(Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6)
January 25, 2003
Isaiah’s vision of the angels praising God served as his initiation into the ranks of the prophets. It represents one of the truly sublime moments of divine revelation and a source of inspiration and transcendence which forms part of our daily prayers. This vision concludes with the pronouncement: “And one [seraph – angel] would call to the other, ‘Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts! His presence fills all of the earth!’” (Isaiah 6:3) [New JPS translation]
This verse, which we recite three times in different parts of the morning [shaharit] prayers, is interpreted a number of different ways. These interpretations attempt to account for the redundant use of the word – “holy”. Rabbi David Kimche, the 13th century Provencal interpreter, recounts two possibilities. In the first interpretation, the vision is described in these words: ‘One [angel] said to the other by way of encouragement to hasten the other angel’s response: ‘Holy one, holy one!’, like a person who says to his friend: ‘Joe, Joe!’ [‘holy’ being a descriptive name of each angel] and then they both praise God together: ‘Holy is the Lord of Hosts…’. In this interpretation the word ‘holy’ is used only once with reference to God while the other two times it is used by one angel to refer to the other.
The more conventional interpretation of this verse understands the three occurrences of the word ‘holy’ as references to God. Nevertheless, each use of the word symbolizes a different realm where God is praised. This interpretation, based on the translation of this verse found in the Targum Yonathon [7th century], assigns the first ‘holy’ to the praise offered to God in the upper realm where the angels and souls dwell; the second to the realm where the planets and stars exist; and the third, to the earthly realm where humans live. The message of this interpretation is that God is praised in all possible worlds. In addition, the Targum adds the element of time to this description when its states that God is praised “l’olom ul’olmai almayah – for eternity’. The praise of God is then both omnipresent and eternal.
This interpretation is the one adopted by our prayer tradition. In shacharit after ‘Barchu’, where we relate to God as Creator of the world, we recite what is called the ‘kedushat yotzer’ which recounts the recitation of God’s praise by the angels. This kedusha we recite seated. The primary recitation of the kedusha is found in the Amidah – the standing prayer, where we are the actual agents of God’s praise and finally in the ‘uva l’tzion’ prayer at the end of the weekday shacharit service, where we recite the ‘kidusha d’sidra’ along with the above Aramaic interpretation of this verse as a form of Torah study.
The Targum’s interpretation of this verse, while based on a cosmic picture perhaps a bit different from our own, still gives us a sense of God’s presence through space and time. It is this inspirational feeling of awe which we must incorporate into our lives so that our praise of God will resound like that on high.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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