The Holy Human Body

Generalized Human Body

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.

Kaddish, Kiddush, Kodesh – what's up with that? – Coffee Shop Rabbi

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!

We Are What We Eat

Eat This Way!

I just returned from a “trying” trip to the supermarket. I haven’t been to a grocery store in about 10 days–attempting to avoid it by buying online and having it delivered–but this trip was unavoidable the day after Passover. I stood for 15 minutes in line in the snow (yes, it’s snowing here) to get in the store as they only let a certain number in at a time.

Food shopping used to be a relatively carefree activity that didn’t require a whole lot of thinking. Now, however, it means planning in advance, sanitizing, getting in and out as quickly as possible…or avoiding it altogether and having it all delivered.

I’ve been pretty thoughtful about my food consumption and shopping for quite a while. I have been a pescatarian for about 13 years and before that kept kosher; that means I’ve always had to consider what I was eating, where and when. When I was a single father co-parenting (one week on/one week off) I had to plan meals that were balanced, healthy and that the kids would eat. Since becoming a personal trainer, I’ve had to focus on food issues even more as I counsel clients about how to meet their fitness and health goals. But most of us don’t think about it that much…ergo the proliferation of drive-thrus.

The Torah portion for this week, Shemini, introduces us to the Jewish dietary laws–Kashrut (or kosher)–for the first time. The system in the Torah is not nearly as complicated as it is today; there has been a lot of development and clarification over the years. What Shemini does is cover the animals that are permissible to be eaten and which are not. The Torah gives no rationale. It is not health-related; the vast majority of people in the world do not follow these laws and they are no less or more healthy than those who do.

The dietary laws are aimed at making us more holy–or at least helping us to make more holy decisions about what we put in our bodies. Many years ago I taught a young man (13 years old) who had been diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes just before his Bar Mitzvah. It turned out that this was also his Torah portion. The parallels were clear. Before his diagnosis, he ate what he wanted when he wanted. After his diagnosis that was no longer possible. He had to consider what he ate and when he ate it. It made him much more aware of the role of food in his life.

Kashrut does the same thing. Hopefully, it also leads us to appreciate that we do have food on our plates…and to ensure that those who don’t get what they need. The trip to the grocery store was trying, but I don’t dare really complain; I know that there are many who are way worse off than I am. This was a mere inconvenience that led me to consider what food and the lack thereof truly means.