• Rav Zvi Shimon






By Rav Zvi Shimon



            This week's parasha begins with the commandment to be holy: 'Kedoshim Tihiyu...' - "You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy"(19:1). The concept of holiness is perhaps the most central idea in the Torah. However, in spite of its importance, its precise meaning is unclear. It appears in our parasha as a general commandment without any explanation of its exact requirements. What is meant by the Torah when it commands us to be holy?


            According to Jewish tradition, there are 613 commandments in the Torah.  Although tradition informs us regarding the number of commandments, their identity is a matter of dispute among the Rabbis. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1138-1204) prefaces 'Sefer Hamitzvot' - his list of the 613 commandments, with a delineation of the principles guiding his determination of the 613 commandments. In his fourth principle, he relates to our verse: "You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy."


"General commandments should not be counted [amongst the 613 commandments of the Torah]. There are in the Torah        injunctions and warnings which do not refer to anything        specific but relate to all the commandments exhorting us to do all which God has commanded us to do and heed all the negative commandments...It is wrong to include these as independent commandments since they do not oblige any    specific action nor prohibit anything new. Such is the case with verses like "Be on guard concerning all that I have told you"(Exodus 23:13), "My rules you shall observe," "My laws you shall keep" (Leviticus 18:4), "You shall keep my charge" (ibid., 30) etc. Some have already faltered and mistakenly included "You shall be holy" (Leviticus 19:2) as a positive commandment... even though         they are general exhortations to keep all the commandments."


            According to the Rambam, the obligation to be holy is not one of the 613 commandments. Holiness is a product of keeping the commandments, a characteristic or a state achieved by the exacting performance of all the commandments. It is their ultimate purpose. It requires no additional specific action beyond the performance of the commandments. Since holiness is a product of the observance of the commandments, the Rambam does not consider it to be an independent commandment. The Rambam garners support for his position from the Sifrei ('Tannaitic halakhic midrash on the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy):


"And be holy to your God" (Numbers 15:40) - "This refers to the sanctity of ALL the commandments... Rabbi [Judah the prince] says ... When scripture says, "You shall be holy" (Leviticus 19:2) it is referring to the sanctity of all the commandments."


            Rabbi Judah interprets our verse to be referring to all the commandments. The Rambam therefore critiques the Rasag (Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon, Persia, 892-942) for counting our verse as an independent commandment (see the Ramban's defense of the Rasag in his glosses on the Rambam's 'Sefer Hamitzvot,' ibid.). However, although Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) did not compile a list of the 613 commandments, it is clear from his commentary that he also understood our verse to be relating to specific commandments:


"You shall be holy" -"Separate yourselves from incest and from transgression, for wherever you find a fence around incest (commandments relating to incest) you find holiness."


            'Kedusha' - holiness, is not an outcome of keeping all the commandments. Rather, it results from adherence to the laws relating to sexual conduct. Chaste behavior which guards itself from any harlotry or other forms of forbidden sexual relations is the path to holiness. Rashi did not consider our verse to be connected to the continuation of our parasha but rather viewed it as the culmination of the preceding chapter. Chapter 18 lists the prohibited forms of sexual relations. Therefore, verses one and two of chapter 19 reveal that the impetus for the commandments determining the parameters of sexual relations is holiness.


            Rabbi Hoffman (Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, Germany, 1843-1921) also rejects the Rambam's approach that the commandment to be holy is a general one relating to all the commandments. However, in contrast to Rashi who viewed our verse as a conclusion to the previous chapter, Rabbi Hoffman views it as an opening to chapter 19. Chapter 19 includes many commandments for which it is very difficult to find an underlying theme. However, many of the commandments in the chapter relate to how one should conduct himself and feel towards his fellow man. The following are some examples:


"You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another" (19:11).


"You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind" (19:14).


"You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself" (19:18).


"You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old"(19:32).


"The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (19:34).


"You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights..." (19:35,36).


            Rabbi Hoffman infers from the strong moral component of chapter 19 that 'Kedusha,' holiness, is moral perfection, a yearning for the good and a detestation of evil. The commandment to be holy is thus a commandment to strive for moral perfection.


            Rabbi Hoffman points out an interesting textual phenomenon. The word 'kadosh,' holy, when used in the Torah in reference to God, is spelled with the letter 'vav' but without it when appearing in reference to man. He explains that the reason for this change in spelling is that although man must strive for moral perfection, he cannot reach this highest level of holiness for it is reserved for God. The difference in spelling of the word 'kadosh' informs us that we can strive to emulate God's holiness but can never truly match it (see Hoffman on Leviticus 11: 45).


            The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) offers a fascinating and totally different interpretation of the commandment to be holy:


"In my opinion, this abstinence does not refer only to restraint from acts of immorality, as the Rabbi [Rashi] wrote, but it is rather the self-control mentioned throughout the Talmud, which confers upon those who practice it the name of P'rushim (Pharisees), [literally: "those who are separated" from self-indulgence, as will be explained, or those who practice self-restraint].  The meaning thereof is as follows: The Torah has admonished us against immorality and forbidden foods, but permitted sexual intercourse between man and his wife, and the          eating of [certain] meat and wine.  If so, a man of desire could consider this to be a permission to be passionately addicted to sexual intercourse with his wife, and be among winebibbers, among gluttonous eaters             of flesh, and speak freely all profanities, since this prohibition has not been [expressly] mentioned in the Torah, and thus he will become a sordid person within the permissible realm of the Torah!  Therefore, after having listed the matters which He prohibited altogether, Scripture followed them up by a general command that we practice moderation even in matters which are permitted, [such as the following]: One should minimize sexual intercourse,.... He should also sanctify himself [to self-restraint] by using wine in small amounts, just as Scripture calls a Nazirite "holy" [for abstaining from wine and strong drink],.... Likewise he should guard his          mouth and tongue from being defiled by excessive food and by lewd talk,... and he should purify himself in this respect until he reaches the degree known as [complete] "self-restraint," as the Rabbis said concerning Rabbi Chiya, that never in his life did he engage in unnecessary talk.  It is with reference to these and similar matters that this general commandment [Ye shall be holy] is concerned, after He had enumerated all             individual needs which are strictly forbidden.... And such is the way for the Torah, that after it lists certain specific prohibitions, it includes them all in a general precept.  Thus after warning with detailed laws         regarding all business dealings between people, such as not to steal or rob or to wrong one another, and other similar prohibitions, He said in general, 'And thou shalt do that which is right and good,' thus including under a positive commandment the duty of doing that which is right and of agreeing to a compromise [when not to do so would be inequitable], as well as all requirements to act "beyond" the line of justice [i.e., to be generous in not      insisting upon one's rights as defined by the strict             letter of the law, but to agree to act "beyond" that line of the strict law] for the sake of pleasing one's fellowman... (Ramban 19:2)


            The commandment to be holy does not relate to sexual conduct, nor to moral precepts nor to the commandments in general. It extends beyond the realm of the commandments. It obliges man to behave with abstinence even in relation to that which is permissible. Man should not indulge himself in things which the Torah permits. According to this interpretation, holiness is not guaranteed through performance of the commandments. One must also live according to the general spirit implicit in the Torah and in the commandments. If one keeps to the letter of the law but ignores its spirit he is a 'naval birshut ha-Torah,' a sordid person within the permissible realm of the Torah.




            The Torah not only commands us to be holy, it also tells why: "You shall be holy FOR I ,THE LORD YOUR GOD, AM HOLY." The simple understanding of this clause is that we should be holy in order to emulate God who is holy. The Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, Italy, 1470-1550) comments that this is the proclaimed purpose for the creation of man: "Let us make man IN OUR IMAGE, AFTER OUR LIKENESS" (Genesis 1:26). Man was created with the inherent capacity to emulate the traits of God. His whole purpose is to fulfill this potential. One of the central traits which we must aim to acquire in following the ways of God is the trait of holiness for God has informed us that He is holy.


            Our sages in the Sifra ('Tannaitic halakhic midrash' on Leviticus) offer an interesting homiletical interpretation of our verse:


"You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy"(19:1) "[The verse] teaches that if you sanctify yourselves I will consider it as if you sanctified Me (God) and if you don't sanctify yourselves then I will consider it as if you did not sanctify Me"


            Our verse draws a comparison between man's obligation to be holy and God's holiness. According to the simple reading of the verse the Torah is giving a reason for the commandment to be holy; we must be holy in order to emulate God. However, our sages interpret the verse differently. We not only emulate God. The holy conduct of man sanctifies God's name. Man's holiness adds, as it were, holiness to God. Conversely, if man's conduct is decadent then no matter how much energy he invests in exalting his creator, His name is not sanctified. Thus, the primary responsibility of religious man is to sanctify God's name. The sanctification of God's name is achieved through sanctifying ourselves. This is the ultimate purpose and destiny of the Jewish people, to be a "Kingdom of priests and A HOLY NATION" (Exodus 19:6).