It was a year when the holidays fell on the same days of the week as they do this year. The first day of Passover was on a Saturday, a Shabbat, so that Shavuot fell on a Sunday. Saturday night was the beginning of Shavuot. That calendar quirk provided the occasion for Babu to play a trick on me and my cousin Mati.
Babu was the name we gave to my great-grandmother, my maternal grandmother’s mother. She was then in her early 90s. I was six or seven, my cousin just a tad younger. We were at exactly the right age to feel frightened and excited by her announcement.
“We are expecting a special guest tonight,” she said. “He comes to our home but rarely, every seven or eight years or so. He visited us last just before the two of you were born. We must treat him very carefully because he is very scary, especially for little boys and girls.”
We pleaded with her to tell us his name, but she coyly refused, insisting that the very sound of his name would send a chill up and down our spines. She slowly relented, and feigning caution and fear, whispered in our ears:
She was right. His name did indeed send chills up and down our spines. We imagined that some horrible monster would be joining us for the festive meal that both concluded the Shabbat and commenced the Yom Tov beginning immediately thereafter.
I no longer recall which other adult at the table assured us that Yaknehaz was not a scary monster, but rather was an mnemonic device to remember the sequence of blessings for the complex Kiddush we recite on such a Saturday night. It is a combination of the Havdalah for the outgoing Sabbath and the Kiddush that ushers in the incoming festival.
Yayin/wine first; then Kiddush; then Ner/Havdalah candle, Havdalah for the Sabbath’s conclusion; and Zman, thanking God for the opportunity to enjoy the holiday of Shavuot, which was about to begin. The first letters of the five words spell out “Yaknehaz.”
As we listened to our grandfather recite the list of blessings, we were struck by an unusual phrase. We were accustomed to the Havdalah each and every week, when he would loudly proclaim “…He who separates kodesh, the holy, from chol, the profane.”
On this special night he proclaimed instead “…He who separates the holy from the holy… bain kodesh l’kodesh.” Mati and I were advanced enough in our Hebrew studies to be perplexed by the intrinsic paradox in that phrase. Separate holy from holy, sacred from sacred? What can that possibly mean? That paradox stays with me to this very day.
Over the years, I have learned to look for the keys to understand this paradox in Parshat Kedoshim, the second of this week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot/Kedoshim.
The parsha begins with the Almighty’s instruction to Moses: “Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy for I am holy.’ ” Apparently, there are levels of holiness. There is the Almighty’s holiness, which mortals can never attain, and then there is the holiness expected of each of us.
The Sabbath is holy, as are the festivals. But their respective degrees of holiness are different. Hence we praise “…He who separates the holy from the holy.”
The entire Jewish nation is expected to be holy, but we obviously differ, each of us independently, in the quality of holiness that we manage to achieve.
What does it mean for a person to be holy? Ramban (Nachmanides) struggles with this question in the beginning of his commentary on this week’s Torah portion. After considering approaches of others to this question, he develops his own thesis: holiness is moderation, self-control, in all areas of life. It consists of avoiding excess by refraining even from those behaviors which are perfectly legitimate under the letter of the Torah law.
For example, he writes, the Torah permits us to eat meat and drink wine. A person could very well become a glutton and a drunkard and not violate any explicit Torah prohibition. Such a person would not be holy. He would be, as Ramban puts it so famously, “a knave with the Torah’s permission, naval bir’shut haTorah”.
From this perspective, a holy person is one who does not take advantage of legal loopholes and who does not confine himself to the literal meaning of the mitzvot, the commandments. Rather, he has a profound sense of what is appropriate, what is seemly, what behaviors befit one who is enjoined to be holy.
From this perspective too, a holy person is not one who merely dresses the part. The external trappings of garb and costume and gestures of piety are not definitive of holiness. The holy person is one who is not excessive, not “in your face,” but who practices sobriety and courtesy and is self-disciplined. He is able to intuit the spirit of the law, and thus transcends its letter.
Several weeks ago, I came across a column by a respected colleague, Rabbi Marc Angel, entitled In Search of a Real Tzaddik. In it, he quotes a popular writer who offers an insight which I take the liberty of paraphrasing to fit our discussion about holiness: “Holy people are the most human. They are natural and easy in manner; they give themselves no airs; they interest themselves in ordinary everyday matters and are not forever talking about religion. For them, there is no difference between holiness and usual life.”
How different is the truly holy person from those who pretend to be holy but who are, in fact, “knaves with the Torah’s permission.” How true is the phrase which praises the Almighty for distinguishing between “holy and holy,” between genuine holiness and sham holiness, between those whose holiness is real and those for whom it is a charade.
Thank you, Babu, for introducing me to Yaknahaz so very long ago, and for thereby drawing my attention to the distinction between holy and “holy.”