If one wishes to understand the Israelite concept of holiness, one has to completely abandon the English meaning of the word. In English, to be holy is to be good and pure and perfect and worthy of reverent treatment. However, to the Hebrew mind, these are merely the results of being holy.
The core concept behind the meaning of ‘holy’ (Hebrew qadosh) is ‘separate’ or ‘distinct’. The Hebrew word for both separate and distinct is the same – nivdal. When people give the Hebrew understanding of the word, they give ‘separate’, but forget to mention ‘distinct’, the one English word which in fact gives you a better insight into how Israelites understood holiness more than any other.
In this article, I want to walk through the different aspects of holiness – that of objects, that of people, that of Israel, and lastly, that of God. With a renewed insight into what real holiness is, I hope you will be inspired to make a step towards a ‘holy life’.
The holiness of objects
To think that any given object has any kind of innate ‘holy power’, or that by blessing something automatically makes it holy, is a very pagan way of thinking. To the Yahwist, no object has any kind of power. There are no holy charms, holy symbols, or holy relics that have any kind of power whatsoever to affect our fortune or fate. The Kabbalist who tells you that a particular person attracted misfortune because he or she did not wear their specially blessed and holy Kabbalist red bracelet is proposing a pagan way of thinking, not a Yahwist one.
In the Israelite religion, an object is holy if it has been set apart for religious use. Clothing, such as a prayer-shawl, is holy if it is only worn for times of prayer or meditation. Cups, crockery and other such things are holy if they are only used for religious occasions, and no other. And a place is holy if it is only used for religious purposes.
Why bother to treat things in this way if the objects themselves have no innate power or properties? The answer lies in the effect that doing this has upon the human mind. Remember Pavlov’s dogs? The Russian scientist experimented by ringing a bell every time he fed his dogs. In time, the dogs began to associate the sound of the bell with being fed. They eventually would salivate whenever they heard the bell, even if there was no food.
If we come to associate certain clothes, certain objects, and certain places with a particular attitude of reverence, calm, well-being and peace, then as soon as we come into contact with these things, the transition from the ordinary to the spiritual is easier, smoother and quicker.
This was why God gave us this way of doing things. At the core of the Yahwist way of approaching God – the heart of why so much of the ritual in the Israelite religion exists - is that GOD HAS NO PHYSICAL FORM. Therefore all ritual in the Israelite religion is designed to give the devoted Yahwist the overpowering feeling of the Presence of God in one’s life.
Holy festivals and places
With this in mind, one can then begin to understand why we have Sabbaths and festivals; they are times devoted to YHVH, to bringing us into the presence of a God who is without form. They are called the holy festivals of YHVH, because they are times set apart when we can specially concentrate on the Presence of YHVH. Pagan religions have gods they can see and touch, but our God is different; YHVH has no form, and therefore uses sacred times and festivals to remind us of His overwhelming and overpowering presence.
The Temple was meant to be supremely the place of YHVH’s presence. It was to be His sign to Israel and all the nations that He was present among them. That’s why as you approached the Temple, the degrees of holiness got stricter and stricter. Jerusalem was holier than the rest of Israel; Temple Mount was holier than the rest of Jerusalem; the Court of the Women was holier than the Court of the Gentiles, the Court of the Israelites holier still, then the Court of the Priests, then the Sanctuary, then finally within the Sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, which was so holy, so set apart, so distinctive and special, then only the High Priest could enter it, and then only on the holiest day of the year, the Day of the Atonements.
All this was designed to make an indelible mark on the pious Israelite, to make him or her feel that each step he or she took in approaching the Temple brought his or her soul closer to YHVH.
The holiness of all those who follow YHVH exclusively
When we come to the holiness of people, the aspect of distinctiveness comes fully to the fore. The nations can see their gods, but they cannot see ours, so we have to become witnesses and representatives of YHVH’s Presence in this world. We have to show the nations that our God exists by the way we live our lives.
A Follower of YHVH lives differently to others. One chooses to say, ‘I will treat everyone I encounter with respect and understanding; I will live in such a way that those whom I meet will leave richer in spirit; I will try to be a benefit and a blessing to those who know me; I will treat others with dignity and compassion; I will be loyal and faithful to my family and friends; and I will work towards showing to the world a calmness and peacefulness of spirit which reflects the holiness of my God.’
The prophets, which includes the prophet Yeshua`, taught that inner holiness was more important than outer holiness. The Sadducees laid much stress on the ritual exactitudes of holiness, and some Pharisees laid great stress on the exactitude of following ritual commandments.
Israel, and indeed all who have chosen to follow YHVH alone, are called to be holy – that is, distinctive – in how we live, because this is how we shall be true witnesses to YHVH’s presence. So, in addition to our ethics, when we observe the sacred festivals and the holy Sabbaths of YHVH, they become regularly visible signs to the nations of the presence of the God of Israel. You cannot schedule occasions of kindness or compassion, but you can schedule festivals; bringing people together is a secondary purpose of festivals; the primary one being to act as a witness to God.
We are called to be ‘a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation’. We are called to represent YHVH’s presence to the peoples of the earth, to show them the purifying power of the holiness of YHVH.
The holiness of YHVH
YHVH is holy because He is not like any pagan god – He has no physical form; He does not act on a whim but rather with righteous purpose; He cares passionately even for those who do not know or acknowledge Him; and He does not require blood or death in order to be able to forgive His followers of their faults.
A holy life
A holy life is one that is focussed on purity of thought and action – not necessarily perfection. Human beings are not perfect, we will make mistakes, but we can direct our souls towards purity of purpose. True holiness is an ideal estate which can only be perfectly attained by YHVH.
We can be constantly aware of our thoughts and actions, and stop ourselves when we are tempted towards lashing out at someone, or taking revenge, or being petty, or doing something to make someone feel bad.
A holy life is one where we do not judge, but rather help others to the wholeness and betterment of themselves. It is one where we are honest in our dealings with others, and fair in our judgments.
Above all, a holy life is one where others see our lives and wonder in awe at the power of the God who caused us to live this way.