And I will dwell (v’shakhanti) in the midst of the Children of Israel, and I will not forsake My people Israel {I Kings 6:13}.

 In the Mishnah, and often in later Rabbinic texts, Shekhinah is used as a synonym for God, particularly when the emphasis is on God’s closeness to and empathy with the Jewish people. The context of the Mishnah is the execution of criminals:

Rabbi Meir said: When a person is suffering, what does the Shekhinah say? As it were: "My aching head! My aching arm!" If, then, The Place [HaMakom, another Rabbinic name for God] suffers so over the spilled blood of criminals, how much more so over the blood of the innocent! {Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5}

c. 250 CE, Syria

The Sages placed many restrictions on visual art, but many Jews did not follow their teachings. An ancient synagogue at Dura Europos, in present-day Syria, is filled with frescoes of Biblical scenes and other Jewish and Greco-Roman motifs, in a style which foreshadows Byzantine Christian art.

In an image recognizable from its visual context as the finding of baby Moses, Moses is being lifted out of the water by a nude figure. Though we would expect her to be Pharaoh’s daughter or her maidservant, scholars note that her depiction corresponds to the iconography of a Near Eastern goddess, Anahita (see Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols of the Graeco-Roman Period, 1964). Historian Raphael Patai (in The Hebrew Goddess) argues that this figure is the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence. The Jewish artist, aware of traditions that the Shekhinah was present with the baby Moses, made use of the conventions of the surrounding culture to depict the divine in female form.

From the Sages

The Midrashic literature of our Sages comes from the long period c. 300 - c. 900 CE. The dates and geographical provenance of any given work are often unclear.

 "I am with him in pain" {Psalm 91:15}.


Rabbi Yudan told a parable of a pregnant woman who was angry at her mother.

When she was giving birth, her mother went upstairs, and she was downstairs, screaming. Her mother, upstairs, heard her voice, and she too, upstairs, was screaming. The neighbour-women said to her, "Why are you crying out? Are you giving birth with her?" She said, "Is my daughter not in pain? How can I bear her crying out? I am screaming along with her, because my daughter’s pain is my own."

So, when the Temple was destroyed, there was a sound of crying and wailing all through the world. So it is said, "On that day the Lord YHVH called for crying and mourning" {Isaiah 22:12}. The ministering angels said to Him: "Can such things be in Your presence? Is it not written, ‘Splendour and beauty are in His presence, strength and joy in His place’ {I Chronicles 16:27}?"

He said to them, "Has not my House been destroyed, and My children captured, in chains? Shall I not suffer? Is it not written, ‘I am with him in pain’?"

{Midrash on Psalms, Solomon Buber edition, 20}

Late Thirteenth Century, Spain

In the Kabbalah (medieval Jewish mysticism), especially in the Zohar, the Shekhinah is a specific aspect of the Divine, the presence of God in the world, almost always depicted in feminine imagery. This imagery often emphasizes Her motherliness and compassion -- but at other times it accentuates Her harsh fierceness.

Rabbi Abba said: It is written, "The wisdom of Solomon"... {I Kings 5:10} What really is the "wisdom of Solomon"...?

(Rabbi Shim'on) said to him: Come and see!

We have explained, in many contexts, this name of the Moon [the Shekhinah] when she is blessed by all. It is written that she "grew" in the days of Solomon, because she increased and was blessed and remained full.

We have been taught: A thousand mighty mountains, in front of her, are just one bite for her. She has a thousand great rivers -- she swallows them in one gulp. Her fingernails clutch a thousand and seventy shores, her hands grasp twenty-four thousand shores. Nothing can get away from her to this side, nothing can get away from her to another side. Thousands and thousands of shields are tangled in her hair... The hairs of the Moon are tangled with each other. They are called shooting stars -- they do indeed shoot. Lords of strife, lords of weighing in the balance, lords of harshness, lords of arrogance; all of them are called hairs of royal purple. Her hands and her feet seize hold, like a powerful lion that seizes its prey. About this it is written, "he tears and none can rescue" {Micah 5:7}. All her fingernails call to mind the debts of human beings, writing and inscribing their debts with the authority of harsh judgement. About this, it is written, "The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen, with a fingernail of shamir" {Jeremiah 17:1}. What is shamir? {Cf. Tosefta Sotah 15:1 and parallels.} That which inscribes and pierces stone -- splitting it in all directions. The clippings of her fingernails are all those who do not cling to the body of the King, and suckle from the domain of uncleanness, when the Moon is waning. And because King Solomon inherited the full Moon, he wanted to also receive her in her waning, and so he set to work acquiring knowledge of spirits and demons, to receive the Moon in all her aspects. {Zohar I (Vayechi) 223a-b}

To be continued ...