Kedushah (Holiness) in Rabbinic Judaism

Holy living, in the view of the sages of the talmudic age, is achieved through actions that are both ritually proper and ethically correct.

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In the case of this particular mishnah, the disconnect between the perceived holiness of something and its inherent qualities is especially acute. The talmudic discussion on this passage explains that the opinion expressed in the mishnah is actually not the view; although the majority agree with the basic premise of this holiness ranking, they disagree regarding the status of the city square. The author of this mishnah feels that the city square may be sold only for the purpose of purchasing something with a higher level of kedushah, whereas the majority argue that no such restrictions apply to the square because no kedushah is attached to the square. On what basis does the author of the mishnah believe that the square is holy? According to the Talmud, the reason is that people pray there on certain occasions. The majority say that since this is not a frequent occurrence, it is not considered consequential.

What is striking about this exchange is that the use of the square for public prayer is both necessary and sufficient for ascribing holiness to it. (Even the majority agree with this point; they simply disagree about the amount of prayer necessary to make it holy, not with the idea that humans’ prayers could make it holy.) Thus, an object imbued with hierarchical holiness is holy by association; some fortunate occurrence converts what would otherwise be a mundane place, or day, or person, into an item of religious respect.  

Nonhierarchical holiness, on the other hand, is intimately linked with morality, observance of Jewish law, and acts of chesed, loving kindness—as Kadushin writes, it is achieved only through “effortful personal conduct.” While a vessel used in the Temple service might have a certain level of holiness attached to it because of its use in the performance of required rituals, only people are actually commanded to be holy (famously in Leviticus 19:2). This command is not an order somehow to be like the holy vessel, but rather, it is a directive to act in such a way so as to be considered holy. Thus, when one observes commandments, acts in such a way so as to imitate God’s acts of loving kindness, or avoids those things that are spiritually defiling (most prominently murder, adultery, and idolatry), one achieves this kind of nonhierarchical holiness.

This nonhierarchical holiness is very different from its hierarchical counterpart. An object, we saw, is holy because it is somehow close to God; as a result of its being close to God it acquires the status of holiness. Israel, on the other hand, is commanded to be holy in order to be considered God’s people—holiness is a prerequisite of closeness to the divine.

The contrast between these two forms of holiness is especially apparent if we think about the concept of tum’ah. Kadushin maintains that tum’ah, which roughly means “impurity” with regard to cultic rituals, is the opposite of hierarchical holiness. Thus, an item that is cultically impure is unfit to be brought close to God. Interestingly, the notion of tum’ah is also used in talmudic discussions of moral requirements. For example, in Shevuot 7b, three verses from the Torah, all of which contain the root for cultic impurity, are used to associate the notion of tum’ah with idolatry, adultery, and murder, the three cardinal sins of Judaism (those singled out as the only acts for which one should be martyred rather than agree to participate in them). While these are not the types of things normally associated with ritual impurity, here we see a notion of immorality as being defiling.

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Michael Rosenberg is studying for rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.