Kedoshim  --  A Code of Behavior for all Jews

Presented by David P. Stern on 23 April 1994 in Greenbelt, Maryland



      This week's portion combines two readings, Achrey Mot and Kedoshim, and with it we reach the core of Leviticus.

      Earlier chapters dealt with somewhat arcane subjects--sacrifices, leprosy. But we have come now to matters still timely and central, namely, the code of behavior for Jews, in particular, the rules of behavior relating to other people.

      In a short while, we will read the same portion which is also read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, a list of prohibited incestuous relationships. But there is much more. For instance, starting from Ch. 19, v. 13:

  • Thou shalt not oppress your fellow-man.
  • Thou shalt not judge unfairly in court.
  • Thou shalt not bear tales.
  • Thou shalt not curse the deaf nor obstruct the blind.
  • Thou shalt not bear a grudge nor seek vengeance
And the list ends with a well-known line:
  • "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself"

Why? For what reason? You find the reason in the name of the second parashah "Kedoshim"--"holy ones", taken from the opening:

          "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy"           

The reason is given more explicitely in the maftir, verse 26 at the end of the reading:

   "And you shall be holy unto Me: for I the Lord am Holy,
   and have set you apart from the peoples, that you shall be Mine."

"Set you apart". We are holy, because we are a nation chosen by God, and this demands from us a higher standard than from anyone else.

      I once read a story about the Basques, a small but ancient nation in Northern Spain. Long ago the Basques fought a war against the Spaniards, and after the war had lasted for a while and seemed inconclusive, the Spaniards offered a truce. They sent a messenger to the Basque camp, asking that the Basques send one of their noblemen to negotiate a treaty.

      The answer of the Basques was: "We are ALL noblemen."

      That is the way I feel about being Jewish, and I hope everyone here does. We may claim an ancient Jewish heritage, but should also be aware of the increased responsibility which goes with it. Maybe that is why Jews everywhere, but especially here in America, have always been concerned with social fairness, with cultural issues, with justice in the world and with morality. Even if today one looks uncertainly at the old-old words of Leviticus, there exists a tradition of thousands of years in holding ourselves to this kind of nobility. By now that tradition defines who we are.

      Two months ago a terrible thing happened in Hebron. A fanatic zealot, a Jew, shot and killed thirty Arabs in prayer, at the traditional site of the tomb of Abraham.

      Since then, in retribution, Arab bombs have killed many innocent Jews. After the first of these bombs, in Affula, my mother called me: "Isn't it terrible?" I said, "Yes, but what happened in Hebron is far worse. Until now, Jews have not done this sort of thing."

      For as we read today, "Thou shalt not seek vengeance." Arab terror attacks kill and wound innocent people--that is not new. Arabs have killed Jews before, just because they were Jews, and they may do so again. But we are not allowed to take that route. Jews do not kill innocent people just because they are Arabs: Baruch Goldstein has not only committed murder, he has also stained our reputation, and I feel deeply ashamed for it.

      Jews have a different standard. As it says in today's reading, at the beginning of chapter 18:      

          "After the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelled-- you shall not do. And after the doing of the land of Canaan, to which I bring you--you shall not do"  

We are not Egyptians, we are not Canaanites--we are Jews. It puts a heavier responsibility on every one of us, but we would not be Jews if we did not willingly carry that burden.

      In chapter 19, verse 19 (p. 502) we read a curious prohibition: "Thou shalt not wear a garment of sha'atnez." It is a curious word, clearly of non-Hebrew origin, probably the name of a fabric.

      In Deuteronomy this is spelled out: a fabric of wool and linen spun together, what in the early American colonies was called "Linsey-woolsey." The colonists wore it, but it is prohibited to Jews (though I guess cotton and polyester is OK, since it is mentioned nowhere in the bible).

      The writer Shaul Tchernichovsky has spun a wondrous tale on this subject, set some 150 years ago. Look it up and enjoy!


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 9 June 2002