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Posted on March 31, 2022 (5782) By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

Rambam’s few, measured words regarding lashon ha-kodesh seem lame to many people. He writes[2] that what makes Hebrew language holy is the absence of specific names for the genital organs. To me, these words are incredibly revelatory. I see them as instructive as Shaar Ha-Kedushah of R. Chaim Vital, and I study them with the same devotion and enthusiasm.

Tazria and Metzora teach us about different signs of tumah. Human nega’im, for example, come in four varieties, each looking different than the others. Furthermore, these nega’im themselves are signs of a more basic condition. Chazal[3] tell us that nega’im are signs of lashon hora and haughtiness. Each aveirah or shortcoming is linked to a different nega. The signs of tumah are not just casually related to the underlying tumah, but organically linked to it. If there is a common thread to these two parshios, this is it: Tumah produces break-through marks. That is its nature. It is just the way it behaves. The point is that these signs are not merely indicators of tumah; they are expressions of it!

The words of Rambam take this a step further. They teach us that kedushah as well has its signs. The precious commodity of kedushah also expresses itself. It bursts through with visible manifestations of itself. That is what Rambam means about the Hebrew language. Its innate kedushah manifests itself through its circuitous, non-explicit reference to the organs of reproduction. It is not the absence of the words that make Hebrew holy, but its holiness that is responsible for the absence of more explicit words!

Tumah can manifest itself in unlikely places. Chazal[4] underscore the difference between Moshe’s prophecy and that of Bil’am. Moshe’s is introduced by the word vayikra, a call through endearment; Bil’am’s call is with the word vayakar, related to keri and its tumah. Amazingly, although the communication is legitimate nevuah – a very elevated spiritual state – nonetheless there is tumah involved in the conversation – and it manifests itself in the vocabulary used to describe it.

Tumah leaves tracks. When Torah Jews go to great lengths to distance themselves from cultural appropriation from outside sources, they are not necessarily engaging in some jingoistic behavior. Rather, they are cognizant that there is plenty of tumah out there. They realize that this tumah finds places to express itself. In places far from Torah values, it finds a way to display itself – not because those people are evil, but because if nothing thwarts the tumah, it will leave its mark on language, clothing, and otherwise innocuous activities. Distancing ourselves from this cultural appropriation is a valid way to protect ourselves from its effects.

  1. Based on Daas Torah by R. Yeruchem Levovitz zt”l, Vayikra pgs. 79-81
  2. Moreh Ha-Nevuchim 3:8
  3. Cited by Rashi 14:4
  4. Cited by Rashi 1:1