Awe and Fear

In a relatively recent post (“Confrontation and Babel“) I invoked a quote from R’ J.B. Soloveitchik’s Confrontation to highlight the linkage between language and worldview, and thus between language and religion.

Rabbi Soloveitchik writes:

The great encounter between God and man is a wholly personal private affair incomprehensible to the outsider – even to a brother of the same faith community. The divine message is incommunicable since it defies all standardized media of information and all objective categories. If the powerful community of the many feels like remedying an embarrassing human situation or redressing an historic wrong, it should do so at the human ethical level. However, if the debate should revolve around matters of faith, then one of the confronters will be impelled to avail himself of the language of his opponent. This in itself would mean surrender of individuality and distinctiveness.

I elaborated:

Words are pigeonholes for ideas. … A community tends to refer to some concept, be it “ball”, “run” or “salvation”, and therefore their language has a word for it. If the idea rarely comes up, they would use an expression to define it. But if the idea isn’t part of their worldview altogether, one would have to start with the differences in givens and spend hours building up our worldview in order to explain the idea to them….

… To someone who thinks in English, fear and anxiety caused by danger, the unknown or the possibility of erring are all variants of the same thing. …

I recently gave a talk on yir’ah which opened by discussing an example I gave then: the difference between dividing our emotional space between the “territories” of fear (and panic, terror, fright…) and awe and dividing our emotional space between yir’ah, pachad and eimah.

The Himba-Western Color Test

The Himba people of Nigeria are a favorite among some linguists and cognitive scientists. There was once a theory that if a society has only two words for color, they would refer to white and black. If there were a third word, red. And so on for the 11 most used color words that appear in English — and thus other languages. Which would imply that there is something hard-wired about how people perceive color. But the Himba did not focus on the hue of a color, where it sits in the spectrum. To them, darkness and lightness (to be more specific saturation and value) is just as primary. And thus they don’t share the same line between green and blue as we do.

To be specific, see the color chart at right. There are actually two colors that are not the same as the others. One you’ll probably see right away, the other may take longer, if you notice it at all.

To a Westerner, the aqua square at the second from the bottom on the right is obviously different. However, the lighter green square in the left column, second from the top, is a more of a challenge.

To the Himba, the reverse is true. They have only 4 primary color words, but they learn different words for these two shades of green when they are young, and the difference becomes obvious to them. However, the aqua square as the same darkness as the green ones, and so distinguishing it is a challenge.

This is startling, but it shows how much our perceptions are shaped by how we tag them. We use words to review our memories. So how we remember something also gets shaped by the language we use.

If this is true for something empirical, like color, how much more so for something so much harder to put a finger on, like fear or awe.

To really understand what yir’ah and yir’as Shamayim (yir’ah for [the One in] heaven) mean, we have to learn how to shift from thinking of yir’ah as a category that straddles awe and fear to thinking in terms of yir’ah itself.

Pachad and Eimah

To make this shift, I would step back and look at the other major “countries” dividing up this middah “continent” in the Torah’s terms.

The Chumash reads (in “Az Yashir”, Shemos 15:16):

תִּפֹּל עֲלֵיהֶם אֵימָתָה וָפַחַד בִּגְדֹל זְרוֹעֲךָ יִדְּמוּ כָּאָבֶן עַד יַעֲבֹר עַמְּךָ ה עַד יַעֲבֹר עַם זוּ קָנִיתָ

Terror and dread will fall upon them by the greatness of Your “Arm” they are as still as stone; until Your people cross, Hashem, until this people whom You acquired cross [the sea].

Rashi there comments:

“תפול עליהם אימתה” – (מכילתא) על הרחוקים

“ופחד” – על הקרובים כענין שנאמר (יהושע ב) “כי שמענו את אשר הוביש” וגו’

Eimah will fall upon them — those who are far. (Mekhilta)

And pachad — those who are near, like the matter which it says, “we [the people of Jericho] have heard how Hashem dried up the water of the Sea of Reeds…”

Eimah is remote, pachad is immediate.

Looking ateimah in particular, Yeshaiah 33:18

לִבְּךָ יֶהְגֶּה אֵימָה אַיֵּה סֹפֵר אַיֵּה שֹׁקֵל אַיֵּה סֹפֵר אֶת הַמִּגְדָּלִים.

Your heat will contemplate the eimah: ‘Where is he that counted, where is he that weighed? Where is he that counted the towers?’


“לבך יהגה אימה” – כשתראה השרים והחכמים של עכו”ם שהיו שליטים בחייהן והרי הם נידונים בגיהנם יהגה לבך אימה ותאמר איה חכמתן וגדולתן של אלו איה שהיה סופר בחייו ושוקל כל דבר חכמה שהיו שואלין ממנו כל עצת מלכות

Your heart will contemplate the eimah — When you see the lords and sages of the idolatrous nations that in their lifetimes are ruling, and behold they are being judged in gehenam “Your heart will contemplate the eimah” and say “Where is their wisdom and greatness? Where is the one who was a scribe in his life and weighed out every piece of wisdom that they asked of him, all of the advice for the king?”

As we saw in Shemos, those who heard of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds from afar experienced eimah. It also describes the experience of watching in wonder at the complete loss of greatness of the ruling class of the nations that oppress us. One experiences eimah when encountering the unknown.

Pachad, as we saw is the flip-side. It comes with immediacy. As when Yaaqov invoked the merit of Yitzchaq at the Aqeidah by referring to “pachad Yitzchaq” (Bereishis 31:42, c.f. Kelei Yaqar ad loc).Yitzchaq, whose prayer is described as going out “lasuach basadeh — to flirt [with G-d] in the field” experienced G-d as an immediate and very real presence. Pachad describes our fear of snakes.


But both eimah and pachad incapacitate. Eimah freezes us with an inability to decide in the absence of data and surety; pachad triggers the fight-or-flight reflex, pushing us to react without taking the time for contemplation, for free-willed decision-making.

In contrast, yir’ah is the very essence of free will.

ואמר רבי חנינא הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים שנאמר (דברים י:יב) “ועתה ישראל מה ה’ אלהיך שואל מעמך כי אם ליראה…?”

אטו יראת שמים מילתא זוטרתא היא? והא”ר חנינא משום ר’ שמעון בן יוחי: אין לו להקב”ה בבית גנזיו אלא אוצר של יראת שמים. שנאמר (ישעיהו לג:ו) “יראת ה’ היא אוצרו.” אין. לגבי משה, מילתא זוטרתא היא. דאמר ר’ חנינא: משל לאדם שמבקשים ממנו כלי גדול, ויש לו. דומה עליו ככלי קטן. קטן, ואין. לו דומה עליו ככלי גדול:

Rabbi Chanina said: Everything is in the hands of Heaven except yir’as Shamayim, as it says: “And now, Israel, what does Hashem your G-d demand of you but to feel yir’ah?” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

Is then the fear of Heaven a small thing?! Didn’t [the same] Rabbi Chanina say in the name of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai: God has in his storehouse nothing but the treasure of yir’as Shamayim, as it says: “The fear of the Lord is His treasure” [Isaiah 33:6]. Yes, for Moses it was a small thing. For as Rabbi Hanina said: It is like a person who is asked for a big vessel and he has it, it seems to him to be small; [if asked for] a small vessel and he does not have it, it seems to him to be big.

– Berakhos 33b (there are other versions at Megillah 25a and Niddah 16b)

Yir’ah is the one thing Hashem treasures because only something that is sourced in yir’ah is from a free decision by a person, rather than from Him. We see this contrast in theextended Birkhas Qedushah (the third berakahah of the Amidah) for the Yamim Nora’im:

ובכן תן פחדך ה’ אלוקינו על כל מעשיך,
ואימתך על כל מה שבראת,
וייראוך כל המעשים
וישתחוו לפניך כל הברואים,
ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם….

And so, place Your pachad, Hashem our G-d, on all that You have made, and Your eimah on all that you have created,
and all that were made will have yir’ah for You, and all that were created will bow before You,
and they will all be made into a single confederation to do Your Will whole-heartedly….

Pachad and eimah are placed on people by G-d. Yir’ah is something we do of our own.

In a future post (hopefully soon), I’ll discuss what yir’ah is. The points I’m trying to leave you with now are:

1- Words are how we divide the space of ideas into more specific “countries”. Our choice of vocabulary therefore not only reflects our thoughts, but shape them. And more importantly, they change what parts of our experience we notice, remember, and reinforce in our memories. A point the “Himba-Western Color Test” highlights. We could be living in different worlds.

2- In particular, we can’t really work on our yir’as Shamayim if we continue dividing the space in terms of fear (and terror, panic, etc…) and awe. Yir’ah may cover some of the same territory as the English concept of “fear” and much of the territory as “awe”. But yir’ah doesn’t come in two types / flavors / aspects. It is one stretch of emotional space.

3- And now that we looked at the neighboring “countries” of pachad and eimah, we are ready to explore the yir’ah as a primary concept in its own right.

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3 Responses

  1. Neil Harris says:

    I’ve been meaning to comment on this post for a while, but I needed to find some time to actually think about it.

    The end of “point 2” is something I’d love to read/learn more about. Yir’ah being a “stretch of emotional space” is pretty much untapped, in my opinion.

    I recently heard (in an mp3 shiur from Rabbi Shmuel Silber from Baltimore)that using the word “fear” as a translation for yir’ah poses a big problem. Fear implies something that we want to separate or withdraw from. The example he gave was fire. If your hand gets close to a flame you are afraid that you’ll get burned. When we are in a relationship with Hashem (or anyone we love) the last thing we want to do is be in a state of “fear”, since we don’t want any type of separation.
    That’s why the word “awe” is better, even though I think it’s an antiquated word.

    • micha says:

      The whole point of the post is to really get away from fear vs awe. To think like the Torah intends, and to really relate to HQBH with yir’ah, we have to learn to think in its own terms. Yir’ah as a primary concept, not as a set of emotions.

      The next post in the series is already in the works. So whatever points I failed to make this time, I still have a chance to reinforce later. But until I get out what yir’ah is, as opposed to what some of its alternatives are, I am stuck talking around my point.

  1. August 19, 2022 – כ״ב באב תשפ״ב

    […] We saw the following gemara (Berakhos 33b, Megillah 25a and Niddah 16b) in our discussion of yir’ah (“Awe and Fear“): […]

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