The knave with permission
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim - Leviticus: 16:1-20:27
It was a year when, as it does this year, Shavuot began Saturday night, a calendar quirk that allowed Babu to play a trick on me and my cousin Mati.
Babu was my maternal grandmother’s mother. She was then in her 90s; I was six or seven, my cousin a tad younger.
“We are expecting a special guest tonight,” she told us. “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 carefully because he is very scary.”
We pleaded with her to tell us his name, but she refused, insisting that the very sound of his name would send chills up and down our spines. She at last relented and whispered in our ears: “His name is — Yaknehaz!”
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 immediately thereafter.
I no longer recall which other adult assured us that Yaknehaz was not a scary monster, but rather a mnemonic device to aid in remembering the sequence of blessings for the complex Kiddush we recite on such a Saturday night — a combination of Havdala and the Kiddush that ushers in the festival.
The letters stood for: yayin (wine), Kiddush, ner (Havdala candle), Havdala, and zman — thanking God for the opportunity to enjoy the holiday of Shavuot.
As we listened to our grandfather recite the blessings, we were struck by an unusual phrase. For Havdala each week, he would loudly proclaim “…He who separates kodesh l’hol (the holy from the profane).”
On this special night he proclaimed instead “…He who separates kodesh l’kodesh (the holy from the holy).” Mati and I were perplexed by the intrinsic paradox in that phrase.
Over the years, I have learned to look for the keys to understanding this paradox in Kedoshim, the second of this week’s double Torah portion.
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 in the quality of holiness we manage to achieve.
What does it mean for a person to be holy? Ramban (Nahmanides) developed this thesis: Holiness is moderation, self-control, in all areas of life. It consists of avoiding excess by refraining even from behaviors that are permissible according to the letter of Torah law.
For example, he writes, the Torah permits us to eat meat and drink wine. A person could become a glutton and a drunkard and not violate any Torah prohibition. Such a person, however, would not be holy. He would be, as Ramban put it so famously, “naval birshut haTorah — a knave with the Torah’s permission.”
From this perspective, a holy person is one who does not take advantage of legal loopholes and does not confine oneself to the literal meaning of the mitzvot. Rather, a holy person has a profound sense of what is appropriate, of what behaviors befit one enjoined to be holy.
From this perspective too, a holy person is not one who merely dresses the part. The trappings of costume and gestures of piety are not definitive of holiness. The holy person is one who practices sobriety, courtesy, and self-discipline and is able to intuit the spirit of the law.
How different are truly holy people from those who pretend to be holy but who are, in fact, “knaves with the Torah’s permission.” How true is the phrase that praises the Almighty for distinguishing between “holy and holy,” between genuine holiness and sham holiness.
Thank you, Babu, for introducing me to “Yaknehaz” so long ago and for drawing my attention to the distinction between holy and “holy.”