D’var Torah: Rabbi Joshua Elkin (Acharei Mot/Kedoshim)

This Shabbat, we read a double parsha – Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. My focus is on Kedoshim because it is one of the parshiyot which is richest in specific mitzvot dealing with our relationships with other people. A quick examination of Chapter 19 of the Book of Vayikra reveals the details of a powerful system of ethical behavior which helps to create a humane society. Rather than delve into the specific mitzvot enumerated, I want to focus on the meaning of the word Kedoshim and the opening verse of the chapter – “You shall be holy because I the Lord thy God am holy.” What is the most authentic translation of kadosh?

The usual meaning ascribed to it is “separate” or “setting aside.” However, some years ago, a Schechter parent, Dr. Shim Berkovits, taught me a different meaning for kadosh which he learned from his father, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits z”l, a distinguished modern Orthodox philosopher. That meaning is “to draw near” – ostensibly meaning that by being holy and doing these mitzvot, we bring ourselves nearer to God and to the transcendent realms of the universe. This meaning is unusual and quite original, and sheds new light on the meaning of kadosh and of the opening verse quoted above.

In addition to this perspective, I would like to probe our precious Hebrew language for words whose root is kadosh and to see what added light can be shed on this important concept. Here is a partial list:

  1. Kiddush – blessing the wine on Shabbat and festivals
  2. Kaddish – prayer said by mourners
  3. Kedushah – the part of the Amidah where we stand and repeat phrases of holiness and praise, after the hazzan
  4. Kiddushin – Hebrew word for betrothal
  5. Harey at MeKudeshet lee – (you are betrothed unto me), said by groom under the huppah as the ring is placed on the bride’s finger
  6.  Beit HaMikdash – the Temple in Jerusalem
  7. Ir HaKodesh – the traditional way to refer to Jerusalem 
This is an example of the beauty and richness of the Hebrew language. We have numerous words which share the same root and which shed light on each other. The meaning of to draw near is enriched and expanded through these seven Kadosh perspectives. By uncovering and sharing all of these various words and meanings associated with Kadosh, we are also recognizing that translating Kadosh as Holy misses the richness and multi-layered quality of this ancient word. May we continue to draw near to the transcendent through the saying of Kadosh, singing it and mining it for the different meanings which emerge.​
Rabbi Joshua Elkin, Executive and Leadership Coach at Joshua Elkin Consulting, Former Head of School, Schechter alumni parent

Leave a Reply

Name *
Email *