Torah Portion of the Week: The Sacred and the Profane

Parashat Tzav: The profane is the precise opposite of the sacred, and refers to everything that has no special link to God.

One of the priest’s chief roles is to distinguish “between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10). These two pairs of qualities – sacred and profane, ritually impure and ritually pure – play a pivotal theological role in Leviticus. In his book “The Holiness Legislation: Studies in the Priestly Code” (in Hebrew), my teacher Baruch Schwartz explains their meaning, and the complex relationship between them, based on a straightforward reading of the Bible; that meaning is not necessarily equivalent to the ideational and religious significance attributed to these concepts in post-biblical Judaism.

Holiness signifies affiliation or linkage with God. In Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36), it is written that the priest presenting a purification offering is permitted to eat the flesh of the sacrifice, which is defined as “most holy” (Lev. 6:18), but only within the sanctuary’s perimeter: “in a holy place shall it be eaten, in the court of the tent of meeting” (Lev. 6:19). Priests, qualified to serve God, may eat the flesh of the sacrifice presented to God in the courtyard of God’s house; that is, holy individuals may eat holy meat in a holy place.

The profane is the precise opposite of the sacred, and refers to everything that has no special link to God. Whereas my home is profane, God’s house is sacred; whereas the lamb grazing in the field is profane, the lamb presented as a sacrificial offering to God is sacred.

Most things are profane until they have been sanctified, or ritually pure until they have become ritually impure. While the initial, neutral status of people and objects is profane and pure, holiness and impurity are exceptional phenomena.

Impurity is filth that arouses disgust or abhorrence. Although it can result from certain offenses, it is not necessarily forbidden; it can result from natural phenomena in the life cycle that have no religious or moral defect, such as childbirth, death or menstrual blood.

An example of how impurity can appear and how it must be dealt with appears in Parashat Shemini, which will be read in the synagogue next week. The text states that certain animals, such as mice, lizards and turtles, are impure, and then specifies: “And upon whatsoever any of them, when they are dead, doth fall, it shall be unclean; whether it be any vessel of wood, or raiment, or skin, or sack, whatsoever vessel it be, wherewith any work is done, it must be put into water, and it shall be unclean until the even; then shall it be clean. And every earthen vessel whereinto any of them falleth, whatsoever is in it shall be unclean, and it ye shall break” (Lev. 11:32-33). If a dead mouse falls into a bowl, the bowl will become impure. If it is wooden, it can be rinsed in water and by nightfall it will again be pure. However, if it is an earthen vessel, it cannot be purified and thus must be shattered.

Parashat Tzav teaches us that it is not only impurity that is contagious and which must be rinsed away by water (in the case of wooden vessels) or eliminated by shattering (in the case of earthen vessels); holiness can have precisely the same effect. Regarding purification-offerings, we read: “Whatsoever shall touch the flesh thereof shall be holy … But the earthen vessel wherein it is sodden shall be broken; and if it be sodden in a brazen vessel, it shall be scoured, and rinsed in water” (Lev. 6:20-21). A copper vessel that comes into contact with the flesh of a sacrificial offering becomes sacred. Its holiness must be canceled, and it can be restored to its previous profane state if it is rinsed in water. Just as an earthen vessel that has become impure cannot be purified and must be shattered, the same procedure must be employed if it has become sanctified.

Impurity and holiness function in the same way: They are dynamic, they expand, they are contagious through contact (like electricity or illness). Whereas generally, impurity is considered a negative phenomenon but can also result from a legitimate, even desirable, action, such as childbirth, holiness – which is considered a positive phenomenon – can also result from unintended contact that must be corrected.

Within the pairs sacred-profane and impure-pure, profane and pure are neutral situations and each of them can peacefully coexist with the two situations in the opposite pair. In other words, if something is profane, it can be either pure or impure; if it is pure, it can be sacred or profane.

The situation becomes dangerous and intolerable only when it combines the two dynamic elements: sacred and impure. One can become ritually impure from time to time: One may give birth to a child, have a menstrual period, bury the dead or touch a mouse. There is, however, one thing that an impure person must not do: approach a holy place. The combination of impurity and holiness is lethal: “Whosoever he be of all your seed throughout your generations, that approacheth unto the holy things … having his uncleanness upon him, that soul shall be cut off from before me” (Lev. 22:3).

To better understand the concepts of purity and impurity and the severity of any contact between them, let us think of a modern analogy that is unconnected with God. In Israeli culture, Jerusalem’s Sacher Park is a profane place, whereas the cemetery on Mount Herzl is considered a holy place (although, in the Bible, graves are not holy and are impure).

Sacred is the opposite of profane; thus, what can be done in a public park cannot be done in a military cemetery. If the recent Jerusalem Marathon, for example, had started out from Mount Herzl, that would have been the desecration of a holy place – not because the marathon per se is prohibited, but because profane actions cannot be allowed in a holy place.

Let us add to the analogy the distinction between impure and pure. Crude graffiti abusing a political rival is like an impure object: filthy and unpleasant, but nonetheless natural and legitimate. A public park, which belongs to the profane zone, can be temporally rendered impure by graffiti. Within no time, the municipality will erase the graffiti and might even impose a fine on its author; the park will again be pure.

In contrast, a holy place may not be rendered impure even temporarily. The same graffiti that is acceptable and tolerated in a park, is intolerable in a military cemetery and is even more grievous than a marathon: The marathon desecrates the holiness but the graffiti defiles it. The sprayers of graffiti cannot argue that they intended to erase it after a short while or that they have the right to freedom of expression, because such claims are legitimate only in profane places. In a holy place, impurity is prohibited even when it is temporary.

The special sensitivity characterizing a holy place could explain why holiness is not always a desirable situation. Holiness entails festiveness, sublimity, spiritual elevation, but also awkwardness, tension and danger. Leviticus, which focuses on holiness, also stresses the need to limit it.