In Search of Holiness

June 24, 2009

20 min read


Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

Parshat Kedoshim begins with an invitation that includes the entire congregation in a unique directive:

And God spoke to Moshe, saying, Speak to all the congregation of the People of Israel, and say to them, 'You shall be holy; for I, The Eternal and Almighty God, am holy. (Vayikra 19:1-2)

Instead of the customary "God spoke to Moshe, saying", the Torah adds the instruction to speak to the entire congregation. Presumably, whatever message is to be shared is of the utmost importance, and concerns the entire congregation. The words that immediately follow are, "you shall be holy," yet the Torah does not define holiness, or even tell us precisely what to do to achieve holiness.


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There are three possible solutions for this dilemma: First, the concept of holiness has already been defined, and this directive refers to something previously taught to the congregation; second, the concept and precepts of holiness will be taught in the verses which follow. The third possibility requires more careful scrutiny; namely, holiness stands on its own as an independent ethic which operates in the already-familiar framework of Jewish life.

The Ramban,1 in a celebrated passage in his Commentary on the Torah, argues for this third interpretation. He posits that holiness is an additional dimension realm of performance of existing commandments; in a sense, it is an overarching goal of all commandments. Mitzvot should not be performed in order to provide a perfunctory check on a proverbial checklist. Rather, a mitzvah should be the woof and warp of a profound relationship with God, threads that come together to create a fabric of holiness. The performance of a mitzva should be transformative, helping the individual achieve holiness.

Rashi approaches this passage from a different angle: First, he asks what we can learn about the concept of holiness from the context of this parsha; then, he examines the reason that the entire congregation is involved at this particular juncture.

Rashi looks back to the previous section, and teaches that we must avoid illicit sexual relationships in order to achieve holiness. The section which immediately preceded Kedoshim, the last section of Acharei-Mot, lists the various prohibited sexual unions. This theme connects the two parshiot: The holiness of Kedoshim is achieved by avoiding the relationships taught in Acharei-Mot.

On the other hand, when explaining the reason why the entire People of Israel is gathered, Rashi offers what seems to be a contradictory explanation:

Speak to all the congregation of the People of Israel - This indicates that this was spoken to the entire assembly because the essence of the Torah is dependent on what is taught in this section.


This creates an awkward division between two halves of a verse which otherwise would appear seamless: If the entire nation is gathered to hear something essential, something new - which is not a continuation of the immediately preceding verses, then the commandment to be holy becomes disjointed, disconnected - a dangling modifier of the previous chapter.


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The source of Rashi's comment is found in the Midrash, where an explanation is provided for what is meant by the "essence" of the Torah.

R. Hiyya taught: This section was spoken in the presence of a gathering of the whole assembly, because most of the essential principles of the Torah are attached to it. R. Levi said: Because the Ten Commandments are included therein. Thus: (1) "I am the Lord thy God" (Shmot 20:2) and here it is written, "I am the Lord your God" (Vayikra 19:3); (2) "Thou shalt have no other gods" (Shmot 20:3) and here it is written, "Nor make to yourselves molten gods" (Vayikra 19:4); (3) "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" (Shmot 20:7) and here it is written, "And ye shall not swear by My name falsely" (Vayikra 19:12); (4) "Remember the Sabbath day" (Shmot 20:8) and here it is written, "And ye shall keep My Sabbaths" (Vayikra 19:3); (5) "Honor thy father and thy mother" (Shmot 20:12) and here it is written, "Ye shall fear every man his mother, and his father" (Vayikra 19:3); (6) "Thou shalt not murder" (Shmot 20:13) and here it is written, "Neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor" (Vayikra 19,16); (7) "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Shmot 20:13) and here it is written, "Both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death" (Vayikra 20:10); (8) "Thou shalt not steal" (Shmot 20:13) and here it is written, "Ye shall not steal" (Vayikra 19:11); (9) "Thou shalt not bear false witness" (Shmot 20:13) and here it is written, "Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer" (Vayikra 19:16); (10) "Thou shalt not covet ... any thing that is thy neighbor's" (Shmot 20:14) and here it is written, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Vayikra 19:18). (Midrash Rabbah Vayikra 24:5)

Although Rashi quotes only the opinion of Rav Hiya, that essential aspects of the Torah are included in our parsha, Rav Levi's opinion is more specific: This section is a restatement of a very essential aspect of the Torah indeed: the Ten Commandments. There seems to be no contradiction between these two opinions; Rav Levi specifies the essential aspect of the Torah that Rav Hiya refers to generally. How does this impact our discussion of holiness? Apparently Rav Levi understands that the holiness referred to in our verse is achieved by adhering to the laws that follow, "the essential laws of the Torah" - the Ten Commandments.


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What bothers Rashi and the Ramban, what bothered the Talmudic scholars before them, is the difficulty in identifying holiness: Despite the centrality of the concept of holiness to Judaism, up until this point of the Torah "holiness" as a concept has been remarkably scarce. The first use of the word is in the context of the Sabbath day, blessed and consecrated by God in the opening chapters of Bereishit. The holiness with which the seventh day has been endowed is theocentric, without a human side or element. Shabbat is holy because God created and God rested; God deemed it holy. Man is not involved, not part of the equation. Only much later in history is man commanded, or even permitted, to take part in the holiness of Shabbat.2 In this context, holiness is time - oriented, as is the case regarding the various holidays.

In the Book of Shmot, we find holiness related to space: Moshe is told that the land on which he stands is holy.3 And when Moshe and the Jews break into ecstatic song after the Splitting of the Sea, they express their vision of the Promised Land as a place of holiness:

You in Your mercy have led forth the people whom You have redeemed; You have guided them in Your strength to Your holy habitation. (Shmot 15:13)

Up to this point, the Jewish People have been given an understanding of the holiness of time and the holiness of place, both stemming from God's involvement in history. Yet in each of these, man is an onlooker, at best. Man may appreciate, benefit, or even partake of these types of holiness, but holiness is external to him. Man himself is not holy, but is given an opportunity to approach holiness. The first time we find holiness connected to man is the law taught in connection with the Exodus, regarding the special status of the firstborn.

Sanctify to Me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the People of Israel, both of man and of beast; it is Mine. (Shmot 13:2)

In this case, holiness is connected to the Plague of the Firstborn, in which the Egyptians were smitten and the Jewish firstborn were spared. The holiness of the firstborn seems less a change of status than the repayment of a debt incurred when their lives were spared. This holiness is not achieved, nor is it an innate quality.

The first instance of the type of holiness discussed in our present parsha appears in God's words to the People of Israel just before giving them the Ten Commandments:

In the third month after the People of Israel left the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai. For they had departed from Rephidim, and had come to the desert of Sinai, and had camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount. And Moshe went up to the Almighty God, and the Eternal God called to him from the mountain, saying, 'Thus shall you say to the House of Yaakov, and tell the People of Israel; you have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Me. Now therefore, if you will truly obey My voice, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of kohanim, and a holy nation.' These are the words which you shall speak to the People of Israel. (Shmot 19:1-6)

Holiness of man is connected to keeping the commandments - specifically, the Ten Commandments, the "essentials of Torah." It should therefore come as no surprise that the theme of holiness reappears in Parshat Acharei Mot when the Ten Commandments are reiterated. Quite the contrary: Whereas in Shmot the Ten Commandments are stated, here in Vayikra, the Ten Commandments are explained, expounded upon, the ideas developed and applied. The call to holiness that introduces this section seems most appropriate. In fact, the concept of holiness is an overarching theme in the book of Vayikra; often referred to as Torat Kohanim, Vayikra is comprised of laws of ritual purity. The commandment to be holy is articulated as early on as Chapter 11, in the context of the prohibition of non - kosher animals:

You shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creeps, nor shall you make yourselves unclean with them, that you should be defiled by them. For I am the Eternal, your Almighty God; you shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy; nor shall you defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. For I am the Lord that brings you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. (Vayikra 11:43-45)

In Chapter 20, sandwiched between laws pertaining to idolatry and a repetition of laws of illicit relationships, we find holiness once again:

Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am the Eternal, your Almighty God. And you shall keep My statutes, and do them; I am the Eternal God who sanctifies you. (Vayikra 20:7-8)

We have seen, then, that the Book of Vayikra is not unique in its concern with holiness, nor is our present parsha unique in its communal, all-inclusive commandment to be holy. If anything, these insights might bring us to this point in the text even more perplexed than before our survey of the known categories of holiness: We do not understand the source of this holiness, the connection it creates between God and the community, or how to attain this mandated holiness. Our confusion is quickly resolved. The Torah supplies us with practical steps, active measures to help us create this new category of holiness; the laws taught in this section, the commandments that are attached to this commandment to be holy, are considered the essence of Judaism. Within this essential section we find one commandment which is considered the essence of all the others:

Love your neighbor as yourself - Rabbi Akiva taught: This is the greatest principle of the Torah. (Rashi on Vayikra 19:18)

While this commandment is clearly central and important, it is unclear how the fulfillment of this commandment brings holiness; it seems to be "only" a question of basic interpersonal behavior, of decency.4 Additionally, a priori we would have thought that holiness, defined by Rashi5 as "separateness", would be more aptly expressed in precepts that address man's relationship with God than in a principle of interpersonal conduct.


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How does Rabbi Akiva arrive at his conclusion that this is the most central principle of the Torah? It is safe to assume that Rabbi Akiva extrapolated from the famous story of Hillel the Elder's meeting with a potential convert:

On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, 'Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.' Thereupon he repulsed him with the builders cubit which was in his hand. When (the non-Jew) went before Hillel, the latter said to him, 'What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary; go and learn it. (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 31a)

While Hillel's statement is framed in negative language and Rabbi Akiva's is in the positive, they seem sufficiently similar to convince us that Rabbi Akiva's source is Hillel's teaching.

Be that as it may, Hillel's response is neither simple nor easily understood. It is more minimalistic than the approach of Rabbi Akiva, for Rabbi Akiva's statement engenders action, whereas Hillel instructs only passive behavior, avoiding what is distasteful.6

In fact, Shammai's response may actually have been the correct one - despite the fact that a rather negative reputation has been developed for Shammai and his school, who were seen as intolerant and impatient in this case. Indeed, we have every reason to believe that Shammai was a wonderful person, a welcoming and sociable scholar. His favorite phrase,7 his watchwords, are recorded in the Ethics of the Fathers as follows:

Shammai used to say: Make thy [study of the] Torah [a matter of] established [regularity]; speak little, but do much; and receive all men with a pleasant countenance. (Pirkei Avot 1:15)

Perhaps we should see Shammai's response not as an expression of antipathy towards a man in need, but as a defense of the honor of Torah and Judaism. Shammai clearly felt that the very question was impudent and insulting; to attempt to sum up any religion or system of thought in a few sentences is chutzpah. For this reason, the Talmud specifies that Shammai rebuffed this impudence "with the builder's cubit", a critical tool in construction of solid buildings. Any sturdy edifice needs a good foundation; Shammai's lesson seems to be, if you stand on one foot you will soon fall down. A building built on one foot will not stand; a philosophical and religious education requires dedication, real study, real open-minded enquiry. Therefore, Shammai chastises the fellow with a builders' tool: Learn Torah properly; do not settle for fleeting "sound bites". Start with the essential foundations and build upon them systematically. Conversely, it is hard to believe that any Jewish court would accept a convert whose only knowledge of Jewish thought is expressed by Hillel's three-word-long axiom; surely Hillel's parting words - "the rest is commentary, go and learn" are, in terms of the potential conversion, more important than the elevated thought which precedes them.


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How does this help us to understand the relationship of loving one's neighbor to the central topic of the discussion, the holiness of the community?8 We may find an answer in Rashi's comments on this Talmudic story. When Rashi explains Hillel's statement, "what is distasteful to your friend (chavercha)," Rashi writes:

'Your friend (neighbor) and your father's friend (neighbor) do not abandon' (Mishlei 27); this refers to God. Do not go against His word, just as it is distasteful to you when your friend goes against your words... (Rashi Talmud Bavli Shabbat 31a)

By citing a verse in Mishlei, Rashi brings God into the equation which otherwise would have referred only to the relationship between two people. Hillel uses the word chaverecha, your friend, whereas Rashi introduces a similar but not identical word to describe this relationship - re'echa. In this way, Rashi opens a window to his own understanding of Hillel's statement: the Torah verse "Ve'ahavta lre'acha kamocha" - Love you re'ah as yourself - was on Hillel's mind when he formulated this as a central principle of Torah. In fact, this is Hillel's explication of that Biblical verse: The shift of language between haver and re'ah serves to include commandments between man and man as well as commandments between man and God - all in one short statement.

Neither Rashi nor Hillel took undue liberties when choosing their words. Their inclusion of God in this principle is not at all forced or far-fetched once we recall that the Biblical verse does not end with the words "as yourself"; rather, the conclusion of the verse is, "I am God". God is part of the equation. God is involved in the man-to-man relationship. God is manifest when neighbors and friends get along, when people treat one another with mutual respect and caring. The "greatest principle of the Torah", then, must be read as a rejoinder to behave towards one another in a manner that brings God into our personal and collective lives. This is the path to holiness; indeed, loving your neighbor as yourself becomes the epitome of holiness. The centrality of this brotherly love is such that we would expect to find this element at Sinai itself; as we shall see, the concept of "ve'ahavta l're'acha kamocha" is, indeed, evident at Sinai, though not in as explicit a form as the statement here in Vayikra.


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At the Pesach Seder, as we recount God's many acts of kindness to us, one of the more curious statements is, "Had we been brought close to Mount Sinai and not been given the Torah - Dayenu, - it would have been enough." Yet what value would the encampment at the foot of Mount Sinai have had without the Revelation for which that encampment prepared us? What is the value of being near the mountain - if not to receive the Torah?9

The description of the scene at the foot of Mount Sinai includes a textual oddity which is difficult to detect in translation:

For they had departed from Rephidim, and had come to the desert of Sinai, and had camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount." (Shmot 19:2)

Each verb in this verse is conjugated in the plural, with the exception of the encampment at the mountain, which is conjugated in the singular. They encamped as one. At the foot of the mountain, the Jewish people found unity.

Insert translation - And Israel camped there: As one man with one heart...

Unity and love are mandated by the Tenth Commandment (as taught by Rav Levi), but the Revelation itself was predicated on the unity that the People of Israel displayed at the foot of Mount Sinai. More than just an introduction to the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Revelation was all about unity.10 When this unity was fractured, the results were catastrophic: When there is no appreciation of kedushat ha'adam - holiness of man, kedushat hamakom - the holiness of place- is lost. The Mishkan and the Beit HaMikdash, which housed the holiness of Sinai, could not endure without the unity of Sinai.11 Our service of God is predicated on our love for one another. For this reason, we preface our morning prayers with a statement of our willingness to accept upon ourselves the commandment to love our neighbors.

The idea of loving our fellow man is expressed by the verse "Love your neighbor as yourself." The expression of our love of God is the Shma: "Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One," followed by the verse "Ve'ahavta et Hashem." Both of these statements, the foundation stones of our faith, are profoundly intertwined in the life of Rabbi Akiva - the same Rabbi Akiva who established that loving one's fellow man was "the most important essential principle of the Torah", and the very same Rabbi Akiva who died with the final word of the Shma on his lips - "echad," "One."

Rebbi Nachman of Breslov notes that there are 49 letters in the first two lines of Shma ("Shma" and "Baruch Shem"). These represent the 49 days of the Omer, the days between Pesach and Shavuot when the Jewish People march toward Mount Sinai to accept the Torah. This spiritual journey is arduous; it is made of hard work on our interpersonal relationships, for we cannot receive Torah until we are unified. Until we have ahava, (love) for one another, we cannot declare God as One - Ehad (One). The Hebrew word ahava has a numerical value of 13, equal to the numerical value of the word Ehad. 12 The parallel is instructive: One who truly loves God will love.13 Rabbi Akiva was such a person; such was his love of God, and so his love of all mankind.14

The main symbols of our relationship with God are intertwined with the symbols of unity: The Beit HaMikdash was built in the area which united the Twelve Tribes, and within the Beit Hamikdash stood the Keruvim, a physical representation of the love between God and the Jewish People. The hands of the Keruvim were raised toward heaven, representing our love of God, but they faced one another, representing our love for one another. When the Jewish People ignored the Word of God, ignored holiness, the Keruvim turned their backs to one another. Most significantly for our discussion, the Keruvim stood on one foot: While focused on one another and on Heaven simultaneously, they did not fall. Perhaps we, too, can learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot - by behaving like the Keruvim, focused both on heaven and our fellow man.



1. See Ramban Vayikra 19:2.

2. Bereishit 2:1-3.

3. Shmot 3:5: And He said,'Do not come any closer; take off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.'

4. See Rav Zadok, Hakohen in Pri Zadik Kedoshim, section 11, and Kli Yakar Vayikra 19:18.

5. As we saw above, Rashi states that holiness is defined by separateness from sexual sins. See his commentary to Vayikra 19:2, also see the comments of the Ramban, who notes that the Sifri makes a general correlation between holiness and separateness.

6. The negative formulation may be in line with the teaching cited above in the name of Rav Levi (Midrash Rabbah Vayikra 24:5), where he showed that the teachings of Parshat Kedoshim are parallel to the Ten Commandments. The teaching which is aligned with "Love your Neighbor" is not to covet anything of your fellow man, a negative formulation: " 'Thou shalt not covet ... any thing that is thy neighbor's' (Shmot 20:14) and here it is written, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself' (Vayikra 19:18)."

7. The teachings included in Avot were the favorite statements of each particular sage. See Yehoshua Heshel HaLevi of Vilna in Shoresh Davar, p. 8, which is his introduction to his Ma'ayanei haYeshua.

8. The Targum (pseudo) Yonatan incorporates Hillel's dictum in his commentary to the verse "Love your neighbor as yourself."

9. For a more extensive discussion of this idea, see my Notes on Parshat Yitro, 5769.

10. See Sfat Emet Parshat Behar 5641.

11. See Ramban Shmot 40:34.

12. See Liqutei Halachot, Laws of Bircot Hashachar, 5.

13. See Rav Tzadok M'Lublin Maamar Kedushat Hashabbat Maamar 5.

14. It is important to note that in Pirkei Avot (3:14) Rabbi Akiva teaches: The reason man is to be loved - is that he was created in the image of God.


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