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Ralbag: Kedoshim: Holiness

The 6th of Iyar is the Yahrtzeit of Rav Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag), philosopher, and commentator on Chumash. Though a distinguished Talmudist, Rabbi Levi never held a rabbinical office. He earned a livelihood

most probably by the practice of medicine. (1288-1344).

Parshat Kedoshim is one of the most eclectic parshiyos in terms of the sheer scope of the mitzvos contained therein. However, the one command that overshadows the rest of the parsha can be found in 19:2: “Kedoshim tihyu, ki kadosh ani Hashem Elokeichem”. – Be holy, for I, Hashem, your God, am holy.

The Ramban quotes Torat Kohanim which explains this command as “perushim tihyu” – Be separate. He explains that following P’ Shmini, which dealt with the laws of kashrus in terms of what can and cannot be eaten, and P’ Acharei Mos, which dealt with various types of forbidden relationships, one might decide to overindulge in the eating of kosher food and in relations with one’s own wife, which were not proscribed by the preceding restrictions. For this reason, the Torah tells us to separate ourselves from even that which is permitted to us, by enjoying it only in moderation.

However, why did the Torah specifically choose to use the term “kedoshim” to express this idea, rather than, for example, “perushim” or “tehorim”? “Kadosh” is a very frequently used word within Tanach, that carries with it certain connotations. What additional lessons can be learned from the choice of this word?

In order to understand what properties make someone or something “holy”, we must look at other verses that describe something as “kadosh”. One case in which we find someone referred to as holy is in Melachim II 4:9, where a great woman of Shuneim notes regarding the prophet Elisha “Kadosh hu”, he is holy. On Brachos 10b, Rav and Shmuel argue over what quality the woman detected in him that led her to make this statement. One holds that she noticed that she never saw a fly over his table where he was eating, while the other holds that she never saw a stain from a seminal emission on his bedsheets. This passage also gives us a good example of someone who is not called holy, as the gemara there expounds on the use of the limiting word “hu” that she used to exclude Elisha’s student Geichazi as being distinctly not holy. The gemara mentions an incident (5:27) to support this contention, in which, following the death of her son, the Shunamite woman grabbed Elisha’s legs in beseeching him for mercy (Ralbag). According to the gemara, Geichazi reacted by grabbing her by “the glory of her beauty”, a place in which he clearly should not have grabbed her. Nonetheless, perhaps one can defend Geichazi’s actions. Geichazi saw his master being physically accosted, and, serving as a bodyguard, took immediate action to remove the offender. He did not have time to think things through and remove her gently, but rather grabbed her as quickly as possible, and ended up touching her in the wrong place. This being the case, what particular aspect of his actions defines him as being “unholy”?

One passuk in which Hashem is referred to as holy is the famous one in Yeshaya 6:3, “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh Hashem Tzevakos, m’lo chol ha-aretz k’vodo” – Holy, holy, holy is Hashem; the entire world is filled with His glory. It is interesting that the prophet specifically expands on God’s holiness by noting the scope of His connection and involvement with the world, rather than through His characteristics which distinguish Him from the world that He created.

To provide a third data point, we can look at kodshim – korbonot – which by their very name are referred to as “holy”. There are numerous halachos that require that korbonos be treated with special care. This week’s parsha touches on the halachos of nosar and pigul. The first of these refers to a korbon that is not eaten within a certain period of time, while the latter refers to a korbon for which the kohen performing its avodah had, while doing its avodah, an intention to eat the korbon beyond its deadline. In both of these cases, the korbon becomes invalid and prohibited to eat. Even beyond that, they become “unholy” in a fashion, in that they transmit impurity to one who touches them and incur a penalty of kareis to one who eats them. Another interesting halacha is that kedusha can be transmitted from meat of a korbon to other food, a vessel, or a garment, much as tum’a can.

We therefore see that kedusha is not simply a passive status, defined by an absence of another quality (as is the case by taharah), but rather is an active, dynamic state, that can pass on its characteristics to other objects. Unlike a tahor object, that can remain tahor indefinitely in the absence of any direct stimulus that is m’tamei it, an object that has kedusha can easily have this status taken away due to a moment’s improper thought or lack of thought altogether. Even if all of a korbon’s requirements are satisfied, it still expires after a certain period of time, and becomes invalid for use in that way.

This dynamism is also emphasized by the pasuk quoted earlier from Yeshaya. Hashem’s holiness is not projected by His separation from the world, but rather by His involvement in the world. The Chasam Sofer on the parsha draws a contrast between the holiness sought by Jews and that sought by the holy men of the non-Jews. The priests and monks of many other religions theoretically strive towards complete asceticism, a total eschewing of all physical pleasures. This is antithetical to the Jewish idea of holiness. The Ramban quoted above defined holiness as sanctifying oneself through that which is permitted. Although one’s physical indulgences must be regulated, one is still allowed, and even encouraged, to enjoy the physical pleasures of this world in a proper manner. There is therefore a very thin line between properly utilizing the physical world and improperly using it. It is precisely through meeting the challenges that such temptations present us that we reach the level of holiness.

With these concepts in mind, we can return to Elisha and Geichazi. Elisha’s holiness was not evident to the Shunamite woman through how he davened or otherwise interacted with God, but rather in how he conducted himself in his mundane, physical activities. Even when he was at his table, he conducted himself in such a manner that his table obtained the same holy quality as the mizbei’ach in the Beis HaMikdash, for which a similar miracle was reported. When he was in bed, a place in which his watch could have been lowered, he still never experienced any seminal emission, as he was careful to always maintain his same level. This is in contrast to Geichazi. Geichazi’s unholiness was seen from how he acted under stress. Although his actions may usually have been proper, when he was faced with one moment of uncertainty, he reacted by performing a very improper act.

To summarize our findings, holiness is a dynamic state, that one must constantly strive to maintain at all times, and which can be lost through even a moment’s faltering or loss of focus. At the same time, it is not epitomized by a removal of oneself from the world, but rather by embracing the world around oneself, by using it properly and by influencing it for the better. It is characterized by the recognition that every moment is valuable and that all of one’s actions must be accomplished within a deadline. May we all be able to use these ideas in reaching our own personal potentials in holiness.

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