By Israel Drazin


Obviously, most people will answer “yes”; but is this a proper answer? If a church or synagogue or mosque is holy, when does the holiness enter the building: when the last stone is placed? Does earth change in one instance from dirt to holy ground? Can a man or woman be holy? If yes, when does the person become holy: at birth, after teen-age years, following years of study? What is the definition of “holy,” kodesh in Hebrew?

Jacob ran from his home in Be’er Sheva, in Genesis 28, fleeing his brother Esau’s anger over his taking their father Isaac’s blessing, and rushes for safety to his uncle Laban’s home north of Canaan, in Haran. On the way, he happens upon an unidentified place and decides to sleep there. He has a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder whose base is on the earth, but it reaches as high as the heaven. While apparently frightened when he lay down to sleep, he awoke feeling confident. He said, “Surely the Lord is in this place” (28:16). What turned the site into holy terrain, containing God?

The Babylonian Talmud (Chullin 91b) states that the place where Jacob happened to stop, sleep, and dream was the same ground where Abraham obeyed God and nearly sacrificed his son Isaac in Genesis 22. The Talmud identifies the soil as Mount Moriah where the two temples would be built in Canaan, the first by King Solomon, the second by Jews from Babylon who returned to Judea, as the land was called at the time, after years of exile following the destruction of the first temple. Many classical Jewish commentators such as Saadia Gaon, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Rashbam, and Ibn Kaspi recognize that there is no basis for this identification of the area.

It is understandable why the talmudic sages wanted to emphasize the religious significance of Jacob’s dream that night by homiletically linking the location in which it occurred with the site of extraordinary biblical events, the story of Abraham and Isaac and the building of temples. This is a good sermon, which can provoke many ideas. But the rabbis go further than just establishing a homelitical link. They seem to say that the gravel upon which Jacob slept and dreamed was holy. Do all Jews believe that earth can become holy? When Jacob said that he sensed God in the area, was he saying that the soil turned holy?

Scholars inform us that the Hebrew term kodesh, usually translated “holy,” actually means “separate.” When some people say that their nation, group, or a person is “holy,” they mean that their nation, group, or person has a separate role; while others may act or think in a certain way, the holy group or person must do or is doing something else, such as living a lawful and moral life and thereby showing others proper behavior.

Maimonides put it this way: Places, objects, and people are not holy per se. Nothing enters objects or persons; there is no physical change. Holiness is the result of actions. It exists when people use things to improve themselves and society. The Sabbath is not holy per se, but only holy if the individual observes the Sabbath in a proper way. The site of Isaac’s near sacrifice, of Jacob’s dream, the temples, is not holy. Abraham created a holy situation by obeying God’s instruction. Jacob came to realize through his dream that he need not fear the future, he felt that God would be with him; this realization was a holy moment: it determined how he would act. The temples, as the prophets would later proclaim, is only holy when the people learn from it how to act properly, feeding the needy, not harming others. Holiness is the adding of religious significance through proper behavior. Thus, too, Mount Sinai is only holy if people observe the laws revealed there, and is only holy to the extent of their behavior. Cemeteries where pious people are buried are sacred grounds only when people follow the ways of the pious; it does not help to simply pray there.