Gidon Rothstein

Parashat Tetsaveh: The Holy of Holies and the nature of sanctity

Faced with the term קדש קדשים, or Holy of Holies in English, most educated Jews will think of the inner room of the Tabernacle (and, eventually, Temple). There isn’t complete agreement about what renders that room so sanctified. In addition, the Torah uses that same term for several other aspects of a Jewish life. By looking at the phrase as the Torah uses it, I hope we can deepen our understanding of what we mean by kedushah, sanctity, in at least some contexts of Jewish life.

The Well-Known קדש קדשים

In last week’s Torah reading, 26;33, the Torah told us to bring the Ark of the Covenant (yes, from Raiders) to the other side of the פרכת, a curtain separating the kodesh, the first room of the Tabernacle, from the קדש קדשים, the second, more sanctified room.

One way to read that (see Ramban to Shemot 40;10) is that the Ark conveys sanctity to the room, especially since Hashem is described (I Divrei HaYamim 13;6) as יושב הכרובים, the One Who sits over (or on) the cherubs, which were at the top of the Ark. Between the Ark and the Divine Presence that sits on the Ark, we have sanctity.

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch assumes the sanctity comes from the Tablets in the Ark, symbolizing the lessons of the Torah. Meshech Chochmah suggests instead that it is Aharon (and the High Priests who follow) who is thought of as קדש קדשים, and regular priests are “only” קדש. The curtain tells us that the High Priest can enter, whereas ordinarily holy priests must stay in the first room.

Thus, the sanctity of the Holy of Holies itself might result from its extra Presence, from its housing the Ark (and the Tablets, a symbol of the fullest access to Torah and its ideas), or because it is accessed only by the High Priest once a year.

The Altars and Their קדש קדשים Sanctity

The two altars, the golden one inside the building and the copper one outside, are also referred to as קדש קדשים (Shemot 29; 37 and 30;10), and commentators differ on how they acquired that sanctity. Rashi, based on Talmudic discussions, says it is because they impart sanctity to some otherwise unfit sacrifices.

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch incorporates that in his larger claim that sanctity comes from teaching the world the right and ethical ways to act. These altars, deliberately placed in physical line with the Ark, are the places where the Torah’s lessons are explicitly taught to the people.

The Sanctity of Sacrifices

In various verses, including Vayikra 2;3, 6;10 and 18, the Torah refers to some sacrifices, both flour offerings and animal sacrifices as קדש קדשים. The nature of their sanctity isn’t quite clear, however. Rashi to Vayikra 7;1 writes that only the original sacrifice can be offered on the altar, not its תמורה, not its substitute. Rashi would seem to be implying that non-transferability of status is crucial to sanctity.

R. Hirsch suggests that most of the sacrifices labeled this way are ones that respond to human actions (usually sins), whereas the ones of lesser sanctity, like first-born animals or peace offerings, reference our possessions (the peace-offering is a celebration of Hashem’s bounty in our possessions). In that model, levels of sanctity depend on the extent to which the sacrifice teaches human beings about themselves and their actions.

Meshech Chochmah to Vayikra 14;13 suggests that any sacrifice given completely to the priests is kodesh kodashim, and it’s that which obligates slaughtering sacrifice on the northern side of the Temple courtyard. This is another example of his viewing sanctity as a function of how we treat items and places.

Unity of Sanctity

Vayikra 24;9 refers to the לחם הפנים, the 12 breads on the Show-Table as kodesh kodashim, and says these breads are given to Aharon and his sons, to eat in a sanctified place. Menachot 12b infers that since the verse refers to eating “it” in a holy place (in the singular, as Torah Temimah notes) when there are twelve loaves, the Torah is telling us that if one of those was destroyed, they all become unfit, a ruling that Rambam codifies in Mishneh Torah.

This doesn’t have to be connected to their status as kodesh kodashim.  If the twelve breads in some way symbolize the twelve tribes, for example, and those tribes are supposed to be both distinct and unified, this halachah would highlight that—for all that there are twelve, what happens to one, happens to all (this isn’t completely true; there are ways for one bread to become unfit that would not render the others unfit, but that discussion takes us too far afield).

But the verse does link the eating to their being kodesh kodashim, leading me to wonder whether there isn’t also a sanctity lesson being taught. We live in a world of many parts and separations, yet recognize that we worship a Creator Whom we know to be fully unified and singular. One of the lessons of kedushah might be that it nudges us from our world to Hashem’s world, in that some items of kodesh kodashim show us that which is separate and individuated, yet also connected.

Models of Kedushah

There a couple of examples more, but even just these show that there’s more “holy of holies” than we generally remember. There are places, there are altars, there are foods, and there might be people, all of them designated in this way. Some items are inherently kodesh kodashim, some become kodesh kodashim, and some have kodesh kodashim thrust upon them.

It seems to me, in other words, that there’s room to see this sanctity as encompassing mystical, philosophical, and behavioral approaches to the world, all of which have a place in what becomes the most sanctified items in our religion.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
Related Topics
Related Posts