Worship: For Us or for Him?

On one level, believing Jews must live in accordance with the divine will just because it is the divine will. We accept our role as servants of the King, each one of us obeying His laws as “metsuveh ve-oseh,”“commanded and performing.”[i] This is the level of “na’aseh,”“we will do.”[ii] There is, however, another level, that of “nishma,”“we will listen,”[iii] understand, and become engaged. It is from the point of nishma that we depart into the following discussion of understanding the role of our avodat Hashem.[iv],[v],[vi]

Radically different forms of worship emerge from the proponents of Jewish philosophy and Jewish mysticism, respectively. To be sure, these two groups have many diverging opinions within each of their general doctrines. What follows is not a comprehensive analysis of all approaches, but an outline of key approaches, to serve as a springboard for further study. I hope that this simplified presentation does not blemish the truth and depth of this lofty topic.

A hallmark of a sincere oved(et) Hashem (servant of God) is a determination to constantly increase the meaning and vibrancy of his or her service of God. It is therefore worthwhile for such an individual to explore different perspectives of avodat Hashem developed by the hakhmei ha-mesorah (sages of the tradition). By exploring different forms of worship, an individual is better positioned to identify the form that energizes and empowers him or her to better serve God. We will begin by looking at sources portraying a man-centered view, then move to those who adopt a God-centered perspective, and lastly, we will explore two forms of synthesis found in later sources.


For Us

One perspective maintains that worship of God is primarily “for us,” namely the worshipers, not for God. This approach is clear in the well-known mishnah at the end of Makkot: “R. Hananya ben Akashya says, ‘[God] wanted to give Israel merit, therefore, He gave them much Torah and mitsvot.’”[vii] This view is also found in a passage from Midrash Rabbah that asks the rhetorical question, “Does God care if man slaughters an animal in the front of the neck or in the back?” The Midrash seems to accept the premise of this question, namely, that God does not care, and therefore offers the explanation that it matters not for God but for man: “The mitsvot were given [by God] only to enfranchise (le-tsaref) the creations.”[viii] Lastly, the Gemara records the following statement of R. Sheshet: “Does God need [the Temple menorah’s] light? For all forty years that Benei Yisrael travelled in the desert, they followed His light![ix] Rather, [the menorah] is testimony to all the people of the world that God’s presence dwells with the Jewish people.”[x]

The chief medieval proponent of divine worship for man’s sake is Rambam. For example, he understands that the prohibition against harlotry is intended to ensure that all people belong to a family, since children of harlotry are considered strangers to everyone. An additional reason for the prohibition is in order to limit the lusts and desires of men, and to reduce strife between men for one woman.[xi] Both these reasons focus upon man himself, not God. Similarly, Rambam suggests that the commandment of berit milah (circumcision) is intended to limit the physical pleasure of intercourse and counteract excessive lust.[xii] In another context he explains that the reason for burning ketoret, or incense, in the Temple was to remove the odor of the slaughtered animals and preserve people’s respect for the Temple.[xiii]Lastly, his proposed reason for the prohibition against eating pig is that it is a dirty and unhealthy animal.[xiv]  Rambam believes that mitsvot are focused on their impact on man, meant to perfect the human intellect and enhance one’s character traits. As he wrote in Moreh Nevukhim, “all the commandments and exhortations in the Pentateuch aim at controlling the physical impulses.”[xv] And in Iggeret Teiman (“Epistle to Yemen”), he wrote, “The true divine religion does not have a single positive or negative precept whose essence does not contain aspects that aid the human being in his striving for perfection.”[xvi]

While Ramban fiercely rejects many of Rambam’s utilitarian and contextualized reasons for mitsvot, he too promotes a man-focused purpose of avodat Hashem. In his commentary to the mitsvah of shiluah ha-ken (sending away the mother bird),[xvii] Ramban writes that the reason for the mitsvah is for man to develop a more merciful nature. He then expands his discussion to all mitsvot and asserts that “the purpose of mitsvot is not for [God Himself]. Rather, the purpose is for man himself to avoid harm, evil beliefs, or disgraceful qualities, or to remember the miracles and wonders of the blessed Creator and to know the Name … all [the mitsvot] are for our sake alone… and this is something agreed upon by all the sayings of our Rabbis.” He explains that the midrash quoted above suggests that God gave the mitsvot only for the sake of developing and molding man. The word “tsiruf” (literally “formation”) is used here in the same way regarding man as it is with regards to making a coin. Ramban’s opinion is actually more complicated, though, as will be noted below.

Ritva, in his commentary to Masekhet Kiddushin seems to invoke a man-centered view in his explanation of the principle that “greater is the one who is commanded and performs than the one who is not commanded and performs.”[xviii] Ritva writes, “The mitsvot are not for God’s pleasure but rather for our own merit.”[xix]  Interestingly, Ritva states this explanation in the name of Rabbeinu ha-Gadol, which usually refers to Ramban. Considering the other statements of Ramban quoted in this article, this source becomes even more noteworthy.

Lastly, the Sefer ha-Hinnukh in his Shorashei ha-Mitsvot (“Roots of the Mitsvot”) often explains the mitsvot as they pertain to the betterment of man. To cite a few examples, he explains that the mitsvah of sanctifying firstborns (“kiddush bekhorot”) is meant to remind man that everything is God’s and that man has nothing in this world other than that which God provides.[xx] He further suggests that the purpose of the mitsvot surrounding the korban Pesah is to remember the great miracles that God performed for the Jewish people in order to take them out of Egypt.[xxi] Finally, the goal of the mitsvah to sanctify Shabbat with words (“kiddush Shabbat be-devarim”) is to remember the greatness of the day and to instill faith in our hearts that God created the world.[xxii]


For Him

In stark contrast to the ideas presented above, Zohar states very clearly that divine worship in this world is intended to create unifications of the sefirot (divine attributes): “And for all of [the mitsvot], we need to perform the action below in order to arouse above.”[xxiii] Similarly, Moses is praised by Elijah because, “in every single commandment, your effort was to unite the blessed holy One and His shekhinah.”[xxiv] In contrast, man’s negative actions cause negative effects in the upper realm: “[Sins] separate the Queen from the King, and King from the Queen. Thus He is not called One, for He is only called One when they are together in union. Woe to those sinners who cause separation above.”[xxv] In a particularly strong explication of this view, Zohar interprets the verse, “Tenu oz le-Elokim,” “Give strength to God,”[xxvi] in the most literal sense: “When the Jewish People does improper deeds, ki-ve-yakhol (as if this could be) they weaken the strength of God, and when they do good deeds they give strength and power to God, and this is what the verse says, ‘Give strength to God.’ With what? With good deeds.”[xxvii]

Ba’al ha-Tanya advocates this position when he states that the greatest worship is“not only in order to cleave to Him, blessed is He, to quench the thirst of the soul thirsty for God… but rather, as is explained in Tikkunei Zohar… to unite [God]and His Shekhinah.”[xxviii] He further argues in favor of such an approach in his Sha’ar ha-Yihud ve-ha-Emunah, “It is known to all that the purpose of creation is in order to reveal [God’s] kingship, for there is no king without a nation.”[xxix]

However, it is necessary to offer a minor caveat within this view. It must be made very clear that a distinction exists within the world of mysticism between God’s essence and the manifest aspect of God.[xxx] Any discussion predicated on man’s actions affecting God refers only to the manifest aspect of God; God’s essence cannot be affected by man. Even this duality, however, is more complex and is considered beyond human comprehension.[xxxi]

The Nefesh ha-Hayyim seems to take this position as well. He writes, “The foundation of our holy faith is that our entire intention in all our blessings, prayers, and requests is only the One of the world, the single Master and endless One, blessed is He.” But he then makes a crucially important point:

However, we are not talking about the essence of God on the level that He is completely expanded and separate from the worlds … It is only that after He showed us that His will is to connect to and be King over the worlds that our request is that He be King over the worlds. Furthermore, on the level of His essence, without connecting to the worlds, there is no space for Torah and mitsvot at all … because all the deeds of man, be them good or bad, do not affect this sense at all, God forbid. [xxxii]

Although Ramban, as quoted above, clearly adopts a man-focused view of mitsvot, he elsewhere hints to a different perspective. Shemot 29:46 states, “They shall know that I am Hashem, their God, Who took them out of the land of Egypt to rest My presence among them (le-shakhni be-tokham). I am Hashem, their God.” The commentators to this verse debate how to understand the lamed prefix of the word “le-shakhni.”Ramban rejects a number of explanations and endorses the view of Ibn Ezra: The lamed means “for the sake of.”[xxxiii] Thus, Ramban argues, the Torah indicates that God took us out of Egypt in order that He dwell among us. Ramban then comments that “[Ibn Ezra] explained well, and, if so, there is a great secret in the matter. For according to the simple understanding of this verse, God’s dwelling in Israel is for human sake and not for divine sake, but [this verse] is similar to “Through you, Israel, God is glorified.”[xxxiv] The verse thus says that God took Benei Yisrael out of Egypt in order that He dwell among them, the emphasis being not on their gain, but rather on His. Admittedly this is not explicit in the verse, even according to Ibn Ezra’s reading, but it is nonetheless alluded to as a “great secret.”

This approach can also be found in later Hasidic sources. For example, R. Levi Yitshak of Berditchev wrote in his commentary on the Torah: “God, blessed is He, created the world in order that He have pleasure … This pleasure comes from this-worldly things, from men.” [xxxv]


For Us and For Him

While I have outlined two conflicting approaches above, one need not consider these viewpoints as mutually exclusive, especially not from a mystical perspective. Although many philosophical authorities reject certain mystical doctrines, and some mekubbalim dismiss philosophical positions,[xxxvi] there are those that advocate for some form of synthesis. What follow are two different forms of synthesis. The first reconciles the different views by creating a two-tier structure. The second offers a blend of the seemingly different views and shows that they are, in fact, one.

R. Shlomo Elyashiv, the great Torah scholar and kabbalist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in his magnum opus, Leshem Shevo ve-Ahlamah, claims that Rambam’s view is entirely correct with regards to understanding God as transcendent, while the mystical doctrine of the mekubbalim speaks within the other, manifest, aspect of God.[xxxvii],[xxxviii] In this way, he maintains the seemingly exclusive opinions by allowing them to function on different levels.

Ramban, as well, views these two approaches as not mutually exclusive. As noted above, Ramban clearly states that the purpose of mitsvot is for man and not for God, yet elsewhere he presents a God-focused view as his “great secret.” While his opinion requires further investigation and analysis, it is likely that Ramban operates on multiple levels. On the peshat (simple reading) level, he considers the mitsvot to be for man’s sake, but, on the deeper “sod” level, avodat Hashem is for God. The two views are entirely different, but Ramban seems to comfortably adopt a multilayered worldview. Although it is purely speculative, it is possible to suggest that these layers of Ramban are similar to the claim of the Leshem.

A second form of synthesis is a profound idea found in the writings of R. Abraham Isaac Kook. Binyamin Ish Shalom of Beit Morasha of Jerusalem presents R. Kook’s discussion of the struggle between freedom of the self and subjugation to the Divine.[xxxix] Ish Shalom shows how R. Kook often stresses his loyalty to the importance of human will and the human self, yet other times speaks of complete subjugation to the Divine. He further argues that the complete picture of R. Kook’s view not only contains no contradictions but actually reflects a stunning attempt at synthesis. Freedom, writes R. Kook, is for one “to be true to his inner self, to the spiritual quality of God’s image within him, and in such a quality he can consider his life as worthy and purposeful.”[xl] Elsewhere, he explains further that “man is destined to rise to recognition of his will, to self-consciousness, to the highest perception of happiness in doing his own will as the will of his Maker, for his will is none other than his Maker’s will” [italics in the original].[xli] He explains that the human will is “a single spark of the blazing flame of the great Will in all of being, the manifestation of the will of the Master of the World, blessed be He.”[xlii] In this way, R. Kook explains that when a person develops his own self (within the guidelines of Torah and Halakhah), the divine will that is expressed within man is further developed. And when one subjugates himself to the divine will he truly finds the deepest level of his own will. This unique perspective sheds light on our discussion as well. We can propose that acting “for us” is acting “for Him,” and acting “for Him” is acting “for us.” As the Mishnah states, “make His will your will in order that your will become His will.”[xliii]

It is often difficult to maintain a constant excitement and vibrancy within one’s avodat Hashem amidst the repetition of daily routine. Thankfully, and not by chance, Judaism contains a variety of different outlooks. At times the “for us” type of worship will take the stage and, at other times, the “for Him” may be featured. For every person this combination will form itself differently and it is our challenge to each find our own synthesis of views. By developing both deeper understandings and appreciation of a wider scope of opinions a person can attempt to have a constant flow of substance and stimulation giving life to his or her avodat Hashem.


Yakov Danishefsky is a senior at YC majoring in Jewish Studies.

[i] See Kiddushin 31a.

[ii] Shemot 24:7.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] It is important to remember that Benei Yisrael were praised specifically for putting “na’aseh,” we will do, before “nishma,” we will listen (Shabbat 88a), ostensibly implying that commitment to avodat Hashem exists on its own, with or without understanding. Divine service is enhanced by understanding but not hinged entirely on it.

[v] This is in addition to the inherent value of knowing and understanding these issues as a fulfillment of the mitsvah to study and understand the Torah.

[vi] Not all halakhic authorities agree to the project of rationalizing the mitsvot. For example, R. Jacob ben Asher states in Tur, Yoreh De’ah 181 that “we do not need to search for the reasons of mitsvot because they are commandments of the King upon us even if we do not know their reason.” Many authorities, such as Rambam and Sefer ha-Hinnukh, however, seemed to invest a great deal of time into understanding the mitsvot. This question is ostensibly connected to the debate in Sanhedrin 21a as to whether or not “doreshin ta’ama de-kera, “we extrapolate the reasons of verses.”  

[vii] Makkot 3:16. All translations are my own unless otherwise stated.

[viii] Bereshit Rabbah 44:1. A very similar statement appears in Midrash Tanhuma, Shemini, chapter 8.

[ix] This translation follows Tosafot’s understanding of this passage. Tosafot record another view, however, that the question is not referring to God but rather to the kohanim performing the avodah in the Temple. In other words, the Gemara is asking, “Did Aharon really need the light of the menorah for his service? The shekhinah itself provided light for all forty years in the desert!”

[x] Shabbat 22b.

[xi] Moreh Nevukhim  3:49.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid 3:45.

[xiv] Ibid. 3:48.

[xv] Ibid 3:8.

[xvi] Rambam in Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:2) defines serving God out of love as “doing the truth because it is truth.” A similar expression appears in his Peirush ha-Mishnayot (Sanhedrin 10:1). This does not seem to be the model we are presenting for Rambam here (nor does it fit exactly with the “for Him” model). Rather, this seems to be a third view that advocates doing the mitsvot because they are true. Ostensibly the assumption is that truth is intrinsically valuable; see Michael J. Zimmerman, “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by Edward N. Zalta (Online: Winter 2012 Edition), available at: plato.stanford.edu.

[xvii] See Devarim 22:6-7 and commentary of Ramban, ad loc.

[xviii] Kiddushin 31a.

[xix] Ritva to Kiddushin 31a, s.v. de-amar. It is unclear how to understand what exactly “for our merit” (“li-zekhuteinu”) means. It could mean that man merits reward in this world and/or in the next world, or it could mean something along the lines of Ramban above, namely, that man benefits by developing better character and faith in God.

[xx] Sefer ha-Hinnukh 18.

[xxi] Ibid. 5.

[xxii] Ibid. 31.

[xxiii] Zohar 3:105a.

[xxiv] Zohar 2:119a.

[xxv] Zohar 3:16b.The King and Queen refer to different sefirot.

[xxvi] Tehillim 65:35.

[xxvii] Zohar 2:32b.

[xxviii] Tanya, Likutei Amarim, 10.

[xxix] Tanya, Sha’ar ha-Yihud ve-ha-Emunah, 7.

[xxx] This is more or less stated in Tikkunei Zohar 70 and explicated in the Asarah Kelalim of the Gra: “A great principle in Torah is that all that the mekubbalim (kabbalists) have said and all that the Torah says is God’s will, providence, and actions and they did not speak, [God forbid], about His physical essence at all.” (Kelal 1).

[xxxi] R.A.I. Kook explains this concept in a fascinating and insightful way: “Thus one discerns within the absolute perfection of Divinity two paradoxical features. The first is that God is absolutely perfect. It is impossible for there to exist, whether in this reality or in imagination, a perfection greater than His. This aspect of Divine perfection cannot become more perfect for there is nothing beyond it; there are no further levels to attain. And yet, this excellence conceals a deficiency that mars the very perfection that it purports. Perfection that lacks the possibility of becoming even more perfect is no longer completely flawless, for it is missing something. It is perfection minus one small detail, the experience of dynamic perfecting. Consequently, Divinity must also possess this latter capability. This second feature, the possibility of positive transformation, when applied to human beings, has certain fulfillments and gratifications and even superiority over its more distinguished counterpart, the supreme (though static) expression of absolute perfection. There is a particular type of exquisite joy that comes from self-improvement, and every soul longs for its sweetness. The exhilaration of personal transformation, of ‘ascending from strength to strength,’ must also be a divine satisfaction. It is impossible for the Creator to lack this virtue.” (Orot ha-Kodesh 2; transl. by Sarah Yehudit Schneider in Sarah Schneider, You Are What You Hate: A Spiritually Productive Approach to Enemies (Jerusalem: Still Small Voice, 2009).)

[xxxii] Sefer Nefesh ha-Hayyim 2:4. The Tanya also addresses these two levels. He speaks about God as the “mesavev kol almin” – “the One Who surrounds all worlds.” He surrounds all worlds, He is removed from them, and “everything is before Him as nothing.” And He is the “memale kol almin” – “the One Who fills all worlds,” and thereby He manifests in this world. See Tanya 3-4.

[xxxiii] Ramban to Shemot 29:46. s.v. le-shakhni.

[xxxiv] Yish’ayahu 49:3.

[xxxv] Kedushat Levi to Bereshit 2:6, s.v. ve-eid.

[xxxvi] See Daniel C. Matt, “The Mystic and the Mizwot” in Jewish Spirituality: From the Bible Through the Middle Ages, vol. 1, ed. by Arthur Green (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986), 367-404.

[xxxvii] This is not to say that Rambam himself would agree to that claim. Many philosophers reject mystical doctrines, but many mystics accept aspects of philosophical perspectives and add to them.

[xxxviii] This idea surfaces in a number of his writings. One explication of it appears in Likutim at the end of Hakdamot u-She’arim.

[xxxix] Binyamin Ish Shalom, Rav Avraham Itzhak Hacohen Kook: Between Rationalism and Mysticism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993), 108-113.

[xl] Ish-Shalom, 101.

[xli] Ish-Shalom, 111.

[xlii] Ish-Shalom, 111.

[xliii] Avot 2:4.