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Fear of God


FEAR OF GOD (Heb. yirat elohim, but in the Talmud yirat shamayim, lit. "fear of Heaven"), ethical religious concept, sometimes confused with yirat ḥet, "the fear of sin," but in fact quite distinct from it. The daily private prayer of Rav (Ber. 16a), which has been incorporated in the Ashkenazi liturgy in the Blessing for the New Moon, speaks of "a life of fear of Heaven and of fear of sin." In the latter, "fear" is to be understood in the sense of apprehension of the consequences of sin but in the former in the sense of "reverence"; as such it refers to an ethical outlook and a religious attitude, which is distinct from the actual performance of the commandments. "Fear of God" frequently occurs in the Bible, particularly with regard to Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22:12), and it is mentioned as that which God primarily desires of man (Deut. 10:12). Nevertheless it does not seem to have an exact connotation in the Bible (see *Love and Fear of God), and it was the rabbis who formulated the doctrine of Fear of God with some precision. Basing itself on Leviticus 19:14 (and similar verses, e.g., 19:32, 25:17, 36:43), the Sifra (in loc. cf. Kid. 32b) maintains that the phrase "thou shalt fear thy God" is used only for those commandments which "are known to the heart" ("the sin is known to the heart of the person who commits it, but other men cannot detect it" – Rashi in loc.) i.e., there are no social sanctions attached to it, and the impulse behind its performance is reverence for God. This is, in fact, reflected in Exodus 1:17 and it is emphasized, from a slightly different aspect, in the famous maxim of Antigonus of *Sokho, "Be as servants who serve their master without thought of reward, but let the fear of heaven be upon thee" (Avot 1:3). It was spelled out by Johanan b. Zakkai, when on his deathbed he enjoined his disciples: "Let the fear of Heaven be upon you as the fear of flesh and blood." In answer to their surprised query "and not more?" he answered, "If only it were as much! When a person wishes to commit a transgression he says, 'I hope no man will see me'" (Ber. 28b). The characteristic of the God-fearing man is that he "speaketh truth in his heart" (Ps. 15:2; bb 88a).

The fear of God complements knowledge of the Torah. According to one opinion it is only through fear of heaven that one can arrive at true knowledge of the Torah: "He who possesses learning without the fear of heaven is like a treasurer who is entrusted with the inner keys but not with the outer. How is he to enter?" Another opinion is: "Woe to him who has no courtyard yet makes a gate for it," since it is through knowledge that one attains fear of God (Shab. 31a–b). Since fear of God is a state of mind and an ethical attitude, it can best be acquired by considering and following the example of one's teacher by waiting on him, with the result that one of the consequences of depriving a disciple of the privilege of waiting upon his master is that he deprives him of the fear of God (Ket. 96a). The quality and practice of fear of God depend upon man alone. The statement upon which is based the fundamental Jewish doctrine of the absolute free *will of man is couched in the words "Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven." The proof verse for this statement is "what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord" (Deut. 10:12), and, countering this, the Talmud asks, "Is then fear of heaven such a small thing?" answering that it was only Moses who so regarded it (Ber. 33b).

For the relationship between fear of God and love of God see *Love and Fear of God.

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]

The traditional attitude toward the fear (yir'ah) of God was thus ambivalent: it was highly valued, but at the same time was regarded as inferior to the love of God. (Cf. "Love and Fear of God; see tb Sota 31a). Later Jewish thought attempted to resolve this ambivalence by positing the fear of God as an equivocal term. *Bahya ibn Paquda (11th century), in his Duties of the Heart 10:6, characterized two different types of fear as a lower "fear of punishment" and a higher "fear of [divine] glory." Abraham *Ibn Daud (early 12th century) differentiated between "fear of harm" (analogous to the fear of a snake bite or of a king's punishment) and "fear of greatness," analogous to respect for an exalted person, such as a prophet, who would not harm a person (The Exalted Faithvi). Maimonides (late 12th century) categorized the fear of God as a positive commandment. Nevertheless, the halakhic status he accorded to the fear of God did not prevent it from being presented in diverse ways. In his Book of the Commandments (commandment #4), Maimonides characterized it as "the fear of punishment," whereas in his Code he characterized it as the feeling of human insignificance deriving from contemplation of God's "great and wonderful actions and creations" (Foundations of the Torah 2:1). Nevertheless, later in the Code Maimonides presents "service based on fear" as a religiously inferior type of behavior of "the ignorant (ʿamei ha-arez), women and children," deriving from their hope for reward and fear of punishment (Laws of Repentance 10:1). At the end of his Guide of thePerplexed (3:52), Maimonides characterizes fear as resulting from the entire system of commandments, and as expressing a sense of shame in the presence of God. Isaac Arama (15th century) differentiates among three types of fear in his Binding of Isaac (ch. 92): in addition to the sublime fear of greatness and inferior "fear not for its own sake" he posits a fear which is the fruit of belief in the divine will, which makes possible undetermined events. In another work (Ḥazut Kashah, ch. 3) Arama characterizes this third type of fear as a supra-philosophical rank, because, in his view, although the philosophers recognized God's supreme greatness, they did not fear God, since in their view God could not harm people.

The fear of God was also characterized in diverse ways in the Kabbalah by means of the different *sefirot: fear was symbolized by the sefirot "wisdom" (ḥokhmah) (based on Job 28:28), "understanding (binah) (based on Proverbs 1:7), "power" (gevurah), which has the same gematria (numerical value) as yir'ah (fear), or "kingdom" (malkhut) (based on Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:5).

[Hannah Kasher (2nd ed.)]


Urbach, Ḥazal, 348–370. add. bibliography: H. Kreisel, Maimonides' Political Thought: Studies in Ethics, Law and the Human Ideal (1999), ch. 7.

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