On Root / Praise the Lord in Wine, Love, Martyrdom - and Life

Hebrew gets a lot of use out of the root "kadesh," holiness, the root of which - says the Torah - is God.

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What Hebrew root is central to weddings and funerals, wine and prayer, martyrdom and the moon?

It's an idea that exists in many cultures yet is probably one of the most elusive concepts in religious thought. Protestant philosopher Rudolf Otto, in his book on the subject, called it the mysterium tremendum - yet in Judaism it is part and parcel of the pots and pans of everyday living.

For secular Israelis, its demands are irrational, oppressive, even inhuman. For the religious, that's exactly the attraction - it is a transcendent vision, a strict ideal, a demanding goal to strive for. In the words of the late, great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, it is not paradise, but paradox.

I'm talking about "holiness," kodesh or kedushah.

This root, k-d-sh, also gives us the word for the Temple - Beit Ha-mikdash ("the house of sanctity") - whose destruction, along with a host of other historical calamities that have befallen the Jewish people, is commemorated this week in the holiday ("holy day") of Tisha' Be-av, the 9th day of the month of Av.

Holy, holy, holy

Traditionally in Judaism, the source of all that is holy is God. The deity goes by many names, but one of the common ones in Hebrew is hakadosh baruch hu – literally, "the Holy One, blessed be He."

In turn, many things associated with divinity, such as the mikdash, "the Temple," use one form or another of the root k-d-sh. The inner sanctum of the Temple was the kodesh hakodashim, "the holy of holies."

The Temples were built in Jerusalem, known as ir hakodesh, "the holy city." Similarly, the official Arabic name of the city is al-Kuds, same meaning from a cognate root.

Conversely, Tel Aviv, the epicenter of Hebrew secularism with its beautiful beaches is 'ir shel chol – a clever pun in Hebrew meaning both "secular city" and "city of sand".

And of course, the language this column is about is lashon hakodesh – Hebrew, the (now very secularized) "holy tongue."

Wine, women and moons

Arguably, though, the root k-d-sh is found more in verbs than in nouns, since the idea of a mitzvah, a "commandment," is a religious act which sanctifies the doer, or the very time in which it is done. For instance, the blessing said over the wine on the Sabbath is called the kiddush, "the sanctification." But it's not the wine that is or becomes holy, it is the Sabbath.

Another kiddush is the sanctification of marriage, known as kiddushin, where a couple "plight their troth" to one another. The word used by the groom in his declaration to the bride is mekudeshet, "sanctified" – the very same word used in the ceremony at the beginning of a new month, where the waxing new moon is viewed and celebrated.

This rite, known as kiddush levanah (moon), is done outside at night. The text of the prayer is often reproduced on a large sign outside the synagogue where everyone can read it together by moonlight. Thus we get the phrase otiot kiddush levanah, "letters of the 'sanctification of the moon ceremony,'" which has come to mean "writ large," or simply, a very large font.

Holy ends

One of the best known uses of this root is in much less joyous circumstances.

It is one thing to express one's faith and belief in times of celebration such as when marrying. It is quite another at the other end of the spectrum, at a burial. Then, and every day thereafter for a year after the loss of loved on, one says the prayer known as the kaddish, again, a "sanctification," this time of God, and God's life-giving role in the world.

Traditionally, believers can also sanctify God in the act of dying itself. In Hebrew, martyrdom, the act of self-sacrifice in the name of religious freedom, is known as mavet al kiddush hashem, "dying for the sanctification of the (divine) Name."

A dead body itself, while only a physical shell, possesses great sanctity, known as kedushat ha-met, which according to Jewish law, determines what can be done with it and to it.

But we shouldn't end on that note: much more is sanctified in life than in death, life itself being sacred and a source of holiness: kedushat hachayim.

Yet in the great cycle of existence, all things indeed must come to an end – including newspaper columns. This is the last edition of "On Root." Todah rabah!, many thanks, to Haaretz.com, to all the talented editors, and to my loyal readers and respondents. Shalom!

Holiness, a precept in every culture that's still very hard to nail down – yet it is part of everyday Jewish life.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Image from CERN depicting a collision between photons that could, scientists think, produce the elusive "God" subatomic particle.Credit: AP

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