Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

Dimensions of the Shekhinah: The Meaning of the Shiur Qomah in Jewish Mysticism, Liturgy, and Rabbinic Thought

Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

Dimensions of the Shekhinah: The Meaning of the Shiur Qomah in Jewish Mysticism, Liturgy, and Rabbinic Thought

Article excerpt


The Shiur Qomah ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "The Measure of the Body [of G-d],") is one of the most problematic, controversial, and misunderstood writings in the entire Jewish tradition. (1) The Shiur Qomah is known primarily for its discussion of the measurements of the body of G-d. For example, Shiur Qomah section B states:

   from the place of the seat of His [G-d's] glory and up is [a
   distance of] 1,180,000,000 parasangs. From His glorious seat and
   down is 1,180,000,000 parasangs. His height is 2,300,000,000
   parasangs. From the right arm until the left arm is 770,000,000
   parasangs. And from the right eyeball until the left eyeball is
   300,000,000 parasangs. The skull of his head is 3,000,003 and a
   third parasangs. The crown of his head is 600,000 parasangs
   corresponding to the 600,000 Israelite minions. Thus, He is called
   the great, mighty, and awesome G-d. (2)

A parasang is an ancient Persian measurement, equivalent to about three-quarters of a mile. (3) The concluding statement, "Thus He is called the great, mighty, and awesome G-d," justifies the immense measurements given for G-d's body.

The Shiur Qomah grows out of the merkabah mystical tradition of the late talmudic period. (4) It is an attempt to elaborate upon the experience of the priest and prophet Ezekiel, whose vision of G-d in Ezekiel 1-3 stands as the foundation for the Jewish mystical tradition. Particularly important in this respect is Ezek 1:26, which describes the presence of G-d in anthropomorphic terms, namely, "and above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and on top, upon this semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form." The Bible prohibits the representation of G-d in human or any other tangible form. And interpreters should note that as a priest of the holy Jerusalem Temple, Ezekiel is careful throughout the vision to use the language of simile to avoid any statement that G-d can be so portrayed. (5) Nevertheless, the Shiur Qomah does portray G-d in human terms, and its interest in the measurements of the body of G-d therefore raises serious theological questions about the work, insofar as Judaism views attempts to portray G-d in any physical form as idolatry and apostasy. (6)

The Shiur Qomah appears in several different versions in a variety of manuscripts, and it is quoted or referenced by a number of major Jewish scholars from late antiquity and the Middle Ages, beginning with the poet Eleazar Hakallir and continuing with such sages as Saadia Gaon, Moses Maimonides, Abraham ibn Ezra, and others. (7) Eleazar Hakallir, generally dated to the sixth century C.E., appears to draw upon the Shiur Qomah in his poetry comparing Adam's image to that of G-d: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (His [Adam's] image was like that of his creator; his body [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], literally "stature"] like that of a palm tree). (8) When the Karaite movement challenged rabbinic Judaism beginning in the eighth century C.E., the anthropomorphic portrayal of G-d in the Shiur Qomah was one of the primary bases for their objections to rabbinic haggadah. (9) The early tenth century sage, Saadia Gaon, responded to the Karaites with a treatise that attempted to defend the Shiur Qomah as an allegory, not unlike the Song of Songs, that conveys esoteric teachings concerning the true nature of G-d. (10) Moses Maimonides considered the Shiur Qomah to be the fraudulent invention of Byzantine haggadists, and he states that the work should be burned. He argues that anyone who would conceive of G-d in such a corporeal manner should be considered a heretic, an Epicurean, in a category with animals, and as having brains filled with the lunacies of old women. (11) Abraham ibn Ezra on the other hand, quoting R. Ishmael, maintains that, "anyone who knows the measurement of the creator is certain to have a share in the world to come" (commentary to Exod 33:21). …

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