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What is 'Herem" (Proscribed)?

During our Shabbat morning Torah discussions we have often struggled over the meaning of certain words. Four, in particular, that have attracted our attention are "tamei" (ritually unclean), "tahor" (ritually clean), "kadosh"(holy) and "herem" (proscribed). A verse from this week's Torah portion provides an enigmatic clue to the true meaning of these key concepts.

The second half of Leviticus 27:28 states that "...every proscribed thing is totally consecrated (alternatively, is considered to be super holy) to the Lord". Since something that is "tamei" (ritually unclean) must be set aside, that is put into a kind of temporary "herem", for varying lengths of time and must not come into contact with things or people who are deemed "tahor" (ritually clean) or "kadosh" (holy) it is hard to understand why the Torah describes something proscribed as also super holy ("kodesh-kodeshim"). Moreover, both "herem" and "kodosh" have essentially the same meaning: something set aside for specific purposes associated with the temple, property (so to speak) of God. How is it that something which is "herem"- proscribed can also be "kodesh-kodeshim - holiest of holies?

Rabbi David Kraemer offers a brilliant insight into understanding this problem. Both "herem" and "kadosh" mean set aside for God. The difference, Kraemer argues, is that things which are proscribed are completely cut off from human access while things which are 'kodesh' have limited access. In other words, "herem" is like "kodosh" only more so, hence the reason why Leviticus 27:28 conflates "herem" with "kodosh-kodeshim".

Why then do we conceptualize "herem" as a kind of super state of "tamei" (ritual uncleanliness), and both in a negative sense? The solution to understanding this in part explains why this verse is set within the context of a larger discussion about property rights. When something is either "tamei" or in "herem" it is in effect unavailable to us. According to Mishnah (Nedarim 4.3) the difference between a 'tahor' [ritually clean] animal and one that is "tamei", according to Rabbi Eliezer, is that the the soul of the "tahor" animal belongs to heaven, i.e., God and the body belongs to its owner, (either the living animal or its actual owner). A "tamei" animal, on the other hand, belongs body and soul to God. In other words, something which is seen as wholly in the possession of God is then off limits to humanity.

This can be dramatically seen at the two crucial portals of life: birth and death. During the post partum period after delivering, a mom exists in a state of "tamei". Furthermore, a dead body represents both soul and body now back in the possession of heaven. The Torah seems to be suggesting that the condition of "tamei" indicates an experience of exceptional closeness with the divine, i.e., experiences of life and death. These exceed even that of encountering the holy.

While this might all seem rather academic it indeed has a very practical application. We live in a period where material acquisition is considered a, if not the, major indicator of one's success and worth. Possession, ownership, acquisition seem to be the rituals of holiness today. Wars are fought over materials and land rights. Yet, tucked quietly within this week's elaborate discussion of land rights, etc. is this subtle reminder that we are only partners with God, albeit limited ones. As partners we have an obligation to uphold the privilege of life on this earth. We are not, however, entitled to the "possessions" (I prefer to see them as gifts) of life.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah