I. Holy Money
What could be more mundane than money? It is merely a convenient method of accomplishing everyday tasks. Yet the Torah calls it holy, implying one of two dueling concepts of sanctity.
The method with which Moshe conducted the desert census was having each person contribute half a shekel and then counting the resulting donations. The currency used is specifically called shekel ha-kodesh, a sacred coin (Ex. 30:13). What is sacred about this money?
Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:8) explains that Hebrew is called lashon ha-kodesh, a sacred language, because it contains no specific words for uniquely male and female body parts nor for the acts that lead to conception of a child. Nor does it have precise terms for emissions and excretions. Rather, other terms are used euphemistically when the Hebrew user needs to refer to such concepts. The language itself lacks such crude terms and that–its purity–is why it is called the holy language. Similarly, presumably, the shekel coin was called holy because it was refined from all impurities. Lacking any flaw, the coin is pure and can be accurately called kodesh.
Ramban strongly disagrees. Lack of impurity does not cause sanctity. He instead explains that these shekalim were considered sacred because they were used for holy purposes. The funds gathered by this census were donated towards the construction of the Mishkan, where God’s presence manifested itself and where sacrifices were brought. Any currency that is utilized in the performance of a mitzvah is money that is serving a holy usage and, therefore, can be justly called shekel ha-kodesh.
Similarly, Ramban continues, Hebrew is called lashon ha-kodesh–the holy language–because it was and continues to be used for holy purposes. It was in Hebrew that God said “Let there be light etc.” (Gen. 1:3) and created the world. The Torah itself was given to us in Hebrew, as well as all of the prophecies and other biblical books. Because Hebrew has been used for holy purposes it is considered to be a sacred language.
II. Two Understandings of Holiness
I once heard R. Shimon Romm explain this dispute between Rambam and Ramban as a fundamental disagreement over the nature of kedushah, holiness. According to Ramban, holiness is attained when something is used for a holy purpose. When currency is used for a mitzvah it becomes sacred and when a language is used to create the world and convey the Torah it acquires sanctity. Kedushah is defined by supplementary attainments and not by inherent status. Something must become holy by going beyond its natural state and being taken to a holy level.
According to Rambam, however, holiness is not due to a positive usage but to a lack of diminution of its purity. A language is inherently sacred and only loses that status when it contains less-than-holy words. Hebrew, Rambam claims, is the only language that has not lost its holiness but, theoretically, any language that retains its purity could be sacred. Similarly, coins are holy by maintaining their integrity. This purity of content, rather than its sanctity of use, is what earned for these coins the title of holy because they have not been defiled of their inherent sanctity.
III. Be Holy
R. Romm continued that this same disagreeement can be found in the famous dispute over our obligation to become holy. The Torah (Lev. 19:2) commands us to be holy (“kedoshim tihyu”) but remains unclear regarding exactly what that obligation entails. Rashi (ad loc.) explains the command to mean, “Separate yourselves from forbidden relationships and from transgression” while Ramban (ad loc.) explains the mandate to be an obligation to distance ourselves even from that which is permissible but excessive. According to Rashi we fulfill this obligation by adhering to the strict prohibitions of the Torah while according to the Ramban we must go beyond the laws and create our own stringencies.
In other words, Rashi understands that we are inherently holy and we can fulfill the mandate of kedoshim tihyu by refraining from defiling our natural sanctity through sin. As long as we do not violate a prohibition–no small task–we are, according to Rashi, holy. This, R. Romm explained, is similar to Rambam’s position we saw above that Hebrew is inherently holy because it has not been defiled by impure words. Indeed, I add, we see in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah that Sefer Kedushah (the book of holiness) contains the laws regarding prohibited relations and foods while Sefer Mada (the book of knowledge) contains the concepts of going beyond the requirements of the law. Kedushah is attained by conforming to the prohibitions of the Torah and not by striving above that to abstinence.
Ramban, however, is consistent with his earlier position and contends that holiness must be attained through additional behavior. Merely conforming to the Torah’s prohibitions does not raise someone to the status of holiness. Rather, he must go beyond that natural state and “sanctify himself in what is permissible to him” (Yevamos 20a).
(Adapted from my essay here-PDF).