Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur: “Like Clay in the Hands of the Potter”

The theological concept which attributes to God the formation of the human personality might lead to different religious conclusions
Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On is the Vice President and Director of the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought and the David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence in Jerusalem, and a lecturer of Talmud and Jewish Thought at Shalem College. At the David Hartman Center, he is responsible for the advanced training of aspiring public intellectuals through the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, the David Hartman postdoctoral fellowship, and the Maskilot fellowship for women pursuing their doctorate. His research in

The concept of teshuva, which characterizes the preparations for Yom Kippur, seeks to impose maximum responsibility on the individual, allowing him maximum hope. Many of the High Holiday prayers, on the other hand, show people begging God for their lives. The attempt to belittle man, turn him into “a small worm in the soil,” and depict him as an irresponsible being who relies on God’s grace, is evident throughout the High Holiday liturgy.

Yet the classic “piyut” (medieval liturgical poem), “Like Clay in the Hand of the Potter,” which is sung on Yom Kippur (listen to an Israeli folk version here ; listen to famed Israeli singer Chava Alberstein’s version here ), reveals a not-so-subtle effort to turn that approach on its head.

Like the clay in the hand of the potter
He expands it at will and contracts it at will
So are we in Your hand, O Preserver of kindness.
Look to the covenant and ignore the Accuser.
Like the stone in the hand of the cutter-
he grasps it at will and smashes it at will-
so are we in Your hand, O Source of life and death,
look to the covenant and ignore the Accuser
Like the ax-head in the hand of the blacksmith-
he forges it at will and removes it at will-
so are we in Your hand,
O Supporter of poor and destitute,
look at the covenant and ignore the Accuser

This piyut puts the blame for man’s personality on God and uses the threat of annihilation by God as a statement in defense of Israel.

The piyut has its origins in a verse (18:6) from the prophet Jeremiah: “O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay in the potter’s hand, so are ye in My hand, O house of Israel.”

Our sages pushed back at this frightening verse by saying:

Israel said: Master of the world, this is what you said to us: “As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in mine, O house of Israel” (Jer. 18:6). This is why, even though we are sinners and fill you with anger and exasperation, don’t leave us, because we are the material and you are our maker.

If this maker created a jar, and left a tiny stone in it, when it came out of the oven, it would drip and leak. But who caused it to leak and lose its contents? You, the potter who made it!

The difference between Jewish and Pauline-Christian interpretations

The theological concept which attributes to God the formation of the human personality might lead to different religious conclusions. Christian Pauline theology developed this into a theory which actually breaks down the individual’s moral responsibility. When Paul describes God’s choosing Jacob as an arbitrary choice, relying on God’s answer to Rivka before she gave birth to Yaakov and Esau:

For though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls. (Romans 9:11)

This concept raises a severe theological and ethical question, as Paul puts it: “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there?” (Romans 9:14). A bit later, in Romans 9:21, he solves this problem by an analogy to the potter and his clay:

Does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?

Paul’s concept brings forth a clearly alienated and inhuman theology. Human society is dichotomously divided between the “honored” and the “common.” The honored must not be glorified, nor should the common be blamed – God created them all at His will. They are all the outcome of the potter’s work with clay. They are mere objects. The potter may do to them whatever he wishes – expand or contract them, preserve or break them.

But the author of the piyut avoids reaching Paul’s conclusion. Human beings are as clay in the potter’s hand, formed from dust by God, who breathed life into them and gave them independent souls. Between the lines, the poet says that God made us living things with desires, turning us from object into vessel, from substance into subject. We are complex subjects, and as such, we almost demand that God, because God is our Creator, preserve his kindness and to look to the covenant, and ignore the accuser, our evil inclination.

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