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Was the Sanctus Hymn Borrowed from the Synagogue?

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…And, If So, When?

These are the words written on a scrap of paper I was given many years ago by an aged priest (I don’t remember why!) and ever since I happened to come upon it a few days ago in a little-used drawer of my desk, I have been totally mesmerized…to the extent of staying up until 4 a.m. more than once, surrounded by various editions and translations of the Bible as well as the Hebrew Tanakh, as I embarked upon my search…

[Note: the Sanctus referenced in the title of this article is a hymn from Christian Liturgy, forming part of the Order of Mass (or Communion Service).]

The “Tent Meeting”

I have often written about my father, the wonderful example he was to so many (and how he taught me to pray when I was very little) but I can honestly say that I only became a committed Christian, of my own volition, at the age of nine – at a tent meeting to which I was taken in the South African veld*, near Bloemfontein, by people with whom my mother had left me for the weekend. Ever since then reflection like this has been of the kind that has often riveted me, and which would drive me even to stand on a wooden crate in order to see through the window of the local Synagogue in Ficksburg, South Africa. (Was that because although I was baptized in a Dutch Reformed Church, I had  a Jewish godmother – a schoolteacher who lived with us – and was prompted to ask Leah, a new immigrant who sat beside me in school, to teach me the Hebrew alphabet when I was six?)

And So Began My Search

I was thrilled to be able to ascertain that the Sanctus first appears in the fourth century, in a non-Eucharistic (Holy Communion) context and that it appears to have been derived from the Kedusha, which certainly contains that beautiful vision of angels as described, I believe, by Isaiah who saw all of this in a dream. The “holy, holy, holy…” has perhaps been borrowed from the Sanctus; and the credo is very similar to the Shema, “Hear, oh Israel,” the central prayer in the Jewish prayer book and often the first section of Scripture that a Jewish child learns. I have read that the Catholic mass evolved from the basic structure of Jewish prayer, and it is reasonable to assume that major prayers in the Mass are reminiscent of prayers in the Jewish liturgy.

In Isaiah 6, I Read:

1) In the year that King Ozias died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and elevated: and his train filled the temple. 2) Upon it stood the seraphims: the one had six wings, and the other had six wings: with two they covered his face, and with two they covered his feet, and with two they flew. 3) And they cried one to another, and said: Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord God of Hosts, all the earth is full of his glory, 4) and the lintels of the doors were moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. 5) And I said: Woe is me, because I have held my peace; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people that has unclean lips, and I have seen with my eyes the King the Lord of Hosts…

“Let us sanctify Your name in the world, just as the they sanctify it in the heavens on high, as it is written by the hands of your prophets, ‘And they called one to the other and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord of hosts the whole land is filled with your honor’. Those facing each other said: ‘Blessed is the honor of God from His place.’ And in the holy words it is written saying, ‘God shall reign forever, your God of Zion, from generation to generation, praised is God’.”

Upon Reading About Ben-Chaim’s Critical Response:

“What is the unique message of the Kedusha? That which is often repeated, seizes our attention least: precisely the fault of its familiarity.” I could not help wondering if he was the same Ben-Chaim who said: “Our attention is normally aroused towards that which is novel and new. However, we must rethink whether this is proper, or if in fact, this counter-intuitive thinking should not remain self-guided. The Rabbis would not have instituted a four-times-daily recitation of that which is not crucial to Jewish thought. Although quite brief, the Kedusha contains ideas central to Jewish life.” And this set me off in a new direction as I studied his life – and off I went in yet another direction.

The King James Version

Definitely the “Holy, holy” is a thread that runs through all Scipture. In the King James version of the Bible, Revelation 4:8, we read: “Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
“‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.’


The hours I have devoted to reading and researching thus far have proven to be among the most absorbing and pleasurable of my entire “writing’ life – but much more lies ahead. First I must find the dear old man who sent me off on this assignment, and then I hope to find out: WHY?

P.S. One of the reasons i like writing for this publication is that one often gets remarks and reviews, and this time i really look forward to learning from people who are more knowledgeable than i am!

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About Marie Warder

Born in South Africa, became a journalist and later trained as a teacher before establishing my own school - "Windsor House Academy, of which I remained the principal until I emigrated to Canada. Love to write, and have published 27 books. Played the piano in my husband's dance band for 33years. Founder and President Emerita of the the Canadian, South African and in International Association of Hemochromatosis Societies, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Warder
  • Marie Warder

    It certainly is interesting!… How much I am learning; how much is coming to light just because of a tattered little piece of paper! –
    Thank you for your comment.

  • John Roddam

    There was a 19th C. controversy between the High and Low Churchmen over the second part of the Sanctus, commonly found in contemporary Anglican Prayer Books. The High Churchmen loved the Benedictus Qui Venit because Jesus said, “You will not see me again until they say ‘Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!'” The AngloCatholics felt this liturgical addition affirmed the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The Low Church Evangelicals hated the phrase, attached to the Sanctus and often sought to omit it in various editions of the Prayer Book… interesting!

  • Marie Warder

    You have no idea how thrilled I am to receive your message – and how grateful! It is very precious to me now, and three other people have tried to scan it, but with each attempt, it has only become more ragged.

  • Elaine Murray

    Marie, I tried to scan your precious little note for you, but it was in such poor condition that I have been obliged to type it for you. … Here goes…






  • Marie Warder

    More very welcome info for which I thank you.

  • Baronius

    The Sanctus is the prayer between the Preface and the Eucharistic Prayer.

    The Mass consists of the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Preface marks the beginning of the latter. The Preface has different texts, but they always make reference to the angels adoring God. Then comes the Sanctus.

    The Sanctus repeats the prayers of the angels in Isaiah, then mirrors the hosannah of the crowds at Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem. The Sanctus therefore connects the Old and New Testaments, and connects the worship of God in Heaven to the worship of Jesus in the Eucharist. It also follows the life of Jesus, from his teaching ministry (the Word) to the Last Supper (the Eucharist).

  • Marie Warder

    Thank you for this valuable comment. I’ll add it to the knowledge I am trying to accumulate.

  • Much of Christian music has its roots in early synagogue music, almost all of which is based on biblical chant modes and motifs. The text Holy, Holy, Holy comes from the Book of Isaiah and is part of his vision of angels attending God. It carried into the Kedusha as well as found its way into an earlier section of the morning liturgy as well. Shema (I think as you suggested) comes from the Book of Deuteronomy (Devarim).