What is Holiness?

What is holiness? What does it mean to be holy? I have wrestled with this question ever since I found my way back to Judaism 16 years ago.

 A gift from my wife inscribed,
A gift from my wife inscribed, “Kiddushin.” 


[Remarks delivered Shabbat morning in the Library Minyan, Los Angeles, Feb. 8, 2014 – 8 Adar I, 5774]

Good Shabbos!

What is holiness? What does it mean to be holy? I have wrestled with this question ever since I found my way back to Judaism 16 years ago.

This week’s Torah portion Tetzaveh includes the Hebrew root for holiness, spelled kuf-dalet-shin, over thirty times. Kodesh, kadosh, nekadesh, holy, sanctify, sanctuary – again and again we learn that our priests, our altar, our sacrifices, our tent of meeting, indeed everything associated with our mission as the Jewish people, must be holy.

When we reach Leviticus 20:26, the commandment will be made explicit: “You shall be holy to Me, for I, the Lord, am Holy, and I have distinguished you from the peoples, to be Mine.”

In order to obey that commandment, however, we must understand what holiness is. Our Sages labored mightily to help us. The kodeshroot appears in the 2,711-page Talmud an astounding 9,324 times.

The problem is that the word means different things at different times.

In our portion, we learn that those who are both wise-hearted and filled with a spirit of wisdom are capable of making holy garments. These garments will in turn make the priests who wear them holy (Ex. 28:3).

Now, wouldn’t you think that the priests become holy first, and then they transfer their holiness to the clothes?

A few verses later, we learn that we must also anoint them with holy oil, create a holy altar within a holy sanctuary, offer holy sacrifices upon it, and place a gold band upon the high priest’s head that reads, “Holy to G-d.”

That’s a lot of holiness, but it’s not enough. After all these holy objects are made, and all these holy actions are performed, we learn that G-d Himself will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the Altar, and then sanctify the priests. (Ex. 29:44)

So exactly how and when does each thing become holy?

If I am to obey the commandment to be holy, I need a simple definition.

In English, the word holiness comes from the old English haylig, which means “whole,” as in the whole thing, entire, united, one. That jibes with “G-d is One,” which we recite in our most basic prayer, the Shema.

In Hebrew, however, kedushah – holiness – means just the opposite: separate, divided, set aside. Thus marriage is created by kiddushin; the spouses become prohibited to everyone else so that they may be permitted to each other. Likewise for the holy land, the holy tongue, and the holy nation; each is separated from everything else.

So, if I separate myself from the general population, and move into a shtetl like Pico Robertson, or better yet, I move to Israel, and I speak only Hebrew, will I then become holy?

Alas, given how secular life can be in Israel, I don’t think mere separateness will suffice.

The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906 defines holiness as “unapproachableness.” Not just separate, but elevated from all things common and profane, first through physical separation, and then through spiritual elevation and moral purification so that one eventually becomes incapable of committing sin.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Holiness is about distancing ourselves from sin. What is sin? Whatever the Torah says, “Don’t do.”

So, let’s say I don’t kill anyone, I don’t drive on Shabbat, I keep my hands in my pocket. I don’t covet… Ooh, that’s a hard one. But let’s say I overcome coveting my neighbor’s pool on a hot day. Do I then become holy?

Somehow, I don’t feel I’m there yet. The definition still eludes me. I look to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the first man to write a commentary on the entire Talmud since Rashi – literally, a once-in-a-millennium scholar. Rabbi Steinsaltz says, “One who knows and feels holiness does not need to discuss it; and the one who does not know cannot be made to know.”

Man, I’m in trouble.

Luckily, he doesn’t stop there. Rabbi Steinsaltz says there’s a distinction between Holiness and the holy. Holiness is the essence of the thing, and it’s big. It’s oceanic. In fact, it’s infinite, and alongside infinity anything else is zero. Garments, people, priests, nations – zero. Even ideas we hold dear and call “sacred” – things like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – zero.

Those things are important to be sure, but they are not Holiness, and calling them that “cheapens the very idea of kedushah,” transforming it instead into kaddeishah. Same root, totally different meaning

A kaddeishah is an idolatrous prostitute (see Deut. 23:18), and it’s hard to get more sinful than that. The penalty is death.

So, if holiness is that difficult to grasp, and so dangerous when misconstrued, how am I to obey the commandment to be holy? Luckily, we have this distinction between Holiness and the holy. We can’t enter the Infinite, but we can humbly approach it, and draw a bit of its energy towards us.

Rabbi Manis Friedman says that holy things are “transparencies.” In our current lives, we don’t stand at Sinai. We don’t witness G-d’s Presence. In our world, G-d is hidden. Why?

Because G-d chooses to be hidden.

In fact, this world is a veil that shields us from G-d’s glory because G-d is modest. G-d doesn’t want to overwhelm us with His Presence, before which we would become zero, but He does want to be sought by us. Holy things are transparencies in the veil. That which is holy is that which allows G-d to be seen.

The Holiest thing in this world is the Torah. Forgive me for this crude metaphor, but the Torah like a giant disco ball, casting beams of light everywhere and illuminating the points of transparency. When we read it, study it, and obey its commandments, we approach Holiness and glimpse the essence of G-d.

We obey a commandment and become a little bit holier. Sins produce the opposite effect.

We aspire to go higher, to come closer to the Source of Holiness. And this brings us to the Kedushah prayer, which we say three times a day during the week, and four on Shabbat. When we have a quorum of ten, we say it aloud, add several verses, and literally rise off the floor to enhance our devotion. It is the high point of every service.

The prayer comes from Isaiah 6:3. When the prophet was granted a vision of Heaven, he saw that, “One angel called to another and said, ‘Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh – Holy Holy Holy is the Lord, Master of Legions, the whole world is filled with His glory.”

Whenever a word appears twice in a row in Scripture, it’s a big deal. We must pay attention. For example, “Tzedek, tzedek – Justice, Justice shall you pursue!” (Deut. 16:20) We built our whole legal system around that.

But kadosh, kadosh, kadosh – three times? That’s a whole way of life. Rashi says the angels sing these three words in unison, and they all refer to G-d. The three words describe G-d’s essence, and thereby praise G-d.

The Radak, Rabbi David Kimhi, also writing in France and about a hundred years later, disagrees. He says the first two uses of kadoshactually refer to the angels. They recognize one another’s holiness, and call out to each other, “Holy one! Holy one!” in order to urge their companions higher. Only then do they sing the third kadosh in unison to praise G-d. In other words, they become holier by praying together, by approaching Holiness together.

The curious thing about this passage is that it’s a vision of Heaven, yet it does not say the whole heaven is filled with G-d’s glory. It says the whole world is filled with G-d’s glory, and the word it uses for world is haaretz. It implies the whole land, the earth, the physical world. Our w

My friends, why are the angels singing in Heaven about our world being filled with G-d’s glory?

Perhaps because Isaiah was not a fly on the wall, witnessing the Heavenly Court without being seen. The angels knew he was there. In fact, he was the intended audience! G-d arranged that show for Isaiah.

And thus, for us.

G-d wanted us to know that our whole world is permeated with His Holiness. He restrains the intensity of His Holiness so that it does not overwhelm us, but it’s everywhere, and G-d wants us to recognize it.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says our whole world was created to be a place where G-d’s Holiness can be hallowed.

Heaven is not that place, because there is nothing but Holiness there. For Holiness to be recognized, for it to be appreciated, for it to make a difference, there has to be non-holiness. Lots of it. That’s where we live, but our purpose is to recognize holiness, to pursue it, and to receive it.

Holiness is a flow of G-d’s essence from His Infinity to us, and back to Him. It’s a relationship. It is love. It is both eternal and ephemeral. It becomes real for us when we tap into it. When we distance ourselves from kaddeishahs in all our activities, and humbly approach the boundary of G-d’s Infinity.

G-d said, “You shall be holy to Me, for I, the Lord, am holy, and I have distinguished you from the peoples, to be Mine.”

Rashi explains, “If you are separated from them [through your observance of Torah], you will be Mine, but if not, you will belong to Nebuchadnezzar and his ilk.

In other words, you will be slaves to the mundane and the profane.

And to make it crystal clear in the practical realm, Rashi brings down a teaching from the first century Talmudic Sage, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, “A person should not say, ‘I find pork disgusting,’ …but rather, one should say, ‘I indeed wish to [eat it], but what can I do? My Father in Heaven has imposed these decrees upon me.”

In other words, we don’t distinguish ourselves from the nations for our sake. We do it for G-d’s sake.

That’s the secret of Holiness. It’s a bond. A marriage bond of kiddushinbetween us and G-d. We separate from the profane and the mundane, in order to love G-d. And because His glory is everywhere, we can love Him everywhere: in our families, our communities, our work, our sports, our prayers, and our music.

For every endeavor, there is a holy way and a non-holy way.

Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh! My friends, let us join together in this humble venture of loving G-d. Let us rise together and be holy.

Shabbat Shalom.

Originally published at The Jewish Journal

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