Divine Kingship and Sanctity

Rosh HashanaThe most central theme of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy is divine Kingship. This is reflected in many of the piyyutim recited by many communities, as well as by significant changes in the language of the Amidah prayer: replacing the words ha-el ha-kadosh (the Holy God) of the third benediction with ha-melekh ha-kadosh (the Holy King), and adding the words melekh al kol ha-aretz to the closing formula of the central blessing of the Amidah, which celebrates the kedushat ha-yom (sanctity of the day).

Most strikingly, the first of the three benedictions added to the Rosh Hashanah prayer – malkhuyot, zikhronot, and shofarot – expands on the theme of divine Kingship. An interesting dispute between two of the leading Sages of Yavneh (early second century), where these additional blessings were instituted, will focus our attention on some key questions regarding the notion of divine Kingship, and guide our reflections on the meaning for our lives of this central tenet of Judaism.

The following chart presents the views of these two Sages regarding the order of blessings in the Rosh HaShanah Mussaf prayer, as presented in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:5:

  R. Yohanan ben Nuri R. Akiva
(1) Avot (Patriarchs)
(2) Gevurot (powerful deeds);
(3) kedushat ha-shem (sanctity of the Name) (a) includes malkhuyot (verses of Kingship)

(b) not accompanied by shofar blast



No shofar blast

(4) kedushat hayom (sanctity of the day)  

Shofar blast

(a) includes malkhuyot

(b) Shofar blast

(5) zikhronot (remembrances) Shofar blast Shofar blast
(6) shofarot (shofar verses) Shofar blast Shofar blast
(7) avodah (sacrificial service)
(8) hoda’ah (thanksgiving)
(9) birkat kohanim (priestly blessing)

Before addressing the points disputed between these two Sages, let us first note a shared assumption. Both Sages agree that shofar blasts should be integrated into the Amidah prayer, presumably understanding the shofar as a kind of non-verbal communication with God. Indeed, the Mishnah records that R. Akiva regarded the integration between prayer and shofar to be so crucial that he challenged R. Yohanan ben Nuri with the argument: “if he does not blow [over the malkhuyot blessing], why does he recite it?” The Mishnah does not record R. Yohanan ben Nuri’s response, but he apparently agrees with R. Akiva that the blowing of the shofar should accompany only the three middle benedictions, which are entirely devoted to the unique character and themes of Rosh Hashanah, and not the first three and the last three blessings, which are recited daily – even if the third blessing is expanded with malkhuyot.

Investigation of the ways in which these two Sages perceive prayer and shofar as enhancing one another would take us far afield, and I will turn here to the crux of their dispute: the placement of the malkhuyot prayer. Neither Sage accords a separate blessing to malkhuyot – possibly because malkhuyot lacks a biblical prooftext, unlike zikhronot and shofarot, which the midrash roots in the Torah’s characterization of Rosh Hashanah as zikhron teruah. Interestingly, both Sages attach the malkhuyot prayer to a blessing which relates to kedushah (sanctity), and indeed our liturgy elsewhere also indicates a profound connection between divine sanctity and divine Kingship – for example, the text of the yishtabach prayer recited every morning: tehillah ve-tif’eret kedushah u-malkhut (praise and glory, sanctity and Kingship). However, whereas R. Yohanan ben Nuri attaches malkhuyot to sanctity of the Name, R. Akiva attaches the prayer to sanctity of the day. What lies at the root of this controversy?

The sanctity of the Name of God and the sanctity of time

There is a profound difference between the sanctity attached to the holy Name of God and the sanctity of the divinely-ordained festivals. God’s ineffable Being is known to us through his enigmatic Name, the Tetragrammaton, which Jewish tradition avoids pronouncing or writing, except in places and occasions of special sanctity. The blessing of kedushat ha-shem describes how the sanctity originating in God’s transcendent Being flows downward, through His Name to the sacred individuals (probably angels) who praise Him daily: “You are holy and Your Name is holy and holy ones daily praise you”. By attaching malkhuyot to this benediction, R. Yohanan ben Nuri indicates that he conceives divine Kingship to be an ontological reality, rooted in the divine essence and known to select creatures, which all of us need to strive to recognize and acknowledge.

Model of the Jerusalem temple

Kedushat ha-yom presents a very different model of sanctity. We conclude this benediction with the formula mekadesh yisrael ve-yom ha-zikkaron (Who sanctifies Israel and the day of remembering), which the Talmud (Berakhot 49a) explains to mean: God has sanctified Israel, who in turn sanctify the festivals. All the calendrical festivals possess sanctity only because the Jewish people have sanctified them by establishing the timing of the first day of the new month, whether by sightings of the moon as determined by the High Court or by our current fixed calendar. By integrating malkhuyot into this blessing, R. Akiva has signaled that his conception of divine Kingship follows a “bottom-up”, rather than a “top-down” model. God is King not because of Who He is, but because human beings, led by the Jewish people, accept Him as such.

The difference between these two conceptions of malkhuyot may be perceived in the liturgy, as we recite it today. Following R. Akiva’s practice,  the malkhuyot we recite opens with the ancient Aleinu leshabeach prayer, both of whose paragraphs emphasize that Kingship is not an ontological reality, but a human duty. In the first paragraph we affirm “It is our duty to praise the Master of all” and first mention the term “King” in the sentence “and we bend the knee and bow and acknowledge before the King, King of all Kings, the Holy One, blessed by He”. Having affirmed our recognition, as Jews, of divine Kingship in the first paragraph, the second paragraph entreats God to remove all false gods, such that all mankind will come to recognize Him and bow before Him. Our duty, as Jews and as humans, is to coronate God, to make Him King.

Surprisingly, even though his opinion has not been accepted as authoritative, R. Yohanan ben Nuri’s version of malkhuyot has made its imprint in our liturgy. On Rosh Hashanah we expand the kedushat ha-shem blessing with the three uv-khen () paragraphs, the first of which opens: “and so too instill your fear, Hashem our God, upon all your works and your dread upon all that You have created, such that all your works shall fear You and all creatures shall prostrate themselves before You.” Rather than man freely acknowledging God’s sovereignty, as in R. Akiva’s prayer, this prayer entreats God to enforce His Kingship by striking terror into human hearts.

These two conceptions of Kingship have profound ramifications for the kind of divine service to which we commit ourselves on Rosh Hashanah. Is divine Kingship a hidden reality, which man requires divine guidance (gentle or otherwise) to perceive, in accordance with the view of R. Yohanan ben Nuri? Or, alternatively, is it a mission and a responsibility, a dream which we need to make a reality through our actions and the way we lead our lives? While the latter view is the one accepted by the halakhah, it seems that our liturgy has given expression to the first view as well, suggesting that our relationship to God includes both elements. I hope and pray that each of us will find the appropriate expression in our lives for both these ideals,  as we recite these prayers on the Day of divine Kingship.

Rav Dr. Avraham Walfish
Rav Dr. Avraham Walfish, a member of Beit Hillel, is a recipient of the Israeli Ministry of Education Prize for Creative Work in Jewish Culture (2005). An instructor at Bar-Ilan University, he has taught in many institutions of Jewish learning, including Herzog College, Drisha, Pardes, Matan, and the Hesder Yeshiva in Tekoa. 


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