The Nature Of Holiness

The commandment to be holy raises questions about our responsibilities towards community and our relationships with God.

Commentary on Parashat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27

Commentary on Parshat Kedoshim: Leviticus 19:1-20:27

Provided by the Union of Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

Parsha Overview

  • God issues a variety of commandments, instructing the Israelites on how to be a holy people. (Leviticus 19:1-37)
  • Various sex offenses are discussed and punishments for them are presented. (Leviticus 20:1-27)

Focal Point

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy (Leviticus 19:1-2).

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I Adonai am your God.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. You shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God: I am Adonai. You shall not defraud your neighbor. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning. You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am Adonai. You shall not render an unfair decision: Do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your neighbor fairly (Leviticus 19:9-15).

Your Guide

In most instances, Moses is instructed to “speak to the Israelite people.” Here Moses is told to “speak to the whole Israelite community.” Is there a difference?

“You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.” The Rabbis understood Leviticus 19:2 to mean that we should strive to be as much like God as possible. How can we imitate God?

What do Leviticus 19:9-15 have to do with holiness?

What does swearing falsely by God’s name mean? What might the consequences of doing so entail?

Insulting the deaf might seem like a “victimless crime.” (The implication is that the person you insult does not know that he or she has been insulted.) Why does this parsha prohibit such an act?

The Rabbis understood “the blind” to mean blindness regarding any matter, not just visual impairment. In what ways is it possible to be “blind?”

Why shouldn’t judgments be weighted so that they favor the poor?

By the Way…

Even the highest and noblest principles of Judaism can be attained by any Jew, provided he makes the necessary effort. These laws were not for the select few. People should not say that such standards of conduct were only for the man of exceptional piety: “Speak to all the congregation of Israel.” The appeal “You shall be holy” concerned all of them (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Vayikra, World Zionist Organization, 1983).

“You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). This section was spoken in public assembly. No one can attain holiness except by merging his own self with the whole of Israel. Thus Scripture says: “The whole community, all of them, are holy” (Numbers 16:3). This means that when they are all one, they are holy. Rashi points out that we can be worthy of attaining such holiness only if we merge our own personalities into the larger community and identify completely with the people of Israel. Only “in full assembly” can we be holy (the S’fat Emet).

In imitating God by being a holy nation, Israel must not withdraw from the world of the nations but rather radiate a positive influence on them through every aspect of Jewish living (Martin Buber, B’chirat Yisrael, Bialik Institute, 1964).

There is no truth more thoroughly established than there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage. The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained (George Washington, First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789).

Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies
That, though they never equal stars in size
(And they were never really stars at heart),
Achieve at times a very starlike start.
Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.
(Robert Frost, “Fireflies in the Garden”)

Be not holy merely in the privacy of your home and ashamed of your faith in public. Be not, as the assimilationists put it, “a Jew at home and a man outside.” Be holy “in full assembly,” in public, out in the open, in society. Among your own people or in the midst of strangers, wherever you may find yourself, never be ashamed of your character and sanctity as a Jew (Divrei Shaarei Chayim, Davar B’ito).

The Torah is holy not only because it comes from God but because it leads to God (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001).

Morality is simply the attitude we adopt toward people we personally dislike (Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband).

Your Guide

Leibowitz reads the requirement to be holy as an individual instruction, while the S’fat Emet and Buber see it as a communal responsibility. Which do you think is more important?

Washington does not call for his people to be a holy nation, but he makes a case for national responsibility. How does his statement fit into the framework of this week’s text?

“Fireflies in the Garden” by Robert Frost explores an analogy between fireflies and the stars they imitate. How well does this analogy hold up when applied to people striving to imitate God?

D’var Torah

If someone were to ask you “Are you a holy person?” how would you respond? Most of us don’t usually think of ourselves as holy people, but in the context of this week’s parsha, the question is not only meaningful, it is also crucial.

The parsha begins with an exhortation to be holy as God is holy and then lists the ways we can become so. Right in the very middle of the Torah scroll, we find a set of instructions on how to be holy. It is a biblical code of conduct known as the “Holiness Code.” It begins with respect for our parents and our God and then proceeds to laws governing our relationship with our fellow human beings. We are instructed not to insult the deaf nor to place a stumbling block before the blind. We are commanded to be fair in our judgments and in our business dealings.

Being holy is not defined by synagogue attendance or by outward signs of piety. Nor is it a matter of ritual practice or personal attitude. Holiness can be found only in our relationships with other people. It is revealed when we are just and compassionate. It is manifest when we are respectful of others and ethical in our behavior.

So, how would you respond to the question: Are you a holy person?

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