Mitzvot: Walking in Holiness

Reprinted with permission of the author from On Being a Jew published by The Johns Hopkins University Press.

The book takes the form of a series of dialogues between Albert Abbadi, an older observant Jew, and graduate student Judd Lewis, for whom Abbadi explains and interprets Jewish observance. Following a discussion of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), Abbadi moves here to a discussion of kedushah (holiness) in our lives as a physical state, analogous to the physical holiness of the Temple.Mitzvot, Walking in Holiness

AA: “Be holy” is the great governing principle of the Torah. In order to carry out this mitzvah we must constantly turn our thoughts to Heaven and, as it were, constantly watch our step. In fact, just now it occurs to me that we find the same idiom in Scripture: “Watch your foot as you go to the house of God,” it says. Because with that which is holy, you cannot simply bumble along carelessly. So similarly does this expression occur in connection with Shabbat kodesh [the holy Shabbat]. For while it is not, properly speaking, a place, Shabbat is nonetheless a site of holiness; and so, when the prophet Isaiah wished to warn about guarding its sanctity, he began by using a similar expression: “If you keep back your foot from Shabbat….” And when the Torah says that we ourselves are to be kadosh, it is, it seems to me, to be understood that with our very selves we must, as it were, tread carefully.


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James L. Kugel is chair of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel and the Harry M. Starr Professor Emeritus of Classical and Modern Hebrew Literature at Harvard University.

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