5770 - #25


             When individuals, in the context of a human being, discuss the topic of kedusha, holiness,1 the famous words of Ramban, Vayikra 19:2 often serve as a starting point. To Ramban, kedusha is more a factor of process and personality than the reflection of a specific abstention from certain objects. It is reflected in the behaviour of the individual in directing his/her drives, not in the objects upon which restraint is exercised, that we find kedusha. He thus decrees that one should strive to reflect holiness not solely through the avoidance of transgressions but even in the performance of permitted actions. It is, as such, not, for example, in the specific avoidance of eating non-kosher food that one becomes holy but rather in the practice of restraint in general. Striving for kedusha thus does not mean that one just refrains from transgressions. Holiness is specifically attained in how one conducts himself/herself in the realm of the permitted. It is, according to Ramban, in how one eats kosher food -- specifically in how one expresses restraint in his/her consumption of permitted food -- that one truly reflects and expresses kedusha.

     This view is offered by Ramban in contradistinction to the view of Rashi, Vayikra 19:2 which is presented as reflecting the view that kedusha is specifically attained through refraining from that which is prohibited.2 According to this view, it is specifically through, for example, not eating non-kosher food that one attains kedusha. Many contend, however, that this position may still also understand kedusha as a factor of process and personality and not specifically the direct result of refraining from certain objects. Kedusha may still be, even according to Rashi, not the result of specifically abstaining from the object, for example, pork. It could still be that one attains kedusha as a result of the incorporation into one’s lifestyle the pattern of behaviour that refrains from consuming forbidden objects. It is the specific pattern of restraint incorporated in the halachic lifestyle that develops kedusha. Clearly according to Ramban and even possibly according to Rashi, the point is that kedusha is a factor of the gavra, the person. It is in how the process of the laws of the Torah act upon an individual that we observe kedusha. Ramban defines the kedusha process one way, Rashi another but both could be understood as focusing on this process. Within this perspective, it is not the specific object of, for example, pork that challenges the ability to achieve kedusha. It is in how we relate to the generic nature of prohibitions -- and, according to Ramban, how we extend them or, according to Rashi, how we balance them with the permitted – that we find holiness.

     The fact that the call for the Jewish People to strive for kedusha in Vayikra 11:44 is preceded by the prohibition of bal tishaktzu, not to act disgustingly by eating creeping insects, would seem, however, to challenge this understanding. The focus in these verses would seem to be on the object upon which restraint is exercised, not simply on restraint. It would seem, according to these verses, it is specifically in refraining from that which is disgusting that one expresses kedusha. The focus thus changes to the object, the cheftza. Kedusha is attained through specifically staying away from certain objects, not necessarily in the process of restraint practiced by an individual. The affect of the behaviour is only secondary. The key would seem to be in maintaining distance from the specific negative object.

     This understanding of kedusha would seem to find support in the more mystical explanations for the prohibitions relating to food, namely that non-kosher food negatively affects the soul. Kedusha, by extension, could thus be one of the positive results of simply refraining from consuming that which is not kosher. This explanation would seem to be further buttressed by the categorization of the laws of prohibited foods as chukim, laws which have no rational reason. We don’t know and can’t really feel how refraining from non-kosher food affects us and, thus, also do not really understand kedusha. It is simply the product of separation from certain objects.

     The problem with this perspective is that the prohibition of bal tishaktzu does include a human response. The emotion of disgust is tied to the behaviour; it is in the refraining from that which elicits the emotion of disgust, it would seem, that one also finds kedusha. While the specific object that is the focal point of the behaviour does play a significant role in this definition of kedusha, it is still the behaviour that is the heart of the consideration. Kedusha is found in refraining from that which we find disgusting. It is found in the human formulation of the feeling of disgust and the reaction of separation.

     It could be contended, though, that the Torah’s use of a word reflecting disgust does not refer to our emotional understanding of this word but rather to a more objective, mystical understanding of this word. Such a perception would again take the concept out of the realm of our understanding and demand of us a focus on the object of restraint rather than our motivations for restraint. The extension, however, of the prohibition of bal tishaktzu to include the refraining from any disgusting behaviour would seem to challenge such a position.3 Even if this extension is only of a Rabbinic nature, the fact that the Rabbis saw some measure of the emotion of repulsion in even the basic Torah law would seem to support the perception that kedusha is tied to process. It is in how we consciously develop our personalities that we find kedusha, not simply in how we allow directed Torah behaviours to, without consciousness and especially without consideration, affect us. We must consciously be part of the process of developing kedusha.

            There is no doubt that part of the way that we develop personal kedusha is through our observance of mitzvot. The result, though, must be observable and conscious. While there may be some disagreement on its specific nature, kedusha is a goal of, and reflected by, our personality. Kedusha is a desired definition of our being.

Chai Hecht e-mail


1 While we will also use the English terms holiness and holy as translations for the words kedusha and kodesh, it should be noted that while this is the prevalent custom, the Torah values and ideas reflected in these terms are actually most unique and distinctive.

2 It is of interest to perhaps note that as Rambam gave the name Kedusha to the section of his Mishneh Torah containing the laws of forbidden foods, Hilchot Ma’achlot Asurot, and the laws of forbidden sexual relations, Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah, many assume that he also actually shares Rashi’s view.

3 See, for example, T.B. Makkot 16b which directs individuals not to drink, even water, from a cup that was used to hold liquids the drinking of which would repulse people.

4 Torah Temima, Vayikra 11:43 presents a disagreement as to whether the extension of bal tishaktzu to include a prohibition on all disgusting behaviours is Rabbinic in nature or part of the original Biblical law. He personally sides with the former. In any event, this machloket, as will be pointed out, does not substantially affect the verse’s effect on our understanding of kedusha.

Nishma 2010




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