Deriving from the Hebrew for “presence,” Shekhinah has been used to indicate the presence of God in the world. Early on it was used in the Aramaic, “Shekhinta” (as found in Targum Onkelos), and was used as a substitute for a part of God — “you cannot see My face and live” would become “you cannot see My Shekhinah and live.” The term served in the Talmud in broader ways – as a humanizing yet still separate reflection of God among humans, sometimes even as the very omnipresence of God.
As use continued, Shekhinah came to represent the feminine manifestation of God, usually God on earth. (Mother Earth or Mother Nature come to mind, though with a distinct holiness.) The Shekhinah is the provider of divine intervention, of compassion, of healing and caring. In fact, the Shekhinah has been said to “rest on” those who comport themselves in a holy manner. Some say the Shekhinah appears variously as a bride in white, an elderly woman in black, or a dove. Kabbalists equate Shekhinah with the tenth sefirah of Malkhut. (In the Zohar, the ten sefirot represent various stages of God’s inner life, the personality of God if you will.)
Often associated with a bright light, the Shekhinah was said to have gone into exile after the destruction of the First Temple, and the reuniting of God’s masculine and feminine aspects has been the been the focus of much Kabbalistic deliberation. However, other rabbis have stated plainly that we must not think of separate parts of God, that if God places a representation of Self among humans it is purely a metaphorical reference, a figurative representation. Others still have argued that as a being without form, God may well have a representation here or there simultaneously.
Some have conceived of the Shekhinah as angelic, as when Moses was taken to his burial place wrapped in the “wings of the Shekhinah” (Sotah 13b). Taking it further, some have discussed the relationship between the Shekhinah and the Holy Spirit (Ru’ah HaKodesh).
Some see the Shekhinah as the feminine representation in charge of all the angels. Some say that humans can brighten or dull her light as we display holy or not-so-holy thoughts, words, or actions. Some say the poem “Eshet Hayil,” Woman of Valor,” taken from Proverbs 31:10-31, was originally sung in a Kabbalistic ritual and the intended object of the poem was the Shekhinah.
The idea of a brilliant light and nurturing care persist through all. Many have associated the gentle presence with forthcoming prophesies, or with the figurative enlightening of humans. We have much more enlightening to accomplish.
Shekhina is also a book of photography by Leonard Nimoy, published in 2002, which created a bit of a stir.