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.

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