What does it mean to be holy?

Dear Rabbi,
What is the Jewish meaning of “holiness”?

Dear D.,
There is an age-old custom for Jewish children to begin their learning of scripture with the difficult book of Vayikra (Leviticus). At first glance, this custom seems strange. The general topics include Temple offerings and spiritual purity. It isn’t an easy book. When choosing which book of the Torah to begin with, the obvious choice would seem be Genesis, the Beginning, the story of creation which also offers a plethora of entertaining narratives — or perhaps Exodus, which discusses the making of the Jewish nation.
Indeed, this question was asked, and answered, during the times of the early sages, “Why do young school children begin their Chumash learning with Vayikra and not with Bereishit (Genesis)? Because small children are innocent and pure, and Vayikra discusses the offerings, that are pure, unblemished, and which restore spiritual purity to a person. Therefore, it is fitting that the pure begin their education with the topic of purity.’” (Midrash, Leviticus Rabboh 7:3, Midrash Tanchuma Tzav #14)
Along the same lines, Vayikra is sometimes called “the book of holiness and sanctity,” for that is its theme. The English term for holy (and purity) brings with it a variety of connotations and imagery — much of which comes from other cultures. I have often asked people to tell me what images or words come to mind when they hear “holy” and the answer (“the search for the holy grail” or hearing “silent night, holy night” …) is infused with legends and foreign values and proves hard to qualify in any language.
The Jewish concept of holiness, kedushah, carries an entirely different flavor. While the theme is featured more prominently in this volume of the Five Books of Moses, the root word permeates the Hebrew language (which itself is called the “holy tongue”) from Scripture, the standard blessings for commandments, our prayers, the term for marriage, the name for the Temple, and so on — suggesting that the Jewish concept of holiness is not simply an abstract religious term but extends to our daily activities.
What does it mean for something to be “holy”?
On the one hand, to be holy is to be distinctly removed from the physical. This characteristic is reserved for the Creator, Who is entirely transcendent — separate from creation. Accordingly, one may uncover within the world, the good, the noble, the beautiful and the exceptional — but all is still worldly, distant from “holiness.” On the other hand, there are countless references to holiness within the world, implying some middle ground. And, it is the latter concept of levels within holiness that presents a most fascinating component to Judaism.
How does it work?
To begin with, the commentaries relate a type of holiness that comes only through human action. The holiness of the land of Israel is brought about through the observance of the commandments within it. Likewise, the Shabbat day is made holy through man’s sanctification as in “Remember the Shabbat day to make it holy…” The human being fulfills the command to “Be holy, for I your G-d, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) by refraining from certain activities, by mastering one’s natural tendencies, or through noble intent behind action.
Yet there are also references to an imminent holiness, one that is independent of our action either because it is inherited or inherent. In this vein, Maimonides writes (in his Laws of the Temple 6:16), “why do I say that the original consecration sanctified the Temple and Jerusalem for eternity… Because the sanctity of the Temple and Jerusalem stems from the Shechinah which can never be nullified… as the Talmud declares: (Megillah 28a) ‘Even though they have been devastated, their sanctity remains.’” It is holiness within the land that, once present, can never be nullified through one’s deeds.
The same idea holds true in time and with people: There is holiness inherent within the Shabbat and festive days, irrespective of human experience or embrace. During our prayer services, the Kohanim ascend the platform to bless the congregation and utter the famous blessing which states “who has sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron” — a quality that is inherited, not earned.
To be sure, to declare that something or someone has a quality of holiness certainly does not imply that it needs to be worshipped, and no commentary within the Jewish religion would ever say such a thing. We only worship G-d. Yet the Biblical, legal, philosophical, and mystical sources alike speak of the dissemination of holiness over creation, and even over this world of ours, in its abovementioned dimensions of time, space and the human being.
One of the further novelties in Jewish thought is the precise qualification of different levels and gradations of holiness. In the land of Israel, for example, the highest level was the site where the “Holy of Holies” stood. Providing the practical application in Jewish law, Maimonides writes: “the land of Israel has ten gradations of holiness, each higher than the preceding level.” Likewise, with objects, the Mishna states: “Objects used for the performance of a mitzvah may be thrown away, [since no sanctity attaches to the object after its use]. But objects which are accessory to sacred items cannot be discarded…”
The highest level within these objects is the sanctity of the Torah scroll.
The latter is a phenomenon in Jewish culture and law that we take for granted. The simple physical materials of ink and parchment, when combined to form a Torah scroll in the prescribed manner, are wondrously transformed into a “holy object” that has numerous implications in how it is handled and respected.
Indeed, this is the Jewish child’s first visual introduction to holiness.
As the Torah is carried through the aisles of the synagogue, he or she can watch as the people rise, extend their hand to kiss the Torah. The value placed on this object and the tender attention given to it is more than the wisdom than the words convey, and more than the skilled labor and materials. It is not a work of literature or art, but something mysteriously beyond. This awareness of holiness later develops into a more academic and sophisticated discussion, but the intuitive appreciation, one that defies logic and reaches to the core, never leaves. Indeed, there are moving stories of Jews rushing in to burning synagogues in Germany and Poland to save the Torah scroll.
In conclusion, even the most rational Jewish philosophers and codifiers of law devote attention to clarifying these levels of holiness, within a concrete and logical system. This combination of the legal and rational intertwined the ethereal and mystical is one of the beautiful aspects of Jewish thought. Finally, the complexity of the book in the Chumash sends this overriding message to the child and adult alike. The child, innocent and pure, initially takes the holiness for granted and then learns to develop the mind while the sophisticated adult must strip away the layers of complexity and foreign ideologies to revisit “the call” of Vayikra — to stay pure.

Leave a Reply