Surely you have been wondering about these words and concepts for years, since they are such an integral part of our religion. (The root appears about 900 times in Tanach!) Fortunately, someone has just authored a book with everything you need to know on this topic! The author is Alec Goldstein. The title: “A Theology of Holiness: Historical, Exegetical, and Philosophical Perspectives” (2018). (The author has semicha from Yeshiva University.)
How did the author get motivated to investigate this topic? While in college at Yeshiva University he took a class on public speaking. Aspiring rabbinical students would deliver practice sermons each week, invariably based on the weekly Torah reading. One week it was Parshat Kedoshim. What he then heard were three erudite, persuasive and systematic explanations of what holiness means in Judaism. And yet they all were contradictory! How could it be, he wondered, that a concept of this magnitude was subject to such a variety of interpretation?
The book deals with many issues. For example: What was the original concrete meaning of the root K-D-Sh? Did the meaning of K-D-Sh expand later in Tanach? Did other Semitic languages have a root K-D-Sh? How was the Torah’s view of this concept different from that of other cultures? Did the Talmudic sages’ understanding of the concept differ from the way the concept was presented in the Tanach? What about the medieval authorities? Finally, how was the concept understood by R. Soloveitchik and other moderns?
Let us now address some of these issues.
Regarding the root, K-D-Sh is not just a root in Hebrew. It appears in the other Semitic languages as well.
As to its original meaning, of course it is possible that K-D-Sh was a root that fundamentally meant something abstract, e.g., “imbued with a divine quality.” But, as S.D. Luzzatto writes (comm. to Ex. 15:11), “every enlightened person knows that words indicating spiritual, intellectual concepts that are not perceptible to the senses are all transferred terms that originally indicated tangible things.” Or, to put it more simply, words usually have concrete meanings before they develop abstract meanings. OK, so what was the original concrete meaning of this abstract root?
A widespread view is that K-D-Sh originally meant “separate.” Evidence for this is Lev. 20:26 where the root K-D-Sh is parallel to the root B-D-L. One who takes this approach is Menahem ben Saruk (10th century). He writes that the root K-D-Sh is divided into three meanings: favorable separation, neutral separation and unfavorable separation. The modern scholarly work Koehler-Baumgartner also suggests “separation” as the original concrete meaning of the root K-D-Sh. It makes the further suggestion that it derived from a root K-D that meant “to cut.” (Although no such root survived in the Tanach, there is evidence for it in other Semitic languages.)
Other scholars suggest that K-D-Sh is related to Ch-D-Sh with a meaning “splendid, pure.” In Akkadian too, the root is sometimes related to the idea of making something ritually clean. There is also evidence from Tanach for a “purify” meaning. See 2 Sam. 11:4. Other scholars believe that K-D-Sh is related to Ch-D-Sh with the meaning “new.”
An unusual alternative approach is possible as well. The phrase “pen tikdash” appears at Deut. 22:9. A rabbinic interpretation of this phrase interprets it as “pen tukad esh,” lest it [become liable to] be burned in a fire. (See Kiddushin 56b, Chullin 115a.) In this veiw, the root K-D-Sh is a combination of two words and originally meant “burned in a fire.” This is not a widespread view. But one source that agrees with this is S.D. Luzzatto. See his commentary on Ex. 15:11. He theorizes that “the original sense of the word kodesh reflected a tangible thing, the burning of sacrifices, and the word was later transferred to anything specially dedicated to the honor of God even it was not burned.”
In a major part of his work, the author summarizes the main theories of holiness that he finds among traditional Jewish sources. As we know, the Torah uses the root K-D-Sh in many places. But in particular, at Leviticus 19:2 there is an instruction “kedoshim tihiyu.” How should this be understood? I will give just a few of the approaches included by the author.
Rashi writes here: “You shall be separated from arayot and from sin, for wherever you find geder ervah you find holiness.” The author writes that if we go through all of Rashi’s comments on Biblical instructions to be kadosh, we find that Rashi focuses his comments on the areas of forbidden sexual relations, forbidden foods and forbidden worship. See further Rashi on Ex. 22:30 and Lev. 20:7. Thus it seems that, according to Rashi, the instruction to be kadosh is not something that applies to all the commandments. Rather, it seems to mean separate yourself from these three categories of forbidden things.
But there is a weakness to Rashi’s approach. A strong argument can be made that separation from the forbidden should not be considered holiness but merely a preparatory stage to achieving it.
(With regard to the precise meaning of the root K-D-Sh, Rashi usually uses words like Z-M-N=prepare and P-R-Sh=separate when explaining the root.)
According to Nachmanides on Lev. 19:2, the Torah specified specific things that are categorically prohibited and then gave an additional general command here that we should separate ourselves from things that are permitted. This is his famous interpretation that we are commanded not to be a “naval be-reshut ha-Torah,” e.g., not to excessively consume wine and gluttonously devour meat, etc., etc. One scholar explains the rationale for Nachmanides as follows: The mere observance of legalities does not ensure one of becoming a holy person, which is the ultimate purpose of the commandments. Something more, being “kadosh,” is also commanded. So while Rashi has us separating from the forbidden, Nachmanides has us separating from the permitted!
Maimonides takes an entirely different approach to the instruction at Lev. 19:2. According to Maimonides, the instruction there is merely a general one, not a specific commandment, and is merely synonymous with an instruction to observe all the commandments. He writes: “There is no difference between saying, ‘You shall be holy,’ and saying “Observe my commandments” (Sefer Hamitzvot, principle 4). Therefore, Maimonides does not count Lev. 19:2 as one of the 613 commandments. (But Nachmanides views it as a specific commandment, and prior to Maimonides, the Baal Halachot Gedolot had counted it as one of the 613 commandments.)
The book includes many interesting observations. For example:
“The Bible speaks of seven things that God sanctifies: the Sabbath, the priests, the Israelites, the Temple (or Tabernacle), the prophet Jeremiah, the firstborns and God’s name. In six of these seven cases there is a parallel verse that humans sanctified the same object…When God sanctifies something and when man sanctifies something (i.e., the same thing), the meaning of “sanctify” is not the same in both cases.”
Based on the current evidence, it seems that in other cultures in the ancient near East, holiness could only be ascribed to deities and royalty, and not to the laity. If this is indeed true, the Bible introduced a great innovation in stipulating that holiness was something that laity could achieve as well.
Sephardim look downward while reciting the “Kedusha” while Ashkenazim look upward and raise their bodies. Thus we have two opposite responses to holiness: looking down in humility versus looking skyward in inspiration.
The book addresses all questions related to matters “kadosh.” E.g.: Precisely why was Moses commanded to take off his shoes at Ex. 3:5? What is the significance of the three “kadosh” words at Isa. 6:3? What is the origin of the term “Kiddush Hashem”?
I have always been wondering about that English word “holy.” The author also addresses this as well and points out that it is perhaps etymologically related to “whole.” I.e., it is something that must be preserved whole and intact, and cannot be injured with impunity. (But he mentions other possible etymologies for the word as well.)
I have to mention that this book is not light reading. But you can skip much of the etymological discussions, and still gain much! (The same can be said about the commentaries of Ibn Ezra and Rav S.R. Hirsch!)
What does the author do for a living? He is an accountant and a publisher. What is his publishing company’s name? Kodesh Press, of course!
(Full disclosure: Kodesh Press has published my two most recent books: “Roots and Rituals,” 2018, and “Esther Unmasked,” 2015).
By Mitchell First