Kedusha. What is the Best English Translation of the Word?


Precis: Holiness is the traditional translation of the Hebrew word Kedusha, but that does not convey much. Celebration says a whole lot more.


It is true that Rashi says that Kedusha has got to do with separation. But separation is not an ideal; Unification is an ideal, in fact our greatest ideal.

In his statement, Rashi is merely pointing us to the first stage of the process of Kedusha. He is by no means defining Kedusha. What he is saying is, if you want to achieve Kedusha, here is the way you have to go about it: First of all you need separation, because separation from everything unworthy is a necessary early stage in the process of unification. Unification with God.

The word Kedusha appears in the Tora hundreds of times, in one form or another. Instead of Holiness, try understanding it as Celebration – anything that tends to enhance the intensity of life. The Tora is telling us again and again: By separating ourselves from the extraneous dross, we are able to achieve a golden intensity of existence.

For example, the concept of Kedusha is applied to the process of Marriage. The woman becomes Mekudeshet. But the point is not to ‘separate’ the woman from all other women and all other men – though of course that separation is an essential stage of the process. The point is to celebrate that one particular and special woman. When you (the man, in this case) do this, you intensify the meaning of both your lives, thus bringing joy and pleasure to the wife, the husband, and God. All of that is called Kedusha.

In a similar way the concept of Kedusha is applied to Time. When we separate Shabbat and Hagim [festivals] from routine time, we celebrate time and celebrate life. That is called Kedusha.

To be Kadosh is to experience your life in its most intense form.

It seems that for Rav Kook, the essence of life, the governing principle, is defined to be Oneg [pleasure]; the exquisite and intense pleasure of being close to God. Kedusha then, for Rav Kook, is defined as: “Doing all you can to separate yourself from anything that interferes with the pleasure that you experience in being close to God”.




Rashi is one of the most important Jewish sages. He lived about nine hundred years ago. He wrote monumental commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud, as well as many other works.

The thing about Rashi is that he usually sticks to a minimum of words, but is enormously subtle in everything that he writes. In short, you need to be very careful before taking what he says at merely surface value. He is usually packing whole worlds of meaning into the few words that he offers you.

The result of this is that, if you pay attention closely enough, the living personality of Rashi looms ever greater as you consider his words. You get the strange feeling that he is actually with you in the room. You often have to grin or smile when it suddenly hits you that his words mean much more than you originally thought. You marvel at his self-restraint at not elaborating at length everything that he knows. But you are very grateful for that – because it leaves you space in which to grow. And allows Rashi himself to grow more and more as a close friend and important figure in your life.

Of course, the reputation of Rashi could not be higher. But Rashi has suffered at the hand of careless or slightly arrogant scribes who copied his manuscripts, and thought it might be helpful to add a few words or phrases in order to help ‘explain’ to the reader what Rashi meant. Every time they did that, they wrecked his meaning.

Luckily, these days there are scientific editions of Rashi’s commentaries, which have made comprehensive efforts, working with early manuscripts, to get back as far as humanly possible to the original text. If you want to study Rashi, you should make a point of doing so exclusively from these editions of his commentaries.

The comment by Rashi about Kedusha, alluded to at the beginning of my post, is Rashi on vaYikra [the book of Leviticus] Chapter 19, Verse 2.


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2 Responses to Kedusha. What is the Best English Translation of the Word?

  1. karen guth says:

    Your insights on kedusha are not only original but they are also inspiring. So much emphasis is put on defining kedusha as separation that we never think that there is a process to reach that kadosh state and separation is only the beginning not the end! Now, the Jewish people are considered an Am Kaddosh, but so far in our history, we have been relegated to being separate, apart from others (Ivrim), mostly of their choosing not our own. So, the questions is if we are an Am Kadosh, I’m waiting for us to turn into a Nation of revelers! Do we really have to wait for Moshiach?

  2. Paul Freinkel says:

    Hanoch, great post. Though I think separation and unification needs clarification. Unboundaried unification = codependence, not something to celebrate. Separation of perhaps is a necessary building block upon which to build the paradox of living utterly yourself and in unification. Maybe that’s the celebration. Be interesting to dissect the Rav Kook and the oneg bit….

    But if what we’re living for is the experience of pleasure of being close to G-d, then that’s just another experience to collect, another kind of materialism. Nope doesn’t wash. Might as well get drunk or smoke a joint.

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