Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki-Tissa 5767/ March 10, 2007

Parashat Parah

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,



Sanctity of Objects and Persons


Dr. Amos Barde’a


Interdisciplinary Program in Science, Sociology and Technology


The last verse of Parashat Tetzaveh, which abuts the beginning of Parashat Ki-Tissa, deals with making the altar for burning incense and sprinkling the blood of atonement on it on the day of Atonement:  “Once a year Aaron shall perform purification upon its horns with blood of the sin offering of purification; purification shall be performed upon it once a year throughout the ages. It is most holy to the Lord” (Ex. 30:10).   The weekly reading of Ki-Tissa begins with the subject of the half-shekel, called “the half-shekel by the Sanctuary weight” (lit., the “sacred shekel”), and includes a summation of the work performed in making the Tabernacle and its implements, making the laver, and anointing the Tabernacle with “a sacred anointing oil… Thus you shall consecrate them so that they may be most holy; whatever touches them shall be consecrated” (Ex. 30:25-33).  Next comes the consecration of Aaron and his sons for sacred service – “You shall also anoint Aaron and his sons, consecrating them to serve Me as priests” (Ex. 30:30).  Further on in the week’s reading the subject of the Sabbath comes up:   “You shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy” (Ex. 31:14). The theme word that appears in each case is qodesh – sanctification.

We see that this week’s reading is replete with one of the more important concepts in Judaism – sanctity.   Within the limited confines of this forum I shall attempt to elucidate the fine line differentiating between the concept of holiness as it appears in the Torah, which pertains to the standing of a person before G-d – to which concept I shall apply the term “sanctity of person” – and the concept of general holiness as understood by most of the world’s religions, a concept which does not depend on the person at all, rather is invested in the object itself.  This type of holiness I shall call “sanctity of object.”

Time and place

Two major categories of holiness are found in Parashat Ki-Tissa:  sanctity of time and sanctity of place, in accord with the concepts of space and time of the Torah and Halakhah. [1]   The sanctity of time is defined by obligations and prohibitions which are imposed on a person at specific points along the axis of time, and the sanctity of place is defined by obligations and prohibitions imposed on a person at a specific point in space.   These two types of sanctity exist in close proximity throughout all of Scripture. This close association goes back to the first weekly reading in Genesis, which deals with the cosmic seventh day of Creation, among other things:  “And G-d blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it G-d ceased from all the work of creation that He had done” (Gen. 2:3).   Shortly thereafter it says:   “The Lord G-d planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom He had formed” (Gen. 2:8).

This close juxtaposition between time and place is quite prominent in this week’s reading, as well.  Immediately after the work on the Tabernacle is completed – a theme which extends over three weekly readings – and the Mishkan is sanctified by being anointed, the text turns to the subject of the Sabbath, which ostensibly is not related to the work of building the Tabernacle:   “And the Lord said to Moses:   Speak to the Israel people and say:   Nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the Lord have consecrated you” (Ex. 31:12-13). [2]   The Masoretes took care not to separate these two matters, leaving them together in the same weekly reading.  The close connection between the sanctity of time and sanctity of place is emphasized most of all in the verses, “You shall keep My sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary:   I am the Lord” [3] (Lev. 19:30; 26:2). 

Each depends on the other

Aside from the thematic conjunction of the sanctity of time and place, there is also a halakhic and ideological dependence between them.  The sanctity of the Tabernacle was defined by the prohibition and special obligations that pertained to the precincts of the Tent of Meeting, the courtyard, and the holy of holies.  However, this sanctity of place was time-dependent, for “they remained encamped at a command of the Lord, and broke camp at a command of the Lord” (Num. 9:20). [4]   When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would disassemble the Tabernacle and set out on their journey.  Thus, the sacred place existed only at certain times.

Conversely, the sanctity of time of the Sabbath and the festivals, which is related to a prohibition against working, depends on the sanctity of place, for the Halakhah took pains to associate it with the sanctity of place, the 39 forbidden works today being derived from the thirty-nine prototypes of work performed in making the Tabernacle.   As we said, the sanctity of the place where the Tabernacle stood was temporary, since “they remained encamped at a command of the Lord,” etc.  When the Israelites broke camp, even the holy of holies, the most sanctified place, entered only by the high priest in a state of sanctity and purification, and at that only on the Day of Atonement, instantly became merely “dust of the earth,” sand of the desert.  This spacial shifting of holiness recurred thirty-eight times in the course of forty years, and was supposed to impress upon the people during their years of wandering the principle that sanctity of place is not immanent to the place, rather it goes by the word of the Lord, and only by the word of the Lord does sanctity attach to a specific place, with all the obligations and prohibitions that follow from it.

Sanctity of objects

The sanctity of objects that pertained to the golden calf – “This is your G-d, O Israel” (Ex. 32:4, 8) – points to the notion of divinity being in the object itself, namely the calf, [5] unrelated to the human being.  Therefore, those who attach themselves to this sanctity can cast off all obligations, can revel in good times: “they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance” (Ex. 32:6).  “It is not the sound of the tune of triumph, or the sound of the tune of defeat; it is the sound of song that I hear” (Ex. 32:18).  Moses did not hear the sound of triumph in the sense of overcoming one’s urges and harnessing them to worship the Lord; nor did he hear sounds of defeat, the sound of people who give in to their urges; rather, he heard the sound of licentious loss of control.  As the Jerusalem Talmud says in Tractate Ta’anit (4.5):   “What is the sound of song [Heb. kol ‘anot]?   It is the sound of idolatry.”

As against the proclamation, “This is your G-d, O Israel,” ascribing (immanent) sanctity of object to the golden calf, an act tantamount to idolatry, we have Moses’ act of breaking the first set of tablets.   It was said of the first tablets (Ex. 32:16):  “The tablets were G-d’s work, and the writing was G-d’s writing” (in contrast to the second set of tablets, which were prepared at G-d’s command:   “Carve two tablets of stone”).   An object that is entirely divine, “G-d’s work,” which ostensibly has unparalleled “sanctity of object,” was deliberately destroyed when it did not have sanctity of person, as written in Scripture:  “I saw how you had sinned against the Lord your G-d:  you had made yourselves a molten calf; you had been quick to stray from the path that the Lord had enjoined upon you.   Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes” (Deut. 9:16).  The act of smashing the tablets before the eyes of the Israelites expresses the essence of the entire Torah – fighting idolatry and proclaiming the Holy One, blessed be He, King, for He alone has essential, immutable holiness; He alone is “Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts” (Is. 6:3).

Breaking holy objects

Regarding the epilogue in the last verse of the Torah – “and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel” –Sifre Deuteronomy reads:  “Rabbi Eliezer says:  Before all Israel – that refers to breaking the tablets.   Why so?   Because above it says before your eyes and here it says before all Israel.’”   On the above-mentioned verse Rashi cites the remarks in Tractate Shabbat 87a:   “For he was moved to break the tablets before their eyes, as it is written, ‘smashing them before your eyes,’ and the Holy One, blessed be He, agreed with him, as it is written, ‘which (asher) you shattered’ (Ex. 34:1) – good for you (ashrekha), that you shattered them.”  The emphasis here is that the initiative for breaking the tablets came from Moses, and the Holy One, blessed be He, agreed with him.  Hence we conclude that an object, even if it is divine, and all the more so any other thing which exists, cannot have any sacred value when it is not part of worshipping the Lord.

The concept of sanctity is first mentioned in connection with the Sabbath and Creation:  “And G-d blessed the seventh day and declared it holy” (Gen. 2:3).   Note that the idea of holiness is not mentioned until after the creation of man, indicating to us that there can be no holiness in an existence devoid of human consciousness, for it is human consciousness that consecrates the hallowed to Heaven at G-d’s behest.   When work on the Tabernacle was completed, as we read in this week’s parashah, Moses was instructed:  “Thus you shall consecrate them so that they may be most holy; whatever touches them shall be consecrated” (Ex. 30:29).  The repetition here is explained by Rashi:  Thus you shall consecrate them so that they may be most holy – anointing them makes them most holy, but wherein lies their holiness?   In that whatever touches them…  Their holiness is defined through the prohibitions associated with them and the obligations that devolve from them, and all these are taught in the Oral Law. 

In the final analysis, sanctity is related to the way in which humans, the beings who worship G-d, subjugate themselves to worshipping the Lord through fulfilling the commandments that pertain to time and place, as we say in all our benedictions before performing a commandment:   “who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us.”  The dependence of sanctity on worship of the Lord, on the status of a person in the presence of G-d, is a central theme of Parashat Ki-Tissa, along with a trenchant battle against idolatry, which sanctifies objects in their own right, without placing any obligations on human beings.

[1] By a numerical play on the opening four words of this week’s reading, ki tissa et rosh, understanding it as “if you raise up the head of the word rosh,” i.e., if you increase or add to the numerical value of each of its letters (resh, aleph, shin) by going up to the next letter in the alphabet, one obtains the word Shabbat.   This has been understood as hinting at the sanctity of time which is associated with the sanctity of place found in this week’s reading.

[2] Cf. Rashbam on this verse:  keep My sabbaths – even the work of making the Tabernacle you shall not do on the Sabbath, for this is a sign etc. – that you rest just as I do, for you are My people.”  Thus, we see that the Israelites are like the Holy One, blessed be He – just as the Holy One, blessed be He, rested from His work of creation, so the Israelites rest from their work on the Tabernacle.  Hence the work on the Tabernacle represents the creation of the human being who becomes sanctified by resting from this work.   The fact that the 39 categories of forbidden work are derived from the types of work done in making the Tabernacle further elucidates this connection.

[3] See the preceding and succeeding verses in Leviticus 19, where we are warned against the land becoming defiled by harlotry or by turning to ghosts and spirits.   Also see the preceding verse in Leviticus 26, which warns us against desecrating the land by setting up idols.

[4] Also consider the temporary sanctity of Mount Sinai, which was only sacred for the moment of the Theophany.   Wherein lay its sanctity?   In the prohibition against ascending the mountain or touching it for the three days that access to it was restricted; after that period, the place became just like any other – dust of the earth.

[5] Cf. Rashbam:  “Therefore they said, ‘This is your G-d, O Israel,’ as if to impute that the holy spirit of G-d is in it and that the holy spirit goes before us.’”   Likewise in Nahmanides’ interpretation.