KedoshimLeviticus - Vayikramain posts

Parashat Kedoshim: Aliyah by Aliyah


דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ (קדושים יט, ב)

“…Speak to the entire Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy” (Leviticus 19:2)

First Reading: The Meditative Path to Wisdom

This week we commemorate the yahrzeit of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, the first Rebbe of the Land of Israel in modern times. The Vitebsker, as he is commonly known, was the successor of the Maggid of Mezritch and following the yearning of his teachers, the Maggid and the Ba’al Shem Tov, led a group of 200 families from Russia on aliyah to the land of Israel in 5537 (1777)! The most famous collection of his teachings is Pri Ha’aretz (Fruit of the Land).

In his teachings for parashat Kedoshim, he states that a person who is part of Israel, part of the Jewish people, is someone willing to nullify himself to sanctify God publicly, like Moses who said to God, “If you will not [forgive the people], please erase me from Your book.”[1] There is no greater self-nullification than Moses sacrificing himself in this way, by willing to have himself erased from the Torah, all to sanctify God’s Name.

The Vitebsker explains that sanctifying God’s Name means performing some action that will cause Godliness to be revealed upon the Jewish people. A person should be so self-nullified that he or she is willing to be erased from this World and from the World to Come, to become nothing, all so that God be revealed upon the Jewish people.

Holiness and Wisdom: Stripping Corporeality Away

The Vitebsker continues to explain that the name of our parashah, Kedoshim (“you shall be holy”) corresponds to the sefirah of wisdom. Holiness and wisdom are identified with one another in Kabbalah.

Who is a wise person, who is a holy person? The Vitebsker’s answer is that this is an individual who can reach a state of stripping himself corporeally. How does one reach this state? There are many different techniques brought by different authors, but the Vitebsker’s answer demonstrates his connection with the intellectual approach of Chabad.

This connection was discussed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe who said that since the Vitebsker was Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s rebbe, it can be argued that the former should be added to the lineage of the Chabad Rebbes. They were both chasidim of the Maggid, but they also had a rebbe-chasid relationship. The Alter Rebbe yearned to join the Vitebsker when he made aliyah to the Land of Israel, but the Vitebsker forced him to stay in Russia, to lead the chasidim there.

In any case, like in many of his teachings, the Vitebsker demonstrates a strongly Chabad-leaning approach. He says that to be holy—to strip oneself of one’s corporeality—one must dedicate his life to wisdom. Wisdom and holiness are interchangeable.

Deep Contemplation of Wisdom

In his book, the Vitebsker utilizes the term “contemplative wisdom” (חֲכָמָה עִיּוּנִית) to describe what he is constantly focused on. This is the inner aspect of wisdom since there is a distinction between wisdom’s interior and its exterior dimensions. Learning the Torah’s revealed wisdom—the body of Torah—is wisdom’s exterior. But contemplating the Torah’s concealed wisdom following the way of the Ba’al Shem Tov and Chasidut—the Torah’s soul—that is wisdom’s interior.

He writes that one should be so engrossed in one’s contemplation of inner wisdom that he should forget whether it is day or night. According to the Vitebsker, the sages of old were able to remain in this contemplative state for three straight days, completely divorced of their corporeal being, clinging to God, not knowing whether it was day nor night. We should all strive to reach this level—the state of “Kedoshim”—“You shall be holy.”

An individual who has not reached this state—contemplation for three straight days without knowing whether it is day or night (it goes without saying that he has not eaten a thing)—has not really visited this world, is certainly not worthy of the title of “sage” (חָכָם), nor the title of “a holy person” (קָדוֹשׁ).

Contemplative Wisdom and Chabad Meditation

What Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk calls “contemplative wisdom” (חֲכָמָה עִיּוּנִית) is known in Chabad as Divine meditation (הִתְבּוֹנְנוּת אֱלֹקִית), or simply Hitbonenut in Hebrew. Hitbonenut incorporates two aspects related to the sefirah of understanding known as “the Supernal Mother” (אִמָּא עִלָּאָה) and “contemplation” (תְּבוּנָה). Contemplation refers to the mind’s ability to capture a concept internally, to internalize it, and is sometimes described as conscious stability.[2]

Rebbe Isaac of Homil explains this best. He writes that Hitbonenut means taking an idea and contemplating it to such an extent that you internalize it, and it reaches a stable state in your mind so that you will not forget it. A person who engages in Hitbonenut is constantly acquiring new ideas, and new understanding. This produces great joy in the individual—joy is the inner experience of understanding. This joy is of course positive, but this is not the same as attaining a state of holiness.

The person who attains holiness is totally immersed within the thought he is meditating upon, as Rebbe Isaac describes it. He is so deeply engaged in meditation that he divests himself of his corporeal self and is surrounded by the light of wisdom. This type of Hitbonenut, or Chasidic meditation, is related to the Supernal Mother, which is constantly attached to the Supernal Father principle (אַבָּא עִלָּאָה). This is a different state of mind, distinct from the contemplation described above as thinking about an idea until it settles in your mind, is stabilized, and internalized.

An example of contemplation that settles the mind and leads to joy can be found in Rebbe Nachman’s writings.[3] But in Chabad, Hitbonenut is a different matter, as we have discussed many times, and here we have a teaching from the Vitebsker that follows the same path. Reaching a state of being immersed for three days and three nights in the light of wisdom, not knowing if it is day or night, that is the meaning according to the Vitebsker of, “You shall be holy, for I, Havayah your God, am holy.”

Using Hitbonenut to Approach God

One of the most beautiful points the Vitebsker makes in his teaching on Kedoshim and on being “holy,” is that meditating—performing Hitbonenut—on reality can be likened to a physicist who is contemplating nature and considers elementary particles. His thought delves in-depth, and he can almost reach a state of divesting his corporeality. The more deeply one thinks about a topic, the more one breaks it up into smaller and smaller pieces, just as a physicist would go deeper into the composition of matter and reach smaller and smaller particles. First, there are atoms, then electrons and protons, then quarks, and finally, today, strings. Who knows what will come next? The deeper he reaches the greater the power to resolve tiny elements and yet, one needs to know that this is all like naught compared to the revelation of Godliness. Everything one has attained is completely null and void.

The exact word the Vitebsker uses to describe this power to resolve smaller and smaller elements is “finer and finer” (דַּק עַל דַּק). He meditates on finer and finer elements, as far as the human mind can reach. One needs to realize that all that we can think about is Being—the created being that is like naught before God. All created being is completely nullified before God; it cannot be identified with God at all.

This is the leap that we are expecting science and scientists to eventually make. This will be the redemption of science and the beginning of the light of Mashiach. One needs to reach the finest elements, but realize that regardless of how deeply you reach, and how fine the reality you are considering, a leap is still needed to arrive at the revelation of Godliness, which is not material at all. All this is alluded to in the incense prepared for the Temple service, which was ground finer and finer and represents a state of being bound and cleaving to God.

It would seem then that the formula the Vitebsker is giving us is that if one wants to reach true contemplative wisdom and a state of divestment from the corporeal, one needs to study nature on a finer and finer scale until one reaches the conclusion that God “is neither corporeal nor the image of corporeality,” to quote Maimonides.



וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ (קדושים יט, יח)

“Love your fellow as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)

Second Reading: Love and History


The Greater Torah Principle

Rabbi Akiva who among all the Mishnaic sages is considered the Moses of the Torah’s Oral Tradition, states that the Torah’s great principle is “Love your fellow as you love yourself”[4] (וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ). However, in the Sifra, the Tannaic midrash on the Book of Leviticus, it is mentioned that Ben Azai, one of the three sages that entered the Pardes together with Rabbi Akiva, stated that the verse, “This is the book of the generations of man”[5] is an even greater Torah principle than Rabbi Akiva’s choice of “Love your fellow as you love yourself.”

This verse, “This is the book of the generations of man,” begins the third account of creation.[6]

Most have not heard about this dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azai regarding which verse is a greater principle of Torah. Certainly, there are deep things to be learned here. In fact, this might be the most important dispute in Torah since it discusses which principle is the most generalized principle of the entire Torah. There are many explanations for the grounds of this dispute in the various commentaries. Why is it that though Ben Azai agrees that “Love your fellow as you love yourself” is an important general principle that provides a foundation for all of Torah, he argues that the verse, “This is the book of the generations of man,” is an even more general principle?

The first thing to note is that Ben Azai’s verse and the Torah’s third account of creation are centered around a historical perspective on creation. He is essentially stating that the historical perspective and our ability to recognize Moses in the Torah is greater than loving our fellow Jew. To love one’s fellow is a very important and central commandment, but apparently to know the order of the generations of mankind is a greater principle.

Connecting All Generations versus Connecting a Single Generation

Let us focus on the explanation offered by the Sefat Emet who makes the following distinction between the two verses. Loving your fellow Jew is instrumental in connecting all the souls in your present generation together. But the verse, “This is the book of the generations of man,” expands the scope to connecting all the souls throughout all the generations of mankind. The reason that it is a greater principle than just loving your fellow is because it reflects the desire to affect the entire world.

This is particularly descriptive of our present situation in the Land of Israel. To become part of history you need to affect history. A tzaddik can look at each individual soul and see it as part of the ongoing chain of generations of the Jewish people. It sees each soul in its historical context; and what role it plays in the ongoing story of Creation, without limiting it to its present contribution alone. A tzaddik sees each soul’s role with reference to both the past and the future.

Seeing a Soul’s Future

In the Chabad tradition, there is a famous story that demonstrates this very distinction. One Sukkot holiday, when the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi was visiting Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, they sat together in the latter’s sukkah. The Chernobyler Rebbe asked his guest: Why is it that after the Maggid of Mezritch’s passing—he was the Ba’al Shem Tov’s successor, and their common teacher—you chose Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk as your rebbe and not myself, since I was the Maggid’s most senior disciple?

The Alter Rebbe replied that when a Jew came to see the Vitebsker, he would immediately see with his clear spiritual vision, all that this person had experienced and all he had done in this lifetime. The Chernobyler heard the answer but simply said, “Nu?” suggesting that he too could see all that a person had done during his lifetime.

The Alter Rebbe continued, “the Vitebsker could also see all that had happened to a soul during all its incarnations in this world, from Adam to the present moment.” The elder rebbe grunted once again, “Nu?” again suggesting that he too could see the past lifetimes of every soul.

Finally, the Alter Rebbe added, “And Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk could also see all that would happen to a soul in the future, from the present moment until the coming of Mashiach, and even later, all the way to the Resurrection of the Dead.” When he heard this the Chernobyler Rebbe was impressed and felt that this was a true novelty.

We know this story because there was a group of chasidim present that were listening to the conversation between the two rebbes. They were leaning on the flimsy walls of the sukkah from above and just as the story ended, the thatched roof caved in from the weight of the eavesdroppers. In any case, this story beautifully demonstrates what the Sefat Emet meant in distinguishing between the two verses that are great principles. Loving your fellow is akin to connecting with your fellow’s present lifetime. But knowing the book of the generations of man is knowing a person through and through, including their past and future lives, and seeing how their soul fits into the span of all generations.

(from a class given on 26 Tishrei, 5775)



אַל־תְּחַלֵּ֥ל אֶֽת־בִּתְּךָ֖ לְהַזְנוֹתָ֑הּ וְלֹא־תִזְנֶ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ וּמָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֖רֶץ זִמָּֽה (קדושים יט, כט)

“You must not defile your daughter by making her a harlot lest the land “engage in prostitution” and the land be filled with immorality” (Leviticus 19:29)

Third Reading: Protecting Our Children


What Affects Character?

Though many of the verses in our parashah seem to stand independently of one another, the Or HaChaim explains that the final three (even four, as we will see) verses of the third reading form a coherent unit:

You must not defile your daughter by making her a harlot lest the land “engage in prostitution” and the land be filled with immorality. You must observe My Sabbaths and you shall revere My Sanctuary. Do not turn to diviners and clairvoyants, do not seek to defile yourselves through them, I am Havayah your God. You must rise before an elderly person and you must respect the old, you shall fear your God, I am Havayah.

The Or HaChaim explains that,

Despite the Torah’s commandment that a father must not desecrate his daughter by instructing her to practice harlotry, the fact remains that some girls engage in this act without being urged by their fathers to do so…. Still, the Torah warns the parents to protect their daughter from straying into harlotry because the offspring’s character depends on the parents and there are three separate causes that cause a delinquent nature in offspring: 1) If at the time of conception, the father was bent on the physical pleasure of the union with his wife instead of being motivated purely by the desire to preserve mankind…. As a result, the child born from such a union may have an increased sexual urge. 2) If the mother’s behavior is improper, “the lamb tends to become like the sheep.”[7] And, 3) If both father and mother had involuntary negative thoughts… even if both are pillars of piety….

The remedy for all three causes is to be found in our verses,

To remedy the first cause, the Torah writes, “You must observe My Sabbaths…” connecting to the Zohar’s statement that the righteous people have marital relations with their wives only on Friday nights…. If someone wants to make sure that the children he sires are of a holy level, he must first learn how to control his libido and put it exclusively into the service of God’s commandment to be fruitful….

To remedy the second reason, the Torah instructs us to “revere My Sanctuary,” alluding to the mother who is warned not to find herself suspected of infidelity, which would bring her to the Temple to be given the bitter waters.[8]

To remedy the third reason, the Torah warns us not to turn to diviners and clairvoyants… because having knowledge of the impure coerces a person to involuntarily connect with it.

From the Or HaChaim’s commentary, we learn that the purpose of these three commandments—to observe the Sabbath, to revere the Sanctuary, and to honor one’s parents, which is alluded to in the prohibition against seeking out diviners and clairvoyants (and in the next verse that the Or HaChaim did not connect, the commandment to honor one’s elders, referring to the wise men of the generation, but which the sages connect with honoring one’s parents)—is to beget children that possess rectified character and have elevated souls, children that will not fall into defiling the earth. Thus, the Torah places the responsibility for the next generation on their parents, particularly regarding the sanctity of the parents’ marital union.

Three Remedies Correspond to the Intellectual Sefirot

Contemplating the Or HaChaim’s comment, we realize that observing the Sabbath, which remedies the father’s possible iniquities, corresponds to the Mind of Father Principle (מוֹחִין דְּאַבָּא) and the sefirah of wisdom. The inner experience of wisdom is the power of self-nullification in the psyche, which begins with the power to nullify the improper cravings of one’s evil inclination. This is also known as the “mind controls the heart,” thanks to the power of will that is invested within wisdom.

The sanctity of the Temple, the Sanctuary, is related to the mother, as is well known that the value of “the Temple” (בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ), 861 is the triangle of (the sum of integers from 1 to) 41, the value of “mother” (אֵם). It is in the Temple that the supernal Atika, the supernal part of the sefirah of crown, is revealed, as alluded to in the phrase, “Where is the location of His honor”[9] (אַיֵּה מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ) and the verse, “Where is the location of understanding”[10] (וְאֵי זֶה מְקוֹם בִּינָה).

Finally, the prohibition from seeking out diviners and clairvoyants that remedy involuntary negative thoughts corresponds with the sefirah of knowledge, since these soothsayers are all bent on blemishing this faculty of the intellect.


(from a class given on 15 Av, 5769)



[1]. Exodus 32:32.

[2]. See more in our volume Consciousness and Choice, p. 28ff.

[3]. For example, Likutei Moharan 2:10.

[4]. Leviticus 19:18.

[5]. Genesis 5:1.

[6]. For more, see Wonders, issue 78, pp. 13ff.

[7]. Ketubot 63a.

[8]. See Numbers 5:31.

[9]. Shabbat Mussaf Kedushah.

[10]. Job 28:12.

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