What is Holiness?

I recently heard a rabbi speak about the need to bring holiness into our lives. He spoke about eating kosher food, speaking positively about others, and acting in a generally holy way. But I don't feel I have a handle on exactly what is holiness. Can you explain?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

I applaud you for perceiving the necessity of finding the right definition. You can't begin any serious process unless you have a definition.

Rabbi Noah Weinberg tells the story of a young man who came to him and said: "I've been all over Israel - the Western Wall, Masada, and points in-between - and I have yet to find holiness."

Rabbi Weinberg asked him, "Are you a bafoofstik?"

"What's that?"

"Just answer the question: Are you a bafoofstik or not?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Rabbi Weinberg continued: "Nor do you know what 'holiness' is. So until you have an objective definition, how can you expect to recognize it!"

In Hebrew, holy ("kedusha") has the connotation of separate and distinct. We make Kiddush on Friday night to distinguish between Shabbat and the weekdays. Israel is the holy land - as distinct from all other lands. And Kiddushin, the word for marriage, is so named because the one we marry is designated for a unique status, vis-a-vis every other person in the world.

Holiness, no matter which form it takes, is a metaphysical substance which our souls can perceive. A few years ago, I had just returned to Israel from a two-month trip to America. I had not been off the plane for more than a few minutes, when I saw someone pick up a pen and begin writing. Instinctively I said to myself, "Hey, we don't write on Shabbat!" Then I realized it was Wednesday.

Puzzled, I came to comprehend that the experience of arriving back in Israel had given me a surge of holiness - which I'd intuitively associated with the feeling of Shabbat. The form may have been different, but the substance was the same. For as Israel is holiness in space, Shabbat is holiness in time.

Given that we live in a physical world, much of the goal of Judaism is to infuse the physicality with holiness. We say a blessing before eating our special kosher food, we have a framework for sanctifying our marital relations, etc.

My advice is to try observing a few of the mitzvot, and as you do so, concentrate on tapping into the spiritual message behind it. In time, you will find more and more of these "moments" to infuse with spirituality, and be well on your way to becoming a true holy person.

For more insights, see "Holy Woman": a book and essay by Sara Yoheved Rigler.

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