In the Torah and elsewhere throughout Jewish Scripture, there is a tremendous emphasis on holiness. “Holy” is a word that is bandied about quite a bit, but what exactly is holiness?
In Hebrew, every verb and many nouns and adjectives have a three (and sometimes four) letter root. The word for “holy” is Kadosh and its root is Kuf-Dalet-Shin.
In early Hebrew, this three letter root signified something different or set apart. For example, there is discussion in the Torah about setting aside a gift for the Tabernacle; a person could vow that whatever was born from a cow would be given to God; that calf would be considered Hekdesh–using the same three-letter root. The calf was set aside for the Tabernacle only and could not be used for other things; this made it holy.
Think about this in other contexts. The place where Torah scrolls are kept is called an Aron Kodesh; Aron is a cabinet or closet, but this one is special because it contains the Torah; it is a separate or set aside piece of furniture. The Sabbath Day is often called Shabbat Kodesh, because it is different that every other day of the work; we do not work but rather use the time to pray, feast and rest. The Jewish wedding ceremony is called Kiddushin; the relationship between a married couple is different than the relationship between friends, parents and children, etc., because it contains a level of physical intimacy; this makes it holy and different. All of these examples–and there are many more–make use of the same 3 letter root: Kadosh, Hekdesh, Kodesh, and Kiddushin.
This is the main theme of the Torah portions read this Shabbat; Achare Mot and Kedoshim deal with holiness in the ritual and ethical realm.
Is there holiness in the physical realm as well? I already alluded to the fact that there is holiness in physical intimacy. Judaism further teaches that our bodies are gifts to us from God; they are vessels of holiness. Without our bodies, we are not able to live in holiness. The weaker we are, the more ill we are, the less able we are to bring peace, justice, holiness and love into the world. Exercising, eating right and getting proper rest are not just nice things to do, from the Jewish standpoint they are also holy endeavors. We recognize that our bodies are not like other “objects” in God’s creation; they are vessels entrusted to us in order to fulfill our personal mission in the world.
The physical and the spiritual intersect; they are, in fact, inseparable. Our souls and our internal holiness cannot exist in the air; they need a vessel to hold them. Taking care of that vessel is as holy an endeavor as attending religious services, giving to charitable causes, and helping our neighbors. When we take care of ourselves we bring holiness into the world.
Wishing all of you a healthy, happy and holy Shabbat!