The question of holiness is central to the title phrase of the sedra of Qedoshim. “Qedoshim tihyu hi Qadosh Ani – Be qadosh [holy, sacred] for I Am Qadosh.” (Vayiqra 19:2) But what is qedushah?
Translating it as “sanctity” or “holiness” falls short as: (1) the meaning of the English is itself not too clear, (2) nor are we sure that they truly capture the connotations of the Hebrew original.
The Sifra, commenting on our verse, writes “’qedoshim tihyu': perushim tihyu – ‘be holy': you shall be separated”.
Along these lines, Rashi understands the verse as referring to the list of laws of intimacy with which the previous sedra concluded, as well as other transgressions. And he gives other examples where such a separation is associated with the concept of qedushah.
The Ramban (Nachmanides) writes “make yourself qadosh with that which is permitted to you” by refraining from the permitted.
It would seem that they are both defining qedushah as separation. But there is also a real difference. Rashi discusses things that are specifically prohibited. The Ramban is quite specifically speaking about separating oneself from things that are not the topic of a specific prohibition – there is no ban on the action, but rather the action isn’t in concert with being a holy person.
A parallel division exists in other discussions about qedushah.
In parashas Sheqalim, the portion discussing the mitzvah for each person to donate a 1/2 sheqel coin to the Temple (also counted for a census), we are told to take “half a sheqel of a sheqel haqodesh”. The Ramban (ad loc) explains that these sheqalim were considered sacred because they were used for holy purposes. The funds gathered by this census in the first year were donated towards the construction of the Tabernacle, other “sheqel haqodesh” were used for buying offerings and utensils for the Tabernacle or Temple, or for redeeming a first-born. Along similar lines, Rabbeinu Bachya (ad loc) writes, “Since all mitzvos are the core of holiness and some mitzvos require this currency,” the currency takes on a holiness corresponding to its use.
The Ramban continues, Hebrew is called leshon haqodesh – the holy language – because it was and continues to be used for holy purposes. It is the language in which G-d said “yehi or – let there be light”, in which He gave us the Torah and the Tanakh was written, the language in which our ancestors were named, etc…
However, the Ramban (Nachmanides) notes that the Rambam (Maimonides) has a very different understanding of why Hebrew is called “the holy language”. In his Guide for the Perplexed (3:8), Rambam explains that Hebrew is called sacred because it has no specific words for uniquely male and female body parts, for the acts that lead to conception of a child, nor does it have precise terms for the various bodily emissions and excretions.
Rabbi Shimon Romm  explains this dispute between Rambam and Ramban as being a fundamental disagreement over the nature of qedushah, holiness.
According to Ramban (Nachmanides), holiness comes from being committed for a purpose. When currency is used for a mitzvah it becomes sacred and when a language is used to create the world and convey the Torah it becomes sanctified.
According to the Rambam (Maimonides), however, holiness is not due to a positive usage but to a lack of diminution of its purity. A language is inherently sacred and only loses that status when it contains less than holy words. Presumably, the Rambam would explain that the sheqel haqodesh is called holy because, as the Ramban himself suggests at the beginning of his comments, the sheqel coins used in the Torah were entirely pure, lacking all dilution. This purity of content, rather than its sanctity of use, is what earned for these coins the title of qadosh. R’ Romm continued that it would seem that the Rashi we looked at agrees with the Rambam. By not engaging in prohibited action, one lives up to “be holy”.
Someone in the audience when I presented this material at Mussar Kallah IX suggested another way to understand the dispute. It could be that both sides agree in how they define qedushah — holiness. Rather, they disagree about the nature of the mitzvah. Rashi sees the obligation “qedoshim tihyu — be holy” as one to protect the holiness we already have; not to descend the ladder, so to speak. And therefore it’s accomplished by not tainting oneself with sin. The Ramban sees it as a duty to increase one’s holiness, to climb the ladder, and therefore to commit beyond what would otherwise be mandatory.
When a Mussarist wants to understand a middah, the first place to turn is a genre of mussar texts that are organized by middah. Most famously Orchos Tzadiqim and Mesilat Yesharim (Ways of the Righteous, and Path of the Just, respectively.) The last chapter of Mesilat Yesharim (ch. 26) discusses Qedushah. To quote Rav Shraga Simmons’ translation, in part:
Note the distinction between one who is Pure and one who is Holy. The earthy actions of the first are necessary ones, and he is motivated by necessity alone, so that his actions escape the evil in earthiness and remain pure. But they do not approach Holiness, for it were better if one could get along without them. One who is Holy, however, and clings constantly to his God, his soul traveling in channels of truth, amidst the love and fear of his Creator -such a person is as one walking before God in the Land of the Living, here in this world. …
In fine, Holiness consists in one’s clinging so closely to his God that in any deed he might perform he does not depart or move from the Blessed One, until the physical objects of which he makes use become more elevated because of his having used them, than he descends from his communion and from his high plane because of his having occupied himself with them. This obtains, however, only in relation to one whose mind and intelligence cling so closely to the greatness, majesty and Holiness of the Blessed One that it is as if he is united with the celestial angels while yet in this world….
According to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (the “Ramchal”), a focus on separation is more associated with purity than with holiness. Avoiding unnecessary entanglements with the physical “so that his actions escape the evil in earthiness and remain pure.” Qedushah is clinging to G-d.
Is this a shift in definition from that offered by the Sifra and discussed through the next millennium by Rashi, Rabbeinu Bachya, Nachmanides and Maimonides?
Rav Shimon Shkop (Sha’arei Yosher, introduction) argues that the Sifra’s comment cannot be an actual definition. He points out that separation as a definition would fail for the verse’s next clause – “for I [Hashem] am Qadosh”. There is no purpose or meaning in Hashem restraining Himself, no dangerous entanglements for Him to avoid. (For that matter, it is arguable that such separation on His part would mean the item in question would cease to exist!)
Perhaps we could also note that Nachmanides could not be understanding the Sifra as defining qedushah. You cannot translate a word using another conjugation of the same word. “Qadeish es atmekha bemah shemutar lakh — sanctify yourself with that which is permitted to you” therefore cannot be his elaboration of a definition. Rather, the Ramban is suggesting the way in which to obey the verse and become holy to someone who already knows how to translate the word.
So, qedushah is commitment to Hashem’s goal, which the Ramban is telling us we can reach by separation from the pursuit of other goals.
All that is left is the “simple” question of defining that goal.
Rav Shimon Shkop’s introduction opens (tr. mine):
BLESSED SHALL BE the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker1, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were). For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed), [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” – that we, the select of what He made – should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.
In my opinion, this whole concept is included in Hashem’s mitzvah “Be holy, [for I am Holy].” The Midrash (Leviticus, Emor, ch. 24) says about this verse: “Can it [truly] be ‘Like Me?’ This is why it continues, ‘for I am Holy’ to teach that My Sanctity is above yours.” And about the foundation of this mitzvah of sanctity the Toras Kohanim [ie the Sifra] has “‘be holy’ – be separate”. Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, explains at length this notion of separation as it is stated in this mitzvah, that it is separation from excessive comfort and pleasure – even if they are actions that are not prohibited to us. In one illustrative statement, he writes that it is possible for a person to be disgusting with [what would otherwise be] the permission of the Torah, see his holy words there.
According to this, it would seem the Midrash is incomprehensible. What relevance does the concept of separation have to being similar to the Holy? The verse tells us with regard to this that His Will is not like this. As it says, “Can it [truly] be ‘Like Me?’ This is why it continues, ‘For I am holy’ to teach that My sanctity is above Yours.” This explanation is incumbent upon us to understand; in truth there is some similarity in the holiness He expects of us to His [Sanctity], except that His Holiness is more general and inclusive. If we say that the essential idea of the holiness He demands of us (in this mitzvah of “be holy”) is distance from the permissible, this kind of holiness has nothing to do with Him.5
And so, it appears to my limited thought that this mitzvah includes the entire foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another. And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose – which is that a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community. Then, anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy, for through this he can also do good for the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can do good for the many who rely on him. But if he derives benefit from some kind of permissible thing that isn’t needed for the health of his body and soul, that benefit is in opposition to holiness. For in this he is benefiting himself (for that moment as it seems to him), but no one else.
Maimonides would be bothered by this attempt to explain why Hashem created the universe. It requires assuming our mind can contain His “Thought”. (At the Kallah, this topic took on a life of its own.) However, this approach, that Hashem must have created the world to have someone to whom to be good is found in sources as diverse as Rav Saadia Gaon’s “Emunos veDeios” (an Aristotilian from 9th-10th cent Baghdad) to the Ramchal’s “Derekh Hashem” (an Italian Qabbalist, 18th cent CE). Even a Maimonidian, though, can accept the notion that this is how Hashem presents Himself to us; G-d as He appears through his actions as opposed to the unknowable G-d as He is. In any case…
G-d’s goal is to bestow good on others. Which paradoxically doesn’t mean doing everything for us and making our lives perfect, as that would deprive us of a greater good: the ability to emulate His Good and to bestow good to others. Ours and the world’s imperfections are areas where there is good left for us to bestow.
Is this not, after all, what Hillel famously told the prospective convert?
There is another story [this is the third in a sequence] with one non-Jew who came before Shammai. He said to him [the non-Jew to Shammai], “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one leg.” He [Shammai] pushed him [away] with the builder’s amah-stick which was in his hand.
He [the non-Jew] went before Hillel, who converted him. He [Hillel] said to him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. This is the whole Torah in its entirety, the rest is its explanation. Go learn.”
What then is the role of the more rite-like mitzvot? If Hashem’s goal for us is to emulate Him in being good to others, why do we need kashrut, Shabbat, mezuzah, etc, etc, etc…? (This topic also took on a life of its own). I suggested two coexisting reasons:
First, such mitzvot teach discipline, they habituate us in making more thoughtful decisions. For example, one doesn’t just see food and eat it, one has to pay attention to what one is eating and how the food is prepared. Second, one needs to develop a relationship with G-d in order to accomplish this goal. One cannot bestow Hashem’s good upon others without knowing what that good is. Such knowledge requires the “go learn”, both from Torah texts and from the experiences provided by the mitzvot that mediate the relationship between man and G-d.
Even relaxation can be sanctified; if one rests for the purpose of being able to continue doing one’s mission in life without burnout. To protect future productivity at this goal by not trying to exceed one’s capacity in the short term.
So, you might have started reading this essay picturing a holy person as a hermit in a cave, an ascetic who spends his day in prayer. Referring back to the title of the post, you might have assumed that separation of holiness is in tension with our duty to nosei be’ol im chaveiro — share the burden of the other, to help him “pull his yoke”. Conflicting values we must balance. This is quite far from Rav Shimon’s definition; the separation isn’t asceticism, rather a very focus on being good to others.
We say in the Amidah: “You are Qadosh, and Your Name [Reputation] is Qadosh, and qedoshim praise You every day. Selah! [For you are G-d, King, Great and Qadosh. –Sepharad] Baruch Atah … the Qadosh G-d.”
It is not coincidence that there are three clauses, and three iterations of the word “Qadosh” in the verse at the heart of Qedushah (Isaiah 6:3). As we quote in the prayer UVa leTzion, Targum Yonatan explains that verse as follows: “Qadosh in the heavens above, the home of His Presence; Qadosh on the earth, the product of His Might; Qadosh forever and ever is Hashem Tzevakos – the whole world is full of the Radiance of His Glory.” The “home of His Glory” is where Hashem is Qadosh. The earth, is where Hashem’s name, how people perceive him, is Qadosh. And the qedoshim, the people who allow others to experience Hashem’s good, fill the world with His Glory – their sanctity is his praise.
According to Rav Shimon Shkop, this blessings becomes, “You are committed to bestow food on others, and your reputation is that of an undivided commitment to bestowing good on others, and people who live entirely for sharing your good with others praise you. Selah!” It is not simply that the class of people who are committed to working for others rather than being self-focused also praise Hashem. It is working for the betterment of others which itself is praise.
There are a number of prayers that require a minyan: the repetition of the amidah, and a class of prayers called davar shebiqdushah — proclamations of holiness. Among these prayers are Barekhu, Qaddish and Qedushah. In case you question whether our final definition of holiness is authentic, notice this: One cannot say the prayer of Qedushah alone.
 The Sifra, also called Torat Kohanim, is attributed to Rav (175-247 CE). Rav also founded of the Babylonian academy of Sura, which centuries later produced the Talmud. Rav’s real name, was Abba Akira, Abba the tall. He frequently appears in the Talmud, consistently under his honorific.
 Rabbi Shimon Romm was a student of the pre-war Mirrer Yeshiva who participated in their flight from Nazi-occupied Vilna to Shanghai. He became a rabbi in Washington Heights, NY and a rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva University. Thanks to R’ Gil Student for relaying this thought.