The Jewish «Roots» of the Holy Spirit - Lea Sestieri
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Lea Sestieri

The «Guide for a correct presentation of Jews and the Jewish religion in the Preaching and Catechesis of the Catholic Church» (1985), encourages Christians to acquire a more respectful and adequate knowledge of the common heritage of Christians and Jews because this knowledge «can help them better understand certain aspects of the life of the Church» (1,3). This knowledge also includes the mystery of the Holy Spirit whom the New Testament and above all Christian tradition profess to be the third Person of the Holy Trinity, proceeding from the Father and the Son and who «with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified» (Nicean-Constantinople Creed).
Although in Jewish scripture the Holy Spirit is never presented as a person but rather as a divine power capable of transforming the human being and the world, the fact remains that Christian pneumatological terminology is rooted in that of the Jewish religion. In preaching and Catechesis therefore it will be necessary to point out this connection, underlining the main aspects.
1. The term: «Spirit» translates the Hebrew word «Ruah» which in its primary sense means breath, air, wind. «Jesus indeed uses the sensory image of the wind to suggest to Nicodemus the transcendent newness of him who is personally God’s breath the divine Spirit» (Catechism of the Catholic Church 691). The spirit as irruption and as transcendence: working in history but other than history, who cannot be reduced to history’s logic but who installs another logic, that of responsibility and love for others;
2. Ordering power: «In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep and God’s spirit hovered over the water» (Gn 1,1). God’s spirit came down on the formless world and this descent produced the miracle of creation: the transformation of chaos into cosmos, of disorder into order;
3. Vivifying power: «The Lord God fashioned man out of dust from the soil. Then he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life and thus man became a living being» (Gn 2, 7). The spirit of God is breathed onto the human being of dust and, because of this breath, the human being is transformed into a living being: no longer an animal being but a partner with whom and to whom God speaks and entrusts responsibility for the world;
4. Guiding power: «On him the spirit of the Lord rests, a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and power, a spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord» (Is 11,2). The Spirit of the Lord takes hold of certain persons (patriarchs, matriarchs, judges, kings, prophets, wise men etc.,) and by bestowing on them special powers, enables them to act as guides and master interpreters in the world, of the will of God;
5. Healing power: «I shall give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you… I shall put my spirit in you, and make you keep my laws and sincerely respect my observances» (Ez 36,27). Entering into the human being, the spirit recreates and heals him, overcoming his sin and making him once more a partner of God in the covenant and in the observance of the Torah.
6. Universal dimension: «I will pour out my Spirit on all mankind. Their sons and daughters shall prophesy Even on my slaves men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit» (Jl 3f 1-2). There will come a day when every human being will be possessed by the spirit and this day will coincide with the day of the messiah;
7. The feast of Pentecost: «At Pentecost … they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech» (Acts 2f, 1-4). The out-pouring of the Spirit by the Risen Lord coincides with the Hebrew feast of Pentecost, which celebrates the gift to Israel of the Covenant and the Torah. The Spirit of the Risen Lord is not the cancellation but the renewal of the Mount Sinai covenant: responsibility before man producing fruits of justice and holiness in the world.

English bibliography:
1) Catechism of the Catholic Church, Vatican City 1994;
2) Sidic 27/2 1994: «The New Catholic Catechism and the Jews».

The Holy Spirit and the Spirit of Holiness in Jewish thought

The expression «Holy Spirit» as such (noun with attribute adjective) is not found in the text of the Jewish Bible where reference to the Spirit is always accompanied by a genitive of belonging: therefore the Spirit of God (ruah Elohim) in the case of creation; Spirit of the Lord (ruah Jhwh) in the case of God’s relation with his creatures. Only twice we find a reference to Holiness (ruah qodesh) Spirit of Holiness, in which Holiness is synonymous with God (Is 63, 10s; Ps 51, and 13).

If in creation it represents the ordering premise, «the first revelation of God to the world, almost a proclamation, the seed of future revelation» so much so as to suggest in the Targum Neophite the interpretation of the words «The Spirit of God hovered» as «a spirit of love before the Lord»; in the life of creatures he is poured out on some, transmitting to them «his intention, the direction of his will», he touches them with particular intensity (judges, kings) and enables their words to become words of prophecy and the prophet to be recognized as ish haruah a man of the spirit (Os 9,7). But the Spirit in certain circumstances may touch everyone: the verses of Joel 3,1-2 are in this case more indicative (v. appendix). Ezekiel furthermore in 36,24 regarding the heart of stone and the heart of flesh, suggests the intervention of the Spirit to bring about the spiritual revolution, in the desire for transformation through teshuvah (repentance, conversion), which leads to the fulfillment of «love your neighbour as yourself». It could therefore be suggested that while the Spirit is neither corporal nor material he is present in creatures and enriches them.

Rabbinical thought starts with the Spirit as Spirit of Prophecy which ceases as such with Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (Yoma 9b) and it is then recognized as charismatic inspiration and is promised to scholars. The Mishnah speaks of the spirit as something, which can be attained by man though different spiritual stages (see appendix). Never in rabbinical texts is the Spirit considered as an entity separate from God, even though at times it is used as synonymous with God and inter-changeable with Shekinah (majesty of God present among men and in nature; immanence.

Hebrew philosophy likens the Spirit to the rabbinical Shekinah (Filone), to the Glory of God (Jehudah HaLevi); while Maimonide describes it as the inspiration of the divine Intellect (emanated by God upon prophets) and Nahmanide, regarding Gn 2,7 stresses «It is the spirit of the great name from whose mouth comes knowledge and intelligence». (Perushe hatorah 1,33).

The Mysticism of Rhenish Hassidism (12th-13th century) refers again to the Glory «it is the great splendour called Shekinah and therefore identical to the Spirit of Holiness from which come the voice and the word of God». The Zohar (1,15a) shows that it is thanks to the Spirit that the world was created, in as much as it is the emanation of this light, splendid and primordial point as it had already been described by the philosopher Saadia (9th century).

In this last century Idealism rediscovers the absolute Spirit as the name for the absolute «I». F. Rosenzweig, referring to creation, underlines «the spirit of the Covenant of Gn l, 2 as something tending to depersonalization, that is to greater transcendence». A Neher defines it an absolute principle of revelation. Lastly the divine Spirit is considered to be that which represents the inseparable relation between God and man (Herman Cohen).


- Joel 3,1-2 «And it will come about that I will pour out my Spirit on all mankind. Their sons and daughters shall prophesy,
your young men shall see visions,
your old men shall dream dreams.
Even on my slaves men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit».

- Ezekiel «Then I am going take you from among the nations
and gather you together from all the foreign countries,
and bring you home to your own land.
I shall pour clean water over you and you will be cleansed;
I shall cleanse you of all your defilement and all your idols.
I shall give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you;
I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead.
I shall put my spirit in you».

-Mishnah, Sota 9,15 «R. Pinehas ben Jair said: Diligence leads to innocence; innocence leads to chastity; chastity leads to abstinence; abstinence leads to purity; purity leads to humility; humility leads to fear of sin; fear of sin leads to piety; piety leads to the holy spirit (ruah haquadesh) and the Holy Spirit renders us worthy of the resurrection of the dead, which will come about by means of Eliah»

- Talmud, Pesahim 117a «The title For David a Psalm teaches us that David began to recite the psalm and immediately the divine Presence was laid upon him. This proves that the divine Presence does not manifest itself when we indulge in sadness or frivolity or useless words, but only thanks to joy experienced when we fulfil a commandment as it is said in 2 Kings 3,15 "And as the musician played, the hand of the Lord (that is the prophetic spirit) was laid upon him"».