Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat BeHukotai 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat BeHukotai 5760/2000

In Conclusion: Notes on the Concept of Holiness (Kadosh, Kedusha)

Dov Landau

Department of Jewish Literature

The root k-d-sh occurs nineteen times in Parashat BeHukotai, the last reading from the book of Leviticus, in which there are altogether 152 occurrences of this root. The Torah nowhere defines the concept of kedushah, what we might call in English "holiness" or "sanctity." Nevertheless, the use of this root has developed extensively, so that today we speak of making kiddush on the wine, or of reciting the kaddish and the kedushah in the synagogue service, or of marrying a woman through kiddushin (the ring ceremony), and we behave as if we understand the concept of being kadosh (holy) which is present in each of these actions. We tend to forget that holy is a divine (transcendental) concept, and therefore, like the concept of G-d, is above human comprehension.

The same may be said of the antonyms and synonyms of this concept; we do not understand precisely what hullin ("things secular or mundane") means nor who is a "secular" person (modern Hebrew hiloni ). Similarly obscure are the concepts of tahor (ritually pure, "clean") and tame (impure, unclean), its opposite.

To help clarify this concept, let us examine the meaning of kadosh as it appears in a sampling of some thirty verses from the Bible.

Kadosh is associated with loftiness, with being raised or elevated: "He who high aloft/ forever dwells, whose name is holy" (Is. 57:15); and from II Kings: "Against whom ... haughtily raised your eyes? Against the Holy One of Israel!" (II Kings 19:22).

Kadosh is beyond comparison, beyond our grasp: "To whom, then, can you liken Me... says the Holy One" (Is. 40:25).

Kadosh is awesome: "They praise Your name as great and awesome" (Ps. 99:3); "His name is holy and awesome" (Ps. 111:9).

Kadosh is fervent: "The Light of Israel will be fire/ and its Holy One flame" (Is. 10:17).

Kadosh is righteous: "The Holy G-d [is] proved holy by righteousness [tzedakah]" (Is. 5:16.

Kadosh is G-d's chosen: "Then the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy one" (Num. 16:7).

Who is holy, according to the Bible?

The Holy One, blessed be He, is kadosh: "for I am holy" (Lev. 11:44; 19:2; 20:26; 21:8); "Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts!" (Is. 6:3); for "I the Lord am holy in Israel" (Ez. 39:7); "Through those near to Me I show Myself holy" (Lev. 10:3).

The nazirite is kadosh: "throughout his term as nazirite he is consecrated [kadosh] to the Lord" (Num. 6:8).

The Israelites are kadosh: "For you are a people consecrated [kadosh] to the Lord your G-d" (Deut. 7:6; 14:2; 14:21); "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6). "For I the Lord am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be you G-d: you shall be holy, for I am holy" (Lev. 11:45).

The prophet is kadosh: "it is a holy man of G-d" (II Kings 4:9).

The Sabbath is kadosh: "If you call the sabbath 'delight,' the Lord's holy day 'honored'" (Is. 58:13); "Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy sabbath of the Lord" (Ex. 16:23); "but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion" (Lev. 23:3).

The festivals are kadosh: "These are the set times of the Lord, the sacred occasions" (Lev. 23:4).

The jubilee is kadosh: "for it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you" (Lev. 25:12).

The sacrifices are kadosh: "afterward he may eat of the sacred donations" (Lev. 22:7); "he may eat of the food of his G-d, of the most holy as well as of the holy" (Lev. 21:22).

The heavens are kadosh: "Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven" (Deut. 26:15).

Jerusalem is kadosh: "settle in the holy city of Jerusalem" (Neh. 11:1).

The Temple is kadosh: "He shall purge the innermost Shrine ["holy of holies"]" (Lev. 16:33); "I will bring them to My sacred mount" (Is. 56:7). "Heathens ... defiled Your holy temple" (Ps. 79:1).

The Torah is kadosh: "Her priests have violated My Teaching: they have profaned what is sacred to Me" (Ezek. 22:26).

The six synonyms listed above reveal the principal characteristics of holiness: lofty, mysterious, awesome, fervent, righteous and chosen by G-d. It follows that one or something which is holy has an element of being set apart, separate from all other worldly things that fall into the realm of hullin, the secular or profane. Almost the identical conclusion can be drawn from the second set of verses cited above which refer to that which is considered to have kedushah: G-d, the nazirite, the prophet, the sabbath, the festivals, the jubilee, and likewise the heavens, Jerusalem, the Temple, and of course the Torah are all elevated as well as set apart from mundane existence. From amongst this list G-d, the prophet and his word, and the heavens are concepts that are beyond human comprehension.

The best way of arriving at an understanding of kadosh might be a dictionary definition of the term; but this is problematic insofar as many dictionaries are evasive when it comes to abstract concepts. Defining an object such as a chair presents no difficulty, for a chair belongs to the general category of furniture, within which its specific characteristics, details and purpose can be specified. But what is kadosh? What is its essence? What is the general category to which kadosh belongs, and what are its specific details? What are its uses? Let us attempt to present a theoretical analysis of the components and characteristics of the concept kadosh, based on the usages which we cited above.

1. Kadosh is constant, lasting (almost eternal), very resistant to change (almost immutable). Many people with religious sensibilities instinctively object to speaking of "development of the Halakhah," and some scholars even speak of evolution, not development. Change for the most part is minute, slow, and not substantial. Many feel that change subverts the essence of holiness. Perhaps this is the reason that customs which are considered sacred are not dropped even when the justification for them becomes no longer valid. A sacred law is not like a secular law, one that can be changed.

2. That which is kadosh broadens and expands the scope of its applicability, force and validity, like our universe, which since the Big Bang has been expanding in all directions, reaching towards the infinite. In being holy there is an aspiration to perfection, to doing everything superlatively; therefore greater strictures are always sought, and those who aspire to holiness take pride in being ever more "strictly kosher." [1] Those of us who sometimes make fun of these aspirations are actually drawing away from the holy and dangerously moving closer to the profane.

3. Kadosh means numinous, having a sense of immanent spirituality. The numinous refers to the total inner conviction that I sense the holy because I believe, and if I believe that means I exist. Conversely, if I exist, that forces me to believe and obliges me to aspire to sanctity; if I do not believe and if there is no sanctity in me, then my very existence is called into doubt. Mircea Eliade [2] shows that sanctified times (just as sanctified places) break the indifference and dull monotony of life and create units of unique and sanctified time and place, which give the human being a sense of spirituality, a sense of sublime and awesome elevation.

Rudolf Otto claims [3] that they way we use the adjective "sacred" has been extended to apply to absolute good, morality, decency, uprightness, and truth, and that these are essentially rational. In contrast, the original, primal meaning of "sacred" refers to a feeling which is utterly devoid of any theoretical-rational component, and is a category totally set apart, something which words cannot define. It is a spiritual condition or state of mind that a person might have, which can neither be defined nor explained. At best we can bring the person to recognize this spiritual condition or state of mind in him/herself. We are dealing with a human spiritual state of festive elevation and excitement, a sense of elation, of being connected with the wondrous.

Otto tries to describe and explain this special concept of sanctity which he describes as "numinous", not dependent on the good or the moral, primarily by eliminating the feelings which appear similar to this numinous sense. The numinous does not stem from a sense of fear, or from awesome trembling, or from a sense of dependence, or from a feeling of absolute worthlessness; yet neither does it stem from absolute faith, nor overwhelming love, nor a sense of security, nor dedication. The numinous or holy is "creature-consciousness", says Otto, "the emotion of a creature, submerged and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures." [4]

Otto is aware of the shortcomings in his attempt to explain the concept and maintains that it does not contribute sufficiently to clarifying the conceptual (theoretical) notion of sanctity that he wishes to explain. Therefore he also rejects most of the approach taken by William James, [5] accepting from him only the claim that religious experience or sanctity is a sense of objective presence outside the self.

Clearly the approach described here lends extremely complex expression to the experience of sanctity. Perhaps it is similar to the distinction that is drawn between the Hebrew word pahad, rational and concrete fear of an approaching calamity, and the word yir'ah, awe, which in addition to 'fear' has the connotation of a sense of elevation stemming from admiration and amazement.

Human wonderment is so important in Judaism that it is considered the characteristic that separates human beings from the rest of creation and the basis of human morality and cultural restraint of one's urges and desires. The first stage is amazement and questioning, the second is awe, the third is moral and cultural restraint, the fourth is religious restraint -- that is, sanctity. If the world looses its power to cause wonderment and amazement, if the human soul accepts the world without surprise and behaves routinely, then the motivation for moral development disappears and the world is taken over by violence, theft and corruption, which ultimately can even lead to murder. Apparently it is in this spirit that we are to understand the words of the patriarch Abraham regarding Sarah on their way to the land of the Philistines: "Abraham said of Sarah his wife, 'She is my sister.' So King Abimelech of Gerar had Sarah brought to him... 'What, then,' Abimelech demanded of Abraham, 'was your purpose in doing this thing?' 'I thought,' said Abraham, 'surely there is no fear of G-d in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife'" (Gen. 20:2, 10-11). This is what Abraham feared, knowing his fellow inhabitants of the land at that time to be people who went through their daily routine of life with indifference, without fear of G-d, without elevation of the soul and without a sense of the holy.

[1] A wise man once said to me that when the members of a synagogue do not argue about ways of observance it is a sign that the customs are not sufficiently holy in their eyes, that they are somewhat indifferent to the matter.

[2] The Sacred and the Profane (New York, 1959).

[3] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (Oxford University Press, 1950).

[4] Otto, ibid., p. 10.

[5] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, 1958).

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