parsha of the week

Defining Holiest of Holies and THE Holy of Holies


The term Kodesh Kodashim appears in the Torah 18 times, twice in Parshat Ki Tisa. However, not once does it refer to the Holy of Holies, the section of the mishkan which houses the aron.

The Holy of Holies, as it were, is called Kodash HaKodashim, with the letter “heh” defining the definite article as being “THE” Holy of Holies, the room designated as the holiest place in the world.

In addition to the 18 Torah references, Kodesh Kodashim appears five more times in the Bible. The phrase referring to the back room of the mishkan appears nine times, thrice in the Torah and four times in DIvrei HaYamim (Chronicles).

Referencing Rabbi Akiva as the source, the ,idrash describes the book of Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) as being Kodesh Kodashim, the holiest of the books of the Bible (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1, Medrash Tanchuma Tetzaveh 5, etc.)

The difference between the Holy of Holies (Kodesh HaKodashim) and the holiest of things (Kodesh Kodashim) is literally one letter, “heh” in the Hebrew. How could the same term be applied twice, meaning different things, with only one letter distinguishing between them?

The truth is, this concept is not foreign to us. There are bosses, and there is The Boss. There are avot (ancestors), and there are The Avot (the Forefathers). There are gods, and there is The One and Only G-d. The list goes on.

Is there a common theme to all of the things described as Kodesh Kodashim (the holiest of things) in the Torah?

The simple answer is yes, as almost everything described as being the holiest of things are part of the mishkan. Sometimes it refers to the large mizbeyach (altar) where animal sacrifices were burned (Shmot 29:37; 40:10). Sometimes it refers to the inner mizbeyach, where spices were burned (30:10,36). 

• • •

At times the “holiest of things” refers to all the vessels of the mishkan (one reading of Shmot 30:29), the lechem hapanim (showbread) that was placed on the shulchan (table) in the mishkan (Vayikra 24:9), or the fire representing the sacrificial order associated with the Mizbeyach (Bamidbar 18:9).

In the book of Vayikra the holiest of things is the term used to describe Mincha offerings, a sin offering, the asham offering (mostly in chapters 6, 7 and 10).

The only other reference in the Torah is to the concept of a Cherem, items that are essentially consecrated to the mishkan or to G-d (Vayikra 27:28) when they are excluded from profane use. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch describes this designation as a person taking property given to him by G-d and returning it to its original owner.

G-d in turn, as the Talmud (Arachin 29a) points out, has designated this Cherem to the Priests, who may personally use it as unconsecrated items — unless the designator specifically claimed the items for Temple use.

Something that is Kodesh Kodashim specifically, however, is “a sacred thing from which other sacred things derive their sanctity.” According to Hirsch, everything that is described as Kodesh Kodashim “relates directly to man’s actions, to the Torah and to man’s relation to it.” It is the consecration of actions that is the main foundation and basis of the Sanctuary, as it is the source of the consecration of all of man’s other relations.

The mizbeyach plays such a significant role in the consecration of active man. This is why both mizbeychot stand in the center — of the mishkan itself and the outdoors, respectively — directly opposite the aron. It constitutes the true center of the area in front of and around the sanctuary.

In his commentary on Shmot 29:37, Hirsch argues that, “In Judaism, the concept of holiness is inseparably connected with sanctifying. Nothing becomes holy so that holiness should be concentrated in it, while all else is left to the realm of the unsanctified. Everything becomes holy in order to sanctify.”

In a sense there is an ideal holiness which is unattainable: The Holy of Holies, the Kodesh HaKodashim. But there is also a holiness that is attainable, which is inspired by the ideal, and that is Kodesh Kodashim, a holiness that is largely dependent on actions. Whether it is an action that brings one close to G-d through the mizbeyach, or one that assigns exclusion from profane use to define its sanctification, it is the person who creates this admirable level of holiness that draws inspiration from the Holy of Holies itself.

Our task is to take action: to assign holiness to our endeavors. To make our davening a holy experience. Our learning a holy experience. Our performance of every mitzvah, each into its own unique experience. It will be what elevates our Shabbos to a day of kedusha, on top of a day in which we exclude the profane.

Perhaps we can now understand why Shir HaShirim is referred to by Rabbi Akiva as Kodesh Kodashim. Shir HaShirim is a love song, some claim an allegory to the love between G-d and the Jewish people. And love can be quite mundane and physical. But love also has the potential to be holy, to sanctify, and to elevate, and to consecrate man to his beloved, or more poignantly, to his G-d.

May we be blessed to achieve that level of love that is Kodesh Kodashim so we may yet merit to once again admire the ultimate holiness that comes from the Holy of Holies, the Kodesh HaKodashim, with the building of the everlasting Temple in Jerusalem.