"Kedoshim Tihiyu" - "You Shall Be Holy"

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


"Kedoshim Tihiyu" – "You Shall be Holy"

By Rav Michael Hattin


God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the entire congregation of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I God your Lord am holy...

With the reading of Parashat Kedoshim, the shift in focus of Sefer Vayikra continues to unfold. While the first five parashiyot of the book relate primarily to the world of the Mishkan and to the Kohanim who minister within it, the final five parashiyot address the larger world of the people of Israel. Thus, the first half of the book addresses the sacrificial service (Vayikra, Tzav), the dedication ceremony of the Mishkan (Shemini), the abstruse and Temple-related topics of Tum'a and Tahara (Tazria, Metzora), and the awesome service of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement (Acharei Mot).

The second half of the work, in contrast, considers the prohibition of sacrifice outside of the precincts of the Mishkan, forbidden sexual relationships (Acharei Mot), various laws of social, moral or ritual character (Kedoshim), the holiday cycle (Emor), the Sabbatical cycle and related agricultural laws (Behar), and finally the blessing and the curse that seal the covenant as well as the book (Bechukotai). While the division is certainly not hermetic, it is nevertheless quite pronounced, so that the recurring introductory phrase of the first half is often "Speak to Aharon and to his sons," while of the second it is almost invariably "Speak to the people of Israel."

With this shift in focus, from priests to people and from the Mishkan to the masses, comes as well a marked increase in the number of mitzvot. While the parashiyot of Vayikra, Tzav, and Shemini average about seventeen mitzvot each, Kedoshim and Emor each contain about three times as much! And while most of the other parashiyot of the book confine their discussion to relatively circumscribed topics, be they the matter of the sacrifices, the dedication of the Mishkan, the affliction of tzara'at and its remedy, the laws of tum'a and tahara, the holiday rituals or the laws of the sabbatical year, there is no other Parasha in Sefer Vayikra whose scope is as broad as that of Parashat Kedoshim. In its opening verses, for example, it succinctly speaks of the injunction to be holy, of reverence for parents, of Shabbat observance, of the prohibition of idolatry, of sacrifices, of harvest laws and of concern for the poor and the convert! And this multifaceted presentation of mitzvot continues throughout most of the Parasha.


It should not surprise us, then, that Rashi quotes an early tradition to the effect that "the Parasha of Kedoshim was publicly read at the Hakhel ceremony, because a majority of the Torah's main laws are contained within it" (commentary to 19:1). This Hakhel (literally "gather" in the imperative) ceremony, celebrated once every seven years, consisted of an assembly of all of the people of Israel at the Temple in Jerusalem, and was characterized in the main by a public reading of essential sections of the Torah. The purpose of the event, as spelled out in Devarim 31:10-13, was to emphasize the dynamic and living nature of the tradition and to ensure its transmission to the succeeding generation, so that Israel might enjoy permanence in its new land:

Moshe recorded this teaching and he presented it to the Kohanim the descendents of Levi who bore the Ark of God's covenant, as well as to all of the elders of Israel. Moshe commanded them saying: "at the end of every seven years, at the time of the year of release ("Shemitta"), at the festival of Sukkot, when all of Israel arrives to appear before the presence of God your Lord at the place that He will choose, then you shall read this instruction before all of the people of Israel so that they will listen. Assemble the nation – men, women, children and the converts that dwell within your gates – in order that they might hear and in order that they might learn, to revere God your Lord, and to be careful to perform all of the words of this Torah. Thus their children who do not yet know will hear and learn to revere God your Lord, all of the days that you dwell upon the land that you pass over the Yarden in order to possess."

Precisely because there is such a vast and varied number of mitzvot in the Parasha, it may seem difficult at first glance to detect a larger linking theme. And although we may organize the laws of Kedoshim according to the conventional division of those that pertain to our relationship with God ("bein adam la-Makom") and those that pertain to our relationship with other people ("bein adam le-chaveiro"), this may not assist us in isolating the fundamental principle. While many of the medieval commentaries sought the source of the Parasha's overarching rule in its opening words of "Kedoshim tihiyu" or "You shall be holy, because I, God your Lord, am holy," they nevertheless disagreed about the specific import of the idea.


Let us begin with Rashi who quotes a much earlier Rabbinic tradition:

"You shall be holy" means that you shall separate yourselves from forbidden sexual relationships and from transgression, for wherever there is a boundary concerning sexuality there is holiness...(commentary to 19:2).

For Rashi, the primary meaning of holiness – "kedusha" in the original Hebrew – is separation. To be holy means to be separate and to achieve holiness is to embrace separation. God is the ultimate expression of kedusha because He is utterly transcendent, His existence entirely separate from the limitations of the material world. But, avers Rashi, there is a specific area of human life that requires special attention in the matter of kedusha and that is sexuality. Presumably because the sex drive can be so easily misdirected, therefore it must be especially guarded from misuse. The textual inspiration for Rashi and the Rabbis must surely have been the conclusion of last week's Parasha of Acharei Mot that detailed no fewer than twenty-four sexual relationships and practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites that were to be regarded as forbidden, and then concluded the entire matter with a most sobering summation:

Do not become defiled by all of these things, for through these practices the peoples that I drive out from before you were themselves defiled. The land became defiled and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants. But you must keep My statutes and My laws, and do not do all of these abominations, whether the citizen or the convert that dwells in your midst...let not the land spew you forth for defiling it, just as it spewed out the peoples that came before you. Rather, keep My observances and do not perform all of these abominable statues that were practiced before you, and do not become defiled by them, for I am God your Lord (18:25-30).


Though Rashi singles out forbidden sexual relationships, it is clear from his comments that he has as well a broader application in mind: "'You shall be holy' means that you shall separate yourselves from forbidden sexual relationships and FROM TRANSGRESSION..." Presumably, Rashi understands that all that follows in the Parasha, the myriad and various mitzvot, draw on the source of holiness or separation for their inspiration. "Kedoshim tihiyu," therefore, is not only the introductory formula of the Parasha but also its prime directive. After all, can there ever be an act of true morality, justice or sanctification that does not call upon us to exercise self-limitation/separation in order to protect the interests of the other, be that other our fellow man or God?

Holiness, then, though it may be used in a narrow sense, also must have for Rashi a comprehensive meaning that is all-encompassing. After all, any direct parallels between Rashi's human holiness consisting of eschewing forbidden sexual relationships and God's counterpoint of "for I God your Lord am holy" is meaningless. But if holiness is the sweeping state of separation from all that is immoral, unjust or defiling, then God's absolute transcendence may be reasonably cited as its paradigm.


While appreciating Rashi's implication, it is however the Ramban (13th century, Spain) who develops the idea of holiness into an all-enveloping state of being. For Rashi, holiness means sexual propriety and attentiveness to all of the mitzvot, but for Ramban holiness only begins where the prescribed performance of the mitzvot is concluded. In his unforgettable comments, the Ramban famously describes the so-called "naval bereshut ha-Torah" or vile fellow who lives within the parameters of the Torah's laws:

...the matter is that the Torah proscribed certain sexual practices and forbade certain foods, but it permitted relations with one's wife and the consumption of meat and wine. Now the glutton may therefore find license to be lecherous with his wife or his many wives, inebriated with wine and gorged with meat. He might speak profanity without compunction since the Torah records no such prohibition, and in the process he would be considered a vile and dissolute person that is nevertheless acting within the boundaries of the Torah! Therefore this verse (of "Kedoshim tihiyu") is mentioned after the Torah has detailed all of the activities that are to be curtailed entirely, for it presents us with a general and comprehensive command that we are to be separated from overindulgence...

What the Ramban decries is unfortunately a most common feature of our religious and spiritual landscape. It is eminently possible, says the Ramban, to be living a "Halakhic life" while overlooking the objective of sanctification entirely. A person may keep the Torah's laws, and even be punctilious in their performance, but still able to find much room for behavior that is excessive and hedonistic. Since the Torah, for example, proscribes certain animals for consumption but nowhere proscribes over-consumption of that which is permitted, a person may be following the laws of the Torah even as they spend excessive effort, time and money on filling their belly to bursting. And what about vulgar or senseless conversation, talk of inanities that even the staunchest evader of "lashon hara" may engage in? In short, there is potentially a gaping chasm between the letter of the law and its spirit, between what the Torah demands and what it expects, and between performance of the mitzvot and the intent of holiness.

For the Ramban, then, "Kedoshim tihiyu" is presented in the wake of the very same list of forbidden sexual practices that inspired Rashi's comments. But the juxtaposition is not simply an invitation to define holiness as separation but rather to recognize that holiness is an exceedingly lofty goal whose realization can only begin after the Torah's prohibitions have been accepted and observed. Holiness demands of us much more than perfunctory performance of mitzvot even as we seek out within their framework opportunities for excess. Holiness is a comprehensive state that defines not only what we may or may not do but rather who we are and who we must strive to become. To be holy is not only to be taking the Torah's laws seriously but to be seeking a defining connection with God, "for I God your Lord am holy."

The injunction of "Kedoshim tihiyu" for the Ramban not only serves as the fitting comprehensive and concluding principle to Parashat Acharei Mot's list of banned sexual liaisons, the all-inclusive counterpoint to specific curtailed activities. It must also be, as it was for Rashi, the introduction to what follows it in the text, to the various commands that constitute Parashat Kedoshim. Perhaps then holiness is to be understood not only as the Torah's clarion call to the sensitive of heart to strive for more than narrow attention to that which is prohibited but also to actively seek out opportunities for spiritual growth. While the Ramban describes "kedusha" in terms of steering clear of overindulgence, it also is most certainly about separation in the opposite direction, that is to say devotion and dedication to achieving Godliness in all of our activities. This is clear from the simple fact that while the end of Parashat Acharei Mot confines its discussion to forbidden sexual relationships, Parashat Kedoshim addresses so much more. As even a cursory reading indicates, there is scarcely a human experience or action that is beyond its purview. And all of them are to be ideally inspired with this most noble quality that the Torah refers to as "kedusha."

Shabbat Shalom