Holy By Contact1
Every male of the Bnei Aharon shall eat it. It is an eternal portion for your generations from the fire-offerings of Hashem. Whatever touches them shall become holy.
Were it only so simple! Touch material to something holy, and the holiness instantly infuses the ordinary with specialness, elevating it to a level of sanctity!
It doesn’t really happen that way. Our verse must mean something different.
On the simplest level, we take it indicate a vulnerability of material used as an adjunct to kodesh, rather than describing a short-cut to holiness. The pasuk teaches us about food that is eaten together with kodesh, like a korban. Eating something tameh together with kodesh would be unthinkable. Intuitively, we realize that foods taken together with a piece of a korban, for example, must themselves be prepared on the same level of taharah as the korban itself. All the precautions that go into protecting the taharah of the korban must be taken when preparing the non-kodesh foods that are meant to be consumed with the korban. (We call this chulin / ordinary, non-kodesh foods prepared on taharah-plane of kodesh.)
This is the simple meaning of the pasuk. The derashah of Chazal finds yet another meaning. When non-kodesh matter is brought into contact with kodesh to the extent that the former absorbs some of the latter, the non-kodesh must now be governed by the same halachos as the latter. If substance of a valid korban is absorbed, the non-kodesh material becomes subject to the same limitations as the korban. In other words, if the korban can only be eaten for a limited amount of time in a certain place, the non-kodesh that has absorbed the ta’am of kodesh is now subject to the same limitations and restrictions.
The common denominator of both of these approaches is that the mundane can take on some of the trappings of holiness without becoming elevated itself.
Chaggai the prophet is instructed by Divine command to pose a question to the kohanim of his generation, whose conduct left much to be desired: “If a person carries meat that is tameh in the corner of his garment, and then he touches bread with that corner, and the bread touches the stew, and [the stew touches] the wine or oil or any other food – does that food become sanctified? The kohanim answered and said, â??no.'”
Chaggai continues, “If one who touched a dead person would touch all of these, would they become tameh?” The kohanim answered, “They would become tameh.”
Chaggai was not just administrating a pop quiz on the laws of offerings. As nevi’im do so often, he used allegorical language to make a point about proper and improper behavior.
A person who partakes of a korban prepares food to be eaten with it. Along with the korban, therefore, he readies “bread…stew…wine.” These constitute the bulk of the meal. Although these are less important, he sometimes adds “oil or…other food.” (Note that the definite article is used only together with bread, stew and wine. The definite article underscores that those items are known and obvious, because they are the expected main items of the menu.) Regardless of the frequency with which they are included, they have to be prepared specially in order to be eaten with the meat of a korban. They have to be prepared on the same level of taharah as the korban itself.
Chaggai asks them if this preparation, together with actual contact with kodesh, gives them the status of kodesh. They respond, of course, that they don’t.
He then turns the tables, and asks them to substitute tumah for kedushah. Will contact with tumah change the status of the foods brought along with the korban? The Kohanim are forced to concede that it will make them temai’im, and forbid their consumption.
Apparently, kedushah and tumah do not behave entirely symmetrically. Tumah is contagious; kedushah, not necessarily so. Ordinary, non-kodesh food that is prepared for consumption with food of genuine kedushah demonstrates this inequality. This non-kodesh food is elevated – but only somewhat. It becomes restricted, in the sense that it must stay tahor. Should it become tameh, eating it becomes forbidden. This change in status is not sufficient to make it genuinely holy, however. Unlike real kodesh, there is no mitzvah to eat chulin prepared in a state of taharah.
Chaggai continues, and drives home his point. “So is this people and so is this nation before Me…and so is all their handiwork. What they offer there is tameh.”
People and nation are two different groups. They refer to the kohanim and the rest of the nation. Chaggai finds both of them sorely wanting. He refers to “all their handiwork,” meaning all their dealings in the arena of kedushah. The kohanim and the rest of the Nation saw themselves as spiritually significant. They thought themselves to be committed to holiness and growth.
Chaggai tells them otherwise. Drawing near to the mizbeach does not give them essential kedushah. Their offering of korbanos don’t mean so much. Because they act improperly, the kedushah inherent in those korbanos does not negate the chilul Hashem that they create. People see them – especially the kohanim – as holy people. But they aren’t, really. Like the non-kodesh eaten with the korban, they are only part of the support mechanism. Their contact with holiness does not make them holy. Because people look up to them, their chilul Hashem is only magnified.
Playing the holy role is not necessarily a step in the right direction. Sometimes, it makes matters worse.
1. Based on Ha’amek Davar and Harchev Davar, Vayikra 6:11
2. Chaggai 2:12-14