Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Yom Kippur
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Yaakov Ben Behora

The Holy God, the Holy King

During these days we refer to God as the Holy King, this is due to the special relationship that we have with Him during this special time.


Rabbi Gideon Weitzman

The Structure of Our Prayers
The central portion of each one of our daily prayers is the Amidah, the standing prayer. When the Mishnah mentions the word ‘tefilah’, prayer, it refers to the prayer of the Amidah. It is as though the Mishnah is saying that prayer is the Amidah. All our other prayers are introduction or summation, but the essential prayer is the Amidah.

The reason that it is called the standing prayer is that throughout the prayer we remain standing with our legs and feet together. We are supposed to resemble the angels about whom it is said "their legs are one straight leg" (Yechezkel 1:7). We stand before the Almighty and speak directly to Him like angels, and so we stand there angel-like, with ‘one’ leg. (See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 95:1, and Mishnah Berurah, ibid. note 2)

This prayer is also called the Shmonah Esreih, meaning the eighteen, as it contains eighteen blessings during the weekday services. The truth is that it contains nineteen blessings, but one of them, the blessing against the heretics, was added later by Shmuel HaKatan. (See Berachot 28b-29a)

We also recite the Amidah as part of the prayers of the festivals as well. However, the Amidah of the festivals does not contain nineteen blessings, it contains between seven and nine blessings, depending on the festival, but it is commonly still referred to as the Shmonah Esreih.

Even though the festival Amidah is different, the basic structure of the prayer is preserved independent of the number of blessings. The prayer opens with three blessings that praise God. The first concludes ‘Who protects Avraham’ known as the blessing of the fathers, the next concludes ‘Who revives the dead’, called the blessing of Divine strength. The final blessing of these three concludes ‘The holy God’, and is called the blessing of the sanctity of God’s name.

The Amidah concludes with three blessings. The first concludes ‘Who returns His Presence to Zion’, called Temple service, the next concludes ‘Whose Name is good and to You it is pleasant to thank’, called thanks. The final blessing of the Amidah closes with the words ‘Who blesses His people Israel with peace’ called the blessing of shalom, peace.

The differences between the festival Amidah and the regular weekday prayer are the middle blessings. On weekdays we recite 13 additional blessings asking God for wisdom, the opportunity to return to Him, forgiveness, redemption, health, livelihood, gathering of the Jewish people, justice, safety from heretics, strength for the righteous, the building of Jerusalem, the return of David’s monarchy, and the acceptance of our prayers.

On Shabbat and festivals, when it is inappropriate to make personal requests from God, we recite only one blessing, that of the sanctity of the day. This blessing concludes ‘Who sanctifies the Shabbat’, or ‘Who sanctifies Israel and the festivals’. On Rosh HaShanah we recite three blessings called the blessings of sovereignty, remembrance and shofar. On Yom Kippur we add a list of Vidui, confession, at the end of the prayer.

However, apart from these changes the basic structure of the Amidah is preserved for all our services. Throughout the year the first three blessings and last three blessings remain the same.

Changes in This Structure
There are ten days of the year when even the first three blessings are changed. In the words of the Gemara "Raba bar Chanina Saba said in the name of Rav, the entire year one prays ‘The holy God’, ‘the King who loves kindness and justice’, except for the ten days from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur when one prays ‘the holy King’ and ‘the King of justice’ (Berachot 12b).

This is the halachah that during the ten days from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur instead of concluding ‘the holy God’ we conclude the third blessing of the Amidah with the words ‘the holy King’.

It is interesting to note that the Gemara stated that these alterations to the prayers should be made during ‘the ten days from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur’. Why did the Gemara have to tell us how many days there are from Rosh HaShanah until Yom Kippur? If Yom Kippur is on the 10th of Tishrei and Rosh HaShanah is on the 1st, then a simple mathematical calculation can tell us that there are ten days including both the festivals. The Gemara does need to spell it out that these are ten days.

Rather, the Gemara here is referring to another Gemara that explains the verse "Seek out God when He is to be found" (Yeshayahu 55:6) to mean that one should return to God and repent one’s sins during "the ten days from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur" (Yevamot 105a).

The Rambam paraphrases the Gemara in the following way. "Even though teshuvah, repentance, and crying in prayer are good for the world [at any time of the year], during the ten days from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur they are even better, and are truly accepted, as it says ‘Seek out God when He is to be found’" (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:6).

These ten days, called the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Return, are the optimum opportunity to return to God. It is as though God is closer to us during this time than He is at any other period during the year. He is waiting for us to return to Him and repent for our misdeeds, He is close and accessible.

In the light of this we alter our prayers, instead of referring to God as the holy God, we call Him the holy King. These changes enable us to comprehend the nature of these special days.

The Holy God
Holiness is a Godly state where all is directed to God Himself. When we describe an act or an object as holy what we mean is that it is near to God, is used to serve Him, and has a high degree of Godliness attached to it.

When we call God, "the holy God" we are saying that all that is connected with Him is directed towards Him. As everything in the universe is connected to God this means that all elements of the universe are directed towards His service. There is nothing in the universe that is devoid of Divine purpose. This is the meaning of the three simple words "the holy God".

It will be obvious that if everything is connected to God then this includes people and events which we view as being bad and even evil. We cannot always comprehend why God allows evil to prosper but if He does, then it must have a Divine purpose. In the words of the rabbis "in the same way that the praise of God comes from the righteous in Gan Eden, heaven, thus the praise of God also emanates from the wicked in Gehinom" (Shemot Raba 7:4).

The wicked are as essential for the praise of God as are the righteous. The Midrash continues to explain that the wicked accept their judgement and punishment and proclaim God’s justice. Only in a world that contains evil is there the possibility of true good. Because a perfectly good world would not need justice and no one would praise God for His justice. Therefore God allows the evil people to flourish in order to define Divine justice.

This does not diminish the punishment for the wicked person. One cannot say ‘If it is important for there to be evil people in the world I am willing to volunteer for this position’. God allows those who are not righteous to survive, but that does not mean that they will not be punished. Indeed, the Midrash explained that one of the reasons for their existence is in order to accept and justify their own punishment.

So when God appears as the holy God it means that He suffers the wicked due to His desire for them to exist in the world. It is not only due to mercy. Rather, the evil and wicked serve a purpose and praise God.

The Holy King
God allows the wicked to exist due to the fact that they serve a Divine purpose and are part of the Divine order. However, they do not escape punishment. There is a time of the year that is set aside for teshuvah, for repentance and returning to the way of God and the Torah. These are the ten days from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, the Ten Days of Return.

During these days each person is supposed to examine his own actions and determine their intrinsic value. If one’s actions are found lacking then changes must be made. One must repent for wicked or mistaken actions and make a concerted effort to improve in the future.

These days are the most conducive during the entire year for positive change and rejecting bad deeds. If one does not repent and return to God during this time not only has he not only wasted a golden opportunity, he has also demonstrated that he is connected deeply to his bad deeds and evil ways. He rejects God and His Torah, he has chosen a path other than that of mitzvot. Such behaviour will surely be punished.

This is what the Gemara means when it says that God is close during these ten days. God carefully monitors our deeds, and our hearts, during this period. He looks for a desire to change, to improve. For those who make a true commitment to return the doors of teshuvah are wide open.

However, those that still continue in their wrong ways are viewed scrupulously. God appears during this time as a king, as "the holy King". In the holy King’s world there is only room for good, for true justice, for righteousness. God finds room for evil, the King only accepts those who serve and accept Him.

God does not appear as the lover of kindness and justice, who peppers justice with a liberal smattering of kindness. During the Ten Days of Return, He appears as the King of justice itself.

The entire year God tolerates the wicked and evil itself, anticipating return and repentance during the Ten Days of Return. If things do not change for the better during this time, then He acts as the holy King of justice. He punishes and inscribes the wicked for punishment.

These days are when the King is near. This is a great opportunity, we have the ability to be near the King and make special requests. However, we have to be extra specially careful of our conduct during these days. These are the days that decide our fate for the coming year.

That is what the rabbis wanted to convey by saying that we need to modify our prayers during this period. We have to recognise the great potential that these days carry, but also the awesome responsibility as well.

If we use these days wisely we will prepare ourselves for the final judgement on Yom Kippur. May we all be sealed then for a healthy and happy year.

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