Don’t Be Holy!

This week’s Torah portion begins with the directive to the Jewish people: “Kedoshim tihiyu,” always translated as “You shall be holy.”

The English word “holy” indicates G‑dly, otherworldly, a state of being that is fundamentally different from the norms of everyday life. Indeed, the OED suggests that the word’s etymology is derived from the same root as “wholly”—something entirely dedicated to G‑d.

When we turn, however, to that which this week’s reading describes as “kadosh” (holy), we notice that mixed in with laws about the Temple and the like (your typical “holy” stuff) we have laws about leaving a portion of our fields to the poor and laws about not lying to each other. We have laws about the Shabbat; one of whose most important precepts is to enjoy ourselves, physically, on that day—it is mandatory. We have an absolute obligation to aid an innocent third party being attacked and laws against bearing grudges and engaging in vendettas.

These laws are not devoted to divine and spiritual matters alone. They are about managing the realities of our everyday life in a “kodesh” manner.

The actual meaning of the Hebrew word kodesh is “separated.” But separated in the sense of refinement. When we refine something we separate the substance we desire from extraneous substances that are mixed in with it.


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