Monday, April 14, 2008

Erev Pesah and Shabbat

Sabbath and Passover Eve

As I did on Shabbat Purim, I present here a kind of Shabbat Hagadol lesson, divided in two parts: halakha and aggadah. This year we have the rather unusual juxtaposition of Shabbat and Passover Eve, the 14th of Nissan, with the Seder being celebrated on Saturday night. This presents certain halakhic difficulties and questions. In particular: how does one balance the prohibition against eating or even owning hametz from mid-morning, and the requirement that one must eat three (or at least two) meals during the course of the Shabbat, at which one must eat some form of bread, presumably hametz, in order to recite hamotzi and Birkat Hamazon. Since this problem has been written about and discussed extensively in many public forums, I will not repeat what has already been said by others.

A second problem involves the procedure for Kiddush on Seder night, in which one needs to combine the sanctification for the festival with Havdalah for the departing Shabbat. The Talmudic discussion (Pesahim 102b-103b) suggests no less than seven different permutations and combinations of the blessings constituting this Kiddush; the accepted solution, printed in every Haggadah, is known by the acronym Yaknahaz. An interesting sidelight is that many illuminated haggadot from Medieval Europe contain a picture of a rabbit hunt on this page, replete with horns, hunters mounted on horseback, etc. What does this have to do with Passover? The answer lies in a pun on the old German word for hare hunt: “Jagenhas.” But David Moss, a contemporary artist who has created a beautiful Haggadah rich in carefully worked-out original symbolism, suggests that there may be more to this than merely fortuitous word-play. The hare hunt may be seen as symbolically akin to the drama of the Jewish people in exile, persecuted and pursued by enemies, but always persisting, sustained by the vision of redemption symbolized by the Seder. (And, taking it one step further: this theme is particularly apropos to a Seder held at the departure of the Shabbat, when we reenter the week-day world, which likewise is seen as corresponding to Galut).

Hillel the Elder and the Passover Offering

All of which is perhaps an overly verbose introduction to my real subject here: the classical Talmudic problem of what one does with the Korban Pesah, the “Paschal lamb” or Passover offering, when the 14th of Nissan falls on Shabbat. Does the performance of this offering in fact override the Shabbat, so that one is in fact required to bring it on such a Passover? And, if so, what are the parameters: what labors relating to it may be done on Shabbat, and what is postponed till after the Shabbat?

The discussion concerning this subject, on Pesahim 66a, relates that, because this happens so infrequently, it happened once in late Temple days that the people forgot the law since the last occurrence. Suddenly they remembered that there was a man named Hillel, who had recently come from Babylonia, and was reputed to be very learned. Hillel gave two separate answers: one based on a gezerah shavah, a comparison between two verses using the same word, and one based on a kal vahomer, a logical inference “from minor to major.” As a result of his lucid and self-confident erudition, he was then and there named Nasi—“Prince,” i.e., chief religious and political authority of the community—and thus began his public life.

They then raised a second question: how is one to behave if one forgot to bring a knife to slaughter the lamb? It was forbidden to carry any object through the streets on the Sabbath, and the solution used today, of the eruv, was not yet widespread in those days. Hillel’s answer was unexpected: to observe the popular custom. “See what the people do. If they are not prophets, at least they are sons of prophets!” The rabbis go out and see the sheep being led through the streets of Jerusalem with the knife stuck in their fleece (a rather macabre solution, if you think about it). He then adds a brief but significant remark: “Now I remember that I learned this halakha from Shemaya and Abtalyon!”

Many years ago I taught this passage publicly in my old shul in Ramat Eshkol. I suggested then that this passage may be read as an object lesson in the methodology of halakhah. Hillel appears here as a virtuoso of halakha, utilizing all possible methods of learning Torah: application of traditional hermeneutic rules; invocation of tradition received from past generations, whose roots ultimately lie in the oral tradition revealed at Sinai; and minhag, actual folk practice. These methods roughly correspond to the classical functions of the Sanhedrin described by Maimonides in Hilkhot Mamrim 1.1: namely, tradition; logical inference; and legislation of edicts and regulations (this last rubric also includes minhag; i.e., the ordering and giving of some sort of Rabbinical stamp of approval to popular custom).

I would like to return to the substance of Hillel’s answer. He argued that, “Is there only one Passover during the year? Are there not more than 200 Passovers during the course of the year!” The reference here is of course to the public burnt-offerings offered routinely on each and every Shabbat of the year: two lambs for the regular daily offering, and two lambs for the Musaf, multiplied by 50-odd weeks in the year. Just as these override the Sabbath, so too does the Paschal sacrifice override the Sabbath—and he brings a gezerah shavah, two parallel verses using the same word, mo’ado, “in its time,” to clinch the point.

But is this not begging the question? After all, it seems clear that the main premise of the question was that the Passover is an “individual” offering, one owned by a havurah, a group of people, usually members of a clan or some other family unit, who bought it with their own money. As such, it was hardly comparable to the fixed public offerings, the Temidin and Musafin offered in the name of entire Jewish people, which served so to speak as the back-bone of the Temple service. These latter were purchased from funds collected from the half-shekel, so as to represent all Israel before their Father in Heaven in an equitable way.

Rabbi Hillel’s answer is that these, too, are “passovers.” Or rather, to invert the formulation, that the Passover is analogous to them. True, it is not a public offering, purchased with common funds. Indeed, it is not even a burnt-offering, one consumed entirely on the altar and as such given over entirely to God—both of which factors were ordinarily required in order to justify a given sacrifice overriding the Sabbath. It is more like the shelamim, the “peace-offering” eaten by its owners in a celebratory mode (see HY 5760: Vayikra, on these concepts). Nevertheless, in essence, the Passover is an offering of entire Jewish people. Clearly, Hillel agrees here with those who claim that “All Israel are fit to eat one paschal lamb.” What is the meaning of this rather bizarre statement? To translate it into conceptual terms: the reason so many pesahim are offered is not an essential one, one inherent in the nature of the offering, but a technical reason: that there is just so much meat on any one animal, so that perhaps 20 or 30 people can partake of any one lamb (or goat). Hence, the need for groups. But these groups, viewed collectively, constitute the entire Jewish people. Thus, in a certain almost metaphysical sense, the Korban Pesah is a public offering, consumed collectively by all of Knesset Yisrael, “Collective Israel.”

It seems to me that one can draw an analogy between the role of the group “counted” for each individual korban pesah, and the institution of the minyan, the traditional prayer quorum. A minyan gathered for prayer is not just the people present—the ”ten ordinary Jews,” as the Rav once put it, “who gather together… perhaps on a rainy winter afternoon”—but is theologically a microcosm or “embodiment of the entire Knesset Yisrael… past, present, and those yet unborn.“ Unlike other private offerings brought during Temple days: the todah, the thanksgiving offering brought in gratitude for personal joys; or the sin-offering, brought to atone for personal wrongdoing, the Pesah is by its very essence related to the idea of Jewish peoplehood. The event it comes to commemorate—through the eating of the Passover lamb, the singing of hymns of praise, the narration of the story— namely, the Exodus from Egypt, symbolizes the crux from which the people emerged. Hence, it is treated as a “public offering writ small”—and thus overrides the sanctity of the Shabbat.

Metzora (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this portion, see the archives to this blog at April 2006.

Family Purity

One of the problematic practices of traditional Judaism, that at times arouses puzzlement and even vociferous objections among those influenced by the modern sensibility, is taharat hamishpahah, “family purity”—i.e., those prohibitions relating to the woman’s menstrual cycle, the requirement of ritual immersion (mikveh) prior to resuming marital relations each month, etc. In Israel, where matters pertaining to marriage are controlled by the Rabbinate, young secular women are known to feel deeply offended at the prying into these intimate matters in preparation for their wedding, seeing this as an invasion of their privacy. As this topic is the only mitzvah appearing in this week’s parasha (at Lev 15:19-24; see further in 18:19 and 20:18) that is still in effect and practiced today, it is an obvious subject for this week’s discussion.

The difficulty with the laws of niddah might be phrased thus: the other kinds of prohibited sexual unions, such as incest, adultery, and so on, have a clear logic and social benefit. They might be classified as mishpatim—those laws at which human reason would have arrived even had the Torah not commanded them. But the laws of niddah reach into the intimacy of the marital bed, in which sex as such is not only permitted but even sanctified and a mitzvah, and an area which we are accustomed to think of as private. Why does the Torah see fit to enter into this realm?

Leaving aside the specifics of niddah and the explanations offered—for example, the idea noted by some that Judaism has a deep-seated aversion to blood, whether in the form of consuming the blood of animals, bloodshed, or menstrual sex—the obvious answer is that Judaism and halakhah sees sexual matters, as any another area of life, as one that calls out for discipline, structuring, and sanctification. This attitude encapsulates, perhaps more than any other, the difference between traditional Judaism and the modern sensibility. Indeed, I have recently found myself coming to the conclusion that the “Sexual Revolution” of recent generations, the type of discourse and thinking about sexuality that has become de rigeur in educated Western society, has wreaked havoc in ways totally unanticipated. The original motivation of these changes, in the 1960s or earlier (“free love” was already a slogan of progressive circles in my parent’s youth, Havelock Ellis and Wilhelm Reich and Margaret Sanger were latter-day prophets of sorts, and a certain reading of Freud mitigated strongly against unnecessary “inhibitions”) was to do away with hypocrisy, and to foster a rational approach to sexuality. The ‘60s slogan, “Make Love Not War,” was based on the assumption that freeing Eros from the repression of puritanical morality would somehow make for a healthier, more loving, more generous, “flowing” society; that a freed sensuality would outweigh the forces of Thanatos—of destruction, aggression, etc. The belief was that the increased acceptance of and availability of sexual pleasure would somehow improve the overall atmosphere of the culture and foster peace.

The new attitude towards sexuality goes hand in hand with individualism, and with a tendency in contemporary philosophy, social thinking, law and jurisprudence to emphasize the rights of the individual as against the claims of the polis, the public arena (a subject I will discuss another time). Hence, the only sexual acts of which liberal society disapproves are those which somehow injure another person (e.g., rape, sexual abuse of children, or unfaithfulness to a committed relationship); the formula used is that any act committed by “two consenting adults” is beyond the concern of society.

And yet, it is difficult to say that we have a healthier, more ethical, responsible, cohesive, or decent society today than we did a generation or two ago. I believe that the cultural experience of recent decades has proven the naïvete of the “free love” ethos. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain (Covenant and Conversation, Tazria, 5768), notes the following: In 1940, teachers were asked to identify the seven most serious problems they faced in their school. The answers given were: “talking out of turn; chewing gum; making noise; running in corridors; cutting in line; not wearing school uniform; dropping litter.” In 1990 teachers were asked the same question. Their answers: “drug abuse; alcohol abuse; teenage pregnancy; suicide; rape; robbery; assault.” He attributes this general descent into chaos, ultimately, to the decline in the institution of marriage, and to the fact that there are far more children growing up without a stable home than half a century ago. He continues:

We have divorced sex from love; love from commitment; commitment from marriage; marriage from having children; and having children from bearing responsibility for nurturing them and bringing them up…….. We have lost—or are losing—that one institution that brought together sex and love and companionship and stability and fidelity, and bringing new life into the world and caring for it in its dependent years. The most majestic achievement of human civilization. The Beethoven’s Ninth of the moral world. That thing called marriage. Or what we call kiddushin—the sacred bond between husband and wife.

At this point, I hear a little voice within myself asking: Doesn’t the good rabbi overstate the case? Have I fallen into the trap of the self-righteous moralists? After all, there are people who live together in long-term, loving relationships “without benefit of clergy,” bearing and raising healthy, normal, intelligent children who ultimately become productive members of society (incidentally, as a long-term pattern this is far more common in the UK and on the continent than it is in the US or Israel). Perhaps there is no reason to be overly apocalyptic about the so-called “moral decline.” Indeed, I am wary of the tendency of certain people (among whom I do not include the Chief Rabbi) to become far more outraged over sexual transgressions than those in other areas, including those potentially far more harmful of the public weal—witness, for example, the outcry over the Spitzer affair in New York State.

Yet notwithstanding all that, I cannot help thinking that the whole cluster of problems and societal changes relating to family and sexuality—ranging from the acceptance of premarital sexual activity, through the high divorce rate, to the widespread acceptance in principle of homosexuality, to the approach to gender on the part of certain radical schools of feminism—tide no good for society. I do not know which of these are symptoms and which are causes, or whether the root cause of these changes may not stem from other areas entirely (e.g., economics, the nature of the workplace, the interpersonal alienation fostered by the new technology, etc.). But I know one thing: the family is the most basic unit upon which the entire edifice of community and society at large (and Jewish peoplehood) are constructed.

Notwithstanding the upbeat post-modern discourse about “new families”—single parent, same sex, communal child raising, etc.—one can’t help feeling that it’s so much whistling in the dark. Once one begins to tamper with social arrangements, it’s hard to know where it will end. I would draw an analogy to revolutionary socialism, which a mere eighty years ago enthralled the minds and hearts of the “best and brightest” of the youth. Lenin and Trotsky were certainly not evil men, but sought a genuine amelioration of the great injustices of the system; and yet the structures they created ended up in a far different place than they imagined. Kal vahomer, the present changes in the nature of the family, that most basic and most sensitive of all social institutions, are highly problematic, and potentially dangerous. I know that we cannot turn the clock back to the days of Father Knows Best, but we must be aware of the problems and try to create a better way.

I have ended up a long way from Tractate Niddah and seven clean days and examinations and ketamim and what not, but there is one central lesson that these laws clearly teach, whatever and why ever they take this specific form: that sex is a serious business, not to be seen primarily as a source of private pleasure to the parties involved alone. It is this lesson that our society seems to be forgetting at its peril.


The final two of the Thirteen Principles have to do with eschatology, representing, so to speak, the flip side or corollary of the idea of Divine Providence: namely, that God will, in the future, set right the perceived injustice of this life. Interestingly, though Rambam affirms these beliefs as an essential part of the Judaic faith system, both of them present particular problems for him, in one way or another, as we shall explain. One might add that these beliefs are particularly problematic for many modern Jews—but that is a whole other set of questions.

Interesting, too, is the fact that Rambam does not list belief in personal immortality, known as Olam ha-Ba, as one of the basic principles of faith, although he does discuss it in Hilkhot Teshuvah 8-9. There, he inter alia polemicizes with the Muslim theologians (”fools, immersed in lewdness”) who depict the Afterlife in graphically corporeal terms —i.e., the proverbial 72 virgins supposedly promised suicide bombers as their future reward—and insists upon the purely spiritual nature of the Afterlife. It is interesting to speculate as to why he does not include this among the basic fundaments. One possible answer might be that Olam ha-Ba is conceived by him as a temporary state, a kind of prelude, lasting between the death of the individual and the future redemption in the time of Messiah and Resurrection of the Dead—but I am by no means sure that this theory is correct.

XII. Messiah. “He will send our righteous Messiah at the End of Days; to redeem those who await the End with His salvation”

In two major respects, Rambam’s view of Messiah was quite different from that which many associate with this doctrine. First, he was opposed to those who devoted too much mental and spiritual energy to the when, how, what, and whom of Messiah, insisting that it suffices to believe the things ”in a general way.” This was no doubt the result of a keen awareness of the deleterious effects of mehashvei kitzim, of Messianic speculations at various points in Jewish history, and the grave disappointments that followed when a particular messianic date failed to be realized. (But Rambam’s criticism failed to deter Jews at subsequent points in history from engaging in messianic hysteria, from Shlomo Molcho and Shabbatei Zevi, down to the messianic movement of the Lubavitcher Rebbes in our own days.) In a famous passage (which Yeshayahu Leibowitz was fond of quoting) in Hilkhot Melakhim 12.2, he writes:

Regarding all these matters [i.e., of Messiah] and their like, no person knows how they shall be, until they shall be… Neither the order of occurrence of these things nor their details are fundaments of religion. And a person ought not to engage in words of the aggadot, nor devote much time to those midrashim that deal with these matters the like, nor should he make them the main thing, for they lead neither to fear nor to love [of God]. Nor should one calculate the End. For our Sages said, “Cursed is the spirit of those that calculate the End” [Sanhedrin 97b]. Rather he should wait with forbearance and believe in this matter in general terms, as we have explained.

Secondly, his approach to Messiah was essentially naturalistic. Messiah will not bring about a supernatural change in the order of nature (i.e., lions will still like lambchops), human nature will embody the same paradoxes and face the same moral and spiritual challenges as today, but somehow things will be easier: there will be material abundance (brought about in a natural way), and all will have the leisure and freedom from care to engage in the pursuit of wisdom. Most important, the Jewish people will no longer be subject to shibud malkhuyot, the domination of other nations. (For a fuller discussion of this chapter, see HY V: Vayehi and HY V: Simhat Torah = Vayehi, Simhat Torah [Rambam]).

For me, the most important implication of Messianism is a certain optimism to which it leads, a belief in the future of Jewry and of the human race. Faith in the ultimate redemption helped give Jews the strength to go on in situations of persecution and anti-Semitism; but equally so, in the current situation, where the human race at times seems to be committing collective hari kari, and one only wonders whether the coup de grace will be delivered by an atomic holocaust, global warming, exhaustion of resources, or the general unraveling of society through the collapse of the family, the faith in Messiah holds out hope and says—there is a better future down the road.

It is particularly fitting to talk about Messiah as Pesah approaches. The midrashim and liturgy related to this festival are filled with parallels between “the former Redemption” [i.e., from Egypt] and the “latter Redemption.” The Seder is not only a retelling and remembering and celebration of past miracles and redemptive events, but also—to greater or lesser degree, with different emphases at different times and places—an anticipation and a kind of prelude and prayer and expression of hope for the future. This motif runs like a kind of counterpoint throughout the Seder: from the blessing over the second cup of wine (“so, Lord our God, bring us to future holidays and festivals, rejoicing in the rebuilding of Your city … and may we eat there of the burnt offerings and paschal offerings…”); through the latter chapters of the Hallel, down to the piyyutim recited at the end of the Seder: Karev Yom (“A day is approaching, that is neither day nor night…. Light up, bright as day, the darkness of night”); Adir Hu (“He is mighty, He will build His temple quickly, quickly in our days…”); etc. This is also true of the liturgy for the last day, and even more so of the Eighth Day in Diaspora, that is devoted to this theme (e.g., the haftarah from Isaiah 11-12; Ma’arivit, liturgical poems that are today almost defunct but that traditionally set the tone for each holiday; the “Messiah’s Seudah” observed, with greater or lesser realized eschatology, by certain Hasidic groups). Or, as Hazal put it, “In Nissan they were redeemed; in Nissan they shall be redeemed in the future.”

XIII. Resurrection. “God will quicken the dead with His great mercy; blessed be for ever His glorious name”

Maimonides was accused of denying the doctrine of Resurrection—which, as we noted in our introduction to this series, was one of the key faith issues mentioned in the mishnah in Sanhedrin 11.1, which states that one must believe in “Tehiyat Hametim from the Torah.” Hence, in order to vindicate his name, he wrote an entire treatise on the subject, Maamar Tehiyat Hametim (The Treatise on Resurrection).

His defense of the doctrine of bodily resurrection is an interesting one: if one believes at all in the hypothetical possibility of miracles, one must believe that God has the power to raise the dead. If, on the other hand, one dos not, one has no real reason to believe in anything, as even the belief in the Creation is ultimately a miracle, a manifestation of God’s ability to act outside of the order of nature (albeit in this case, it is to set up the order of nature).

Once again, it must be reiterated that Maimonides, appealing as his overall rationalism and scepticism of exaggerated popular beliefs may be, was a far cry from modern type rationalist. He was deeply rooted in faith, including those items that are beyond proof. By contrast, today many people who consider themselves good, and even observant Jews, find it difficult to believe in things such as Resurrection, which are so far removed from our own experience, and seem so counter-logical. It seems to me that the faith of many is far more “stripped down” and minimalistic than even that of Rambam.

One might add that perhaps the central non-rational plank in his belief system—the Sinaitic revelation—is also ultimately presented by him as something that we human beings cannot begin to understand. Thus, in Guide II.33 he uses language similar to that in Melakhim: we don’t understand how it occurred and exactly what happened, and must suffice with believing in it in general.

I will conclude by mentioning an interesting application of faith in the Resurrection, and its precise meaning, to a current event, featured on the front pages of all the Israeli newspapers in recent weeks. I refer to a recent law passed by the Knesset with the backing of a number of major rabbis (from the Sephardic and national-religious camps, albeit not from that of the Ashkenazic Haredim), allowing organ transplant using brainstem death as the legal and halakhic criteria for death. The interesting point is that the traditional reluctance of religious people to allow organ transplants from the bodies of loved ones who died violently (thereby leaving healthy organs, unlike those who die from disease or old age) is twofold: one, the issue as question whether at the time of transplant the person was in fact halakhically dead—hence the great importance of this ruling, and its rabbinical backing. Second, there is a kind of superstitious fear that, if a person is buried without all his vital organs, come tehiyat hametim he/she will be revived with an incomplete body. On this point, the Rabbis have taken pains to point out that this is a corporeal, incorrect understanding of the concept of Resurrection, and that the whole idea of Resurrection is of a miraculous reconstitution of the deceased in bodily form. In any event, as the body decomposes in the grave, all tissue will be long gone, only bones. Thus, far from being as abstruse theological issue, this issue is as current as today’s headline.

We conclude our study with the final verse of Yigdal in the Sephardic Siddur:

“These are the thirteen principles; the basis of the law of Moses and of his prophecy”

Friday, April 04, 2008

Tazria - Hahodesh

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives for this blog at April 2006.

We note with sadness the recent passing of three people. Chana Safrai, Talmud scholar and teacher and a central figure in religious feminism in Israel, was at the time of her death working, together with her brother Ze’ev, on a project Mishnat Eretz Yisrael. Though I had not had ongoing contact with Chana for many years, at one point we served together on the Executive of Ne’emanei Torah ve-Avodah; indeed, it was she who first brought me into the movement. Secondly, Gerald Cromer, a valued member of the Yedidiah community, founding member years ago of the London Havurah, criminologist and social activist. Though I knew Gerald only marginally, we were connected with the same circles, and he always gave me the impression of being a particularly fine person. The lives of both Chana and Gerald were cut short by severe illness while they were still very much in their prime. Third, Ra’aya Marcus, a distant cousin by marriage, whose family was the first one I came to know during the year I spent here in Israel as a teenager, and whose warm hospitality I enjoyed often. May the memory of all be a blessing.

Purity and Holiness

The two parshiyot read this week and next (which in most years are coupled together) are very difficult—both in the technical sense and, more so for our purposes, in terms of relating them to our own world of concepts and values. Both portions are concerned with physical forms of tumah (“impurity,” “uncleanness,” or even “contamination”) originating from the body, the limitations they impose, and the methods of purification from them. These include both tzara’at—usually translated as “leprosy,” but in fact a series of other kinds of skin affections—and various sexually related discharges, both normal and malignant—childbirth itself, seminal emission, menstruation, and abnormal discharge (gonorrhea?) on the part of both men and women. The latter two form the basis for what is known as taharat hamishpaha (“family purity”: a rather coy Victorian euphemism); otherwise, these halakhot are essentially defunct.

Last Shabbat I chanced upon an interesting comment in He’emek Davar (by R. Zvi Yehudah Berlin, the Natziv of Volozhin) warning against confusing the concepts of taharah and kedushah (purity and holiness), and suggesting that the rebellion of Korah was somehow related to such a confusion. In this comment (quoted in the weekly parsha sheet Shabbat Shalom), he takes note of a certain technical detail of the laws of preparation of the Parah Adumah, the red heifer whose ashes were used in the purification ritual for those contaminated by contact with the dead. Notwithstanding the great importance of this ritual, the halakhah specifically limits the strictures involved therein, and requires that it be slaughtered by a tevul yom—that is, a person on a provisional, less-than-absolute degree of purity—rather than by one on a higher level of purity. The Natziv concludes that this rule was intended to assure that people not exaggerate in the laws of purity where unnecessary, and not confuse the requirements of purity with the quest for holiness.

This prompted me to seek a more precise definition of what is meant by taharah and tum’ah. I began with a close reading of the biblical verses themselves, to see if there was an implied definition. In addition to the two “classical” parshiyot of tumah and taharah discussed here, I found that the concepts of purity and impurity play a central role in two areas of Jewish (and human) life relating to central areas of physical pleasure, that are very much in effect today: namely, those governing food and sex, i.e., kashrut and arayot. Both those laws defining permitted and forbidden species of living creatures (Leviticus 11—Shemini) and those regarding forbidden sexual unions (Lev 18—Aharei Mot) are concluded with extended passages emphasizing that, by observing these prohibitions, one avoids becoming tamei. Thus, in Lev 11:43-47: “Do not make yourselves disgusting by [eating] any swarming things, and do not become tamei through them… For I am the Lord your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy, and not contaminate yourselves…” Similarly, regarding the laws of incest and other forbidden sexual unions, 18:24ff. reads: “Do not make yourselves tamei in all these, for the nations whom I expel before you made themselves tamei with all these things. And the land became contaminated… and spit out its inhabitants… therefore, do not do all these abominations.”

While purity and holiness are intermingled in both these passages, there is also a clear hierarchy between them: taharah is a kind of predicate to kedushah. Tumah, broadly speaking, refers to various negative impediments to contact with the realm of the holy; tahara is thus a positive state, defined by the absence of tumah, and as such is a prerequisite of holiness—but it is not holiness in itself. To be sure, holiness also implies a certain sense of restriction, of being set apart, and even carries certain prohibitions in its wake—whether it be a woman who is “sanctified” to her husband, and thereby precluded from intimate contact with all other men; the Land of Israel or Jerusalem, which are “holy” and have certain laws applying within their boundaries that do not apply elsewhere; the Shabbat and other holy days, which inter alia are defined in terms of restrictions; or animal or material goods sanctified for use by the Temple (hekdesh), which cannot be used for secular purposes.

But the difference is that holiness is not merely the absence of the negative, but also implies being set apart for a certain purpose. A person who strives for kedushah (defined as one of the highest levels in such moral guidebooks as Mesillat Yesharim) is really striving to fulfill the Divine image within himself to the ultimate degree: whether this be defined in terms of yedi’at ha-Shem, knowledge of God, a certain kind of religious consciousness or awareness; or in terms of hidamot la-Shem, what is known in Western thought as imitatio dei, a certain God-like flow of love, of generosity, of hesed, of caring for others. (We will return to the question of holiness after Pesah, in Parashat Kedoshim). But whatever the precise contents of holiness, it is clear that it is more than the mere absence of negative factors, but in itself a powerfully positive force.