Kedusha: What Is True Holiness, According To The Bible? | Aleph Beta

How Can We Achieve Holiness?

Kedusha: What Is Holiness According To The Bible

Immanuel Shalev


In Parshat Kedoshim, God makes a pretty ambitious ask of us to be 'Kadosh': Be holy (kadosh) – because I, God, am holy. Just how are we supposed to go about doing that, exactly? Should we wear flowy robes and meditate all day on mountaintops? Should we give away all of our belongings and build an orphanage in an impoverished part of the world?

If you keep reading in Parshat Kedoshim, God answers our question by providing a looooong list of commands, as if to say: Here’s how you be holy before God.” Except…. if this list is supposed to give us a Biblical definition of holiness, much of it is far from what you would expect. Don’t lie, don’t cheat – that makes sense. Care for the poor, pursue social justice – that also makes sense. But how about:

“Don’t plant two different kinds of seeds in your field”

“Don’t eat a sacrifice on the third day”

Say what? What’s holy about that? This is how we're supposed to obey the command, Be holy as God is holy"?

So maybe our understanding of “holiness” – Kedusha – needs a little tweaking. Maybe it’s not what we think it means. And maybe there’s some new meaning of “holiness,” some new understanding of what holiness is according to the Bible, one which ties all of these laws together, that explains what is so unconscionable about mixing seeds and eating old sacrifices.

We’ve got that “maybe” for you. Check it out now to see what it means to be holy like God and how to personally achieve Kedusha.

Dig Deeper:

The three basic separations of creation: time, space and energy – click here. (This two-part video series on Parshat Terumah and Tetzaveh opens with a discussion of the Mishkan, but stick with it.)

For an even-more in-depth overview of these ideas (for Premium users only), click here.


Welcome to Parshat Kedoshim. The parsha opens with a powerful charge to the people of Israel. God says: קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ: "You should be Kadosh—generally translated as holy—כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, for I, God, am holy." And what follows after is a whole bunch of laws that presumably teach us what it means to be holy.

The problem is, this list just doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. How do we achieve holiness?

What Is the Meaning of Holiness in the Bible?

Well, we might expect to see laws that teach us how to pray, how to meditate for hours, that stuff seems really spiritual and kinda holy, right? But instead, we get some laws about pigul, about not saving leftovers of a korban for later, and then some laws about taking care of the poor. We hear about kilaim – not cross-breeding plants and animals, along with laws about not stealing or lying. There is a long list of unpermitted sexual relationships and there are also laws about not cheating in business.

So now we're left pretty confused. Many of these laws are not what we might expect to hear when we think of holiness. What happened to prayer and meditation? Why are we talking about crossbreeding animals? I kind of get the social justice pieces – and that maybe holiness is related to taking care of the poor, not cheating in business, things like that. But what about those random laws about not saving leftovers of your korban? Is there any rhyme or reason to this list? And if we do find a way to understand all of these laws as fitting together, what do they teach us about holiness and how to achieve it?

Join us as we conquer kedusha, on the Parsha Experiment.

Hi, I'm Imu Shalev, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment.

How to Be Holy as God Is Holy

We may get a clue by looking at the end of this list of laws in our Parsha. The Parsha concludes:

וִהְיִיתֶם לִי קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה – You should be holy to me, for I, God, am holy;

וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן-הָעַמִּים, לִהְיוֹת לִי – and I've separated you from the nations to be Mine.

Could it be that kedusha is somehow related to separateness? That the kedusha of Israel comes together with their being separated from the nations? Often, God talks about kedusha in connection to the exodus from Egypt. For example:

וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – I shall be holy among Israel,

אֲנִי יְהוָה, מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם – I am God who makes you holy,

הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים – who took you out of Egypt to be your God.

And in fact, this connection between kedusha and havdalah, separation, shows up all over the place.

What Is the Meaning of Kedusha in the Torah?

Take a look at the mishkan. The mishkan has two sections, the kodesh, the holy, and the kodesh kodashim, the holy of holies. God says: וְהִבְדִּילָה הַפָּרֹכֶת, לָכֶם בֵּין הַקֹּדֶשׁ, וּבֵין קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים – there was a special curtain that separated these two sections, thereby creating the Holy and the Holy of Holies.

And the sanctification of the kohanim is also described this way. In Divrei Hayamim, the verse says: וַיִּבָּדֵל אַהֲרֹן לְהַקְדִּישׁוֹ – Aaron was seperated in order to make him holy.

Okay, but who cares? In order to make something holy, of course you need to separate it. If I am makdish, my cow, Bessie, if I make it holy by dedicating it to God, I need to separate it from the rest of the herd. But isn't that just a consequence of the process of making something holy? Okay, so Israel is separate, the Kohanim are separate, and the inner chambers of the mishkan are separate, but why are they separate?

We want to suggest a theory to you, that the concept of separateness is intrinsic to kedusha. That the energy of kedusha is derived from and created by havdalah, by separation. Once we more clearly understand this, we'll be able to understand what these strange laws in our parsha have in common, and what it means to be a holy people.

Kedusha: What Does the Bible Say About Holiness?

Let's take a look at the very first mention of kedusha in the entire Torah. Way back in the beginning of Bereishit, at the end of the first 6 days of creation, God separates one day from the rest. The verse says:

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי – God blessed the 7th day,

וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ – and he made it holy,

כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ, אֲשֶׁר-בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים לַעֲשׂוֹת – for on that day, God rested from the all the work of creation that He had done.

Look at that: Why is the Sabbath holy? Because God rested from work. For 6 days, God created and tinkered until the world was complete… but on the 7th, He stopped. He separated that day from the others, and in so doing, made that day holy. And, look at how we usher in each Shabbat and escort it out. At the beginning of the Shabbat, we say Kiddush – we sanctify the day. And at the end of Shabbat, we say Havdalah – we reaffirm the separation between the first 6 days and the 7th.

What was going on during the 7 days of creation? Before the Universe was born, there was nothing and there was everything. That everything, was God. And when God chose to create us, He made a little place for us, in His world. In God's world, there is no time, there is no space, no quantum mechanics or physics. He doesn't need those things to exist. But we do. So God separated between His space and ours, He created a little apartment for us in His world, so that we might exist.

Rabbi Fohrman discusses this in stunning presentations linked below, and he mentions that 3 times during the 6 days of creation, we see the word "vayavdel," signifying 3 basic boundaries that God erects so that humanity might have its own place and be able to survive. On the first day, God separates between light and dark, creating energy or matter. On the second day, God separates between upper waters and lower waters, creating space for Humanity to exist. And on the fourth day, God separates between night and day, effectively creating time. Time, space, and energy all came into being as a function of these separations. In God's world, these forces and energies are all one, but to make room for us, God erects boundaries, effectively creating a place where it's possible for us to exist.

In fact, whenever someone makes a place for themselves, they do it as a function of havdalah, of separation. Imagine you're a settler on the wide open plane. You've been given acres and acres of open space. But you can't unpack quite yet. The space might be beautiful, but you're subject to the animals that roam the plane, and to the elements. You can't survive here, out in the open. So what do you do? You erect boundaries, you put up walls. Your divisions take one space and they make it two, but they also create a place where you can actually live. You now have a home.

Defining Holiness According to the Bible

The final separation comes on the 7th day, when God finishes creating the world. In fact, it explains why God's cessation of creation is the only activity (or non-activity) performed on the 7th day.

When a creator is still tinkering with her creation, the creation can claim no independent existence. In fact, it is extremely vulnerable to the whims of the creator. For example, a painter who has created a lovely garden of roses might decide at the last moment to turn those roses into tulips. The painting has no real identity until the painter chooses to stop giving it her final touches. Or if a mother keeps trying to fix her child long afters she has reached maturity, she could significantly hamper her development.

Therefore, in an act of great kindness, God breathed independent life into this new world at His final separation, the moment He chose to stop creating. He created a place for us where we could thrive on our own.

Kedusha is about creating a place for others. When God says, "I'm kadosh," it means: I built a place for others to exist. When God says: וִהְיִיתֶם לִי קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה – be kadosh, for I am kadosh, וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן-הָעַמִּים – in that I separated you from other nations. He is saying: You were once slaves in Egypt, I took you out, I freed you, and created a place for you to exist as an independent nation, with a special destiny.

And with that in mind, we might be able to understand the charge at this beginning of this week's parsha. Be holy because I am holy. I, God, create a place for others – for you… so you, too, should make space for others. And, then, the laws are instructions as to how to accomplish that.

How to Be Holy Before God

First, we are told to keep Shabbat and commemorate the day in which God completed His creation and made a place for us. Then, we are told not to violate the space of others. לֹא, תִּגְנֹבוּ – don't steal. When you steal, you encroach on someone else's space. You essential destroy the boundaries between you and him. There is no mine and yours, there is only mine. Therefore, we are told מֹאזְנֵי צֶדֶק אַבְנֵי-צֶדֶק yihyeh lachem you should have honest balances and weights. You must be honest in business. When you charge people precisely what they owe and not a penny more, and you withhold yourself from trying to cross boundaries to claim something that isn't yours, you thereby show respect for someone else's space. You make it possible for each of you to live peacefully together, by respecting the boundaries between you.

And while you can't violate the space of others, you are also charged to actively create space for others. וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת-קְצִיר – when you harvest your land,לֹא תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ לִקְצֹר; וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ, לֹא תְלַקֵּט – don't reap the corner of your field, and don't collect that which fell during the harvest…. Why not? לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם – you should leave them for the poor and for the stranger.

Kedusha isn't just about allowing others to have their space… Just as God contracted from His space to make space for us, we too have to contract from our space in order to make space for others. So even though it's your field, don't harvest all the way to the corner of your field and don't pick up fallen grain – when you are kind, when you share, you make room for others. That's Kadosh.

What does Kilaim – crossbreeding plants and animals – have to do with kedusha? We are commanded to preserve the divisions between species. God created every living thing with its role, with its purpose. When we cross-breed two animals to design a species that better suits us, we blur the lines of separation. In a way, we violate space in two dimensions. On the simplest level, we haven't respected the distinctions God Himself has made between the species, and then, in attempting to create a new species, we violate God's space by leaping out of the painting, snatching the brush out of His hands, and editing just a bit before we head back. Yes, God gives us the ability to create, but when we start tinkering with God's creations, we infringe on God's space, it's not okay. Be holy.

And then we have Piggul – that strange law that if you bring a korban shelamim, which is an offering that is partially consumed by you, and partially consumed by God, you have to eat it in the allotted timeframe. You may not save the leftovers for later. Well, what is a korban? It's meant to build a relationship with God. The Korban Shelamim is a peace offering, it is symbolic of a partnership between you and God. It is meant to be enjoyed together with God, in your shared space. You want to take the leftovers home with you? You want to take something we share back into your own space? That's not very nice. That's not very holy.

And finally, there is a long list of sexual relationships that are forbidden. Do not commit adultery and violate the space of your neighbor. Uphold the boundaries between father and daughter, mother and son, brother and sister – these relationships are sacred. A father needs to give his daughter the space to be a daughter. If you blur the lines between these relationships, then your family loses its integrity.

A Closer Bible Study on Walking in Holiness

While there are many laws in this parsha that we haven't covered, you should feel free to take a look and see how each one fits into this paradigm and leave your thoughts in the comments below.

For now, we understand that kedusha is not some aloof and amorphous concept. It gets to the heart of spirituality and morality. It is about respecting the boundaries set up by God and our fellow man. It is about emulating God and creating a space for others. And it is about being kind to the poor and living with honesty and integrity.

Subscribe today to join the conversation.
Already a subscriber? Log in here!