Achieving holiness is a goal of almost every major religion, but the definition of holiness differs from religion to religion. In Judaism, there are numerous definitions of holiness. Unlike most religions that demand holiness only from its leaders, Judaism demands holiness from each and every person. One of the goals of Judaism is to have an entire nation of holy people, [1] as was stated by G-d immediately prior to giving the Torah. There is a specific Biblical commandment for each person to be holy. [2] This was only one of two commandments in the entire Torah specifically given to the entire people gathered. But how is this achieved? What is Jewish holiness? And, can this be attained in the twenty first century, in a modern society, if at all? If so, how?


One of the general aspects of Jewish holiness is that it depends not upon a specific action that is performed, but, rather, the proper time, place and purpose surrounding the action. The very same action can be holy or unholy, depending on factors of time, place and purpose. In fact, the Torah’s word for prostitute [3] is Kidaisha, has precisely the same Hebrew letters and seems to be derived from the same root as Kedusha, the Hebrew word for holiness. Thus, the sexual act itself is neither holy nor unholy. If sex is performed with a stranger for money, it is abhorrent in Judaism and unholy. The same act with one’s spouse at the correct time of the month converts a person into a partner with G-d in the creation process, the holiest act of all.

In another obvious example, a Jew who drinks wine to get high or drunk and have fun on a weeknight commits a truly unholy act. The same action on Friday evening, performed for the purpose of making the Sabbath day holy (and not merely to feel high), is called Kiddush, also derived from the word for holiness itself. These are but two examples of many that can be demonstrated. When Ecclesiastes wrote [4] that everything has its proper time, he meant precisely this. Nothing is totally forbidden in Judaism, precisely because no action in and of itself is good or bad. 

Thus, every action in this world has a time and place in Judaism when it is permitted. This fact alone corroborates the postulate that it is the circumstances surrounding the act that make it good or bad, holy or unholy. The Talmud [5] expands on this theme when it says that for everything forbidden in Judaism, there are circumstances when they are permitted. Some of the examples cited are the taste of pork that is permitted to the Jew in the form of a Shibuta fish that is kosher and has the same pork taste. Thus, the taste itself is not forbidden. Similarly, the taste of meat and milk is not in itself forbidden, and is permitted to the Jew is the form of the udder of the cow, which tastes like milk and meat together. If prepared properly under Jewish law, the udder is kosher meat, and yet retains the taste of the milk within it. The passage continues with other examples. Though wool and linen are forbidden to be worn in the same garment, the garment of the High Priest in the Temple contained wool and linen together. Even adultery is permitted in Judaism, in the proper circumstances. Normally, a man and his sister-in-law are prohibited from cohabiting according to Jewish law. However, if a husband dies childless, it is a Biblical mitzvah for the brother of the deceased husband to marry the widow, in order to carry on the name of the deceased husband/brother, and not for the purpose of committing adultery. This then becomes a holy action, rather than a sin. Therefore, holiness, according to this understanding, is achieved by performing the right action at the right time for the right purpose. That makes an action holy.

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[1] Exodus 19:6

[2] Leviticus 19:2

[3] Deuteronomy 23:18

[4] Ecclesiastes 3:1

[5] Chullin 109b


Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel currently works with Rabbi Berel Wein and the Destiny Foundation as the Director of Education, whose mission is “to bring Jewish history to life in an exciting, entertaining and interactive way.” Rabbi Amsel has also served as a teacher, a school principal, and an adjunct professor. He has also taught over 2000 educators how to teach more effectively. Rabbi Amsel has worked in all areas of formal and informal Jewish education and has developed numerous curricula including a methodology how to teach Jewish Values using mass media. Recently, he founded the STARS Program (Student Torah Alliance for Russian Speakers), where more than 3000 students in 12 Russian speaking countries learn about their Jewish heritage for five hours weekly. Rabbi Amsel previously served as the Educational Director of Hillel in the Former Soviet Union. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and has four children and four grandchildren.

This essay is from the forthcoming book, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values: Man to G-d Issues and Rituals.”  This essay is not intended as a source of practical halachic (legal) rulings. For matters of halachah, please consult a qualified posek (rabbi).

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