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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Holiness in Judaism

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

In today’s parsha we read about the various restrictions applying to kohanim (or “priests”, although I am uncomfortable with this translation, for reasons which will become clear).

For example, a kohen may not “contaminate himself” ("lo yitama”, whatever that means exactly) by contact with the dead. This means he may not be in the same room, or under the same canopy, as the body of a deceased, nor go to any cemetery. This seems strange, since we might have supposed that, on the contrary, a priest should involve himself with death, so as to be somehow more holy. After all, a Jewish burial society is called a “chevra kadisha”, “association of holiness”! So what is the reason for this rule?

This is a famous problem, and I saw an interesting answer this morning in a book, “Kol Ram”, on the thoughts of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (zatzal), which I would like to share with you. The neshama (soul) leaves one’s body on death. There is a well known gemara: A wicked man is as if dead, even when he’s alive. What does this mean? It means that such a man’s neshama has become so covered over, so hidden, it is as if it has already left the body. Now the reason for a kohen’s being forbidden to approach a corpse can be explained in the following way: such a corpse, since the neshama has left it, represents pure matter, devoid of any spiritual component. Thus it is forbidden to a kohen, who should only involve himself with spiritual affairs.

This brings us to a broader issue: what does it mean for a kohen to be involved in spiritual affairs? And here we see an important difference from the notion of priestly behavior in many other religions. In many religions, a priest is expected to attain holiness through various forms of self-denial. This might involve celibacy, or even mortification of the flesh.

In Judaism, it is quite different. The Kohen Gadol (High Priest), for instance, must marry a virgin (Lev. 21: 13-14). But (according to the Ramban) this is not only a negative commandment, forbidding him to marry a widow or divorcee. It is also a positive commandment: he must marry, and furthermore, his bride should be a virgin. But how does this relate to holiness? The answer is that a kohen attains holiness or spirituality not by abstaining from the material benefits of the world, but by partaking of them, and sanctifying them, by using them for holy purposes. This is a much more sophisticated concept of holiness than mere abstinence!

And if it is this way for the kohanim, so it is for all of us. And this brings me to a fundamental principle of the Torah, which I have said many times before and, G-d willing, I will say many times again. We attain holiness not by avoiding the wonderful material benefits in the world which have been created for us, but by taking full advantage of them, provided we use them in a Jewish way, to sanctify them, and make them holy. The daily Shmoneh Esrei is full of requests for various types of material benefits. (What better example of “gashmius”, materialism, is there than “geshem”, rain, which causes agricultural success and economic prosperity, and for which we pray for half the year?) And this is quite legitimate, provided we remember to use these benefits in a responsible way, and make them, and ourselves, holy.

It is my wish that G-d may grant us all material blessings, and that we may use these in the proper way, for our spiritual benefit. 

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