Parashat Tzav - Leviticus 6:1[8]-8:36

Is Holiness Contagious?

Many people work their way through the book of Leviticus like a new sailor staggering across the deck of his ship hoping his sea legs will kick in. Navigating through the complex laws of sacrificial procedures and ritual purifications can be a challenging endeavor. It is a venture into uncharted and difficult waters. But if we desire to truly understand the rest of the Scriptures, taking time to map out these difficult concepts is essential. For instance, take this example from the book of Haggai:

Thus says the LORD of hosts: Ask the priests about the law: “If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?” The priests answered and said, “No.” Then Haggai said, “If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered and said, “It does become unclean.” Then Haggai answered and said, “So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the LORD, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean.” (Haggai 2:11–14)

This argument is completely lost on one who has not studied the laws of ritual purity. In this particular case, Haggai is asking a question about the ability of objects to transfer both ritual purity and impurity. He uses this argument of the laws of purity to say that the Israelites are unable to offer a sacrifice that is considered pure, because they, themselves, have been defiled through their unethical and immoral behavior.

Paul, however, uses the laws of ritual purity to make a spiritual point to the congregation at Corinth. He tells them that if they are married to an unbelieving spouse, their spiritual state of holiness is somehow transferred to the spouse:

For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (1 Corinthians 7:14)

Where does Paul get this concept? From our current Torah portion. Parashat Tzav has two passages that deal with the concept of the transfer of holiness. The first deals with the grain offering: “Whatever touches them shall become holy” (Leviticus 6:18). The second deals with the sin offering: “Whatever touches its flesh shall be holy” (Leviticus 6:27).

There are also two passages in Exodus that have similar language. The first is in regard to the bronze altar: “Whatever touches the altar shall become holy” (Exodus 29:37). The second is in regard to things anointed with the sacred anointing oil: “Whatever touches them will become holy” (Exodus 30:29). 

In each of these passages, however, the Hebrew for “whatever” can also be rendered as “whoever.” Therefore, an alternate reading of these passages could say that whoever touches them will become holy. According to this interpretation, holiness can be transferred from an object to a person. Although this isn’t the definitive interpretation of these passages according to Jewish law, various translators and commentators have proposed this reading, one of which is the medieval Spanish scholar, Abraham ibn Ezra.

Paul does something similar. In rabbinic fashion, Paul extends this definition to include person-to-person transmission of holiness. Not only can holiness be transmitted from an object to a person, but it can also be transmitted from person to person. Just as ritual impurity has the ability to pass from one person to another, in some way holiness has a means by which it can be transferred also. Evidently, Paul believed that holiness has the ability to become contagious.

But is holiness as contagious as impurity? Not at all. Impurity can go from one person or object to another merely through close proximity, as corpse contamination can affect anyone under the same roof as the corpse (see Numbers 19:14). From a spiritual standpoint it seems holiness is more difficult to contract. It takes constant exposure over an extended period of time. This may be while Paul limits its reach to spouses and children.

Paul believed that the power of the Holy Spirit living within Yeshua’s disciples has transforming power, especially within the sacred fellowship of marriage. Just as a little leaven leavens the lump, a large dose of holiness in one person has the ability to permeate an entire family. Is that holiness in you contagious? Are you infecting those around you? Or are you still waiting to be infected?