The Torah portion called Kedoshim (“Holy”, Leviticus 19:1-20:27) begins:
And Y-H-V-H spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the whole assembly of Israelites, and you shall say to them: “You must be kedoshim, because I, Y-H-V-H, your God, am kadosh.” (Leviticus 19:1-2)
kadosh(קָדוֹשׁ), plural kedoshim(קְדֺשִׁים) = holy, consecrated; set apart for God; dedicated to a sacred purpose.1 (From the root verb kadash, קָדַשׁ = be holy, make holy, consecrate, treat as sacred.)
All the Israelites must be holy, not just the priests. The first thing God asked Moses to tell the Israelites when they reached Mount Sinai was:
“And now, if you really listen to my voice and you observe my covenant, you will be to me a treasure among all the peoples, since all the earth is mine. And you will become to me a kingdom of priests and a nation kadosh.” (Exodus 19:6)
Objects are holy when they are reserved for use in the religion of the God of Israel. Animals are holy when they are reserved as slaughter-offerings for God. Human beings are holy when they listen to and obey all of God’s rules. A holy nation would be a nation obedient to God. Apparently God is holy by definition.
According to the Talmud there are 613 rules in the Torah,2 although rabbis generally agree that only 271 of these can still be observed today, now that there are no more temple sacrifices in Jerusalem. Kedoshim, one of this week’s two portions,3 lists 40-50 rules (depending on how you divide them up).
Partway through Kedoshim there is a pause in the list of rules while God says:
Vehitkadishitem and you will become kedoshim, because I am Y-H-V-H your God. And you must observe my decrees and do them; I, Y-H-V-H, am mekadishkhem. (Leviticus 20:7-8)
vehitkadishitem (וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם) = and you must make yourselves holy. (A form of the verb kadash.)
mekadishkhem (מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם) = the one making you holy. (A participle form of the verb kadash.)
In other words, human holiness is a joint effort. If we observe God’s decrees and do them, God makes us holy.
Eleven of the rules in Kedoshim are about ritual and religious practices—tthree to perform properly and eight to avoid doing.4 The rest of the rules are about doing what is right in relation to other human beings—in other words, ethics. We humans must be ethical to be holy.
A few of the ethical decrees in Kedoshim, such as You must not steal (Leviticus 19:11), appear in the ethical codes of almost all cultures. Nine of the thirteen rules about when or with whom sexual intercourse is forbidden are generally observed today. (The most notable exception is the rule that, in a plain reading, declares sex between two men taboo and punishable by death.5 This rule is the subject of much discussion and reinterpretation today.)
And some of the rules are challenging for any human being to follow.
One of these eternally challenging rules is the first one in the list:
Each man must revere his mother and his father. (Leviticus 19:3)
As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote, “Anyone who has any experience in this knows how difficult it is. It is something that we are faced with every day, and it can be especially challenging when one’s father and mother are themselves not exceptionally holy people.”6
Nevertheless, in order to be holy—or truly ethical—we must treat our parents with utmost respect, regardless of our opinions. I think I achieved this most of the time during the last year of my mother’s life, but it made me a nervous wreck.
Rescuing from death
After several more manageable rules, we get another challenging command:
You mut not stand by the blood of your fellow. (Leviticus 19:16)
Early in the Talmudic period (around 300 C.E.) Sifra established that this law means you must not avoid taking action when someone’s life is in danger. Sifra’s three examples are that you must not remain silent if you can testify on someone’s behalf; that you must rescue someone you see drowning, or attacked by robbers or a wild beast; and that you must kill any man you see pursuing someone in order to kill or rape them.7
Saving an innocent person’s life or limb is certainly a good deed. But what if you see a person with a weapon pursuing a second person, who appears to be running after a third person? Is the first person a murderer or a rescuer? What if you get it wrong?
And should you put yourself in a situation where a potential murderer might well turn on you?
Loving your fellow
Kedoshim also contains the famous dictum:
You must love your fellow as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
Who is your fellow (or neighbor, in some translations)—the people you are acquainted with? All Jews? All human beings on earth?
Do you need to feel loving, or is it enough to act lovingly? How do you know what a relative stranger would consider a loving action? What if you do not love yourself? (I address some of these questions in my post: Kedoshim: Love Them Anyway.)
Is it enough to follow Rabbi Hillel’s rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor”8 and refrain from harming anyone? That alone would require constant attention and evaluation. Is it even possible to benefit everyone all the time, out of the goodness of your heart?
And more …
Other ethical challenges in Kedoshim include feeding the poor (Leviticus 19:10), being honest (19:11), not insulting “the deaf” (19:14), not putting a stumbling-block in front of “the blind” (19:14), not hating (19:17), and loving the immigrant as you love yourself (19:32-33).
I have to conclude that complete holiness is out of reach for most human beings. Yet I believe that to be fully human, we must stop and ponder what our ethical ideals should be, and then strive to come closer to meeting them. The ethical rules in Kedoshim are a good place to start the search for ideals, especially if we think about each rule. Is it an artifact of another culture, which we should discard today? Or is it a command we should embrace as one of our highest principles?
Talmud Bavli, Tractate Makkot 23b, says there are 613 mitzvot (divine commands or rules). The most famous list detailing what they are is in Mishneh Torah by Maimonides.
Since this is a short year in the Hebrew lunar calendar, this week Jews read a double portion in Leviticus: Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.
To do (with some elements of refraining): Leviticus 19:5-8, 19:23-25,19:30, and 20:25. To refrain from (with some elements of doing): Leviticus 19:4, 19:19, 19:26 (2 rules), 19:27, 19:28, 19:31 & 20:27, and 20:1-6.
Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p. 250.
And you must not testify against your fellow as a false witness. (Exodus/Shemot 20:13 and Deuteronomy/Devarim 5:17)
Velo tinaf= You must not commit adultery. (ve-, וְ = and + lo, לֺא = not + tinaf, תִנְאָף = you shall commit adultery.)
Tinaf is a form of the verb na-af, נָאַף = violated the rule of exclusivity regarding either sexual intercourse with a human, or the worship of God.1
English uses the word “adultery” for violating a rule of sexual exclusivity, and “idolatry” for violating a rule of religious exclusivity. Biblical Hebrew uses the same word for both types of violations. The prohibition velo tinaf appears in the second half of the list of “ten commandments”, the half that covers relationships with other people. Therefore in this seventh commandment, adultery means a sexual violation.
What sexual liaisons count as adultery in the bible? Why does the bible consider adultery unethical?
Stealing a woman
For the society portrayed in the Hebrew Bible, adultery is a form of stealing. Although women and girls are depicted as individuals, most of them are the property of men. Only prostitutes own themselves.
Thus using another man’s woman for sex is a theft of his property. (Sex between two women is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.)
The penalty for this kind of theft depends on the category the woman belongs to. If she is a wife or a fiancée, her rapist or seducer must die. If she is a virgin adolescent with no marriage arranged yet, no one gets the death penalty for adultery—but her rapist or seducer must marry her.2 And if she is a slave whose owner assigned her to one man, but she was caught with another, it is not a case of true marriage or of adultery, so her seducer must merely sacrifice a ram at the temple altar.3
According to the Torah portion Kedoshim in Leviticus, the “Holiness Code”,
A man who yinaf with a man’s wife, who yinaf with his fellow’s woman, will certainly be put to death: hano-eif and hano-afet. (Leviticus 20:10)
yinaf (יִנְאַף) = he commits adultery. (Also a form of the verb na-af.)
hano-eif (הַנֺּאֵף) = adulterer (male). (From the verb na-af.)
hano-afet (הנֺּאָפֶת) = adulteress (female). (Also from the verb na-af.)4
This week’s Torah portion in Deuteronomy, Ki Teitzei, explains the adultery penalty in Kedoshim.
If a man is found lying with a woman [who is]a ba-alah of a ba-al, then they shall die, also both of them: the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. And you will burn out the evil from Israel. (Deuteronomy 22:23)
ba-alah (בַּעֲלָה) = female owner or possessor, wife.
ba-al (בַּעַל) = male owner or possessor, husband, master of a craft; a Canaanite god.
Often the Torah refers to a wife as a “woman” (ishah, אִשָּׁה) and a husband as a “man” (ish, אִישׁ). But in this verse the Torah uses the words for “wife” and “husband” that indicate they are owners; they possess one another. Having sexual intercourse with another man’s wife means stealing his possession.
In the ancient society described in the Torah, a man has exclusive ownership of his wives and concubines. A married woman partly owns her husband, but she does not have exclusive ownership, since her husband is free to take other wives and to have sex with prostitutes. If an unmarried female prostitute has intercourse with a married man, it does not count as adultery and there is no penalty.
Traditional commentary interprets the words “also both of them” in the verse above to mean that the man and the married woman both get the death penalty only if they were both consenting adults. The Talmud5 says if one of them is a minor, the underage partner shall live.
And Rashi6 wrote that in “a case of unnatural intercourse from which the woman derives no gratification” only the man should die, since the woman would not have consented to such an act.
A man also gets the death penalty when he rapes a woman who is betrothed to someone else, even if her marriage has not yet been consummated. (Betrothal in the Torah is the legal contract between a man and his future wife, including a bride-price paid to the woman’s father or guardian. Marriage occurs when the betrothed couple first has sexual intercourse.)
If a man seduces, rather than rapes, a woman betrothed to someone else, both of them are both put to death. Since the woman consented, she, too, is guilty of violating the contract between her father and her future husband which sets the terms for the transfer of property (the woman).
How does a judge determine whether the act was rape or mutual consent? The Torah portion Ki Teitzei explains that it depends on whether the deed happened in a town where other people could hear a cry for help, or out in a field where no one could hear.
If a virgin adolescent girl is betrothed to a man, and [another]a man encounters her in the town and he lies with her, then you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them with stones and they will die—the adolescent girl because she did not cry for help in the town, and the man because he overpowered the wife of his fellow. And you will burn out the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:23-24)
If the same event occurs “in the open field” only the man is executed, since the Torah gives the woman the benefit of the doubt and presumes that she cried for help, but nobody heard her.7
Stealing property, or breaking a vow?
If adultery in the bible were only about ownership, all those examples would be irrelevant in a modern world that prizes individuals and equal rights. In the west today, all adults own themselves, and no one else.8 I am grateful to live in a society in which no adult is another person’s property.
Then if adultery is not a form of theft, is it immoral for some other reason?
This week’s Torah portion gives us a clue by addressing the question of making vows. The vows discussed in Ki Teitzei are vows to make donations to God and/or the sanctuary, not marriage vows. Nevertheless, the Torah says:
If you refrain from vowing, you will not become guilty. The utterance of your lips you must keep, and you must do as you have vowed of your own free will to God, your God, speaking with your own mouth. (Deuteronomy 23:23-24)
If we apply this principle to marriage, then a sexual liaison with a person who is married to someone else is unethical—if and only if that marriage included a mutual vow of sexual exclusivity. Violating the vow of exclusivity would be a betrayal of the marriage promise, and grounds for divorce. That is adultery. However, if the marriage happened without any promises of exclusivity, there is no vow to violate.
Personally, I am grateful for my long exclusive marriage. An “open marriage” is something I could not handle. But I respect all those who are careful about making vows—and who fulfill the promises they do make.
For examples of na-af in reference to committing idolatry, see Jeremiah 3:9, 5:7, and 13:27, as well as Ezekiel 23:37.
My grandfather was a crackpot. He threw away money on get-rich-quick schemes; he dropped in on neighborhood housewives with irises from his garden and then stayed all afternoon, oblivious to hints, until they called my grandmother in desperation. For decades my grandparents’ marriage limped along without sex or affection, but Grandma kept bailing out Grandpa, feeding him, doing his laundry.
“If he makes so much trouble for you, why don’t you divorce him?” my mother asked.
Grandma sighed. “Who else would take care of him?”
Love your neighbor like yourself. Love the stranger like yourself. Both of these divine commands appear in this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.
Like the English verb “love”, the Hebrew verb ahav(אָהַב) in both of these commands can refer to either a feeling of deep affection for another person, or an unselfish course of action for the benefit of another. My grandmother only “loved” my grandfather according to the second definition.
Which kind of love is commanded in this week’s Torah portion?
Love your neighbor
You must not be hostile toward your kinsman in levavekha; you must definitely reprimand your comrade, and you must not carry guilt on account of him. You must not take revenge, and you must not hold a grudge against [any of] your own people. And you must love reiakha like yourself. I am God. (Leviticus 19:17-18)
levavekha (לְבָוֶךָ) = your “heart”, i.e. your seat of consciousness including thinking as well as feeling.
reiakha (רֵעֲךָ) = your friend, your fellow, your neighbor.
The Torah uses words for “your kinsman/family member”, “your comrade/colleague”, “your people”, and “your neighbor/fellow” to include everyone with whom you have some personal relationship, from a close relative to an acquaintance in your social or ethnic group.
It is human nature to have hostile feelings toward some of these individuals, particularly when they do something that wrongs us, or something that we disapprove of. But in Biblical Hebrew, the heart is the seat not only of feelings, but also of thoughts and conscious decisions. This injunction commands us to recognize our hostile feelings, think about the situation, and take the right actions anyway.
The right actions include speaking up and telling people when you notice they are doing wrong. (You must definitely reprimand your comrade.)
Classic commentary adds that you must tell them when you believe they have insulted or harmed you. This gives them the opportunity to either apologize or explain themselves. Then you must either accept their apologies or consider their extenuating circumstances and move on. Instead of getting back at them or holding a grudge, you must treat them with courtesy.1
Moreover, you must love them like yourself. “Love” in this case cannot mean a feeling of deep affection. For one thing, although we can retrain our feelings, it takes a lot of practice over a long period of time; meanwhile, we need to control our behavior. For another, some people do not love themselves; but nevertheless they should behave ethically toward other people.2
Therefore “you must lovereiakhalike yourself” is a variation of the Golden Rule; you must promote the welfare of your fellow equally with your own.3
According to Ramban, we should conquer our natural desire for superiority and do what we can to bring every good thing that we desire to our fellow-beings as well—just as Jonathan, the son of King Saul, did everything he could for David’s welfare and did not mind that David became king instead of himself.4
The only exception that classic commentary cites is Rabbi Akiva’s answer to a Talmudic question: When two men in a desert have only enough water for one to survive long enough to reach a settlement, should they share the water and both die? Rabbi Akiva replied: “your life takes precedence over the life of the other”.5
Love the stranger
Later in this week’s Torah portion, God commands the Israelites to treat immigrants or resident aliens the same way as members of their own groups.
And if a resident alien resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. The one who resides with you must be like a native-born citizen among you. And you must love him like yourself, because you were resident aliens in the land of Egypt. I am God, your god. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
This passage begins by prescribing a course of action: do not oppress the resident alien, treat him the same way you treat people in your own group. Elsewhere the book of Leviticus specifies that these resident aliens are subject to the same laws (including many religious laws) as natives.6
But it ends by an appeal to love as a feeling rather than a course of action; the reason for treating aliens fairly is that you can empathize with them, since your own ancestors once lived in a foreign country.
This injunction applies only to immigrants or to people of other nationalities who are living in your country for a while. Nowhere does the Torah require a loving course of action toward foreigners in other countries. Nor does it tell the Israelites to empathize with them. A loving approach toward foreigners in other countries would conflict with the demands of war. The Torah approves of initiating wars, and even of committing genocide.7
Many people today believe we should act for the benefit of all human beings on earth. But how far should your personal circle of responsibility extend? If you know a hundred people, should you strive to help all of them get the good things in life, or only those in the most need, or only those who ask you, or only those closest to you, or only those who have no one else? Do you share your resources, including time, to the point where you yourself no longer have enough?
Most people want to take care of themselves and the people for whom they feel deep affection. Widening your circle of loving actions is not so easy. For example, it can be hard to take care of a family member who is all trouble and no reward, as my grandmother found out.
“You must love your fellow like yourself” may be the greatest ethical command in the bible. But it may also be the most difficult.
Ramban (13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman) and Or HaChayim (18th-century Rabbi Chayim ben Moshe ibn Attar) on Leviticus 19:17-18.
Some classic commentaries, including Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 113b; Rashbam (12th-century Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir); and Or HaChayim also balk at the idea of feeling affection toward people who do evil deeds.
Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 62a, which cites Akiva’s response to Leviticus 25:36: And your kinsman shall live with you.
Examples include Leviticus 16:2, 17:8, 17:12, 20:2, 24:16, and 24:21-22. Extra consideration is required for the resident alien who gleans along with the poor, the fatherless, and the widow in Leviticus 19:10 and 23:22.
I thought that when the Jewish cycle of readings reached the book of Leviticus, I would be too busy moving my 92-year-old mother to write a post. I also thought there was nothing about the Ten Commandments in the book’s first Torah portion, Vayikra.
I was wrong on both counts. But next week the packing and moving begin!
The Third Commandment
The “Ten Commandments” appear both in Exodus (in the Torah portion Yitro) and Deuteronomy (in the portion Va-etchanan). The first commandment prohibits other gods, and the second prohibits idols. The third commandment reads:
You must not raise the name of Y-H-V-H, your God, for a worthless reason,1 since Y-H-V-H will not acquit anyone who raises [God’s] name for a worthless reason. (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)
“Raising” the name of God means using God’s name in an oath, vow, or promise, according to the Talmud tractate Shevuot (“Oaths”). This tractate distinguishes two kinds of worthless oaths:
empty oaths that use God’s name to declare something true when it is either false or impossible;2 and
false oaths that use God’s name to make a promise that the speaker does not carry out.3
One Talmudic example of an empty oath is attaching God’s name to the declaration: “If I did not see a camel flying through the air!”4
Kedoshim: Any Name
Does the third commandment prohibit swearing by any of God’s names for a worthless reason, or only swearing by God’s four-letter personal name? The text is ambiguous. A command from God in the “holiness code” which appears later in the book of Leviticus in the portion Kedoshim elaborates:
Velo tishavu in my name for a falsehood; then you would profane the name of your God. (Leviticus 19:12)
velo tishavu (וְלֺא־תִשָּׁבְעוּ) = and you must not swear, vow, or pledge. (From the root verb shava.)
The author of Sifra, a commentary on Leviticus from early in the Talmudic period, wrote that the third commandment could be interpreted as forbidding a worthless use only of God’s personal name Y-H-V-H. Therefore the command in Kedoshim says “in my name” — any name that I have. 5
According to this reasoning, the Torah tells us not to profane any name of God by misusing it. Yet people who are in the habit of swearing might argue that they are not demeaning God when they say something harmless.
A deceitful vow is unethical whether the speaker swears by God or not. But is it really so bad to use one of God’s names in an empty way?
Yes, according to both this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, and the later portion Kedoshim.
Vayikra and Kedoshim: An Empty Oath
This week’s Torah portion lists the correct offerings to bring to the altar for various purposes, including two types of atonement for inadvertently disobeying God’s rules: a reparation-offering (chattat, חַטָּאת), and a guilt-offering (asham, אָשָׁם).6 The section on reparation-offerings specifically addresses a harmless or empty violation of the third commandment:
… Or a person tishava with the lips, to do evil or to do good—whatever a human [says] bishevuah—and it was hidden from him; and then he realizes that he is carrying guilt because of one of these [oaths]; then it shall be that he shall accept guilt for one of these, and he shall confess what he did wrong concerning it. (Leviticus 5:4-5)
tishava (תִשָׁבַע) = swears, vows, or pledges in God’s name. (A form of the verb shava, שׁבע = swore an oath, vowed, or pledged using God’s name.)
bishevuah (בִּשְׁבֻעָה) = in a oath or vow using God’s name. (Also from the root verb shava.)
In this case the person is guilty merely of misusing God’s name, even if the outcome is good. The text goes on to prescribe that after the person realizes what they said and confesses to using God’s name for a worthless reason, they must bring a female sheep or goat to the altar as a reparation-offering.
What needs to be repaired? Swearing a pointless or empty oath is like swearing a false oath in the portion Kedoshim; it “would profane the name of your God.” 12th-century commentator Ibn Ezra wrote:
“Now the one who is constantly swearing, although there is no need for him to do so publicly, desecrates the name of God without deriving any benefit from his act.7
This forbidden act is different from the ninth commandment, which prohibits a witness in court from affirming a falsehood. Violating the ninth commandment can harm another person. Violating the third commandment cannot harm God, but it does demean God.
Vayikra: A Compounding Oath
The section on guilt-offerings in this week’s Torah portion considers a case in which one person inadvertently takes or keeps the property of another, and then the perpetrator swears they did nothing wrong.
And it shall be when he does a misdeed and realizes his guilt, then he will restore the robbed item that he robbed, or the deposit that was deposited with him, or the lost item that he found, or anything that yishava about falsely. And he will make amends for it by its principal and a fifth of it in addition; he will give it at that time to the one whose it is, as compensation for guilt. (Leviticus 5:23-24)
yishava (יִשָּׁבַע) = he swears in God’s name. (Another form of the verb shava.)
This time the perpetrator must compensate the victim, and also bring a ram as a guilt-offering to God.
And the priest will make atonement for him in front of God, and he will be pardoned for everything that he did to incur guilt. (Leviticus 5:26)
The third commandment says God will not acquit anyone who swears an empty or false vow in God’s name. Yet God’s instructions in Vayikra say that after making recompense and offering the appropriate animal to God, the perpetrator will be pardoned. In other words, although the person who swears falsely will not be declared innocent, that person may still be forgiven.
This week’s Torah portion sets out the requirements for forgiveness: perpetrators must realize what they did wrong, confess it, compensate their victims, and make a public offering to God.
This model for forgiveness from God can also work to get forgiveness from a human. Although some crimes seem unforgivable to us, we are generally willing to forgive people for committing lesser crimes or doing personal harm if they recognize what they did, apologize, provide whatever recompense is possible, and—if they violated a civil law—serve their sentence.
Although confession, apology, and forgiveness can be done all year round, Jews set aside the month of Elul (in the late summer or early fall) for searching our consciences, apologizing to our fellow humans, and accepting the apologies of others. After Elul ends, we confess our sins against God and beseech God for forgiveness on Yom Kippur.
I find that in real life, only some of the people who have harmed me apologize. I figure the others do not realize that they said anything wrong—but although I can pardon them for their ignorance, I do not fully forgive them in my heart.
This week’s Torah portion does not say what to do if someone transgresses inadvertently and does not realize it. But the portion Kedoshim, later in Leviticus, says:
You must not hate your brother in your heart; you must definitely reprove your comrade, and then you will not carry guilt because of him. (Leviticus 19:17)
One standard interpretation of this directive is that you must alert your fellow human beings to the consequences of their bad behaviors, so they become motivated to change their ways. But perhaps it is also good to let people know what they did that hurt you, so they receive an opportunity to realize it and apologize to you.
I wonder if I will ever be both brave and thoughtful enough to provide this kind of information, gently, to someone I wish I could forgive?
lashaveh (לַשָּׁוְא) = for a worthless reason; in emptiness or in falsehood. (The traditional English translation is “in vain”.)
Talmud Bavli, Shevuot
Talmud Bavli, Shevuot
Talmud Bavli, Shevuot 29a, Mishna.
Sifra is a commentary on Leviticus written in 250-350 C.E. that influenced the Talmud. This quote is from Sifra, Kedoshim, Section 2:6, translated in sefaria.org.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“If you go”), is packed with ethical rules. But right after the law about building a parapet around your roof so no one can fall off, Moses gives a apparently senseless rule about segregating different crops.
The contrast is more pronounced in a similar passage in the portion Kedoshim (“Holiness”) in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. Right after the command to love your neighbor as yourself, the Torah switches to rules about segregating different species of animals, plants, and even fibers.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am God. My chukot you shall observe: You may not breed together livestock of kilayim, you may not plant your field with kilayim, and clothing of woven material of kilayim may not go over you. (Leviticus 19:18-19)
chukot (חֻקֺּת) = decrees, fiats. (Early commentators wrote that chukot are the divine rules that humans cannot figure out using reason, but that Jews must obey anyway.1)
kilayim (כִּלְאָיִם) = two kinds; an enforced mixture of two different kinds. (Kele, כֶּלֶא = imprisonment + –ayim= a suffix meaning a pair.2)
Were these three rules about forbidden mixtures always chukot, or was there an early rationale behind them that was lost over the centuries? No definite reason for the rules has yet been discovered, but many commentators have argued that these rules instill respect for God the Creator.
Attempting to crossbreed two different species of animals (or even a wild donkey with a domesticated donkey3) insults God by implying that the animals God created are insufficient or imperfect.4 Growing crops of two different species without a clear separation between them, or grafting a branch from one tree onto another kind of tree, gives an observer the impression that species of plants that God created have been altered—another insult.5
19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch even applied this argument to clothing made with kilayim (mixed wool and linen, according to the Torah portion Ki Teitzei) when he wrote: “…every seedling and fiber of organic life does the Will of its Creator, without deviating from its assigned task.”6
In Ki Teitzei
The three chukot from Leviticus change a bit when Moses repeats them in Deuteronomy, right after the law about the parapet.
You may not plant your vineyard with kilayim, or else it will be holy: [both] the full yield of the seeds that you plant, and the produce of the vineyard. You may not plow with an ox and with a donkey together as one. You may not wear material woven of wool and linen together as one. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:9-11)
The version in Ki Teitzei refers to mixing seeds in a vineyard rather than a field, and adds the warning that such a mixture is holy. (Usually when something is holy in the Torah, it is prohibited from ordinary use and reserved for God, but here the grapes and other produce are merely prohibited from use.)
The next change in the Deuteronomic version is that plowing with two different animals is banned, instead of breeding them. Finally, Ki Teitzei specifies that only woven material that mixes wool and linen is forbidden.7
Commentators have used these changes or clarifications to generate additional explanations for the inexplicable chukot. If the rationale that the rules enforce respect for God the Creator is not convincing, we can read arguments that the chukot about kilayim are instructions for distinguishing between the traits of Cain and Abel, or for segregating the holy from the ordinary. The second rule, about plowing with two kinds of animals, has also been interpreted as an ethical command.
Distinguishing Cain from Abel
The distinction between linen and wool suggests the story of Cain and Abel, in which God rejects Cain’s offering of plants, but accepts Abel’s offering of a sheep, and Cain kills his brother Abel.8 In the 8th or 9th century C.E., the author of Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer wrote: “Rabbi Joshua ben Ḳorchah said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Heaven forbid ! Never let the offerings of Cain and Abel be mixed up (with one another), even in the weaving of a garment …”9
13th-century Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah went farther. Besides identifying Cain’s offering as flax (the raw material for linen), and Abel’s as sheep which grow wool, he declared that Cain’s father was the serpent in the Garden of Eden, while Abel’s father was Adam, so Cain and Abel were themselves kilayim, as well as the first murderer and the first murder victim.10
Segregating the holy
Another explanation is suggested by the reference to holiness in the rule about vineyards. In the 19th century, Hirsch wrote that only wine from grapes grown in observance of God’s rule could be taken into the sanctuary as a libation to God.11 In that case, holy means prohibited for any use.
But in the 21st century, Richard Elliott Friedman speculated that all three chukot might forbid those particular combinations because they are associated with gods, and therefore holy. “The law against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk may be because that was regarded as a food for a deity, since a Ugaritic text pictures the chief god, El, having kid cooked in milk … The law against wearing wool and linen together may be because they were both used in the Tabernacle … And so it may be in the case of mixed seeds, as well: the prohibition of mixing them may not be because the mixing is bad in some way but rather because some mixtures are regarded as divine.”12
Wool and linen are combined for several sacred uses in the Torah. In God’s portable sanctuary, both the screen at the entrance of the tent and the curtain concealing the Holy of Holies inside must be made out of “sky-blue and red-violet and red and linen”.13 The technology to dye linen was unavailable in the Ancient Near East, so the colored threads must be wool.14
A priest’s vestments are woven out of the same combination of colored wool and linen,15 and priests dedicate their lives to serving God at the sanctuary.
In the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, men are required to wear fringes on the four corners of a garment, and each fringe must include a cord of blue wool. Whenever they glance at it, they will remember God’s commandments.16
In this week’s Torah portion, people may not wear or cover themselves with material woven of wool and linen together. The mixture is prohibited for these ordinary uses of fabric, and reserved for holy purposes.
The need to separate the holy and the profane does not explain the middle rule: You may not plow with an ox and with a donkey together as one. (Deuteronomy 22:10)
Some commentators claimed this rule was derived from the prohibition in Leviticus about breeding different species of animals. If a farmer used two different animals to plow together, he would house both in the same shed, where they might try to mate.17
But by the 13th-century, Chizkuni offered: “An alternate interpretation; G-d’s mercy extends not only to human beings but to all of His creatures. Therefore these two categories of beasts being mismatched as one is far stronger than the other, it would be causing the donkey pain to be part of such a team pulling the plough.”18 This is the dominant interpretation today.
I confess that until this week I was only interested in the prohibition against yoking a donkey and an ox to plow together. This rule not only opposes cruelty to animals, but can also be extended to cover situations in which human beings with unequal abilities are expected to perform the same tasks. How often have you heard people with good jobs or inherited wealth accusing the poor of being lazy or careless? We need to oppose cruelty to humans, too.
Now that I have studied the chukot about kilayim, I am also pondering the human need to make distinctions. We want clear choices and definite rules so we can navigate our ordinary daily lives without unnecessary anxiety. Here is a vineyard, over there is a field of wheat. Here are the foods on my diet, over there are the things I don’t eat.
But when it comes to our spiritual lives, we embrace paradoxes and non-rational unifications. So although we try to avoid kilayim in mundane things, we celebrate merging on a spiritual level. God fills the universe, God once lived inside the Tent of Meeting, and today God spoke to me. God creates disasters and approves of wars, and God is good and loves every individual.
Are these good approaches to mundane and spiritual life?
The Tanchuma (circa 500 C.E.) and subsequent commentaries, including Rashi.
Following 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra Part II, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, pp. 629-630.
Mishnah Kilayim 1:6 (circa 200 C.E.).
g. 12th-century rabbis Abraham Ibn Ezra and Ramban (Moses ben Nachman); Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (1255-1340).
Mishnah Kilayim 3:5, translated in sefaria.org : “One may plant a cucumber and a gourd in one hole, as long as this [species] inclines in one direction, and the other [species] in the opposite direction. And he should tip the leaves of one [species] one way, and the other the opposite way, since all that the sages prohibited [in matters of kilayim] they only decreed because of appearance.”
Hirsch, ibid., p. 633. He then launched into an argument that this divine decree is a reminder that a man’s (sic) animal nature should rule over his vegetative nature—unless he is a priest, who can wear wool and linen in the same garment because his whole self is dedicated to God.
The word sha-atnez(שַׁעַטנֵז), probably a loan-word from Egyptian, appears only in Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11. It may mean “woven material”, in which case Leviticus prohibits material woven with any kilayim. Or it may mean “woven material combining wool and linen”, in which case Leviticus and Deuteronomy agree.
Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 21:6, translated in sefaria.org.
Hezekiah ben Manoah, Chizkuni, (13th century) translated in sefaria.org.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Devarim, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 516.
Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah with a New English Translation, HarperCollins, 2001, p. 632.
Exodus 26:31, 26:36.
Friedman, ibid., p. 633.
g. Abraham Ibn Ezra.
Hezekiah ben Manoah, Chizkuni, translated in sefaria.org.
Taboos against incest exist in all cultures; what varies is which relationships are considered incestuous. This week’s double Torah portion, Acharey Mot and Kedoshim, includes two overlapping lists of family members who are forbidden as sexual partners. Yet father-daughter sex is not mentioned.
Both lists are addressed to men. The first begins:
Any man may not approach any flesh of his flesh to uncover nakedness. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:6)
Both lists are about incest between men and females; homosexual incest is not considered, perhaps because both Torah portions also forbids lying down with a man “like lying down with a woman”.1
Together the two lists forbid “any man” from “lying down with” his mother, another of his father’s wives, his mother-in-law, his sister or half-sister, his granddaughter, his aunt (by blood or marriage), his brother’s wife, or his daughter-in-law.2 A man is also forbidden to marry a woman and her mother.3
Abraham says his wife, Sarah, is his half-sister when he is explaining himself to King Avimelekh.4 But since he previously deceived Avimelekh by pretending Sarah was unmarried, the reader cannot be sure he is telling the truth.
Neither list mentions sex between a man and his niece. Was it acceptable? In the book of Genesis, Nachor marries his niece Milcah.5 In Joshua and Judges, Caleb’s daughter Achsah marries Otniel, but it is ambiguous whether Otniel is Caleb’s younger brother or younger kinsman.6 Midrash from the first millennium C.E. turns some other marriages in the Torah into uncle-niece unions without real support from the biblical text. The Talmud, however, approves of a man marrying his niece on the ground that he is already fond of her:
One who loves his neighbors … and who marries the daughter of his sister, a woman he knows and is fond of as a family relative and not only as a wife … about him the verse states: “Then shall you call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say: Here I am” (Isaiah 58:9). (Yevamot 62b-63a)7
The most egregious omission in the incest lists in Acharey Mot and Kedoshim is sex between a father and his daughter. Yet we know, from a story in the book of Genesis, that calling someone a child of such a union is an insult.
When God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two angels pull Lot, his wife, and his two unmarried daughters out of their house in Sodom and urge them to flee. Lot’s wife looks back and becomes a pillar of salt, but the other three travel on and move into a cave in the hills above the fire-blasted plain.
And the older one said to the younger one: “Our father is old, and there is no man on the earth to come into us in the way of all the earth. Go, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie down with him, and we will stay alive through our father’s seed.” (Genesis 19:31-32)
They take turns, the older daughter lying with him on the first night, the younger on the second night.
And the two daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. And the child of the older one was a son, and she called his name Moav; he is the father of [the people of] Moav to this day. And the younger one, she also became pregnant with a son, and she called his name Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the children of Ammon to this day.(Genesis 19:36-38)
The political point of this tale is to denigrate the neighboring kingdoms of Moav and Ammon by claiming that their founding fathers are the children of incest.8 It was probably all too common for men to molest their underage daughters then, as it is today. But a story about adult women molesting their father might seem both humorous and sordid to the ancient Israelites—and therefore an effective way to bias the listeners toward supporting the Kingdom of Israel’s occasional wars with Moav and/or Ammon over territory on the east side of the Jordan River.9
Within the storyline of Genesis, Lot’s daughters are not disobeying God. There are no divine laws against incest until this week’s double portion in Leviticus, and the only statement in those lists that could apply to a father-daughter liaison is the introductory “Any man may not approach any flesh of his flesh to uncover nakedness”. The book of Genesis does not use this general divine rule retroactively; Nachor’s marriage to his niece and Abraham’s claim that he married his half-sister pass without censure.
If the decision of Lot’s daughters to use their father in order to have children does not count as disobeying God, does it count as an immoral act?
I examine this question in the book I am writing about moral psychology in Genesis, and conclude that even if there really were no other men in left alive on earth, it would be wrong to produce children who would have no opportunity for satisfying lives in an empty world. Lot’s two daughters are understandably traumatized (and not thinking clearly, or they would realize the earth is not entirely depopulated). But they would be more righteous if they denied themselves the comfort children could bring them.
Ethical reasons for avoiding incest include drawbacks for the children of the union (although in most cases the drawback is an increased chance of genetic diseases). But there is a compelling ethical reason to avoid incest even when no children result: the combination of incompatible roles. The worst combination is when a parent, who exercises authority over and responsibility for a child, has sex with the child, who tries to please the powerful parent and cannot give free consent. This is child abuse, and plainly unethical, whether God condemns it or not.
When Lot’s daughters render their father helpless through drink and then take advantage of him, are they committing elder abuse?
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.
Leviticus 18:7-16, 20:11-12, 20:17, 20:19-21. Genesis 38:6-26 makes an exception to the rule about sex with one’s daughter-in-law.
Genesis 11:29. Nachor is Abraham’s brother. Subsequently Abraham’s son Isaac marries their granddaughter Rebecca, Isaac’s first cousin once removed. Then Isaac and Rebecca’s son Jacob marries Leah and Rachel, his uncle Lavan’s daughters and his own first cousins.
Caleb is listed as “ben Yefuneh” in Numbers 13:6. Judges 1:13 says: And Otniel, ben Kenaz, the younger achi of Caleb, captured it for him, and he gave him Akhsah, his daughter, for a wife. Ben (בֶּן) = son of, male descendant of. Achi (אֲחִי) = brother of, kinsman of.
The names of the two sons are examples of folk etymology. Moab, Moav (מוֹאָב) in Hebrew, is explained as m-(מְ) = from + av(אָב) = father. Ben-Ammi(בֶּן־עַמִּי) means “child of Ammon” or “Ammonite”, but it is also ben (בֶּן) = child of, son of + ammi (עַמִּי) = my paternal relatives.
See Judges 3:26-30, 11:29-33; 1 Samuel 11:1-13; 2 Samuel 8:2, 12:26-31; 2 Kings 3:4-27.
(We are moving into a more permanent home on the Oregon coast, now that the pandemic has put a hiatus in our travels abroad. While I am unpacking next week, you may want to read last year’s post on next week’s Torah portion, Emor: Libations.)
And you must not give any of your offspring to pass through for the molekh, and you must not profane the name of your God; I am Y-H-V-H. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:21)
molekh (מֹלֶךְ) = melekh(מֶלֶךְ) = king, spelled with the vowel marks of boshet(בֺּשֶׁת) = shame.
This command in Acharey Mot (“After the death”), one of this week’s two Torah portions, contains the first occurrence of the word molekh in the Torah—if you are reading the standard Masoretic text. If you read a Torah scroll, which has no vowel marks, it looks the same as a command not to give your offspring to “the king” (melekh).1
The prohibition above raises two questions:
How does giving your offspring (children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren) to the molekh profane the name of the God of Israel?
What does “to pass through” mean?
Profaning the name
The usual biblical way to profane God’s name appears in this week’s second Torah portion, Kedoshim (“Holy ones”):
And you must not swear by my name for a falsehood, and profane the name of your God; I am Y-H-V-H. (Leviticus 19:12)
Using God’s personal four-letter name to give false testimony demeans that name by treating it as merely a trick word for pulling off a wicked deed.
Perhaps giving a child to the molekh demeans a different name of God. Psalm 47:7-8 considers God “our king” and “king of all the earth”. Giving children to another god called “king” (מלך), one who demands an unholy deed, demeans God’s name and reputation.
Later in Kedoshim God pronounces two penalties for this serious offense:
Any man of the Israelites, or from the foreign sojourners sojourning in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to themolekh must certainly be put to death; the people of the land must pelt him with stones. And I, I shall give my attention to that man and cut him off from among his people, because he gave one of his offspring to the molekh, intentionally making my holy ones impure and profaning my holy name. (Leviticus 20:2-3)
Even if the people do not stone the molekh-worshipper, God will still “cut him off”2 along with
… all the whores after him from among the people who whore after the molekh. You must make yourselves holy and you must be holy, because I, Y-H-V-H, am your God.” (Leviticus 20:5)
Throughout the Torah the God of Israel demands both exclusive worship (being faithful to God instead of “whoring” after other gods) and adherence to God’s rules for holy behavior.
Passing through fire
King Josiah of Judah begins his campaign for exclusive worship of one God by clearing the effects of other gods out of the temple in Jerusalem: an Asherah idol, utensils for worshiping Baal and Asherah, and enclosures woven for Asherah. Next Josiah demolishes the shrines in Judah where unauthorized worship is going on, and then:
He desecrated the burning-place which is in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, to prevent passing a son or a daughter through fire for the molekh. (2 Kings 23:10)
The second book of Chronicles describes the same practice during the time of Josiah’s grandfather, King Menashe, 3 confirms that there was an established tradition of passing children through a fire in the valley of Ben-Hinnom below Jerusalem.4
King Josiah discourages this practice by desecrating the place where it happens. Jeremiah, who prophesies from Josiah’s reign until after the Babylonian army destroys Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., discourages the practice by reporting that God never wanted people to do it in the first place.
And they built shrines for the burning-place in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, and which was definitely not on my mind. (Jeremiah 7:31)
And they built shrines for the Baal in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, for passing their sons and their daughters to the molekh, which I did not command them, and it was not on my mind to do this abomination … (Jeremiah 32:35)
Jeremiah makes it clear that the “king” worshipped in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom is not the God of Israel.
According to modern commentator Jacob Milgrom, some Israelites might have believed that God wanted people to pass their offspring through the fire in a ritual that may or may not have burned them to death. Alternatively, Milgrom wrote, people might have believed in two gods, the king of the heavens (God the melekh, worshiped in the temple on top of a hill in Jerusalem) and the king of the underworld (the molekh, worshiped in the valley below).5 Jeremiah 32:35 denounces both beliefs, insisting that there is only one God and God never wanted people to burn their children.
The Hebrew Bible does not say whether a child who was passed through, between, or over the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom survived the experience. One Talmudic opinion is that the child was led along a latticework of bricks between two fires; another is that the child leaped over a small bonfire.6
On the other hand, the Talmud shortens Valley of Ben Hinnom (Gey Ben Hinnom in Hebrew) to Gehinnom elsewhere in the Talmud. The rabbis imagine Gehinnom, where the fire for the molekh burned, as the opening to a vast underground fire where the souls of the wicked go after death.7 (The righteous go straight to the Garden of Eden.) Burning in Gehinnom purifies the souls of the wicked, which are eventually redeemed.
I think the myth of Gehinnom is actually a return to the belief, denounced by Jeremiah, that God desired the burning of children in Ben Hinnom. Several Talmud tractates claim that God created Gehinnom and the Garden of Eden before creating the world.8 Therefore the melekh of heaven who created all the earth, and the molekh of the underworld who burns souls and commands passing children through fire, are actually one and the same god.
So why did the Masoretes replace the word melekh with molekh in passages about passing children through fire? It strikes me as one of many attempts to dodge the theodicy or “problem of evil”: How can God be both all-good and the source of everything that exists, including evil?
I say forget the molekh, and wrestle directly with the problem.
For centuries the Hebrew Bible was written with consonants but no vowels. When the Masoretes added vowel marks in the 6th–10th centuries C.E. they also assigned the vowels in the word boshet to seven appearances of the word for “king”, turning מֶלֶך (melekh) into מֺלֶךְ (molekh).
In the Torah being “cut off”, karet, means either dying prematurely, dying without children, or dying in spiritual isolation. In the Talmud it can also mean being excluded from the World to Come (as in Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 64b).
Menashe, who ruled the kingdom of Judah circa 697-643 B.C.E., is described in 2 Chronicles 33:6 as worshiping false gods and passing his own sons through the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom. His grandson Josiah ruled circa 640–609 B.C.E.
Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 64a, assumes that parents also handed over their children to priests of the molekh.
Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus (A Continental Commentary), Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2004, p. 199.
Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 64b.
See Talmud Bavli, Eiruvin 19a. Jews did not adopt the idea that souls survive death until the second century B.C.E. The idea of souls burning in an underground fire came from Greek and Persian sources, which Jews developed into the myth of Gehinnom (later called Gehenna) and Christians developed into the myths of Hell and Purgatory. The Talmud was written during the third through fifth centuries C.E.
You must not kaleil the deaf, and you must not place in front of the blind a mikheshol; and you must fear your God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:14)
kaleil (קַלֵּל) = curse, belittle, vilify. (The actual Hebrew is lo (לֺא) = not + tikaleil(תְקַלֵּל) = you will curse, belittle, vilify.)
mikheshol (מִכְשֺׁל or מִכְשׁוֹל) = stumbling-block, obstacle, hindrance.
This commandment appears in what scholars call the “Holiness Code”: Leviticus 18:1-18 in this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim (“holy”). The Holiness Code presents about 40 commandments, depending on how you count them. It begins:
All but one or two of the 40 or so commandments in the Holiness Code are about human interactions.2 While the Ten Commandments are a list of ten important things God wants us to do, the Holiness Code gives instructions on how to be holy through ethical behavior, culminating with loving other people.3
Each rule in the Holiness Code can be analyzed in terms of how it helps us to love others. “You must not kaleil the deaf, and you must not place in front of the blind a mikheshol” appears to prohibit cruelty against the disabled. Certainly an obstacle in the path of a blind person could result in physical damage. The deaf might suffer psychological pain if they found out that someone had vilified them, or saw the angry faces of those cursing them. But what if they never found out?
The Talmud compares “You must not kaleil the deaf” with an earlier biblical verse: “You must not kaleil God, nor put a curse on a chieftain among your people” (Exodus/Shemot 22:27). The chieftains were among the most respected members of society, while the deaf are an example of “the most wretched”. “From the fact that it is prohibited to curse even those people, it can be derived that it is prohibited to curse anyone.”4
According to Sefer Hachinukh, “we do not have the power to know in which way a curse impacts upon the one cursed … we know more generally that people are concerned about curses …” Therefore curses may indeed have a mysterious effect on their targets.5
Maimonides wrote that the deeper reason for the prohibition is to rescue the person who is inclined to vilify others. While one person might get revenge against someone who wronged him by “cursing and reviling, because he knows how much hurt and shame this will cause his enemy”, others are satisfied with blowing off steam, “uttering angry imprecations and curses, even though the other would not listen to them if he were present. It is well known that hot-tempered and choleric persons find relief in this way …”6
Is there anything wrong with this? Yes, according, to Maimonides. “Cursing is forbidden [even] in the case of the deaf, since the Torah is concerned not only with the one who is cursed, but also with the curser, who is told not to be vindictive and hot-tempered.”
Vindictive and hot-tempered people might love some of their fellow humans some of the time, but they also are inflamed by hatred. The Holiness Code instructs them not to act on their hatred, even when they could get away with it.
Similarly, “you must not place in front of the blind a mikheshol” refers not only to people who are literally blind, but to all people who are metaphorically near-sighted, particularly those who are incompetent, caught up in craving, immoral, or overwhelmed by passion. They can easily be diverted into doing bad things by a stumbling-block.
Sifra interprets “blind” metaphorically, and says: “If he asks you for advice, do not give him advice that is unfit for him. Do not say to him ‘Leave early in the morning,” so that robbers should assault him, [or] ‘Leave in the afternoon,’ so that he fall victim to the heat.”7
Those who give bad advice to naïve or slow-witted people in order to harm them may have cooler tempers than those who erupt in curses, but in both cases the perpetrators are treating people they dislike with contempt.
One must not deliberately give bad advice in any circumstance. But according to Sefer HaChinukh, one must give what one believes is good advice. “Guiding people and giving them good advice for all of their actions [is needed for] the ordering of the world and its civilization.”8
The Talmud also applies the prohibition about the blind to offering a cup of wine to a nazirite, someone who has made a vow not to drink wine.9 (See my post Haftarah Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.) 20th-century commentator Nehama Leibowitz pointed out that in this case the target “knows that the host’s offer contravenes his Nazirite vow. There is no deception involved. The host might plead: Did I force him or command him to drink? Is he not to take it or refuse it? But this is not so, the victim being blinded by his passions.”10
Similarly, the “blind” person who is already a highwayman or a Jew-hater already knows that if he buys weapons, he is likely to use them to kill. According to the Talmud, one is forbidden to sell weapons, chains, or weapons-grade iron to either Jewish bandits or hostile gentiles.11 That would be a case of placing a mikheshol in front of someone blinded by immorality.
The Talmud also counted provoking a dangerous passionate reaction also counts as placing a mikheshol, a hindrance, in front of the blind. “It was related that the maidservant in Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s house saw a certain man who was striking his adult son. She said: Let that man be excommunicated, due to the fact that he has transgressed the injunction: You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.” The rabbis agreed, “as the son is likely to become angry and strike his father back, thereby transgressing the severe prohibition against hitting one’s parent.”12
Leibowitz deduced that in this case, “no enticement is involved, but the mere provocation renders the father responsible for his son’s crime.”13
You must fear your God
Thus “You must not kaleil the deaf” means you must not curse, belittle, or vilify anyone, whether your target finds out or not. Venting your vindictive hatred prevents you from reaching the condition in which you “love your fellow as yourself”.
“You must not place in front of the blind a mikheshol” means you must not divert anyone into bad behavior. You are responsible, and therefore guilty, if you do anything that deceives, tempts, encourages, or provokes other people to do things that harm themselves or others.
Why does the Torah add: “and you must fear your God”? Rashi answers that those who vilify the “deaf” or make the “blind” stumble could plead that they meant well, and did not know their actions would have such awful results. “Therefore, concerning this, it says, and you must fear your God, who knows your thoughts!”14
When we vent our hatred, and when we cause others to misbehave, we can plead that we meant well. We can get away with it, though the more perceptive people around us are likely to either shun us or reprove us.
But we will never be holy, and we will never be able to love our fellows as ourselves. We will always be constricted by our own narrow-mindedness. That is punishment enough.
May we all learn to redirect our petty angers and moral carelessness, so that we may all become holy, loving, and free.
The only rules in Leviticus 19:1-18 that do not directly involve human relationships are the prohibition against idols (Leviticus 19:4), and the requirement that the roasted meat from a wholeness-offering (shelamim) must be eaten within two days (Leviticus 19:5-8). However, the two-day deadline forces the person making the offering to invite guests and household members to eat.
Sefer Hachinukh, Commandment 231, in sefaria.org/Sefer_HaChinukh?lang=bi. This book explaining 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible was published anonymously in Spain in the 13th century CE.
Maimonides (12th-century Moses ben Maimon, also known as Rambam), Sefer HaMitzvot (317). Translation from Rabbi J. Kapah, Mosad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem, 1958, in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vaiykra, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 301.
Sifra, Kedoshim section 2, sefaria.org/Sifra?lang=bi. Sifra is a collection of commentary on Leviticus compiled in the third or fourth century CE.
The Torah portion named Kedoshim (“holy” in the plural) begins:
And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the whole community of the Children of Israel, and you shall say to them: Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I, God, your God.” (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:1-2)
kedoshim (קְדֺשִׁים) = plural of kadosh.
kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ) = (As an adjective:) holy, sacred; set apart for religious use; dedicated to God. (As a noun:) something that is holy. (Kodesh, קֺדֶשׁ, has a similar meaning, and is also used in the Torah both as an adjective and as a noun.)
An object (such as a priest’s vestments, a tool for the altar, an animal offering) is kadosh in the Hebrew Bible when it is for religious use only. A place is (such as Mount Sinai, the temple, Jerusalem) is kadosh when God is present there, either manifesting as a fire or a voice, or simply known to dwell there. (See my posts Chayyei Sarah: A Holy Place and Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.) The day of Shabbat is kadosh because it is dedicated to abstaining from ordinary activities in order to spend time in contemplation or worship of God.
God’s reputation is also called kadosh. Later in the Torah portion Kedoshim, God warns that anyone who gives a child to the Molekh, an alien idol, profanes the reputation of God’s kodesh.1
A priest is kadosh because he is formally dedicated to God and leads a different life from non-priests. He must serve God at the temple and instruct the people on ritual matters; and he depends on the whole community for support, owning no farmland of his own.
But what does it mean for God to be kadosh? And what does it mean for human beings who are not priests to be kedoshim?
Here are the three passages in the Hebrew Bible in which God orders people to be kedoshim because God is kadosh:
Holiness as ritual purity
The first two times God declares that the Israelites shall be kedoshim because God is kadosh happen in the Torah portion Shemini, earlier in the book of Leviticus. Right after a list of which animals are and are not kosher for eating, the Torah says:
Because I, God, am your god, vehitkadishtem, and you will be kedoshim, because kadosh am I; and you shall you shall not make yourselves impure through any of the tiny teeming animals swarming over the earth. Because I am God, the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your god; and you shall be kedoshim because kadosh am I. This is the teaching of the land-animals and the flying-animals, and for all living beings teeming in the water and for all swarming animals on the earth: to distinguish between the impure and the pure, and between the edible living things and the living things that you may not eat. (Leviticus 11:44-47)
vehitkadishtem(וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם) = you shall make yourselveskedoshim, you shall consecrate yourselves.
Animals that the Israelites are forbidden to eat cause temporary ritual impurity in any person or thing that touches their dead carcasses. The mammals and birds that are acceptable sacrificial offerings to God (cattle, sheep, goats, and two kinds of birds) are all from the kosher list.
The Torah includes many other laws about ritual observance. Transgressing one of these laws means being less obedient to God, and therefore no longer kadosh—until one has made atonement with the appropriate sacrifice.
The Torah portion Kedoshim reinforces this idea two-thirds of the way through its list of rules:
Vehitkadishtem, and you will be kedoshim, because I, God, am your god. And you shall observe My decrees and do them. I, God, am mekadishkhem. (Leviticus 20:7-8)
mekadishkhem(מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם) = the one who makes youkedoshim, the one who consecrates you, the one who transfers holiness to you.
For a human, in other words, being kadosh is a condition like ritual purity. People who follow all the rules of the Israelite religion are kedoshim—because God puts them in a kadosh state. Maybe for God, being kadosh means being mekadishkhem.
Holiness as moral virtue
The Torah portion Kedoshim begins with “Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I” (Leviticus 19:2). Right before this divine direction, in the previous portion, Acharey Mot, is a list of forbidden sexual partners.2 Right after it is a list of 20 commandments, starting with “Everyone shall revere his mother and his father” and concluding with “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. While two or three of these commandments are about religious ritual3, the rest lay out ethical standards for human interactions.
For the last millennium, many commentators have concluded that God is asking us to become kedoshim by behaving ethically toward other people. In the 11th century C.E. three great rabbis, Rashi in France4, Maimonides in Egypt5, and Bachya ibn Pakudah in Spain6, all responded to Kedoshim by writing that human beings become kedoshim by exercising self-restraint over their passions and appetites, especially their sexual appetites. Besides avoiding the immoral deeds specifically mentioned in Acharey Mot and Kedoshim, humans must fully dedicate themselves to holiness by acting moderately and responsibly even when they are doing what is permitted.
More recently, Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz has pointed out: “Bringing a korban [an offering to the altar] every once in a while is simple. But to fulfill all the various major and minor requirements listed in Parashat Kedoshim every day is quite another story. Not for naught does the Torah say, ‘Everyone shall revere his mother and his father’ (Lev. 19:3). Anyone who has any experience in this knows how difficult it is. It is something that we are faced with every day, and it can be especially challenging when one’s father and mother are themselves not exceptionally holy people.
“This struggle is the fundamental struggle for holiness. Parashat Kedoshim presents a long list of minor requirements, none of which is extraordinary on its own, but each one recurs day after day. The very requirement to maintain this routine without succumbing to jadedness and despair—that itself creates the highest levels of holiness.”7
For a human, in other words, being kadosh means continuously striving to act ethically in the world. Most commentators who argue for this meaning of kadosh assume that God is kadosh because God is morally perfect, and we become kedoshim to the extent that we imitate God.
Yet the anthropomorphic God portrayed in much of the Torah often seems to act immorally. The “God” in the first five books of the Torah or Bible frequently bursts into anger and kills thousands of people without discriminating between the truly evil ringleaders (if any) and those who are merely weak or imperfect, or happen to be part of a wrong-doer’s family.
However, in the book of Exodus God claims to be compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, kind, truthful, and forgiving.8 Some people claim that what looks to us like God’s bad behavior, both in the Torah and when bad things happen to good people today, is really part of God’s larger plan for ultimate justice and mercy for everyone. We humans can’t see the big picture, but this is the best of all possible worlds, and God is kodesh after all.
Holiness as exclusive possession
Sometimes the Torah calls the Israelites kadosh because they are set apart by God, and God is kadosh through the distinction of being the only god the Israelites worship.9 This concept of holiness as segregation appears near the end of this week’s Torah portion.
And you shall be kedoshim for Me, because kadosh am I, God, and I have separated you from the [other] peoples to be Mine. (Leviticus 20:26)
The exclusivity of this arrangement between God and the Israelites leads to rules that discriminate against non-Israelites. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, Moses warns the people that when they conquer their “promised land’ in Canaan and defeat the seven tribes already living there, they must not make any treaties with these tribes; they must not intermarry with them; and they must destroy all their religious items.
For you are a kadosh people to God, your god; God, your god, chose you to belong to It as a treasured possession, out of all the peoples on the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 7:6)
Sifra, a collection of commentary on Leviticus that was probably compiled in the third century C.E., rephrases God’s direction at the beginning of the Torah portion Kedoshim this way: “As I, God, am set apart, so you must be set apart.” The same condition of being “set apart”—from other peoples or from other gods—defines how both the Israelite people and God are kadosh.
All of the passages in the Torah that include some version of “Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I” concern activities in the physical world: obeying or decreeing ritual rules; behaving ethically; and excluding other people and other gods. None of these passages mention spiritual transcendence.
Later in the Hebrew Bible, the prophets sometimes use the word kadosh to indicate that God is an awesome and overpowering mystery.10 In the 16th century C.E., the Maharal of Prague wrote that a person or act is kadosh when it is transcendent in its essence—like God.11 And in the 18th century, Hassidic rabbis defined holiness as an intense and continuous attachment and devotion to God. This deep mental connection let God’s holiness flow into a person.12
But in the book of Leviticus, kadosh describes something in the physical world: an object, a place, a day, a priest—or an ordinary Israelite’s actions in the world, or God’s actions in the world.
What it means to say God’s actions are kadosh depends on how you define “God”—and that determines what human beings do to become kadosh.
The “God” of ritual purity
Some people think of “God” as the anthropomorphic biblical character who makes all the rules. They strive to follow whatever rules their current human leaders have selected from the Bible in a literal way, eschewing symbolism. (It would be impossible to follow all the rules in the Bible; some contradict each other, and some cannot be performed in the modern world.)
To the extent that literal-minded religious people achieve this, they consider themselves holy. But all too often this definition of God leads people to denounce those who they believe are not following their chosen biblical rules.
The “God” of moral virtue
Some people think of “God” not as an anthropomorphic being, but as a theological abstraction of perfection: omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Others think of “God” as the force of goodness in the world. Either way, “God” is perfectly virtuous by definition, and the bible should not always be taken literally.
When people think of “God” as an ethical ideal (from the original 13 attributes to modern variations on “God is love”), and they try to become holy, they strive to act with more forethought or kindness or compassion toward others—thus imitating their God.
The “God” of exclusive possession
Some Jews consider themselves the “chosen people”, descendants of the Israelites with whom “God” has a special and exclusive relationship in the Hebrew Bible. Some Christians consider themselves the “chosen people”, with whom “God” made a new covenant in the Christian Bible.
Defining God in terms of the in-group usually results in disparaging the out-group. People imitate the “God” who singles out one “chosen people” by discriminating against all other groups of people, who they assume are inferior and/or threatening.
If you want to become kadosh, be careful how you think about God!
1 Leviticus 20:3. The Torah portion does not say whether sacrificing a child to the alien god Molekh profanes God’s reputation for separating the Israelites from people with other religions, or God’s reputation for the ethical act of banning child sacrifice.
2 Leviticus 18:1-30.
3 Seventeen of the twenty commandments in 19:3-18 are definitely about behavior toward other people, i.e. ethics. The other three are:
* Observe Shabbat. (Leviticus 19:5)
* Do not worship idols. (19:4)
* Eat a wholeness-offering (שְׁלָמִים) in the first two days. (19:5-8) This appears to be an instruction about ritual, but some commentators point out that the wholeness-offering is the only offering in which some of the roasted meat and grain is shared with guests. In order to make sure this large offering is eaten in two days, the person making the offering must invite multiple guests, so this commandment may also address the ethical virtue of generosity.
4 Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), commentary on Leviticus 19:2.
5 Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), Guide for the Perplexed.
6 Rabbi Bachya ben Yosef ibn Pakudah, Kad HaKemach.
7 Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p 250.
8 This is a summary of the “13 attributes” God proclaims to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. However, 34:7 ends by saying that God punishes not only wrongdoers, but their children and children’s children, to the fourth generation.
9 God is called kedosh Israel, “the holy one of Israel”, twelve times in the first book of Isaiah and fourteen times in the second book of Isaiah, as well as in 2 Kings 19:22; Jeremiah 50:29 and 51:5; Ezekiel 39:7; and Psalms 71:22, 78:41, and 89:19.
10 One example is a vision of the first Isaiah: In the year of the death of the king Uzziyahu, I beheld my lord sitting on a high and elevated throne, and [God’s] skirts were filling the palace. Serafim were standing over [God], six wings, six wings to each … And they would call, one to another, and say: “Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! God of hosts! [God’s] glory fills the earth!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)
11 Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Betzaleil, a.k.a. the Maharal of Prague, Tiferet Yisrael 37.
12 Arthur Green, Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2013, pp. 292, 295.
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27) and the haftarah is Amos 9:7-15.
Because God chose to rescue the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites owe God their fealty and obedience. This idea appears throughout the Hebrew Bible and Jewish liturgy, including this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim (“Holy”):
I myself am God, your god, who brought you out from the land of Egypt. And you must observe all my decrees and all my laws and do them; I am God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:36)
And you shall be holy to me, because I, God, am holy, and I separated you from the other peoples to be mine. (Leviticus 20:26)
Other peoples have their own gods. But the god that chose the Israelites as its own people is superior to all those other gods, according to the early books of the Torah. The miracles God made in Egypt prove it.
The book of Deuteronomy, which was probably written in the mid-seventh century B.C.E., offers the Bible’s first definite statement of monotheism, the belief that there is only one god in the whole universe.
God is “the gods” in the heavens above and on the earth below; there is no other. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:39)
In this book the Israelites become the chosen people of the one and only god.
For you are a sacred people for God, your god, and God chose you to be Its am segulah out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy 14:2)
am segulah (עַם סְגֻלָּה) = a people (am) of personal possession (segulah); personally chosen people.
Yet a hundred years earlier the prophet Amos had already hinted at monotheism with his claim that the same God is in charge of all the nations on earth. Amos was the first prophet to declare that God punishes wrong-doers in every country, not just the two kingdoms of the Israelites.
The book of Amos begins with dire prophecies of the downfall of every small country in the region: Aram and its capital, Damascus; the four city-states of the Philistines, from Gaza to Ekron; the Phoenician city-state of Tyre; the kingdoms of Edom, Ammon, and Moab; the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah; and the northern Israelite kingdom of Israel.
Amos says God will decree their destruction because of their various misdeeds. He does not mention the rising Assyrian Empire, which had already begun conquering or subjugating the small states to its west. But most prophets assumed that God used foreign armies to punish people. (See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)
In the last chapter, this week’s haftarah, Amos questions the whole idea that God and the Israelites have a special relationship.
“Aren’t you like the Kushiyim to me, children of Israel?”
“Didn’t I bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
“And the Philistines from Crete,
“And Aram from Kyr?
Hey! The eyes of my master, God
Are on the sinful kingdom.
“And I will wipe it off from the face of the earth.
“However, I will certainly not wipe out the house of Jacob”
—declares God. (Amos 9:7-8)
Kushiyim (כֻשִׁיִּים) = Kushites, black-skinned people, people from Kush (a region identified with Sudan and Ethiopia). Elsewhere the Bible treats Kushites like other foreigners from distant lands, countries with which Israel and Judah had no quarrel.
So what if God brought the Israelites out of Egypt? God also brought other peoples to new lands. In the book of Amos, God does not play favorites. In fact, Amos predicts that God is about to wipe out the northern kingdom of Israel—though some Israelites (a.k.a. the house of Jacob) will survive, and someday their descendants will return.
(The Assyrians did capture the capital of Israel, Samaria, in 720 B.C.E., and deported much of its population. Some northern Israelites fled south to the kingdom of Judah, which also considered itself part of the house of Jacob. Judah survived as a semi-independent vassal state of Assyria until the empire was conquered by the Babylonians around 610 B.C.E.)
It is tempting to read this week’s haftarah as an early statement of universalism: “Everyone is special, everyone is chosen in a different way.” At least Amos, unlike many other books in the Hebrew Bible, avoids triumphalism: “Only we are special, only we are chosen.” But I suspect Amos’s real point is: “Who do you think you are? You’re not so special!”
Nevertheless, the book of Amos is a good antidote to the common late biblical view that there is only one god, and God singled out the Israelites to be Its personal possession.
Today, nobody follows the religion of the ancient Israelites, with its animal sacrifices and its laws about the sub-human status of slaves, women, children, and innocent bystanders in war. The Jewish religion has become much more ethical than the Israelite religion portrayed in the Torah.
Yet many people today, Jews and non-Jews, believe that their own religion is the only right one, the only true religion—and therefore they and their co-religionists are God’s chosen people.
I pray that we all receive the divine inspiration Amos received, and realize that God is not like a biased parent or teacher, singling out one child for extra benefits. God rescues lots of people and brings them to new lands. In God’s eyes, Israelites are the same as Kushiyim.
None of us are chosen ahead of time. We must make our own choices to become holy people.