Is Holiness Contagious?
Four verses in the Torah, two of them from Parasha Tzav, seem to suggest that “holiness is contagious.” The New Jewish Publication Society translates these verses as follows:
- Altar: “whatever touches the altar shall become consecrated (כָּל־הַנֹּגֵ֥עַ בַּמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ יִקְדָּֽשׁ)” (Exod 29:37)
- Tabernacle utensils : “whatever touches them [the furnishings of the Tabernacle] shall be consecrated (כָּל־הַנֹּגֵ֥עַ בָּהֶ֖ם יִקְדָּֽשׁ) ” (Exod 30:29)
- Meal Offering: “anything that touches these [meal offerings] shall become holy (כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־יִגַּ֥ע בָּהֶ֖ם יִקְדָּֽשׁ)” (Lev 6:11)
- Sin Offering: “anything that touches its flesh [the flesh of the sin offering] shall become holy (כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־יִגַּ֥ע בִּבְשָׂרָ֖הּ יִקְדָּ֑שׁ)” ( Lev 6:20)
(Alternatively the verses might mean that whoever [rather than whatever] or anyone [rather than anything] that touches these items becomes holy.) Based on these verses, many modern critical scholars, such as Nahum Sarna, claim that originally holiness in ancient Israel was viewed as contagious.
Why Rabbinic Literature Does not See Holiness as Contagious
In classical rabbinic literature, these Torah verses are never interpreted as meaning that someone or something can become holy by touching holy things. In the halakhic understanding, while impurity can be transferred through contact, holiness cannot.
Why not? I believe that rabbinic loyalty to the principle of non-contagious holiness is likely based on theological considerations. Carol M. Myers and Eric M. Myers argue persuasively:
Although defilement is contagious . . ., holiness in contrast is not. Sanctity is much more difficult to acquire and must be generated by direct involvement or behavior. Each individual becomes responsible for adherence to standards that lead towards holiness. This lesson greatly influenced the development of classical Judaism in which adherence to the halakhah, standards or law, became the only vehicle for achieving …. holiness.
In other words, in halakhic Judaism the idea that holiness might be spread merely through contact was unthinkable, and texts that seemed to suggest otherwise were reinterpreted.
Midrash Halakhah: Only Intended Objects Derive Holiness
The earliest midrash halakhah texts say that the two verses in Exodus (Altar – 29:37 and Tabernacle utensils – 30:29) concern timing. Certain items that you want to use for a holy purpose begin to have holy status the moment they are placed on the altar or in a Temple utensil. But as Rashi puts it, “any item that does not belong there does not become holy”through contact with the holy altar or a holy utensil.
Objects with Absorbed Holy Material
This explanation works concerning the altar and the holy utensils mentioned in Exodus, since it is logical to posit these holy items could transfer holiness. But in the two verses in Tzav(Lev 6:11 and 6:20), it seems that a holy food—a meal offering or a sin offering—transfers holiness to something or to someone that touches it; this seems much less plausible.
Here too, the rabbis refuse to see the idea of contagious holiness; they say that the word “touch” refers to בליעה— “swallowing” or “absorbing” some of the holy material into the non-holy item. “Swallowing” in the halakhic system cannot be a result of simple contact or touch; something more active must be involved, such as cooking the items together in a mixture. In such a situation, the same restrictions that apply to the consecrated food now apply to the mixture—i.e. the non-holy item into which some of the holy item has penetrated.
Some of the halakhic principles of the rabbinic category of “admixtures” (תערובות) are thus connected to or derived from our verses in Leviticus. As the Jewish Theological Seminary and Schechter Institute scholar, Shamma Friedman puts it:
“Rather than an electricity-like quality that is conducted through all matter by contact, holiness is limited to the very substance of the original sacrifice, and transfers to another object only if that object absorbs some of the fluid of the sin offering.”
Rashbam’s Explanation of the Verses
During the Middle Ages, a number of traditional Jewish Bible commentators were willing, at times, to interpret legal passages from the Torah against the direction of standard rabbinic exegesis. Perhaps the most daring of such exegetes was Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir; 12thcentury Northern France).
In the case of the four Torah verses that appear to describe contagious holiness, Rashbam adopts a remarkable middle position. He does not suggest that an item that touched the altar or the meat of a sin offering becomes holy. Instead, he writes that the word יקדש in these four verses does not refer to the result of contact with holy items (as all rabbinic exegetes and most moderns assume), but refers to the preparation that should be done before touching the altar or the sacrificial food. A person should יקדש—purify himself or herself— before touching the holy item.
Interpreting the verse as referring to a purification process is a break with the rabbinic tradition of interpretation but is not in conflict with halakhah. Rashbam’s interpretation was probably motivated by the inconsistency of the standard rabbinic explanation, which reads the identical phrase—kol ha-nogea‘ beX yiqdash (whatever or whoever touches X shall become holy)—one way in Exodus, and another in Leviticus; his interpretation interprets this phrase identically throughout. He may have also felt that the rabbinic explanations were too far from the simple meaning of the words. Was there perhaps another attraction to the “preparation” explanation?
The “Preparation” Explanation as Peshat: Levine Vs. Milgrom
This interpretation has found some traction among modern critical scholars. For example, Baruch Levine has argued, following Rashbam, that these verses mean that people must purify themselves before touching holy things.
He supports this explanation by noting the symmetry between the two parts of Lev 6:11. The first half of the verse—כל זכר בבני אהרן יאכלנה (only the males among Aaron’s descendants may eat of it)—restricts the list of who would be allowed to eat the sin offering. The end of the verse—כל אשר יגע בהם יקדש (whoever touches it must first purify himself)—further restricts that list. The eaters not only have to be male Aaronide priests, they also have to have gone through a preparatory purification ceremony. 
Jacob Milgrom, however, roundly rejects this reading, arguing that the phrase kol ha-nogea‘ beX yiqdash is so similar to the common phrase in Leviticus kol ha-nogea‘ beX yitma’ that they must be interpreted similarly. If the latter phrase means that the touch of something impure transfers impurity, then the former phrase, Milgrom claims, must mean that the touch of something holy transfers holiness.
Abraham ibn Ezra Defends Contagious Holiness
Notably, one classical Jewish exegete, Abraham ibn Ezra, does interpret the verses to mean that contact with holy items transfers holiness (in his commentaries to Exodus, Leviticus and Haggai). As unexpected as it is that any classical commentary would make this suggestion, it is particularly surprising coming from ibn Ezra since, when peshat is at odds with rabbinic tradition, ibn Ezra is more conservative than his older Northern French contemporary, Rashbam. In fact, ibn Ezra explicitly says in his own introduction to his commentary on the Torah that he will not interpret legal passages in a way contradictory to rabbinichalakhah.
It is difficult to figure out why he was willing to do so in this case. As we do not know how familiar he was with rabbinic texts—he was certainly less familiar than Rashbam was—he may have unwittingly opposed the tradition in this case.
As I stated at the outset, the rabbis do not accept the idea of contagious holiness, and this rejection has deep theological roots. Even a peshat-oriented exegete like Rashbam, who frequently ignored the historical flow of traditional Jewish exegesis, was unwilling to violate an undisputed and central Jewish value like this. And although ibn Ezra suggests that holiness is contagious, in the end he too finds a way to approximate the rabbinic worldview.
Commenting on Haggai 2:14, where the prophet says that anything the Israelites offer at the Temple is impure (טמא) due to their current behavior, ibn Ezra comments:
“It is now clear that the power of any holy item to transfer holiness to an item that is not holy by touch through some intermediary is not like [i.e., is not as strong as] the power of a person who is impure through contact with a dead body to transfer impurity.” 
Ibn Ezra emphasizes that, although holiness is contagious, impurity is much more contagious, a good lesson for all of us—ancient and modern.
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March 20, 2015
September 22, 2019
Professor Rabbi Marty Lockshin is a professor at York University and is currently the Chair of the Department of Humanities. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his five volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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