The non-biblical notion of holiness


The concept of “holiness,” meaning that something or someone is sacred does not exist in the Bible. The biblical Hebrew word kedushah, which is usually translated today as “holiness” means “separate.” When the Bible asserts that God is holy it signifies that God is totally separate and distinct from humans. When it commands Israelites to be holy, it requires that they should separate from pagan practices and act reasonably.[1]

Holiness is not an ingredient. Something that is called “holy” does not radiate or convey sanctity. A person touching a holy person or object is not elevated or changed in any way. If there were a holiness Geiger Counter, and if the counter were placed next to any object or person called holy, it would not click.


Trying to make a point

Calling someone or something holy should remind listeners of the queen’s observation in Shakespeare’s 1602 play Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much.” The queen was saying: the lady who protested was too gushy and overenthusiastic, so much so that her words convinced the queen that what she heard was false, that the opposite of what the person claimed was true.

People in post-biblical times redefined kedushah as “holiness” and applied the attribute “holy” to men, women, and articles that they thought were important when they realized that others did not think they were important. No one thought of describing Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Sarah, Rebecca, and others as “holy,” because everyone agreed that these ancient figures were good and significant people. However, kabbalists did name the sixteenth century mystic Ari, ha’ari hakadosh, “the holy Ari,” because rational thinkers felt that Ari’s views that God is made up of ten parts, that the ten became separated, and people need to help God become reassembled, were not reasonable. They labeled the thirteenth century mystical book Zohar, zohar hakadosh, “the holy Zohar,” because while zohar means enlightenment, non-mystics thought its ideas, like those of Ari, were bizarre and irrational.

Similarly, they identified the biblical Joseph, Jacob’s son, yosef hatzadik, “righteous Joseph,” because there were people who disagreed with their assessment that Joseph always acted properly, and felt that Joseph behaved improperly when he failed to visit his father for some twenty years when he, Joseph, was a power in Egypt, and when he tricked his brothers when they traveled to Egypt seeking food during a famine. Some rabbis in Midrashim even claimed that while Joseph was enslaved in Egypt before his elevation, he entered his master’s suite during his master’s absence to seduce his master’s wife, and only rushed out, frightened, when he had a vision of his absent father shouting “this is wrong.”



Many Chassidim and non-Jewish mystics even today call their rabbi and cleric “holy” because they are “protesting” that the religious teacher’s lessons are correct and they are doing what is right when they accept the cleric’s teaching.



“Holiness” also does not exist in the beautiful Jewish ceremonies. The Shabbat does not add one whit of holiness to the day. The Shabbat ceremonies are only reminders to take the actions that are taught by the Shabbat. It is the actions that one learns from the Shabbat that is crucial.[2]


Nachmanides and Israel

Nachmanides contended that the land of Israel is “holy,” using the current understanding of the term, and developed mystical ideas. He insisted that since the land of Israel is holy, it is “incapable of containing” those who are not holy, and therefore God requires that its inhabitants live a holy life. This is accomplished, he said, through the Torah commandments, which keep people in a state of holiness. Holiness, therefore, is the reason that Jews are only required to keep God’s Torah in Israel.

Nachmanides writes that Torah laws are not biblically obligatory outside of Israel, but the rabbis taught that Jews should perform them even outside of Israel to accustom themselves so that they will not seem strange when they return to live in Israel and must fulfill them so that they can be holy in the holy land.

He also wrote that the land of Israel is so holy that God killed Rachel, Jacob’s wife, before Jacob and his family entered Israel because Jacob was married to two sisters, which was later prohibited in the Torah, and the land of Israel could not abide Jacob sinning.


Another unusual understanding of holiness

There are essentially two understandings of prophecy. The most widespread notion, articulated by the poet Yehudah Halevi in his book The Kuzari and by many others, is that a prophet is a “holy” man, and with rare exceptions a “holy” woman, who lives a life of remarkable piety. This man must, except for on extremely rare occasions (Balaam being virtually a sole example), be Jewish. God selects this person when God has a need to communicate something to Jews (Jonah prophesying to Nineveh is an exception). Prophecy only occurs in Israel because the land is “holy” and the “holiness” of prophecy would be inappropriate elsewhere. The prophet says only what God tells him to say. Whatever he says, therefore, is true; however, God can change the decree that the prophet announces under certain circumstances such as when people change their behavior, as they did when Jonah told the people of Nineveh that they would perish but they changed and were saved.



Maimonides held a contrary view.[3] Maimonides felt that objects could not be holy; that would be unnatural. He recognized Israel’s historical importance to the Jewish people, and he personally had great fondness for the land, but he did not think that it was holy and radiated a supernatural element that improves one’s life.

When he was escaping from the fanatical Muslims in Spain and Morocco, Maimonides and his family went to Israel wanting to settle there in peace. However, when he saw that virtually all of the Jewish inhabitants of the land were impoverished physically and intellectually, he and his family decided instead to continue their journey and settle in Egypt, where he remained for the rest of his life. He ultimately became the Nagid of Egypt, the religious and political leader of the Egyptian Jewish community, and his descendants held this position for several generations after his death.



Is the Bible “holy”? No. The Bible does not make this claim. But, if we obey biblical teachings, Maimonides tells us that we can learn some truths, improve ourselves, be all we can be, and help others, and society as a whole, improve as well.



[1] It should surprise no one that the biblical meaning of words is different than the meaning attached to the word today. Nefesh in the Torah, for example, does not mean “soul,” but “person.” Emunah does not mean “faith,” but “steadfastness.”

[2] The marriage ceremony is called kiddushin in Hebrew and the Sabbath begins with the kiddush made over wine. Both Hebrew words are derived from a root which is translated today as “holiness.” Yet, contrary to what many believe, neither the ceremony of marriage nor the one that introduces the Sabbath produce holiness. The words are used in connection with marriage and the Sabbath to teach that they can be significant if they are properly observed.

[3] Nachmanides did not agree with the listing of the 613 commandments that Maimonides placed in his Sefer Hamitzvot. One disagreement was that Maimonides did not include the dwelling in Israel as a command, while Nachmanides insisted that it was a biblical command.