Sunday 29 September 2019


R. Yosef Kapach's signature on a Jerusalem Rabbinical Court document together with R. Ovadiah Yosef and R Waldenberg.


Rabbi Yosef Kapach[1] (1917-2000) is widely considered to have been a world authority on Maimonidean texts. He compiled what is today regarded as the most accurate publication of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah - working as he did, not from printed versions but from manuscripts written in Rambam’s own hand.

R. Kapach produced a 23 volume edition of Mishneh Torah with his own extensive notes which compare - for the first time - each concept and ruling in the Mishneh Torah, to Rambam’s ideas on the same topic but taken from his other writings. The work also includes an anthology of about 300 additional commentaries as well. This allows the student to acquire a well-rounded overview of Rambam’s thoughts instead of just reading them in a vacuum.

Rabbi Kapach was highly respected and served for some decades on Israel's highest religious court.

Besides his impressive credentials, R. Kapach had some very interesting – some would say controversial - views on a number of pertinent and important issues affecting contemporary Judaism.

In this article, we will look at some of these matters through the eyes of one of his students, Professor Tzvi Langermann from Bar Ilan University, who refers to R. Kapach (Kafah) as “mori Yusuf”, my teacher Yosef.[2]


Scattered amongst the non-legal sections of the Talmud (0-500 CE) are many ancient statements that were once considered to have been innovatory science, but in the fullness of time have subsequently been replaced by more accurate scientific assumptions. 

The modern student of Talmud today is faced with the dilemma of either choosing to disregard modern science in favour of the Talmudic version, or to discard the current science. The choice becomes more than academic when general science crosses over into practical medical science.
Some claim that whatever is recorded in the Talmud is sacrosanct and is therefore not subject to alteration or review under any circumstances.

[NOTE: Our discussion is only concerned with scientific and non-Halachic issues, and it must be taken as obvious that no one is suggesting tampering with actual Halacha.]

Regarding Talmudic science, R. Kapach took a forthright and unabashed position. He followed a rationalist approach which he inherited from his grandfather R. Yichya Kapach – and openly and boldly claimed that the Talmudic statements on science, simply reflected the science of its day; and therefore was not part of the orally transmitted tradition from Sinai!

Thus, when the Talmud spoke of Halachic matters, those would have been part of the ancient oral tradition going back to Sinai. But the scientific, historical and medical matters recorded in the Talmud were merely a reflection of the general views of the world at that time, and were not, in his view, to be regarded as ‘holy’.


Regarding the matter of whether the sun revolves around the earth (which many contemporary Orthodox Jews still steadfastly maintain to be the truth) or whether the earth revolves around the sun, R. Kapach clearly maintained that the earlier belief that the sun revolves around the earth was not something that had its roots in Sinai. Therefore that assumption was not something one had to bend over backwards to try and support.[3]

R. Kapach writes:

“On the contrary... [the Talmudic scientific views are][4] due either to ...[the Sages’][5]...understanding and conclusions, on the basis of the astronomy of their day, or else they received it from the non-Jewish scholars...

It is important to know that this is the situation, because in our own day these concepts have changed from one extreme to the other.

Some things that were once the absolute truth have been totally destroyed.

If someone who does not know their source imagines that their source lies in a tradition of the Sages, he could make the same mistake with regard to things that really are a tradition of the Sages, ‘from person to person,’ and that are fundamental to Judaism.

Therefore, it is good to know the truth, so that if these [old astronomical ideas] are refuted, as they have indeed been refuted, it does not matter at all, and the matter has no bearing at all on the Jewish faith.”[6]

Langermann refers to the “danger of sanctifying the scientific claims of the rabbis” and echoes his teacher’s fear that:

“[w]hen discerning persons realize that these claims are wrong, as they surely will, they may be led to reject the entire tradition.”


Interestingly, although an avowed Maimonidean, R. Kapach said that the same applied to the relatively more recent science as recorded within his beloved Rambam’s writings (1135-1204). Rambam also wrote on scientific and medical matters as they were understood during his time, but he did not expect his readers to retain them in light of more accurate discoveries and developments he knew would take place in the future. 

[Again, of course, the purely Halachic writings of Rambam like those of the Talmud continue to retain their obvious authority.]

Concerning his teacher’s view, Langermann writes:

“Thus those assertions that have since been disproved, or at least rejected by the consensus of the scientific community, are wrong, plain and simple, and may be jettisoned.” 


Even though R. Kapach completely rejected the since disproved Talmudic and Medieval science which he never regarded as ever being part of the authentic Torah tradition, he nevertheless emphasized something Rambam said that is often overlooked:

Rambam explained that although much of Talmudic science had been displaced even in his day, nonetheless it is not an indictment against the rabbis of the Talmud because it still shows how they:

 made it their business to learn thoroughly the science current in their own time.”

The sages were interested in science! 

And the content of their scientific conclusions is not the crucial issue – what is important, is that they attempted to understand the science of their day to the best of their ability! Their intent was more important than their content.

R. Kapach maintained that if the Sages attempted to understand science, then there is no reason for us not to do the same today.


Some might argue that if a great rabbi, especially a Talmudic authority, pronounces on any issue, his verdict is not only final but he is actually speaking on behalf of the Torah itself (if not G-d Himself). 

This hypothesis is common and is known as Daat Torah.

According to this view, whatever the Talmudic Sages said, must certainly be Daat Torah and their views on science and medicine must of necessity be correct.

While many do assume this position, certainly in the view of Rambam, such a notion could not ever be entertained.

Professor Menachem Kellner, considered an authority on Maimonidean thought, writes that according to Rambam:

“Truth is absolute and objective; there can thus be no such things as intellectual (or spiritual) authority per se.

Statements are true irrespective of the standing of the person making them.

Maimonides could thus have no patience for the sorts of claims to rabbinic authority which underlie the contemporary doctrine of da’at Torah (charismatic rabbinic authority) in its various permutations.”


When it came to the much debated issue of religious and secular studies at Torah schools - relating to whether secular studies should be allowed at all and if allowed to what extent - R. Kapach was, to say the least, completely outspoken.

Some schools allow equal time allocation for both subjects while others only permit a minimal amount of secular literacy, and almost everyone only allows the secular to take place at the end of the learning day[7], and only permit the science that does not contradict their version of the Torah.

However, Langermann writes that his teacher:

“...Rabbi Kafah was quite distressed by this attitude.

In his view, the very dichotomy between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ subjects, a self-evident truth in the mind of so many Jews, is misguided. In this matter as in just about every other, the rabbi's outlook was grounded in the thought of Saadia Gaon and especially Moses Maimonides.

Following their lead...Rabbi Kafah drew a sharp distinction between blind belief and true conviction...

A scientific education is a sine qua non for the attainment of sound convictions. Only the precise, impartial, critical, and rigorous method of the sciences can lead to this type of conviction. In addition, the strongest indications of the truth of the existence of God and other basic principles come from the investigation of the world of phenomena; and their investigation is the province of science.

The conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that science, too, should properly be classified as limmudei qodesh, sacred studies.

Thus there is a first-class religious obligation (‘a mitzvah from the Torah’) to study science.”

And if that wasn’t controversial enough, he continues:

“Moreover, the rabbi held that much of what is generally taken to be limmudei qodesh is anything but holy.

He disliked the intricate analysis of purely hypothetical legal problems, something that many consider to be the acme of Torah study....

He listed the following sciences as obligatory: logic, astronomy, natural science (biology, zoology, physics), medicine, and language.”

In a similar fashion, Menachem Kellner writes:

“... Maimonides imports science... into the very heart of Torah.

Indeed the twentieth century’s leading Maimonidean, Rabbi Josef Kafih, went so far as to deny the possibility of secular studies (limmudei hol) for Maimonides: if a discipline yields truth, it is not secular.

One who has mastered what Maimonides calls (in the Introduction to the Guide of the Perplexed) the legal science of the Torah (i.e. the Talmudist) is thus inferior to one who has mastered the secrets of the Torah, i.e. the person who understands physics and metaphysics...

An enthusiastic Maimonidean such as Jacob Anatoli (thirteenth century) understood the implications of this clearly: in his eyes a scientifically trained Gentile is superior to a punctilious Jew who has no scientific training.[8]

This is one of those views that will either resonate innately withn - or utterly repel - the Reader. There is no middle ground here.

While some might scorn Rambam - and by implication, R. Kapach - for these views, others would laud them for their ‘wisdom to develop them and the courage to voice them.’


Either way, the impact of R. Kapach’s thoughts has been minimal despite his being recognized as one of the great authorities on Maimonidean texts and thought.

“Many of these ideas were developed by Rabbi Kafah in a short article which, though reprinted several times and translated into English, seems to have had little or no impact.”

R. Kapach was fatigued and frustrated by the attitude of the establishment and:

“...concluded that without some common ground of belief shared by the participants, argument or discussion is pointless.

Hence he would dispute with other Maimonideans with fury and passion; but he limited himself to dry exposition when writing for those whose world-views were far-removed from his own.”

He seemed to have resigned himself to the fact that his was a battle he could never win, having already witnessed his grandfather’s futile campaign to rid his fellow Yemenites of their belief in magic and theurgical mysticism.

Menachem Kellner acknowledges that hardly anyone took notice of R. Kapach’s views, and adds that the same was true of Rambam himself:

“None of these positions had much impact on Judaism after Maimonides, and many people today who revere his memory and devote themselves to the study of his Mishneh Torah would probably deny that he held them...”[9] 

Besides R. Kapach’s negligible influence on the contemporary study curriculum at schools, some of his students like Langermann, appear reluctant to even share some of their teacher’s other views on other issues. 

So, for example – whether Langerman felt he didn’t quite understand his teacher’s interpretation in a certain matter or whether he was simply reticent to express it – he writes:

“If I understood him properly, Rabbi Kafah may have gone even farther in his interpretation of Maimonides, but I cannot say more on this subject.”

Why could he not say more on the subject?


Some admittedly highly subjective questions follow:

Why is it that our (teenage) children can come home from school having been taught the most extreme midrashim and tacitly expected to take them literally – yet others can’t fully express the views of someone like R. Kapach?

Why can respectable organizations publicise and advise with impunity, all sorts of almost theurgical activities which are purported to heal and save – yet others can’t teach correspondingly radical views as put forth in commentaries such as Rabbeinu Nissim of Marseilles?

How can some peripheral, mystical and magical concepts be openly taught as if they were core Torah values – yet one hundred thousand pages of Rav Kook have been withheld from us?

Why are some of the normative, balanced and rational notions which Judaism is also rich in, often denied, ignored, suppressed or relegated to some vague category of non-authoritative status - and those that wish to study and teach such matters are compelled to do so apologetically!

Not everyone has to adopt these notions, and the masses probably never will, but at least they should be presented as equal and legitimate alternatives - which they, being rooted in Rambam surely are - for those who seek them. 

A whole new generation might find it easier to come back to Judaism.

‘Hilkach Nimrinhu leTarvaihu' ...Therefore let us express both (world-views)!

Or have these ideas been so repeatedly driven underground to the extent that they have, ironically, become a new hidden tradition of sod and nistar and secrets of Torah?

[1] Also known as Kafach, Kafih or Qafih.
[2] “Mori Yusuf”: Rabbi Yosef Kafah (Qafih) (1917-2000), by Y. Tzvi Langermann.
[3] Many, including the Lubavitcher Rebbe, had written in defence of the earlier hypothesis. He based his arguments around the theory of relativity.
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] Parenthesis mine.
[6] R. Kapach’s commentary to Mishneh Torah, Yesodei haTorah, ch.3.
[7] The Lubavitcher Rebbe supported this notion based on the verse ‘kol hachelev lahaShem’, where the ‘fat’ or best part of the day was to be dedicated to Kodesh.
[8]Kafih J. Cross-roads: Halacha and the Modern World. Alon Shvut: Zomet; 1987. Secular Studies in the Rambam; pp. 109–16.
[9] From Moses to Moses by Menachem Kellner.

Sunday 22 September 2019


Tzava'at haRivash.
Likkutim Yekarim.


Many view the emergence of the Chassidic movement - in the late 1700s and early 1800s - as a conservative, traditionalist and pietist opposition to the modern world, trying to hold on to the past and fearful of the changes taking place in the new world.

While that may have been true for some of the followers of the Chassidic movement, Professor Moshe Rosman of Bar-Ilan University shows how the movement itself was not a reaction to modernity but in fact a very product of modernity!

This article is based on Professor Rosman’s research and I have drawn extensively from his writing.[1]


During the Jewish Enlightenment or Haskalah Movement of the 1800s, some of the German Jews set about trying to change the image of the Jew. They tried to show that Jews were sophisticated, intellectual and modern.

Rosman writes:

“[They] were often personally repelled by the institutions, manifestations, and image of Hasidism as anti-modern; a religiously fanatic, culturally backward, and socially reactionary movement that sought to stymie modernization.”

The Chassidim, more than the other religious Jews, were considered anti-modern and were an embarrassment to the enlightened.

Rosman adds that this sentiment remains largely preserved even to this day:

“Contemporary echoes of this assessment of Hasidism appear in the Israeli media virtually every day.”


On the other hand, later, a very different and more positive narrative emerged where the Chassidim were actually romanticized as representing all that was good in the old traditional Jewish world and that they were the only ones keeping the pure flame of meaningful spirituality alive. Chassidism was credited with bringing about modern values of social justice – probably because of their emphasis on the worth of ordinary folk, simple people, and the power of the individual.

Chassidism was presented as having encapsulated “the quintessence of traditional Judaism”.
To be clear, Rosman does not include scholars, writers and psychologists, but one could perhaps incorporate a vast genre of modern thinkers - religious and secular -  including the likes of Buber, Wiesel, Heschel, who found hidden within Chassidic teaching gems that resonated with the soul of modern man. These thinkers presented Chasidism not as something to be despised, as was the view of the Haskalah, but rather as a resource from which to draw.


Additionally, Chassidism’s proud emphasis on Jewish identity, was seized upon by some of those within the Zionist movement. They were proud of the determination and patriotism of Chassidism, to the extent that some even maintained that:

“...the true heirs of the Baal Shem Tov’s circle were enlightened, secular Jewish nationalists, especially Zionists”

These views were perpetuated by the literature of the time and were in vogue right up until two generations after the Second World War.

We have thus seen how multiple modern movements - the Enlightenment,  Philosophers and Zionists – had very different ways of interpreting and viewing the Chassidic Movement.



The Chassidic Movement began with the Baal Shem Tov (1698/1700 – 1760) who become known to the world at around 1740[2]


The Second Generation took over after the passing of the Baal Shem Tov (or Besht) in 1760 under the leadership of the Maggid of Mezerich, and continued until his passing in 1772. During this time the movement spread and stabilized.


The Third Generation continued from 1772 until the last of the Maggid’s students passed away at around 1815. Very little is known about the formative years of the Chassidic movement during this ‘third generation’.[3]


During the Second and particularly the Third Generation, the movement is often portrayed as peaking, and thereafter entering somewhat into a relative period of spiritual decline.

Although it is also assumed that the movement flourished under the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid[4], Rosman takes issue with that assertion and points out that, on the contrary, it only really began to blossom after the generation of the Maggid:

“It was only close to and following upon the Maggid’s death in 1772, mainly in response to the persecution they suffered at the hands of their newly active opponents, that this collection of loosely associated charismatics and spiritualists began thinking of themselves as a differentiated group and started getting organized. 

In order to do so, they needed to develop a distinctive collective identity, to articulate an ideology, to canonize foundational texts, to crystallize institutions. None of this had been accomplished by the Besht, the Maggid or their contemporaries.”

Rosman insists that although the Baal Shem Tov introduced new ideas “he did not start a new group with a new self-conscious identity. 

Similarly, the Maggid spread some new teachings and did attract new followers but he did not build an institution on the scale as is generally imagined. The Chassidic Movement for all intents and purposes only really began to institutionalize during the early 1800s.[5]

“By the mid-nineteenth century Hasidim had the numbers, the financial resources, the organization, the institutions, the doctrines, the visionary, and talented leaders, the power and sophistication of a confident and influential movement that actively engaged the other elements in modern society and exploited modern expedients in its drive to achieve its earthly program of dominating the Jewish community, and its heavenly program of thereby bringing near the Redemption.”

Having established that the movement flourished predominantly in the 19th century (and not in the 18th century), Roseman then presents his contention that:

“If the nineteenth century was a time of Jewish modernization, Hasidism cannot be bracketed off as somehow operating in a different dimension, by different rules, in a different period.”

In other words, Chassidism must have been significantly influenced by modernization even though it remained a symbolic bastion of anti-modern traditionalism.


This notion is actually borne out by the sentiments expressed by not only the Mitnagdim (religious opposition to the Chassidim), but also by the non-Jewish government – both of which accused Chassidism of being a new renegade offshoot of Judaism: i.e., a product of modernization.

Also, the Chassidic Movement was funded by “capitalist and pronto-industrialist elites” who injected much need finances to grow the movement, and gave it some political standing. Something within the movement must have resonated within these modernist patrons which moved them to support Chassidism.


Having nailed his colors to the mast by claiming that Chassidism was a modernist movement, Rosman is quick to point out that:

“Here some may object that Hasidism cannot possibly be classified as a ‘modern’ phenomenon because of its explicitly anti-modernist ideology, its emphatic rejection of modern values and hostility toward modern cultural practices. To be a modernizer one had to believe in the necessity of revolting against the traditional; Hasidism’s adherents saw themselves as the defenders of the traditional. Hasidism was not revolutionary and therefore modern; it was reactionary and thus the enemy of modernity.”

But Rosman does not accept any of that.

In a fascinating piece of reasoning, Rosman argues, counter-intuitively, that ideas are not the primary force of History - ideas are the result of History. Modernist ideology did not create modernity. Rather, he suggests that that is an outdated way of thinking because research shows the exact opposite – modernity created modernist ideology!

He argues that just like capitalism and urbanization did not create modernity, but were products of modernity, so too was modernist ideology the product or effect of modernization. 

The same thing took place within the Jewish world:

“Ideology was an effect of Jewish modernization and not its cause.”


“If Hasidim took a path to modernization that did not include modernist ideology, that choice does not disqualify them as moderns.”


Rosman explains that just because Chassidism rejected secularism and adopted what appeared to be a staunch defence of traditionalism – that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a modernist movement, because ‘modernist ideologies’ could differ radically from one another (just like the conflicting modernist ideologies of Capitalism and Communism.)


“Hasidism was characterized by some of the prominent markers of Jewish modernization....[which] was contingent upon the development of new sources of cultural authority and new venues where it could be applied.

Usually these are seen to be secular: Science in place of tradition, the book in place of the Sefer, the newspaper in place of the sermon, the university trained teacher or scholar in place of the rabbi, the school instead of the Heder, the lecture hall instead of the Yeshivah, the café table instead of the Sabbath table.

Hasidism also offered new sources of authority and new venues for their exercise. The Rebbe or Tzadik could replace both the rabbi and the parnas (communal elder), usurping the spiritual authority of the first and controlling from behind the scenes the secular authority of the second. 

The Tzadik’s court gave Jews a new opportunity for pilgrimage and spiritual renewal...The Hasidic Shtiebel (prayer hall) rivalled the synagogue; The Rebbe’s tish (Sabbath table gathering) came at the expense of the family one.”

Accordingly, Chassidism was positioned well within the parameters of typical modernist expressions.


The transformation that followed in the wake of modernization also affected the way Jewish communal economics were restructured. In the past, the finances of the community were controlled by the Kahal which imposed taxes and often adopted an autocratic and coercive form of leadership. 

That restrictive control of the past now gave way to a more modern and voluntary system of collecting finances, especially within Chassidic circles where the followers of a rebbe were eager to voluntarily contribute to their revered leader. Payments to a Chassidic court known as Pidyonim were common in return for blessings or prayers from the Tzadik. Chasidism became a modern “model of a voluntary community.”


With the dissolution of the autocratic Kahal which traditionally mediated between the individual Jew and the government, the Chassidim now formed large political lobby groups which negotiated directly the governmental authorities. From the mid-1800s, Chassidim were “developing a talent for local electoral politics.


Furthermore, the modern idea of a central ‘command and control’ can be seen in the Chassidic institution of the chatzer or court of the Tzadik, from which all operations of membership cells both near and far were orchestrated. At various times all the cells would gather at the headquarters for formal conventions, which is also typical of modern organizations.


Moshe Rosman concludes with:

“a concrete example of how Hasidism...utilized a new or renewed tool of late eighteenth-century modernist culture, namely book publishing, as a means of what has been referred to before as framing: presenting an image of itself as having been created by the Ba’al Shem Tov himself, and as in possession of his doctrinal legacy.”

In 1793, thirty years after the passing of the Besht, a pivotal Chassid book was published entitled Tzava’at haRivash, or the (doctrinal)Will of the Baal Shem Tov.  However, the book primarily featured hanhagot (practices) and derashot (teachings) of the Maggid of Mezerich, as were found in writings in the possession of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev.

Another similar work also appeared a year previously, entitled Likkutim Yekarim or Precious Excerpts.

The teachings found in both these early Chassidic works have been described as essentially “conventional and non-transgressive.”

When Likkutin Yekarim was published it elicited very little response and hardly seemed to make an impression. However, when Tzava’at haRivash came out it created a riot. It was banned, burned and challenged in other printed works.

Why were the reactions to such similar works so dramatically disparate?

The answer lies in the fact that the Tzava’at haRivash falsely claimed to be a collection of teachings from the Baal Shem Tov. But they were not from the Besht who, as we know, wrote very little. The title of the book was misleading because they were instead the Maggid’s teachings.

In other words, the publisher took rather conventional teachings and labelled them as an “ideological tract identified with the new Hasidim.” Essentially it was presented as a manifesto of the new movement. The publisher chose a title that threatened to represent the emergence of a new independent sect with a ‘declaration of Chassidic independence’.

“The publishers used printing to create a book – utilizing fairly generic material from the Maggid – to lend credence to the image of the Besht as the teacher of a new doctrine...

This is but one example of how Hasidim showed themselves to be keenly attuned to the potential of modern cultural and technical tools to further their program and ensure their successful adaptation to the emerging modern world.”

Using media in a subversive way to put across an ideological position to further one’s aims was typical of modernist framing or even perhaps modernist propaganda.


For all the reasons mentioned above, Moshe Rosman believes that Chassidism “deserves to be classified with other ‘modern’ phenomena of Jewish history and studied, not as a block to modernization, but as a version of it.”

This is a fascinating view because although the Chassidim were clearly anti-secular and clearly pro-traditional - criteria that one would think should disqualify them from being called ‘modern’ – nevertheless Rosman has shown that despite their anti-modernist ideology, the Chassidic Movement may not have been a reaction to modernity but, ironically, a product of it.

-But then, on the other hand, the Chassidim themselves might laugh at this entire investigation and characterization because according to them, Chassidism simply came about at a time when certain holy sparks had to be lifted up in order to prepare the way for the imminent coming of the Messiah, and they would emphatically deny that they were ever at the mercy of the waves and currents of modernity.

[1] Hasidism –Traditional Modernization, by Moshe Rosman.
[2] According to Chassidic tradition, the Besht ‘revealed himself to the world’ when he was 36 years old.
[3] Rosman writes: “In fact we know little about the social, cultural, and organizational history of what could be called the formative period of Hasidism, ca. 1780-1815 (that is, what is usually called the ‘third generation’).
[4] According to Haviva Pedaya: “The Besht was the moving force behind the creation of the greatest Jewish Mystical movement of the eighteenth century...The great disciples and followers of the Besht consolidated the varied religious forms existent in his personality into fixed content and prescribed practices.” (The Besht. Magician, Mystic, and Leader.)
[5] It is interesting to point out though, that at least according to the (possibly forged?) Cherson Letters (which I have translated into English), the movement did indeed take on a strong identity of its own and was very conscious of so doing, during the first two generations. Additionally, Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye (a contemporary of the Maggid) did produce the first example of a substantial Chassidic literature.

Sunday 15 September 2019



What is ‘holiness’?

Does a person or an object or a moment in time have inherent holiness; is it a status which can come and go; or is it just a term to describe adherence to certain prescribed conditions and which has no direct bearing on the person, space or time?

In this article, we shall not even try to answer any of these questions but simply to put forward the popular and mainstream view on holiness and then present Rambam’s very unusual view on this matter.



R. Yehudah haLevi (1075-1141) maintains that holiness was either conferred upon an object from the very moment of creation, or is contingent upon fulfilment of the commandments. Both conditions bring about a state of holiness which results in real change in the physical makeup of the object.[1] 

He refers to holiness as a ‘mighty order’.

R. Yehudah haLevi writes in his Kuzari:

“Actions [prescribed] by the religious law...when...completed in the proper way, and you see the heavenly fire, or discover another spirit within yourself, which you did not know [beforehand]...are the result of all you did before and of the mighty order with which you have come into contact and which you have [now actually] attained.”[2]

This holiness is not a vague status but is, rather, something which can actually be experienced and acquired.


Six hundred years later, R. Chaim ben Moshe ibn Arttar (1696-1743), also known as the Or haChaim[3], adopted another approach to holiness. In his Kabbalistic model, all entities in the universe begin in a neutral state and at various stages, they get imbued with holiness

Thus, for example, all days start off being equal until  G-d ‘blesses’ the seventh day, from which point on, it retains its holiness.

According to the Or haChaim, the Jewish People started out just like any other people, but on accepting the Torah, they were imbued with a spirit of holiness.

The Or haChaim wrote:

“The distinction by virtue of which the Jewish People were elevated above the other nations is the acceptance of the Torah, for without it, the House of Israel would be like all the other nations.”[4]

This distinction between starting out neutral and then becoming holy is also not just theoretical but rather an ontological (i.e., a real and actual) differentiation.

In both Yehudah haLevi’s and the Or haChaim’s views, although the means to attaining the holiness might subtlety vary, once it is affected, it remains real, embodied, and part and parcel of the very object, place, people or time.


To illustrate just how mainstream this ontological approach to holiness (where holiness being a real ‘entity’) has become - I have selected some typical characterizations of holiness as scattered across classical and contemporary Jewish literature: 

You are a Holy Nation because of the Avot [Forefathers] and you don´t need to accomplish anything to achieve it...”

“Our (basic) holiness is not depended on what we do. We receive it from the addition God has also chosen you.”

“A mitzvah is not merely a test of obedience, but a message about how to best draw out and release Holy is just another way of expressing one's commitment to maximizing the holy consumption of Holy Sparks.”

“[R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev] suggests that there is holiness even in the degraded place into which we have fallen. In fact, the ‘holy sparks’ are there, lurking in the darkness, just waiting to be ‘raised,’ to be returned to their own highest potential.[5]

 “Isaac Luria, the 16th century master of Kabbalah, said, ‘There is no sphere of existence including organic and inorganic nature, that is not full of holy sparks which are mixed in with the kelippot [husks] and need to be separated from them and lifted up.’

Every particle in our physical universe, every structure and every being is a shell that contains sparks of holiness. Our task, according to Luria, is to release each spark from the shell and raise it up, ultimately to return it to its original state. The way these sparks are raised is through acts of loving kindness, of being in harmony with the universe, and through higher awareness.” 

 “Rabbi Moses Hayim Luzzatto (1707-1746) says that the attainment of holiness is not possible through one’s own efforts alone, but is ultimately a gift from God. He quotes the talmudic rabbis who say that a person who makes [even] a little effort to be holy is given much holiness from on high. The effort means keeping aloof from whatever is grossly material. After all, says Luzzatto, a person is a physical being, merely flesh and blood, so that to become really holy, God must impart to him some of His holiness.”

As we have just seen, probably most sources - together with the popular perception - take the notion of holiness for granted, believing it to be inherently integrated into, and ‘hardwired’ within, the person, object or time; and it can be manipulated in some way depending on our deeds and thoughts.

Enter Maimonides with a view diametrically opposed to all of these notions.

Again, the purpose of this article is not to debate which of these ideas are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but rather to show that there are other models of holiness, as well.

For this segment, I have drawn extensively from the writing of Professor Menachem Kellner[6], a graduate of Merkaz haRav Yeshiva and a specialist in Maimonidean thought.


Menachem Kellner contrasts the popular views and perceptions of holiness with the surprising and unusual view of Rambam:

“...holy places, persons, times, and objects are in no objective way distinct from profane places, persons, times and objects...

On this view, [they] are indubitably holy, and must be treated with all due respect, but they are, in and of themselves, like all other places, persons, times, and objects.
What is different about them is the way in which the Torah commands that they be treated.”

Rambam’s view is consistent with his understanding of G-d’s absolute transcendence of the physical realm. In other words, unlike the Kabbalistic model, according to Rambam the G-dly quality of holiness cannot be integrated or meshed within reality.

Kellner continues:

“Holiness, it follows, must be institutional, a matter of halakhic definition, not ontological [physical, actual or ‘real’][7], as if actually existing in some manner in the universe...
‘holiness’...refers to nothing which can actually and objectively inhere in entities, persons, places, or times.”

According to Rambam, the Scriptural verse “You shall be holy” (Kedoshim tiheyu)[8] is not considered, nor counted, as one of the 613 commandments – the reason is because it refers in general to observing the entire Torah and not to any one thing in particular.[9]

Others disagree with Rambam and do count this injunction to ‘be holy’ as one of the positive commandments.

One might say that Rambam did not count ‘You shall be holy’ as a positive commandment because of the way he viewed holiness. Those who disagreed with him may indeed have counted the verse as a positive mitzvah because of their view on the ‘reality’ of holiness.[10]

Rambam writes:

“With respect to this principle other scholars have erred, counting You shall be holy (Lev 19:2) as one of the positive commandments – not knowing that...[the command to be holy refers to][11] charges to fulfil the whole Torah [in general][12].”[13]

Kellner put it very succinctly:

“Maimonides explains here that the Biblical statement, You shall be holy, is not to be counted as one of the 613 commandments of the Torah since it encompasses the whole Torah.
While doing so, Maimonides lets slip, as it were, a point crucial to our purposes:
Jews are not made holy by having been given the commandments, rather, they become holy when they fulfil them.

That does not mean that as one fulfils commandments one’s ontological status changes from profane to holy; rather, it means that ‘holiness’ is the way in which the Torah characterises obedience to the commandments.”

And then summarises:

“...holiness for Maimonides means the outcome of a kind of behaviour. It is nothing which can be said to exist in and of itself; it is not some sort of super-added essence; it is nothing ontological.

It is simply a name given to certain types of (extremely important, highly valued) behaviour, and, by extension, to persons, places, times, and objects.
It is, and this is a point which must be emphasized, something which is not given, but must be earned.[14]

Holiness is not an inheritable status...

[Holiness] is a name, not something really ‘out there’ in the universe.”

In a footnote, Kellner writes[15] that in Rambam’s view, nothing is ever handed  over to man on a silver plate: everything must be earned.

 “[This] includes one’s humanity, one’s status as a Jew, providence, prophecy, a share in the world to come, and... holiness.”

[For Rambam’s views on Providence, see A Leaf Falls from a Tree – Accident or Providence?]


Rabbi Professor Isadore Twersky also describes Rambam’s view regarding holiness as teleological (i.e., related to a purpose), as opposed to ontological (i.e., actual):

 “[T]he holiness ascribed by [by Maimonides] to various objects (such as Torah scrolls, mezuzot, phylacteries, the holy language) is teleological.”[16]

This is very different from the popular perception of kedusha or holiness, which is very definitely ontological and is worlds apart from Rambam’s teleological view. The mainstream has adopted a Kabbalistic or mystical approach to the nature of holiness where holiness assumes an ‘actual’ ontological existence.

And clearly, the Kabbalists rejected out of hand Rambam’s radical insistence on G-d’s absolute transcendence – and instead they developed the notion of the Ten Sefirot which created an interdependence and connectivity between G-d and physical reality.
For the Kabbalists it was possible to cleave to G-d through the various religious prescriptions, while for Rambam it was more a pragmatic matter of refining behaviour because holiness was not something one could possess but rather something to strive towards.
The Kabbalists created sophisticated systems (some theurgical, others theosophical) through which holiness can be brought down from heaven - while Rambam clung to his idea of G-d’s transcendence and tried to rid the world of mystical channels which supernaturally connected G-d to man, leaving man more autonomous and more responsible.
“Ultimately, and this is perhaps why Maimonides’ vision of Judaism has attracted so few adherents over the generations, his is a religion addressed to emotionally and spiritually mature human is a religion of challenges, not endowments...”
 “Holiness is not out there, waiting to be found, rather, it is made.”
And even when it is made, it remains - according to Rambam - a mere designation or name and does not imbue holiness within the person, space, or time.
The Kabbalistic ontological model of holiness is far more empowering and appealing than the rather austere and stark teleological model of Maimonides.
If we could choose one over the other, most of us would probably choose the ontological model.
Yet, we must remember that in the quest for getting closer (so to speak) to the truth of either definition of holiness, our choices of theological systems are of little avail, as we have to confront the spiritual reality - not of what we wish for - but of whatever system ultimately turns out to be dominant.
On the other hand, one can adopt the position of the Baal Shem Tov and others who teach that G-d becomes what we perceive Him to be.
Or one could argue that although Rambam speaks of a radically transcendent G-d, the relationship with that G-d is correspondingly radically pure. Not only does one not need to journey through Sefirotic constructs, but even assistance from the angels to ‘carry one’s prayers’ is not required as Rambam had some interesting interpretations of angels [See Angels in Rabbinic Literature] and he also omitted some of the common prayers that reference the role angels play in man’s relationship with G-d [See Praying to Angels?].

[For another distinction between Rambam and the mystics, see Two Mutually Exclusive Notions of Prayer.]

[1] Kellner clarifies that Yehudah haLevi certainly holds this view with regard to the holiness of the Land of Israel, the holiness of the Jewish People, and the holiness of the commandments.
[2] Kuzari III:53. Kellner cites and acknowledges this translation by Professor Barry Kogan.
[3] So named after his commentary on the Torah.
[4] See commentary to Bemidbar 19:2.
[5] R. Nachman of Breslov holds a similar view.
[6] Maimonides on Holiness, by Menachem Kellner. Oxford University Press 2018.
[7] Parenthesis mine.
[8] Vayikra 19:2.
[9] Rambam, Sefer haMitzvot, Shoresh 4.
[10] This is my own interpretation.
[11] Parenthesis mine.
[12] Parenthesis mine.
[13] Fourth introductory principle to Sefer haMitzvot. Translation is from Charles B. Chavel, Book of Commandments, Vol. 2, 380-1.
[14] This is in contradistinction to the view of Luzatto, mentioned above, where holiness is considered to be a gift.
[15] Kellner cites Yeshayahu Leibowitz whose analysis of Rambam he otherwise usually disagrees with.
[16] Maimonides on Eretz Israel, Halachic, Philosophic, and Historical Perspectives, by Isadore Twersky.