Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Four times in Tanach we have a verse contrasting קדש and חל. One is at Leviticus 10:10. Here there is an instruction to Aaron about understanding the difference between קדש and חל, and טמא and טהור. (The three other קדש with חל verses are in the book of Ezekiel.)

What is the precise meaning of חל in these verses? And how do we understand the various meanings of its probable root חלל?

Note that the root קדש has been much discussed. For example, there is a recent book by Rabbi Alec Goldstein about it: “A Theology of Holiness” (2018). (He is also a book publisher. Not surprisingly, his publishing company is called Kodesh Press.)

All agree that the verb חלל has a few different meanings.

One meaning is “bore, pierce.” For example, Ezekiel 32:26 refers to “mechuleli cherev”= people pierced by the sword. The similar phrase, “chalal cherev” appears many times in Tanach. Indeed all those meanings of חלל as dead body in Tanach likely come from the “pierce” meaning. The reason for that is that death by sword was a common method of killing in ancient times.

That musical instrument with openings, חליל (six times in Tanach), also comes from this root. The word חלון =window (=opening in the wall) also derives from this root, appearing many times in Tanach.

What about the word for “begin”? We have ויחל and החל many times in Tanach with a meaning “begin.” See, e.g., Gen. 6:1 and 9:20. Scholars believe the root of this “begin” meaning is חלל. (Also, the related word תחילה appears many times in Tanach.)

Finally, we have חלל with a “pollute, defile, desecrate” meaning. For example, the Tanach refers to חלל in the context of desecrating the Shabbat, desecrating God’s name and desecrating the Temple. But sometimes the connotation of חלל and its derivatives is more neutral, like “ordinary, non-holy.” For example: “lechem chol” (=common bread) at 1 Sam. 21:5. See also Ez. 48:15.

The Brown Driver Briggs lexicon views the “bore, pierce” meaning as one meaning of חלל, and the “pollute, defile, desecrate” meaning as a completely different meaning. E. Klein, in his etymological dictionary, takes the same approach. So to does Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Also, all of these sources think that the “begin” meaning is somehow derived from the “pollute, defile, desecrate” meaning.

But there is a way to unify and explain all these חלל meanings. Hayim Tawil suggested it in an article included in his collected essays: Lexical Studies in the Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Inscriptions (2012, eds. Berkovitz, Halpern, and Goldstein). Also, the etymology columnist Philologos suggested it in his column of Mar. 31 2021. I will now present their suggestion.

What is holy is complete. As Philologos wrote (with perhaps slight exaggeration), “it has an overflowing plentitude; it is surrounded by a field of divine energy that can be dangerous to approach or to contact with.” What the verb חלל does is puncture the completeness. This results in the object being חל (=punctured). (Even in English, the widespread view derives “holy” from “whole.”)

As to the “begin” meaning, this too is an expansion. It is an expansion from the original “pierce, bore” meaning. Every beginning is an opening. It is as if one is making a dent and piercing a hole. (This connection between “begin” and “pierce, bore” was suggested long ago by S. Mandelkern in his concordance.)

This approach that unites all the חלל meanings deserves serious consideration.

It also perhaps has ramifications for how we understand the word חל in its contrast with קדש. If there is a separate root חלל that means “pollute, defile, desecrate,” then we can presume that is the meaning of חל when it is contrasted with קדש. But now we see that perhaps the fundamental meaning of חלל is only “pierce, bore, puncture.” Then חל, in its contrast with קדש, perhaps only means “pierced, punctured, lacking in completeness/holiness.” This is not as negative a meaning.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin used to often say that in this world we have the “holy” (קדש) and the “not yet holy” (חל). I used to think that this was wrong because I thought חל fundamentally meant “polluted, defiled, desecrated.” But now perhaps his creative interpretation cannot be ruled out, as we have a new understanding of חל.

(R. Riskin can also argue that it is significant that at Leviticus 10:10 the word order is קדש, חל, טמא and טהור. Thus חל is not presented as precisely parallel to טמא. In the Chumash of Rabbi Dr. Hertz and in The Living Torah, the translation here for חל is simply “common.”)


A few more eye-opening thoughts:

—What about that exclamation חלילה, which appears many times in Tanach? I have seen it understood as “far be it from,” the implication being: “far be it from that reprehensible thought.”

—Our common holiday phrase “chol ha-moed” is not found in Tanach.

—The word “chilonim” for secular Israelis comes from our root.

—Our English word “profane” derives from the Latin “profanus,” which derives from “pro fanum,” meaning “before/outside the temple,” i.e., outside sacred grounds. But just like our Hebrew root חלל, this English word has two connotations: defiled and common.

—In the Muslim religion, “halal” food is food that is permitted. This is because the meaning of their word (a cognate to ours) is “not holy,” i.e., not forbidden.

—Tawil also points out that נקב is another word that originated with an “opening” meaning and then expanded to a “defile” meaning. (For the latter meaning, see Lev. 24:11 and 24:16.) Just like our root, he suspects the expansion came via a “puncture the completeness” meaning.

—Finally, if you think this column is too obscure, I hope you realize that the word for the holy חלה you just ate probably comes from this root. It derives from the חלל-perforate meaning. The widespread suggestion is that it meant “perforated bread/cake.” (If I understood ancient baking, I would better understand why!) Also, we recite the word חלולים (openings) in the “asher yatzar” blessing.


I would like to thank Rabbi Alec Goldstein and Michael Rapoport for providing me with the Tawil and Philologos articles.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] Philologos cleverly titled his column: “The Holy and the Holey”!