A ‘Bissel’ of Torah: KEDOSHIM (LEVITICUS 19:1-20:27)

By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant


This week’s Torah parsha, Kedoshim, begins with the momentous call: “You shall be holy because I, the Lord, your God am holy”(1). This statement is followed by repetition of dozens of ‘Divine’ commandments, which would enable the Israelites to consecrate their holy relationship with God. This parsha is also replete with mitzvot (referred to as the ‘holiness code’), which pertain to interpersonal relationships. The primary objective of these commandments is to create a society of “peace and harmony”(2). These include: kindness and respect for the elderly, the poor, the blind, the deaf and the stranger, along with equality in justice. 

At the center of parsha Kedoshim is a brief paragraph which has intrigued our sages for centuries: “Do not hate your brother in your heart; you must surely admonish your neighbor, and not bear sin against him; love your neighbor as yourself; I am God” (3).

The sages recognized both the aspiration and supremacy of this commandment: Hillel considered it the “essence of the entire Torah”(4) and Rabbi Akiva classified this mandate as the Torah’s “fundamental principle”(5). However, they (and many other rabbinical scholars) realized that an ethic which commands people to ‘love’ every person within their community is unattainable. The rabbis attempted to rectify the difficulty of the literal translation in the Torah by offering various interpretations: “The mitzvah is to desire your friend’s success, as you desire your own”(6); “All the ways that you would like others to treat you – do for your brothers and sisters”(7); “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor”(8).

In effect, there are two different implications to this commandment. The first pertains to one individual harming another, typically via unprovoked, harsh and/or humiliating speech. In such instances, we are commanded to confront the one who has offended you, converse, challenge and remonstrate with him or her. The logic for this means of action is that ‘inaction’ inevitably will cause your pain to fester, with very negative consequences. The Ohr Ha Chaim explains: “There are two likely scenarios in conversing with someone who has verbally hurt you; either the individual will admit that his (or her) behavior was unacceptable, and offer an apology, or if the words were truly spoken from feelings of malice, envy, or hubris, then the offender will not apologize, but will certainly be aware of their sin”(9).

The second aspect of this command relates to ‘collective responsibility’, a critical element of Jewish law: “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor if you are aware that this person is about to commit a sin, or embarking on a negative path”(10). We are each responsible, not only for our own conduct, but for the behavior of fellow Jews.

Undoubtedly, these proposed remedies, whether one has hurt us personally or if we are aware of someone likely to commit a sin, position each of us in an adverse and highly difficult situation and present a burdensome and moral challenge.

Nevertheless, if we speak privately and kindly, we are satisfying our role in adhering to this formidable commandment.


(1) LEVITICUS (19:1-2)

(2) Rashi (on LEVITICUS, chapter 19)

(3) LEVITICUS (19:17-18)

(4) Hillel (110 BCE -10 CE) Jerusalem, Israel

(5) Rabbi Akiva (50 AD – 137 AD) Torath Kohanim,19:45

(6) Nachmanides (1194-1270) Girona, Spain

(7) Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Hilcot, Evel 14:1)

(8) Hillel (Shab 31a)

(9) Ohr Ha Chaim (1696-1743) Mekenes, Morocco

(10) Rashbam, Samuel ben Meir (1085-1158) Ramerupt, France