Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation

Holy: What Does it Mean?

By David J. Balint (Devar Torah at Seudah Shelishit on 4-20-13, Acharei Mot/Kedoshim)

I was asked to speak at seudah shlishit on shabbat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim, April 2013.  I always appreciate such a speaking engagement because it  provides me with the incentive to research a concept that puzzles or fascinates me.  The idea of Kedusha—Holiness is one such concept.  What does it mean to say that something is kadosh/‘holy?’

Holiness is a fundamental concept of Judaism as it is in all religions.  The anomaly has been noted that the Torah nowhere even attempts a definition of kadosh/holiness.  What about the sages?  What do they have to say?

As is usual, my starting point is Rambam/Maimonides.  Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed purports to be definitional—to explain terms in the Torah.  Part one of three is devoted largely to defining and explaining key terms in the Torah.    All sorts of concepts are explained—   Since Kadosh/Kedusha is so fundamental it is surprising that Rambam fails to directly explain it.  In his legal compendium, the Mishna Torah, Rambam has a whole sefer, one of fourteen, called  ‘Kedusha.’  In his introduction to the entire Mishna Torah, Rambam explains how and why he titled the various divisions.  In re this ‘Book of Holiness’ one might have expected laws relating to the Temple or the laws of ritual purity.  Instead Rambam includes the sexual laws, kashrut, and shechita (ritual slaughter) and explained that “it is with regard to these matters that God has endowed us with holiness and separated us from the gentile nations.”

This concept of ‘separateness’ undergirds much of the nuanced meaning of holiness.  This ‘separateness’ is always for a purpose. Some examples:

Holiness of time:  Shabbat and the holidays are labeled by God as holy times.  We even have the havdalah prayer to mark the transition from holy days to ‘chol’ (ordinary) days and even between one kind of holiness and another where these days run together such as a Shabbat followed by a holiday.

Holiness of place:  The Land of Israel, Jerusalem, The Temple Mount, The Temple itself, the Holy of Holies within the Temple are examples of locations marked by God as ‘holy.’  These designations can be permanent or they can be temporary, like Mt. Sinai.  There are degrees of holiness and different laws pertain to each. 

Holiness of Objects: A Torah scroll, first fruits, utensils for the Temple (see Number 7:1), things pledged to the Temple or due to the Cohanim are examples.  Again, God specified clear degrees of holiness.

Holiness of the People: The people Israel. In the words of Bilam: “Lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9). This includes the holiness of certain categories of people such as the Cohanim (priests) and the Cohan Gadol, the high priest, and Nazerites (see Numbers 6:5).

Not holiness of individuals: In researching this topic and after asking for rabbinic assistance, it is very important to observe that nowhere in scripture, the entire Tanach, is a named individual labeled as ‘holy.’ Not the forefathers, not the prophets, not even Moses.  In more recent times followers of various rabbis have elevated their personages to call them holy men.  We hear this in regard to people who are in our history and even to some who are living today.  It seems to be a bit over the top to call certain (mostly mystical) rabbis ‘holy’ when this attribute was not even awarded to Moses.*  Unlike the holinesses described above, this application of the term is manmade, not from God.

But parashat Kedoshim begins with the more stirring and direct words of God: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel and say to them: YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I THE LORD YOUR GOD AM HOLY.”

That introduction is the theme of the entire litany of commands that follow.  They begin with “You shall fear every man his mother and his father, and you shall keep My Sabbaths, I am the Lord your God.” Thereafter there are commandments forbidding idol worship, Improper use of the meat of sacrifices, leaving the corners of your field and the gleanings for the poor, prohibition of theft, lying, using God’s name in vain, not to oppress a convert, not to gossip, not to hate each other, not to put a stumbling block in front of a blind person and so on—almost always followed by the “reason” given:   “I am the Lord.”  I count 18 repetitions of this powerful phrase. When we hear this exclamation its corollary is “You shall be holy.”

The parasha closes as it started:   “And you shall be holy unto Me, for I the Lord am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples, that you should be Mine.”

I have struggled with this concept of holiness.  What is it?

As mentioned, the idea of ‘separateness’ or ‘separation’ seems to run throughout the use of the term, ‘kadosh.’  Rashi and almost everyone else expressly says this.  Keddushin is the designation of a woman to her husband to the exclusion of everyone else. A prostitute is a kedasha, i.e., separated for immoral purpose. The status of objects designated as kedusha is separation for use in the Temple and the Cohanim who work there.

“You shall be holy” certainly sounds like a commandment, doesn’t it?  In his Book of Commandments Rambam confronted the need to have rules to follow to determine which language in the Torah should be counted as one of the 613 commandments.  Principal #4 is “We are not to include [as one of the 613] charges that cover the entire body of the commandments of the Torah.”  Commenting specifically on these verses of parashat Kedoshim he says “you shall be holy” is the same as saying “Do My commandments.”  For Rambam then the idea of holiness can be just the general idea of obeying the law. Following halacha certainly has the effect of keeping us separate from the rest of the peoples of earth in profound ways. 

But Rambam then goes on and includes as positive commandment #8 for us “to walk in God’s ways” based on the language in parashat Ki Tavo and at Leviticus 18:4 and repetitions elsewhere “And you shall walk in His ways.”  Rambam defines this as the duty to ‘imitate God.’

But Rambam is a pure monotheist** and says strongly that we cannot know anything affirmative about God Himself.  This is the famous ‘negative theology’ doctrine of Maimonides. God is completely separate from anything physical and anything we can affirmatively know.  God has no relation to anything.  So how can we imitate God the unknowable?  We can’t.  However, we, physical creatures can know about the actions of God in at least two important ways:  First, we know that God created the universe.  That is, He created all things physical.  Second, He revealed himself in some manner to us and gave us the commandments which are a guide to how He wants us to live every moment of our lives.  Rambam goes on to say that we can imitate God by (1) Obeying His commandments and (2) observing His actions in nature and as revealed in the Torah.  So, Rambam says, just as God is merciful so we should be.  He describes Himself as gracious and righteous and slow to anger and forgiving, so we should be (see Numbers 14:18).  Just as God is all knowing, we should strive for truth and understanding.  Just as God has no imperfections, so we should strive to perfect ourselves.

God created the physical universe and we are bound up in it.  God is non-material, incorporeal, i.e., He is separated from all things material.  So what does Rambam say about this conundrum?  Rambam is of the mind that this means we should not become obsessed with the physical and should minimize our desires for physical pleasures and possessions.  Chazal  seem strongly in agreement on this point.  For example, Chazal has a fairly negative view of Job viewing him has too bound up in his acquisitions including family, wealth and honor and it was not until he lost it all that he eventually worked it out that the physical was of minor importance compared to knowing God. Rambam points out that our use of the material, our physical bodily functions, drives, need for sustenance, use of time, use of objects, dealing with each other, if governed and regulated by the guidelines He has given us through the commandments, the physical can be elevated toward holiness.  This is the message of parashat Kedoshim.

A couple of questions arise: (1) Is holiness real—does it really exist or is it a construct of our minds? Let’s deal with this question.  The answer is self-evident from God’s own words:  “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I THE LORD YOUR GOD AM HOLY.”    God’s separation from us is Absolute as is His reality.  In fact, God is the only non-contingent reality, i.e., not contingent or dependent on anything else, not temporary, not subject to decay and not subject to any influence whatsoever.  [That’s why Rambam considered those who thought they could manipulate God with amulets or mystical words to be worse than idol worshipers].

 (2)What is the source of holiness?  Is it just from God or can humans create holiness on our own?  It is pretty clear that it is solely God that has set the rules for what can be designated as holy, recognizing that there are degrees of holiness.  Some of the more serious degrees, such as the holiness of the food of the Cohanim God says incur the penalty of death at the hands of heaven.  As to holiness of time, God has set those periods. The death penalty is also proscribed for rebellious violations of Shabbat, for example.  If man has created new time restrictions, such as Purim or Chanukah, violating those is a matter of enforcement by a bet din for rebelliousness and not Torah punishments.  As to holiness of objects, such as a Torah scroll, God has set the rules in advance.

Our holiness, our separateness, is channeled and not absolute because we have an ongoing relationship with God.  The god of Aristotle, of Spinoza, of Einstein and of Stephen Hawking is not our God.  Aristotle figured out that God had to exist and set all of creation into motion but has no ongoing relationship.  Spinoza, Einstein and Hawking all assert that the term ‘god’ just means all of creation and there is no separate entity—180 degrees away from our God. 

Judaism was never comfortable with an individual separating himself or herself from the physical world such as becoming a Nazarite.  We don’t have monasteries or a requirement that our rabbis be celibate.  God chose (separated) the Jews for a purpose—to bring ethical monotheism to the world not for us to ignore, disdain or even hate gentiles.

Our God maintains a presence in the physical world.  Miracles can happen. Prayers can be answered. We can strive, despite our material existence, to be holy, to walk in His ways.


*There are two places where a person is called ‘kadosh’ but neither contradicts my thesis.  In Kings II 4:8-10 a prominent woman opines that the prophet Elisha was a ‘holy man.’  This is a comment by a layperson and not a quote from God.  Psalm 106, line16 says: “They were jealous of Moses in the camp, of Aaron, God’s holy one.”  Although both names are mentioned, the designation of ‘holy’ is singular.  It cannot be persuasively argued that Aaron as an individual was holy and Moses wasn’t! It seems that this reference is more generic, i.e., that Aaron is synonymous with the cohanim of which Aaron is, of course, one.

**Although Gersonides went so far with God’s immutability that it would seem he would make effective prayer or God’s intervention in history, indeed any interaction, impossible.

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