From Shekinah To Sakinah: One Word With Two Holy Perspectives – OpEd


Sakinah is an important word and a very important concept in both Islamic and Jewish thought. 

In Islamic thought, it refers to the tranquility, serenity and peace of mind that results when an individual  believer becomes totally aware of God’s nearby presence. Although Sakinah dwells in the heart of one who is already a sensitive and faithful believer; it now comes to him or her directly from God’s close presence and personal interest; to confirm and strengthen that believer’s faith. 

As the Qur’an says “It is God who sent down tranquillity into the hearts of the believers, that they would increase in faith along with their (present) faith.” (48:4) 

Thus, the experience of Sakinah is both God’s gift of enhanced, confirming faith; as well as the product of one’s own faithfulness. (Qur’an 9:26 & 40) This is clearly stated in the example given in the Qur’an about Prophet Samuel’s selection of Saul to be the first King of Israel, 

“Their prophet (Samuel) said to them (The People of Israel), “Indeed, a sign of his (Saul’s) kingship is that the chest (ark of the covenant) will come to you in which is Sakinah- assurance from your Lord, and a remnant of what the family of Moses and the family of Aaron had left (the broken ten commandments’ stone tablets in the wooden ark), carried by angels. Indeed, in that is a sign for you, if you are (already) believers.” (2:248)

The Biblical Hebrew word Shekinah is a noun from the verb ‘to dwell’. Thus God tells the Jewish People; “I will dwell among the children of Israel and will be their God; and they shall know that I am the LORD their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them” (Exodus 29:45-46)

This concept, that God made a personal commitment to dwell among the People of Israel, is often repeated by the Hebrew Prophets. For example, Prophet Ezekiel (37:27) says: “My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people.” And Prophet Zechariah (2:10) says: ‘”Sing for joy and be glad, O daughter of Zion; for behold I am coming and I will dwell in your midst,’ declares the LORD.” 

Of course, this does not mean that God only dwells amidst one religious community: the Jewish community. That was true for over one thousand years when the Jewish community was the only on-going monotheistic community in the world. But with the advent of Prophet Jesus and Prophet Muhammad; another prophecy of Prophet Zechariah came true: 

“Many nations will join themselves to the LORD in that [distant] day and will [also] become My people. Then I will dwell in your midst, and you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me to you.” (Zechariah 2:11) 

Unlike ancient Christianity which claimed to have replaced the Jewish law of Moses with the Christian love of Jesus, Islam claimed it was the confirmation of all prior prophets and holy scriptures. 

Then, in the centuries between Prophet Jesus and Prophet Muhammad, the rabbis expanded the aspect of God’s dwelling presence from the nation to the individual, by following the guidance of Prophet Isaiah (57:15) “For thus says the high and exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, ‘I dwell on a high and holy place, and also [I dwell on earth] with the contrite and lowly of spirit in, order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.'”

The rabbis asserted that Torah scholars may experience a Shekinah blessing during study: “Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradion said . . ‘when two sit together and words of Torah pass between them, the Shekinah dwells between them’ ” (Mishnah Avot 3.3)

And the rabbis also taught that community prayer is a place where one can experience the Shekinah as Talmud B’rachot 6a says: “Whenever ten (or more) are gathered for prayer, there the Shekinah dwells.” 

The Shekinah/Sakinah can also dwell in a sacred object like the ark of the covenant or in a lowly bush (Qur’an 2:248). Those who are  truly “Blessed by the Lord…with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness, and the favor of Him who dwells in the bush”. (Deuteronomy 33:16) 

The Sakinah can also dwell on or in a holy person; a saint, a sage. or a Prophet like Muhammad: “Allah sent down His Sakinah (tranquillity) upon His Messenger and upon the believers and imposed upon them the word of righteousness, and they were more deserving of it and worthy of it. (Qur’an 48: 26) 

Thus, the word/concept Shekinah in Jewish rabbinic thought became more a name for God that focuses mostly on an individual’s feeling of God’s presence that may manifest itself during several types of ordinary religious activities such as the prayer and Torah study already referred to; and also when visiting the sick (Shabbat 12b). practicing hospitality (Shabbat 127a & Sanhedrin 103b), giving charity (Baba Batra 10a), practicing chastity before marriage (Derek Ereẓ i.) and faithfulness within marriage (Soṭah 17a). 

It is true that doing all these things frequently will help produce greater faith, confidence, and peace of mind. But the Jewish focus is more on the opportunity to personally experience God’s presence in a daily activity, rather than on an individual’s personal spiritual growth. 

This somewhat different emphasis between Sakinah and Shekinah are not opposites. They are simply two different perspectives: like seeing a lion from the front, or from the side. Sakinah and Shekinah thus compliment each other; and proclaim the interactive reciprocities between humans’ love of God and God’s love of humans. 

From another perspective, Shekinah, a rabbinic name for God, shifts the view from the community to the individual’s experience, just as Sakinah shifts the focus from Jihad to calmness, serenity and effortless peace of mind. Both of these shifts are complementary; not contradictory, 

The connection between our faithfulness and God’s Shekinah is described in Exodus 25; when God directs the People of Israel to build a sanctuary. But first God says, each person should make a voluntary offering: “The Lord said to Moses “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive an offering for me, from everyone whose heart prompts them to give.” (Exodus 25:1-2) 

Six verses later God says,”Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell (Shekanti) among them.” (25:8)  First humans choose to make a heartfelt offering to God; then God chooses to dwell among, and within, faithful humans and their religious communities. 

When God is well pleased by faithful people, God’s gift of inner peace and reassurance is sent down to them. As it is written: “Certainly Allah was pleased with the believers when they pledged allegiance to you, (Muhammad), under the tree, and He knew what was in their hearts, so He sent down Sakinah (tranquillity) upon them and rewarded them with an imminent conquest”. (Qur’an 48:18) 

And as Prophet Zechariah proclaimed: “Many nations will join themselves to the LORD on that day and will become My people Then I will dwell in your midst, and you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me to you.” (2:11)

Perhaps now is a good time to expand the concept of Shekinah/Sakinah even wider to include all human’s responsibility [vice-regency] to not defile the whole natural world’ in accord with God’s command (Torah Numbers 35:34) ‘You shall not pollute the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell…'”

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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