Kedoshim: An Alternate Translation

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Aliza Libman Baronofsky

א וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר

ב דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם

קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ

כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

(1) The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

(2) Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be kadosh, for I, the LORD your God, am kadosh.

This week’s parsha concerns itself with the concept of Kedusha, which has long been poorly defined and misunderstood by many. It is often translated as “holy,” including in the definition above from Sefaria, that I translated back to “kadosh.” To define kedusha requires further explanation. What is holiness? How do we identify it and how do we strive to achieve it? In proximity to p’rakim 18 (the end of the first of this double parsha) and 20 (the end of the second), we must ask also, in what way is kedusha similar to other aspirations of ours. In particular, purity (tahara) could be conflated with kedusha by juxtaposition (as Rashi does.) However, a close reading of the text creates room to suggest that these two concepts are distinct.

The first and most important clue that we have to build an understanding of the word “קדוש” is Hashem’s assertion that He is קדוש – thus, to be קדוש, we must emulate Him.

Our early commentators go in a different direction. As alluded above, Rashi says that to be kadosh, we must stay away from forbidden sexual relationships. He brings proof quotes from Vayikra 21 (i.e. not our parsha, but a later one) making the connection between sexual relationships and kedusha.

Another famous approach to this concept of Kedusha is Nachmanides’s assertion that “קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ” requires us to enjoy earthly pleasures in moderation. He specifically refers to food, wine and sexual relations, but uses the term “מעט” or “to minimize” when he refers to limiting one’s sexual relations and wine consumption: “ימעט במשגל” and “ויקדש עצמו מן היין במיעוטו”.

While Ramban’s approach is reasonable and logical, it does not fit well with the opening line: קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃”.

God, a non-corporeal being, may wish for us to moderate our pursuit of physical pleasures, but since he does not pursue physical pleasures, in doing so, we are not emulating him directly.

Another difficulty with these approaches is that the pasuk seems to function as an introduction to perek 19, but their comments don’t reflect the content of the perek. (Most of it is not about physical pleasures.) It is hard to suggest that 19:1-2 are a conclusion to perek 18 – perek 19 starts both a new parsha as well as a new “וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר” statement, which indicates the text is not necessarily connected to the text that preceded it. Arguably, these commentaries could still believe that 19:1-2 are standalone verses or verses that reflect the content of the second half of perek 20. The simplest meaning of the text, however, would seem to suggest that these psukim are in fact an introduction to the whole perek, a motley collection of laws that we must understand in order to pursue the kedusha imperative.

Many have noticed that this perek bears extensive resemblance to the Aseret Ha’Dibrot – the Decalogue – and sought meaning from that repetition. Rashi and many of his predecessors believed that a text could only be repeated for very specific reasons; generally, it was to add extra details (as Rashi spells out in Deuteronomy 15:12 among other places.) The Decalogue connection was noted in Vayikra Rabbah 24:5, and is discussed extensively in Nehama Leibowitz’s “New Studies in Vayikra” (pp. 271-276), and in articles by Rabbi Menachem Leibtag (http://tanach.org/vayikra/kdosh/kdoshs1.htm) and Rav Yair Kahn. (“Be Holy, for I Hashem am Holy” from the Yeshivat Har Etzion Virtual Beit Midrash.) However, it remains that we must ask how the rest of the perek teaches us what it means to be kadosh.

To sharpen our question, we can return to the second question: in what way does perek 19 differ from prakim 18 and 20’s long lists of forbidden sexual relationships and their punishments? Note that the word kadosh does not appear in perek 18 (which is why Rashi must go to another parsha to find the two concepts eventually connected.) Instead, variations of the word “טמא” – impure – appear 6 times in verses 24-30. The opposite of impure is of course טהור – pure. Perhaps, in placing perek 19 in the center of two p’rakim that elaborate on the long list of forbidden sexual relationships, the Torah is suggesting that Kedusha is not just the absence of sexual impurity, but also requires more from us. Rav Yair Kahn uses this sandwiching to suggest a hierarchy: טמא is the lowest level, followed by the neutral טהרה, but to achieve the highest level, we must contribute positively to the world by acting in a manner that embodies kedusha.

First and foremost, we must be kadosh by following the strictures of the Covenant at Sinai – namely, the Ten Commandments – which were introduced to us in Shmot 19:5-6 using the language of Kedusha:

וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ

“You shall be for me a kingdom of Cohanim and a Kadosh nation.”

But wait! There’s more. It is not enough to keep the Decalogue – we must also keep the other laws mentioned in Parshat Kedoshim. So which commandments in Parshat Kedoshim are not explicitly connected to the Decalogue? Here is a potential, and perhaps only partial, list: (All are prohibitions unless otherwise noted.)

  1. Piggul – The commandment not to sacrifice an offering with the intention of eating it after the allowed time. (19:5-8)
  2. Peah and Leket – The commandments to leave a corner of your field and dropped sheaves and grapes for the poor. (19:9-10)
  3. The requirement to pay your day-laborer on time (19:13).
  4. Cursing the deaf and putting a stumbling block before the blind. (19:14)
  5. Acting justly in court cases (19:15)
  6. Tale-bearing (19:16)
  7. Standing idly by when another’s blood is being spilled (19:16).
  8. Vengeance (19:18)
  9. Forbidden mixtures (19:19)
  10. Orlah – not eating from a new fruit tree until its fifth year (19:23-25)
  11. Eating blood, necromancy (19:26, 19:31)
  12. Shaving the corners of one’s head and face (19:27)
  13. Cutting or tattooing your flesh (19:28)
  14. Appropriate treatment of the elderly and strangers (19:32-34)
  15. Using honest weights and measures (19:35-36)

I will leave it to the halachists to enumerate the boundaries of these ethical imperatives and instead focus on the whole, which is clearly more than the sum of its parts. What does it take to be kadosh? Everything! The way we groom our bodies, the clothing we wear and our sexual activities are mentioned briefly, overwhelmed by the number of commandments legislating the way we interact with others. Whether we are employers, jurists, farmers, merchants, we must heed these details in our daily interactions – taking care to treat others ethically in financial dealings, to avoid taking advantage and to refrain from gossip. This is emulating God, who deals with honesty and care with all of His creations, who embodies justice and truth.

So how to translate Kadosh? Perhaps “designated for a special purpose” just as the Kadosh space of the Tabernacle is designated for the service of the Lord. Shabbat kodesh is a time designated for the service of God; a man is mekadesh his wife so they are designated to be in a distinct, exclusive relationship much as Hashem was mekadesh our whole nation in an exclusive relationship with Him.

The second last pasuk  in our parsha states:

וִהְיִ֤יתֶם לִי֙ קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אֲנִ֣י ה’ וָאַבְדִּ֥ל אֶתְכֶ֛ם מִן־הָֽעַמִּ֖ים לִהְי֥וֹת לִֽי׃

Consider translating it as follows:

You shall be kadosh (designated) to Me, for I the LORD am kadosh, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine. 

Of course we are not kadosh without a purpose. Our kedusha comes with an imperative: to act as He does, to create a world of people who engage in just and righteous conduct, and in doing so glorify His name.

Aliza Libman Baronofsky (SBM ’06) is a teacher of math and Tanach. She currently resides in Aspen Hill, MD and teaches at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. You can read her blog posts at www.chumashandmath.blogspot.com.

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