Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ahare Mot – Kedoshim 5767/ April 28, 2007

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



The Jewish Imperative:“You shall be Holy”


Prof. Dov Landau


Department of Jewish and Comparative Literature


Let us open with the following statement:  “The Torah commands each and every man and woman in the Jewish people to sanctify him or herself and to be holy, as it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy’ (Lev. 19:3).”

This statement is altogether fictitious and never existed, even by way of metaphor.  There is no such commandment; in fact, the imperative, “you shall be holy,” is not listed in the compilations of the commandments, either by Maimonides or by Nahmanides.  In most contexts in the Torah, the demand that we be holy does not appear by itself, but is attached to one or another commandment.

1. You shall be holy people to Me; you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field. (Ex. 22:30)

2. They shall not shave smooth any part of their heads, or cut the side-growth of their beards, or make gashes in their flesh.  They shall be holy to their    G-d.   (Lev. 21:5-6)

3. “… and cover up your excrement… let your camp be holy.   (Deut. 23:14-15)

In these three passages there is a connection between the commandment and the holiness associated with it.  In the first, holiness is the reason for abstaining from eating flesh torn by beasts, and in the others it seems that obeying the commandment leads to holiness.

However in Leviticus 19:2 – “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy” – the demand for holiness does not appear in conjunction with any specific commandment, rather as a demand in its own right.   Therefore, Maimonides wrote in the fourth principle of Sefer ha- Mitzot:

Now in the Torah there are certain imperatives and words of admonition which are not said in regard of any specific thing, rather they subsume all of the commandments in their entirety.  It is as if to say, “Do all that I have commanded you, and take care to avoid all that I have warned you against.”

Examples of such general, inclusive imperatives are:  “Be on guard concerning all that I have told you” (Ex. 23:13); as well as, “My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws” (Lev. 18:4); and many others.  Similarly, when the Torah says, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d am holy,” this is a general imperative that subsumes all the commandments.  

Rashi’s Interpretation

Rashi, however, cites Sifra on this verse, writing:   “Keep aloof from forbidden sexual relations and from sin; for wherever one finds a command to fence oneself in against forbidden sexual relations, there one also finds mention of holiness.” Ostensibly Rashi could find good justification for his interpretation in the immediate context, in the preceding and following portions.   Chapter 18 deals with forbidden sexual relations and the end of chapter 20 also deals with the same, so one could easily assert in this context that the expression, “You shall be holy,” meant:  keep aloof from forbidden sexual relations.  I heard from Rabbi Yitzhak Reiner, however, that in Nehamah Leibowitz’s opinion Rashi rarely based his interpretation on the contiguous passages, (semikhut parshiot) especially when he had a better foundation for his interpretations; therefore, he ascribed his interpretation, “keep aloof from forbidden sexual relations,” to the general rule which says:  wherever one finds a command to fence oneself in against forbidden sexual relations, there one also finds mention of holiness.

Nevertheless, I still feel that there is a difficulty in Rashi’s explanation.  If Rashi indeed avoided explanations based on juxtaposed chapters, why did he use the principle that “wherever one finds there one also finds”? In the final analysis, this rule is also based on juxtaposition of two items in the same verse. Perhaps he thought this principle provides a more consistent proof, since the two adjacent parts are more closely connected.   Yet I still have difficulty understanding how one can say that being careful to stay away from forbidden sexual relations leads to holiness.  Can it be that a person must only be mindful of this in order to achieve holiness?  

Also other points trouble me in Rashi’s interpretation.   He says, keep aloof from forbidden sexual relations and from sin.  What sort of sin does he mean?  And how can one combine a specific prohibition and a general idea with the conjunction “and”?  After all, forbidden sexual relations are also a sin, so why the redundancy?

Holiness: a General Commandment

It appears that this is why Maimonides interpreted holiness as a general commandment: in all the commandments that one performs one ought to strive to attain the sublime objective of holiness.  Perhaps one could obey the commandments without specific intent, but holiness cannot be achieved without such intent.  The commandments bring a person closer to holiness, but they do not confer holiness.  We are to understand from the benediction which we recite, “who has sanctified us by His commandments,” that it is the Holy One, blessed be He, who makes us holy; but we still are obliged to strive and act with specific intent in order to actually rise to holiness.  Therefore we say “who has sanctified us by His commandments” and not “through whose commandments we have become sanctified”; in order to become sanctified we must do more than simply obey the commandments.  Thus we see that sanctity is not attained by obeying the commandments in a routine manner, rather by obeying them with the intention of thereby raising ourselves to a higher state.

Perhaps this is the reason Nahmanides wrote:  But in Torat Kohanim (Midrash Sifra) I saw that they said simply, ‘Keep aloof’.” That is to say, the Midrash makes no reference to forbidden sexual relations.   This might lead us to think that Nahmanides agrees with Maimonides, that we are dealing here with a general imperative that goes along with all the commandments.   However, Nahmanides was addressing an additional difficulty here.  He was not asking how one specific commandment could lead to sanctity, rather he was asking how even obeying all 613 commandments could lead a person to be holy.  The question arises whether, for example, obeying the commandments pertaining to the sukkah without feeling any elevation of spirit and without specific religious intent makes a person holy?  Or does performing the commandments of tefillin, or tzitzit, or giving charity, or keeping the laws of kashruth out of habit bring a person to a state of sanctity?   Perhaps a commandment can reinforce the fear of G-d in the person who performs it, but that does not suffice to make the person holy.

Holiness as Something More

Nahmanides sensed that something additional is necessary here, and therefore he said that one must do something which goes further than the commandments.   In the Torah there are things that are permitted us, not proscribed, yet that nevertheless one should abstain from them.  He cites his famous examples about refraining from excessive sexual relations, excess drinking, and guarding one’s mouth from vulgar eating or vulgar speech. Those who have these habits are called by Nahmanides naval birshut hatorahwhich we might translate as base persons with a certificate of Kashrut for after all, they do not violate the letter of the law. Nahmanides feels that ‘You shall be holy” is achieved by sanctifying yourself with that which is permitted to you.  Only when you give up that which is permitted, only when you yourself initiate the act of giving something up, and only when that which is given up adds something to the commandments, a sort of value added component, only then does it lead to sanctity.   The only question is why he did not include “you shall be holy” in his list of commandments? Perhaps the reason was that this commandment does not call for performing a specific act.

This way of understanding the verse has significance in our daily lives.   For example, some people censure the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community for pursuing superior kashruth certification.  Now we know that the rabbinate is a body that serves all Jews, including secular one who wish to have kosher food.  Therefore the rabbinate must operate on the basis of all possible leniencies; so even though certification by the rabbinate means that the certified food is certainly kosher, it is well-know that there are products (such as various sorts of cheeses) whose kashruth certification rests on more than ten leniencies.

In religious matters, does it not behoove us not to settle for less?   Ought one deprecate a person who does not want to eat something that has been pronounced kosher on the basis of ten leniencies?  In fact, the rabbinate itself recognized the need to establish a system for “ultra-kosher” certification, and in so doing they surely had in mind the general religious public, not the ultra-Orthodox who have dozens of kashruth certifications of their own.  So why should we deprecate someone who wishes to “sanctify himself by that which is permitted him”?