Understanding Fear of Heaven: A Little Essay on Perception of Hashem

The concept of “fear of God” (or Fear of Heaven) is often seen in a bad light.

To be honest, I think the word this is very inaccurate and the translation doesn’t do justice to it. The concept we are referring to here is Yir’ah, which is much more related to having “consciousness” or “awareness” of Hashem.

I think most of my audience is familiar with movies that often portray some priest, a convict nutcaseflamboyantly preaching and damning his audience to hell. It’s a common funny scene, but one that sadly leaves a strong impression that damages our view towards Hashem.

Thanks to that, people often believe God is a vengeful entity who wants to zap everyone who disobeys him with a bolt. Or, one who’s just waiting upstairs with the judge’s hammer to send sinners to hell. Just, you know… for the fun of it.

On a very low level, this type of fear of God is necessary: Individuals who worry about being punished are less likely to be evil, even though compared to others, they may be evil anyway. Fear, in this case, acts as a deterrent against committing atrocities (or greater atrocities than otherwise).

fear of Heaven

The basic level of Fear of Heaven

To be fair, fear of Heaven is necessary for society to be upheld. It’s not rules or laws that keep citizens in check. These can be corrupted, lifted, or not even executed altogether. Laws can be bypassed and misinterpreted, and more often than not, politicians seem to be above it and end up doing whatever they want. Politicians can also change laws according to their will, to better suit them or their friends.

I believe the greatest check for society not to descend into chaos is the realization there’s a True Judge who will punish criminals in a way beyond our worst nightmares. If everyone feared that murdering, stealing or committing adultery would have horrible repercussions in the afterlife, the world would be a much better place. Rights would suddenly be automatically upheld, and we’d live without fear of, say, getting shot in the street.

And, as I wrote in many different posts, yes it’s perfectly possible to find people who are religious that have zero fear of Hashem. Many of these were the super-religious Rabbis who received money to “pasken” that vaccination is a Mitzvah or that people who have not gone along with the health scam are criminals. These “holy angels” have a world of pain awaiting for them, and this is one of the wondrous reasons I’m grateful I’m not a Rabbi, but I digress.

The Zohar teaches that the measure of a person’s Olam HaBah is his Fear of Heaven (Yir’at Shamayim). Now, obviously, nothing in the Zohar should be interpreted at face value. Sod doesn’t work that way.

But some insights can be derived from it. For starters, fearing Hashem pretty much determines how committed you are to Avodat Hashem. Rebbe Nachman and many Ba’alei Mussar explain that fear and love are necessary, but fear must precede love. A person who merely loves Hashem is doing nothing but deluding himself. Fear without love may be an incomplete relationship, but it’s a relationship nonetheless.

Fear is what truly prevents one from transgressing negative Mitzvot, which is the most difficult part of Avodat Hashem. Love, on the other hand, prompts us to do the positive Mitzvot, but it’s much easier work.

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The true, higher aspect of fear of Heaven

Yet, being afraid is not all there is to it, of course. True fear of God is much more sublime than that. The second level of fear of Hashem is called “Yirat HaRomemut” (Fear of Greatness).

After passing that initial childish perception we have, which is necessary, fear becomes a trampoline to a much higher state of consciousness in which we realize how great Hashem is.

This second aspect is necessary to approach the Source of all life. In fact, a more appropriate translation for this second aspect would be “Awe” or “Trepidation” at the sheer absolute mastery of the King of kings over every single conceivable aspect of reality. Everything we can grasp through science or our minds is completely nullified next to the One who transcends it and owns the universe.

Every breath we take. Every stride we give. And every thought we think. Everything is granted from Above.

By definition, everything that happened in the past, that happens in the present or will happen in the future is within God’s desires and plans. Nothing is outside His jurisdiction. At the same time, we retain free will (this paradox will be explained elsewhere).

This perception helps us reorient our minds and makes us receptive to real revelations, as we get a more solid and proper understand of how to relate to Hashem. Check also this other article on Sha’ar HaGilgulim.

Additional Insights

Keeping these ideas and meditating on them can be a powerful way to fix Middot. While there’s such a thing as punishment, which should not be taken lightly, we must also keep in mind that Hashem’s compassion (rachamim) is much greater than that. According to our sages (in Massechet Brachot?), by a measure of 500 to 1.

Nevertheless Rabbi Chaim Vital teaches us in Shaarei Kedusha to keep the fear of Hashem in our faces constantly if we genuinely desire Ruach HaKodesh.

One powerful meditation device is to keep the name of Hashem (יהוה) with the Nekud (punctuation marks) of the word Yir’ah in our minds constantly. This is suggested in the Kitvei HaAri as well.

May we merit these wondrous levels.

What are your thoughts on it?

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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