Sacrality in Seclusion

Dena Weiss

Parashat Kedoshim

At the opening of this week’s parashah, God demands holiness from us, kedoshim tihyu. God wants us to realize a higher version of ourselves through refining our attitudes and behaviors. God wants us to be better than ordinary human beings by tapping into our capacity for holiness and excellence. However, holiness at its core is designation and separation, and a drive towards holiness can also be isolating, driving a wedge between us and our family and neighbors who do not have the same religious or spiritual ambitions. How do we know when we are truly being holy and when do we run the risk of becoming holier than thou? How do we prevent our quest for holiness from having negative interpersonal effects?

The midrash in VaYikra Rabbah provides a strategy, a technique for how to become holy:

ויקרא רבה כד:ד
אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְמשֶׁה לֵךְ אֱמֹר לְיִשְׂרָאֵל: בָּנַי, כְּשֵׁם שֶׁאֲנִי פָּרוּשׁ כָּךְ תִּהְיוּ פְּרוּשִׁים, כְּשֵׁם שֶׁאֲנִי קָדוֹשׁ כָּךְ תִּהְיוּ קְדוֹשִׁים, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב: קְדוֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ.


VaYikra Rabbah 24:4
The Holy Blessed One said to Moshe: Go and say to Israel, “My children. Just as I am separate so you should be separate. Just as I am holy so you should be holy.” As it is written: You shall be holy.


According to this section of the midrash, God is not demanding a quality of holiness that is abstract or ethereal, God is demanding holiness as a practice. Separate yourself and you will become holy. This type of holiness is more manageable and imaginable than an abstract call to be like God, but it is also somewhat dangerous. We could become more self-righteousness than truly righteous, elevating ourselves above our peers instead of ascending to God.

Rabbinic literature addresses this concern when it forbids certain pious practices on account of yuhara, presumptuous behavior. Our Rabbis understand that sometimes a quest for holiness will lead one to supererogatory behavior, to exceeding the minimum demanded by the law or not allowing oneself to employ leniencies that other people regularly employ. One of the areas of concern for inappropriate stringency is the recitation of the Shema by a bridegroom on his wedding night. The Mishnah1 assumes that a man who is getting married might be too preoccupied to do this mitzvah properly, and therefore he is typically exempt. The Mishnah later debates whether or not a groom can choose to say the Shema anyway:

משנה ברכות ב:ח
חתן, אם רוצה לקרות קרית שמע לילה הראשון - קורא. רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר: לא כל הרוצה ליטול את השם יטול.


Mishnah Berakhot 2:8
If a groom wants to recite the Shema on the first night [of his marriage] he may. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Not everyone who wants to may utter2 God’s name.


It seems that the majority opinion in this Mishnah (the anonymous first line representing the Rabbis collectively) allows for a person to be strict with themselves. The Rabbis allow him to recite the Shema, which declares God’s existence and unity, even when the letter of the law allows him to take a night off. Yet Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel objects to this presumptuous behavior, exclaiming that if a person recites the Shema when they are not commanded they display an arrogant, over-familiarity with God that is not appropriate.3 And the Talmudic commentary on this passage frames the debate explicitly in terms of yuhara:

תלמוד בבלי ברכות יז:
למימרא דרבן שמעון בן גמליאל חייש ליוהרא ורבנן לא חיישי ליוהרא? והא איפכא שמעינן להו! דתנן: מקום שנהגו לעשות מלאכה בתשעה באב עושין, מקום שנהגו שלא לעשות אין עושין. וכל מקום תלמידי חכמים בטלים. רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר- לעולם יעשה כל אדם את עצמו כתלמיד חכם… דרבנן אדרבנן לא קשיא: קריאת שמע, כיון דכולי עלמא קא קרו ואיהו נמי קרי, לא מיחזי כיוהרא. הכא - כיון דכולי עלמא עבדי מלאכה ואיהו לא קא עביד, מיחזי כיוהרא. דרבן שמעון בן גמליאל אדרבן שמעון בן גמליאל לא קשיא: התם - בכונה תליא מילתא, ואנן סהדי דלא מצי לכווני דעתיה, אבל הכא - הרואה אומר מלאכה הוא דאין לו - פוק חזי כמה בטלני איכא בשוקא!


Talmud Bavli Berakhot 17b
Does this mean to say that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel is concerned about yuhara and the Rabbis are not concerned? But didn’t we learn the opposite! As we learned [in a Mishnah]: In a place where the practice is to do labor on 9th Av, it may be done, but in a place where the practice is not [to do labor, labor is forbidden]. And in any place Torah scholars should be idle. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: A person should always make themselves like a Torah Scholar [and refrain from work]... The Rabbis don’t actually contradict themselves: in the case of the recitation of the Shema—since everyone else4 is reciting and he is as well, it does not appear to be yuhara. However [in the case of laboring on 9th Av] since everyone else is doing labor and he does not, it does appear to be yuhara. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel actually does not contradict himself: [In the case of Shema] the matter is dependent on intent and we have evidence that [a groom] can’t focus his mind, but [in the case of laboring on 9th Av] anyone who sees will say that he doesn’t have any work to do— Go and see how many idle people there are in the market!


The Talmudic discussion contrasts two areas of law where one might be seen to display yuhara, saying the Shema as a bridegroom and refraining from labor on the 9th of Av in a place where it is not the custom (and one is not considered to be a Torah scholar, who should always refrain from labor even if they are in a city where work is traditionally done on that day). In both of these cases, the claim of yuhara is neutralized when the behavior is not noticeable. Everyone recites the Shema and there are many unemployed workers! It appears, therefore, that yuhara is not about the overly pious behavior itself, which is not inherently problematic, but it is about not displaying this piety in view of others.

This understanding, that the core prohibition of yuhara stems from how one presents oneself to others rather than how one conducts oneself in private, is supported by another case of possible yuhara found in Massekhet Sukkah. There the Talmud distinguishes between meals, which must be eaten in the Sukkah, and snacks, which may be eaten anywhere including one’s regular home.5 The second chapter of the tractate discusses the minimum amount of food considered significant enough to trigger a requirement to eat in the Sukkah. Yet the fifth Mishnah there records a variation of Rabbinic practices when it comes to where they would actually eat food that does not constitute a meal because it is insubstantial in kind or quantity:

תלמוד בבלי סוכה כו:
מעשה והביאו לו לרבן יוחנן בן זכאי לטעום את התבשיל, ולרבן גמליאל שני כותבות ודלי של מים, ואמרו: "העלום לסוכה!" וכשנתנו לו לר' צדוק, אוכל פחות מכביצה, נטלו במפה, ואכלו חוץ לסוכה, ולא בירך אחריו. מעשה לסתור?! חסורי מחסרא והכי קתני: אם בא להחמיר על עצמו מחמיר.


Talmud Bavli Sukkah 26b
A story: They once brought Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai a taste of the dish and Rabban Gamliel two dates and a cup6 of water, and they said, “Bring them up to the Sukkah!” And when they gave [food, presumably including bread] to R. Tzadok, he ate less than an egg’s worth holding it in a napkin (so he would not have to wash his hands—DW) and he ate it outside of the Sukkah and didn’t make the blessing over it… Is this story meant to contradict?! [The Mishnah] is actually missing a section,7 and this is how it should read: One who wants to be stringent with himself may do so.


The Talmud finds these Rabbinic anecdotes perplexing. First, the very beginning of this Mishnah seems to contradict the principle (set forth earlier) that drinks and small snacks do not need to be eaten in the Sukkah. Second, we don’t have a consistency of practice within this Mishnah itself! The first two Rabbis, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai and Rabban Gamliel, go the extra mile to eat everything, no matter how small, in the Sukkah; whereas the third, R. Tzadok seems eager to demonstrate the opposite, that even something which is “almost” a meal can be confidently treated like a snack, eaten outside of the Sukkah, and concluded without a full birkat hamazon. The Talmud resolves these seeming contradictions by modifying the Mishnah to say that its general guidelines around what to eat in the Sukkah are only minimums. No one is to be criticized for adhering to these standards by eating snacks outside of the Sukkah, but also no one is to be criticized for going above the law, by refusing to eat even the tiniest bite outside of the Sukkah walls!

But why isn’t it yuhara to choose to eat in the Sukkah when it is clearly not required? Isn’t this arrogant and pompous behavior? It appears that it is not considered problematic because yuhara doesn’t apply in the privacy of your own home and the Sukkah is your home for the duration of the holiday. The problem only arises when these pious practices are conducted in full view of everyone and in public spaces.

Understanding the contours of yuhara is the first step to understanding when it is problematic, but we need to go a bit deeper to understand why. Why does keeping it private make the behavior completely unproblematic and possibly even laudatory? It will help us to touch on one more area of Jewish law.

There are a number of Rabbinic policies that govern the use of private and public property.8 One of these enactments permits a person to walk on private property that is adjacent to a public road in order to avoid road—pegs. Any person may trespass onto the edges of privately held land if the public road is not easily passable. The Talmud recounts the story of a person who did not want to avail himself of this right, thereby displaying yuhara:

תלמוד בבלי בבא קמא פא:
רבי ורבי חייא הוו שקלי ואזלי באורחא. אסתלקו לצידי הדרכים. הוה קא מפסיע ואזיל ר' יהודה בן קנוסא קמייהו. א"ל רבי לרבי חייא: מי הוא זה שמראה גדולה בפנינו? א"ל ר' חייא: שמא ר' יהודה בן קנוסא תלמידי הוא וכל מעשיו לשם שמים. כי מטו לגביה חזייה. א"ל: אי לאו יהודה בן קנוסא את גזרתינהו לשקך בגיזרא דפרזלא!


Talmud Bavli Bava Kama 81b
Rabbi [Yehudah haNasi] and R. Hiyya were walking on the road. They veered onto the [private] sidewalks, while Rabbi Yehudah ben Kenosa stepped [straight along the main road] in front of them. Rabbi thereupon said to Rabbi Hiyya: Who is this who demonstrates “greatness” before us? Rabbi Hiyya replied: Perhaps he is Rabbi Yehudah ben Kenosa who is my disciple and does all his deeds for the sake of heaven. When they caught up to him they saw [that it was indeed him] and Rabbi Hiyya said to him: Had you not been Yehudah ben Kenosa,9 I would have sawed off your legs with an iron saw10 [i.e. excommunicated you].”


Rabbi and R. Hiyya see a figure in front of them who is unwilling to avail himself of the leniency to avoid obstructions in the road. R. Hiyya interprets this behavior as a yuhara—type display of greatness meant to insult other people. Rabbi is willing to interpret that this person’s motivations might be pure and not a display of arrogance, but nevertheless he doesn’t want to encourage it. And in fact he all but threatens R. Yehudah ben Kenosa with extreme censure for his behavior.

It seems that Rabbi is not concerned for R. Yehudah’s character; what he is concerned about are the real implications of his behavior. What starts out as an individual’s personal choice can come to shift the standard and determine what should and should not be done. His behavior could make people feel embarrassed or unwilling to take advantage of the rights that are theirs. True, no person is obligated to exercise their rights, but they are obligated to make sure that other people feel comfortable availing themselves of what is due to them. The problem is not strictly about portraying oneself as different or special, which would apply in private settings as well. The concern is about implying to other people that this unnecessary stringency is something they could or should be observing!

A second element of the dangers of yuhara can be deduced elsewhere, from R. Akiva’s approach to prayer:

תלמוד בבלי ברכות לא.
כך היה מנהגו של רבי עקיבא כשהיה מתפלל עם הצבור היה מקצר ועולה מפני טורח צבור. וכשהיה מתפלל בינו לבין עצמו אדם מניחו בזוית זו ומוצאו בזוית אחרת וכל כך למה? מפני כריעות והשתחויות.


Talmud Bavli Berakhot 31a
This was the practice of R. Akiva: When he would pray with the congregation, he would curtail [his prayers] and rise11 so as not to inconvenience the community. But when he would pray alone, a person could leave him in one corner and find him in a different corner. Why [was he moving] to this extent? Because of all of the bending and bowing.


Here, R. Akiva is less concerned about his behavior and more concerned about his attitude. Nothing he is doing is actually changing the prayers, but he is concerned about his enthusiasm might have a shaming effect on others who are, perhaps, less enthusiastic. It is certainly not the most pious of attitudes to find prayer an inconvenience and to complain if it takes too long. It is, however, a very ordinary feeling. Most people, even those who love to pray, can start to feel some urgency to leave when forced to spend more time in prayer than planned. Yet, R. Akiva did not try to influence the other people whom he was praying with to feel differently or to value prayer more. He did not try to compel them to pray for a longer time or with more enthusiasm. Not only was he not trying to make the ordinary people conform to him, he curtailed his own religious proclivities in order to blend in with them.

R. Akiva’s positive example highlights the other danger of yuhara. An overly and overtly zealous approach can subtly or not so subtly suggest to others that they ought to be more pious. It could make others feel bad. Our parashah touches upon this concern when it outlines the mitzvah of rebuke:

ויקרא יט:יז
לֹא תִשְׂנָא אֶת אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבֶךָ הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא:


VaYikra 19:17
Do not hate your brother in your heart, rather rebuke your fellow and you will not bear sin on his account.


The plain sense of this verse is that if we don’t let others know what they have done wrong, they will continue to sin and we will bear their sin on our account. However the Talmud in Arakhin understands the clause of you will not bear sin on his account, very differently:

תלמוד בבלי ערכין טז:
יכול אפילו משתנים פניו? תלמוד לומר: לא תשא עליו חטא.


Talmud Bavli Arakhin 16b
Is it possible [that he must continue to rebuke] even if [the person he is rebuking] shows distress on his face?12 The verse says, you will not bear sin on his account.


In this Rabbinic reading of the verse, the concern over bearing sin is not that I would be responsible for the sin of another if I don’t rebuke him, but rather that I would be responsible for my own sin that came about through rebuking another in a way that was cruel, embarrassing, or hurtful. Even when there is a requirement to explicitly chastise someone, one has to be careful not to make them feel bad. This concretizes our understanding that one may not chastise someone indirectly by implying that there is something wrong with their practice even if there isn’t. Yuhara does exactly this, implying that there is something insufficient about the practices of others, by showing yourself off as “better than” them. Or holier.

We often think that the choices that we make about our own behavior are primarily about us and what we think we should do. However, as soon as what we are doing becomes public, other people see our actions as a referendum on what they should do. We need to be sensitive to the possible negative impacts, even unintended, of our righteous behavior. Even if our intentions are pure and we are not being self—righteous, someone could interpret our behavior as an insult to them, making them feel uncomfortable and like they don’t measure up.

To be holy is to be separate not because separation makes one holy. Holiness requires separation since we may only act in an overly pious or strict way in the privacy of our own home and mind. Holiness is dangerous. It might lead us to subtly condemn others and unintentionally make them feel inadequate, therefore it needs to be restricted to areas of the world and heart where we are alone with God and are free to be holy like Him.

1 Mishnah Berakhot 2:5.

2 Lit. “take.”

3 In fact, Rabban Shimon’s father, Rabban Gamliel, did recite the Shema when he was getting married and did not avail himself of this leniency. See the continuation of Mishnah Berakhot 2:5.

4 Lit. “the whole world.”

5 Mishnah Sukkah 2:4.

6 Lit. “bucket.”

7 This is a strategy employed with some frequency in the Gemara. The Gemara is not literally suggesting that the Mishnah text is corrupt and missing a section. Rather, they suggest an interpretation which, would it be interpolated into the Mishnah, would make it easier to understand.

8 They are characterized as being instituted by Yehoshua upon his entry into the land of Israel, as conditions for inheritance, meaning that they are fundamental rules that allow society to function well often at the cost of an individual’s property rights. See Bava Kama 81b.

9 This expression is used to censure Honi and Todos. See Berakhot 19a.

10 There are some who understand the prohibition of yuhara as being primarily about ordinary people doing what only talmidei hakhamim may do. This story is often brought in support of this opinion. However it is clear from the story that R. Yehudah’s identity is only sufficient to spare him excommunication, it does not make his behavior commendable!

11 The verb “rise” here indicates that this may be referring to a case where R. Akiva is not just with the congregation, but in fact, leading the congregation in prayer. Prayer leaders at the time and place of the Talmud Bavli would most likely descend into a slight hole or depression in the floor and then ascend at the conclusion of the prayer. However, this might also be a case where R. Akiva is simply present and his lengthy prayers might prevent the prayer leader from feeling free to conclude the service, lest he disrespect or interrupt R. Akiva.

12 Lit. “face changes.”