout the universe. This is sensible, since He in His infinite wisdom created all that exists; B) God is unknowable; C) God’s greatness is eternal. We repeat what the angels “said” since angels perfectly praise God. We also learn that all of creation is to attest to God’s role as the one Creator, and the angels “praises” display this idea.





Kedusha: Three Times in Prayer


Kedusha I: Yotzare Or

Why do we recite this Kedusha in the Yotzare Or blessing, discussing God’s creation? In Otsar Tefilos, the Iyun Tefila states, “After we have completed the praises of God for His creation of the luminaries, we begin to praise Him for His creation of the angels, that He created to tell of His praise.” (pg. 257) This means to say that our praises of God would be incomplete, if we praise only part of His creation, i.e., the physical world. We must also praise God for His creation of the laws of nature and providence, the angels, certainly, as angels were “created to tell His praise”.


But this is an interesting statement, “angels were created to tell His praise”. How does natural law and providence offer more appreciation for God’s wisdom (“tell His praise”) than mere, brute creation? Our first deduction is that which embodies God’s wisdom to a higher degree (than the physical creation) certainly deserves to be praised. This makes sense. But in what sense do natural laws surpass physical bodies in evidencing God’s wisdom?


I suggest that with God’s creation of the universal laws, the angels, we witness a “functioning” universe. We come to understand a “plan”, which translates to understanding God’s will. We would not understand God’s will if we did not see a use (interaction) for the innumerable, physical creations. For if all physical bodies remained separate from all others, no plan would be seen. No understanding of “why” all exists could be available. But now that we see that smaller animals also exist as prey for larger ones, that winged animals use flight for obtaining food, that water flows since far reaches on Earth are arid and need moisture, and when we witness the solar and lunar phenomena…we learn a plan. We see more of God’s wisdom. Thus, it makes sense to say, “Angels were created to tell His praise”. This means “natural laws” reveal more of God’s wisdom. It is then quite appropriate that the Rabbis inserted the Kedusha in the blessing of God’s creations.


Furthermore, with the existence of natural laws, there is a continued cycle of behaviors in which man may observe over time. For if there were chaos, there could be no “laws” to observe. Study of any law requires that that very law is consistent…for human observations take time. Primarily, we define a law as any given phenomenon sustaining its properties and behaviors; otherwise, such phenomena it will not be viewed as a law.



Kedusha II: Shmoneh Essray

The Rabbis aptly incorporated these ideas into the Shmoneh Essray blessing that discuss God’s holiness, (separateness) the “Atah Kadosh” blessing. But this idea that God is unknowable is not reserved for the Atah Kadosh blessing alone. A wise Rabbi once lectured on how the core of the Shmoneh Essray – the first three blessings – directs us away from our ‘familiar’ idea of God, towards an admission of our complete ignorance of His nature.


The Rabbi stated that we commence with “God of Abraham”. As we are familiar with Abraham, we relate to God in a familiar, and comfortable fashion. We then proceed to the blessing of Resurrection. Here too, we refer to God inasmuch as He relates man. Now, although no personality (Abraham) is mentioned, man is still referred to in this blessing of God’s planned resurrection. We feel comfortable that God relates to man in this way, but we feel more distant in our relationship to God, as no personality is mentioned. Finally, we divorce ourselves from the mention of any man, and in this third blessing, we describe God as “kadosh”, or unknowable. The progression is clear: we refer to the God of specific man – Abraham – then progress to referring to God in a less personal manner with no individual mentioned (resurrection), and conclude by declaring our complete ignorance of God’s nature with the words “You are distinct.” As these three blessings form the core of Shmoneh Essray, we conclude that Shmoneh Essray is essentially designed to move man towards a more correct view of God, essentially, that we have no understanding of Him: He is “kadosh”.



Kedusha III: Uva L’Tzion

In this prayer, we commence with God’s deliverance of the Messiah, and His oath that Torah will always remain in Israel…eternally. “Eternal” is the third of the three concepts f the Kedusha, and therefore, Kedusha was inserted here a third time to highlight this third theme. The only prayer after Uva L’Tzion is the Alenu, which also concludes with this theme, “God will reign forever.”







Due to the fundamental nature of the Kedusha, and on the macro level, the Rabbis saw fit to permeate our entire morning prayers with these three ideas, in their corresponding three locations:

1) from the very first mention in Yotzare Or which highlights God’s creation,

2) to the Shmoneh Essray which focuses on God’s unknowable nature,

3) through the Uva L’Tzion prayer that highlights God’s eternal rule, the threefold concept of God’s Kedusha (sanctity) is seen as a theme throughout prayer, and not a minor inclusion in three locations.

On a micro level, The Kedusha itself highlights God creation, unknowable nature, and eternity, but this very threefold Kedusha as a unit, is then inserted three times in our prayers, into blessings, which refer to these three fundamentals.


Finally, there is yet a further lesson in repeating the Kedusha’s threefold praises in these three blessings: we must not view God at one time as “Creator”, another time as “unknowable”, and yet another time, as “eternal”. All three truths about God must be present…at all times. It appears this is why the Rabbis deemed it improper to recite only one aspect of this threefold praise. They must always remain as a unit, for these three ideas are the most crucial ideas concerning God.


We appreciate how the Rabbis sought to imbue man with an understanding of this Earthly reality in which we exist, commanding us to reiterate truths provable from the physical universe, and reflected by God’s Torah.


Judaism is truly the only religion given by God, and therefore is completely harmonious with God’s creations. Conversely, all other religions ask man to deny his mind and his senses, the very faculties God desires we put to use.



[1] Isaiah, 6:3

[2] Angels have no physical form, and thus, cannot speak. Therefore, our understanding of the angels “praising” God is not by means of speech, but must be some other form. For example, the heavens may be said to “praise” God. Since their magnificence attests to the Creator, we may accurately yet allegorically suggest the heavens “praise” God.

[3] Otzar Tefilos, Kedusha of Shachris; Iyun Tefila commentary: pg. 319

[4] Maimonides writes, “for natural forces and angels are identical.” Further in this chapter he writes that angels have awareness and free will. (“Guide”, Book II, chap. VI)

[5] Isaiah 6:3

[6] Deut. 4:12, 4:15