The book of holiness

It is commonly said that the book of Leviticus deals with the laws of the korbanot, and indeed it does contain many of these laws. But the truth is that these laws also appear in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and even in Genesis, to some extent. What is more, while Leviticus itself does deal extensively with these laws, it is not devoted exclusively to them. If we had to connect Leviticus with the orders of the Talmud, we would say that, generally, it deals with material found in tractates Kodashim and Teharot. Most of the contents of these two orders appear in Leviticus, while a small part appears in Numbers. Additionally, Leviticus deals with a number of topics that are scattered throughout other books of the Torah as well, albeit in different contexts.

If, nevertheless, we must provide a general description of the book’s theme, it is accurate to say that Leviticus deals with the various aspects of holiness. Holiness is found in all of the book’s subjects, in the major principles as well as in the small particulars. This emphasis on holiness manifests itself linguistically as well: In no other book in all of Tanach does the root k-d-sh (holy) appear so frequently.

Holiness is the context for all the subjects discussed throughout Leviticus. Even subjects that, at first glance, do not seem to pertain to the laws of holiness are included in Leviticus as part of the larger scheme of holiness and consecration in religious life. This holds true whether the subject is korbanot or matters of tumah and taharah; it holds true for the laws of forbidden sexual relationships in Parshiot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, and even for the interpersonal mitzvot. Thus, for example, the section on idolatry begins with: “Anyone of the People of Israel…who gives of his offspring to Molech shall be put to death,” and ends with: “Sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am G‑d your Lord.”1 Similarly, regarding forbidden foods, it says, “I am G‑d your Lord who has set you apart from the nations. So you shall set apart the pure animals and birds from the impure…You shall be holy unto Me, for I, G‑d, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be Mine.”2

Similarly, laws whose rationale appears, at first glance, to be related to law and order or to morality appear in Leviticus as deriving from the sphere of holiness. An example of this can be seen in the section on dishonesty: “G‑d said to Moses, saying: If a person sins and commits a trespass against G‑d by dealing deceitfully with his neighbor in the matter of an article left for safekeeping, or a business deal, or by robbery, or by defrauding his fellow.”3 The case is that of one who robs his neighbor in one way or another, either openly or secretly. However, the Torah, in mentioning the obligation to return the stolen article, the withheld funds, or the deposit, focuses on another aspect of the act: “He shall bring his sin offering to G‑d…And the Priest shall effect atonement for him before G‑d, and he will be forgiven.”4 Beyond what he did to his fellow man, he committed “a trespass against G‑d.” This is a new factor, not a social factor but a kind of desecration. The sinner has desecrated something that was set aside as holy. Even interpersonal relationships are not discussed here from the standpoint of law and order or morality but from the standpoint of “a trespass against G‑d.”

Even the Ten Commandments, all of which are alluded to in Parshat Kedoshim,5 are viewed from a different angle, the special angle of the book of Leviticus.

Definition of holiness

It is important to stress that if the general common denominator in Leviticus is the theme of holiness, then the definition of holiness here is not exactly the definition we would expect. Holiness is not only what one does or does not do in the Temple, but something that applies even in places that have nothing at all to do with the ritual holiness of the Sanctuary or the Temple. It is a spiritual quality in its own right, beyond the kind of holiness described by the Maharal, for example, who speaks of holiness as the aspect of standing apart from everything or as a type of detachment.6 Here, holiness diverges from the ritual sphere and takes on a different meaning: something special or unique.

From the book of Leviticus it follows that if an ordinary person steals, he, too, impinges, somehow, on holiness. To defraud someone is “to commit a trespass against G‑d.” This may seem strange; what does stealing from one’s neighbor have to do with G‑d? However, the Torah insists that such a person has committed sacrilege, and therefore must make amends before G‑d.

What all this adds up to is that holiness is a type of general refinement, perfection, and exaltation, not necessarily limited to one particular point or area. Holiness here means that there are certain acts that are so foul that one embarrasses not only himself, but G‑d as well upon committing them.

When one refrains from committing a transgression, it may be because one simply has no desire to commit such an act. In contrast, it may be that one is able to refrain from committing the transgression despite his desires. The Midrash articulates this line of thinking: “I do have a desire for such and such, but what can I do, since my Father in heaven has ordered me to abstain?.”7 The general conception of holiness is, in a certain sense, “I have no desire” – I cannot do it; I have an aversion to such a thing; it is simply out of the question for me to stoop to such a base, low level and commit such a sin. A story is told of a rebbe who claimed regarding one of his Hasidim that the reason he does not sin is simply pride. For this Hasid, it seemed degrading that an exalted personality such as he should demean himself through sin.

There is a clever (though certainly not straightforward) explanation of the verse, “The wicked crows (hillel) about his unbridled lust”8: Does a wicked man resemble the great sage Hillel? The answer is that even a man as distinguished as Hillel the Elder is capable – when obsessed with “unbridled lust” – of bringing himself to a state that is so indecent that he reduces himself to the level of the basest of individuals. This can be seen in the case of all sorts of desires. A person can be distinguished, admirable, respected, and highly regarded; but when he is overcome with passion – suddenly, all the eminence peels off him, he debases himself and becomes a kind of four-legged creature, or even something lower.

When it says, “You shall be holy unto Me, for I, G‑d, am holy,”9 the Torah is talking about the glory of Israel: You are holy, you are uplifted; therefore, you must not degrade yourselves and sink so low. The requirement of holiness in Leviticus is thus a type of musar. There are children on whom this type of musar works very well. One need not hit his child or punish him, but merely say to him, “This kind of behavior is beneath you.” Much of what is written in Leviticus about transgressions is based on this approach: “Is it possible that you would do such shameful things?”

The Midrash says that the meaning of “ascending and descending on it (bo)”10 is that Jacob’s image was engraved on the Throne of Glory, and the angels were comparing the ideal image of the heavenly Jacob with his image as it actually appeared below.11 This is a very demanding comparison: Does Jacob’s actual appearance correspond to his ideal image, to what he is capable of being? Likewise, the requirement of “You shall be holy, for I am holy” derives from the comparison of one’s heavenly image with one’s earthly image, as though to say: This is your source, this is your root, you originate from this ideal image; in light of this – how can you possibly sin?

That is why we say each morning: “My G‑d, the soul that You gave me is pure.” We start from above and continue below. It could be that during the day a person is occupied with all sorts of mundane things; nevertheless, he remembers that “the soul that You gave me is pure.” The Talmud states that just as the beams of a person’s house testify against him, so do his own limbs and his own soul.12 The Baal Shem Tov writes, “A person’s own soul will teach him,” meaning that one feels embarrassment when facing his own soul, his own heavenly image. In the same way, one is embarrassed in the face of the injunction, “You shall be holy unto Me.”

The requirement of holiness is at the essence of a Jew’s very existence. Hence, there are transgressions regarding which the Torah says, “I will cut him off,” or “that soul shall be cut off.” After a person does such things, there is no longer justification for his soul to continue its existence. Such a person removes himself from the circle of holiness and ceases to be part of the community of Israel, not just socially, but spiritually as well; he is lost in the sense that he is cut off from the source of life, from all that justifies his existence – precisely because it is holy.

Exceptional responsibility

Our sages often refer to the book of Leviticus as Torat Kohanim (the Law of the Priests). Though it does contain many such laws, it is certainly not devoted exclusively to the Priests and their service. Nonetheless, the message that “You shall be My special treasure among all the peoples…You shall be to Me a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation,”13 which is the essence of Israel’s chosenness, appears in Leviticus with special emphasis. The Jewish people is “a kingdom of Priests” both literally and figuratively. We are, in a sense, the Priests of all mankind, with all the obligations that derive from this calling.

The prophets, too, speak of the exceptional responsibility that goes with being chosen as “a kingdom of Priests.” Regarding other nations, for example, G‑d does not always make a strict accounting, whereas regarding the People of Israel it says, “You alone have I known of all the families of the earth – that is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities.”14 This is not only because the greater the person, the greater his fall, and the higher his level, the lower his descent. Rather, there is improper behavior that an ordinary person can get away with, whereas a Jew is held up to much more intense scrutiny; if he does these things, it is considered a major blemish.

This distinction can be seen in connection with prophecy. The Talmud says that “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, causes His Divine Presence to rest only on one who is strong, wealthy, wise, and humble.”15 These qualities are required only of the prophets of Israel, and they are connected with the holiness that is unique to Israel. In the case of all the other nations, a person who possesses none of these positive traits can still become a great prophet.

Bilam not only is not an admirable individual, he is a truly base creature. Nevertheless, the Midrash relates that Bilam’s level of prophecy paralleled that of Moses himself: “Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses – in Israel there has not arisen, but among the nations there has arisen. And who is that? Bilam son of Beor.”16 Bilam is the only prophet from among the nations of the world whose prophecy is included in the Torah. The daily morning prayer service begins with a verse spoken by him – “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel”17 – and his prophecy reached to the end of days, to the end of all generations. Why is this so?

Apparently, in the case of nations of the world, prophecy is simply a matter of talent. The prophet can be a philosophical genius but totally incompetent in everything else, just as a peerless mathematician can be clueless in other fields of study. Among the nations, prophecy is a gift, a special quality that remains isolated from the rest of the prophet’s essence. In the case of Israel’s holiness and spiritual essence, however, such a thing could not be; there cannot be an exalted personality whose exaltedness is sullied.

This same point is echoed in the saying, “If someone tells you, ‘There is wisdom among the nations,’ believe it; ‘There is Torah among the nations,’ do not believe it.”18 Wisdom can be found anywhere. One can learn even from an animal – as it says, “Who teaches us by the beasts of the earth”19 – and certainly one can learn wisdom from someone who is not a member of the covenant. A person can be both a great mathematician and an adulterer, but it cannot be that someone who transgressed the laws that are found in Parashot Achaarei Mot or Kedoshim is also a true Torah scholar. Torah, which belongs to the kabbalistic category of “wisdom of holiness,” can be found only where there is holiness – and holiness does not go together with baseness. The requirements of holiness are much stricter.