Why certain things and people are called holy


The concept of “holiness,” meaning that something or someone is sacred does not exist in the Bible. “Holiness” in the Bible means “separate.” When the Bible asserts that God is holy it signifies that God is totally separate and distinct from humans. When it commands that the Israelites should be holy it requires that they should separate from pagan practices.

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.

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 she heard was too gushy and overenthusiastic, so much so that her words convinced her that what she heard was false, that the opposite of what she claimed was true.

People in post-biblical times redefined “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 “holy,” because everyone agreed that these ancient figures were good and significant people. However, they 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. 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 doing what is right when they accept the cleric’s teaching.

Thus, when we hear someone or something being called “holy,” we should remember the queen’s observation in Hamlet.

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