Seeing the Holiness Within
Chapter 3, Law 14(a)
"Each one of these twenty four types of people we listed, even though they
are Jewish, have no share in the World to Come.
"There are [also] sins less serious than these yet even so the Sages stated
that one who accustoms himself to doing them has no share in the World to
Come. [Therefore,] it is appropriate to distance oneself from them and to be
careful regarding them. They are: (a) one who gives his fellow a
[derogatory] nickname; (b) one who calls his fellow by a [derogatory]
nickname; (c) one who shames his fellow publicly; (d) one who honors himself
by denigrating his fellow (lit., 'through his fellows shame'); (e) one who
belittles Torah scholars; (f) one who belittles his Torah teachers; (g) one
who denigrates the holidays; (h) one who desecrates sacred items."
For the past several classes, the Rambam has been enumerating types of sins
so evil that those who engage in them receive no share in the World to Come.
This week the Rambam provides a second list -- of sins not as severe on
their own, yet dooming those who engage in them on a more regular basis.
We will first clarify the simple meaning of some of the categories listed,
and we'll then discuss the underlying theme. Note that several of the
categories listed here also appear in Pirkei Avos 3:15 parts a and
Feel free to view our discussion there.
The first two categories relate to assigning one's fellow a nickname or
referring to him with it. The intent isn't for "bugsy," "scooter," "smiley,"
or the sort of cutesy pet names which come to our minds. Rather, in Talmudic
times, nicknames served as a sort of last name. In the days when people were
known via their given names alone, one "Samuel" was distinguished from
another via his father's name, his place of origin, his occupation, and
sometimes his size. These served as a type of informal surname -- and
colored people's overall impression of the person.
Thus, the types of nicknames the Sages had in mind were appellations which
described a person or family in a far less complimentary fashion -- "Samuel
horse thief," "cattle rustler", "loan shark", etc. -- typically a descriptor
alluding to the family's dark past (or present). Accordingly, the Sages did
not view such "nicknames" as harmless ribbing, but as a potentially ruinous
means of branding an entire family.
And of course, once such a "nickname" sticks, who would go into business or
marry into a family like that? And so, nicknames, as innocuous as they
appear to us, were viewed by the Rabbis as a subtle but very real way of
ruining the lives of individuals as well as entire families.
Most of the Rambam's other categories are self-explanatory. Two more require
a little elucidation. The second to last is "one who denigrates the
holidays." The commentators to Pirkei Avos, which also lists this category,
all explain that the intent is not for the holidays themselves but for their
intermediate days, known as "chol ha'mo'ed" (lit., "the mundane of the
holiday"). Their precises status is discussed below.
The holidays of Passover and Sukkos (Tabernacles) consist of seven and eight
days respectively (with an additional day observed in the Diaspora). The
first and last day (or the first and last two days in the Diaspora) are
sacred and are similar to the Sabbath in observance. The intermediate days
have a semi-sacred status. We refrain from many types of work on them but
there are many exceptions to this, the exceptions arguably outweighing the rule.
On account of this, although people would generally take the beginning and
end days of the holidays quite seriously, chol ha'mo'ed would often fall
through the cracks. After taking off days of work for the start of the
holiday (and often the preparation beforehand), fathers (and often mothers)
would rush back to work for the intermediate days. It would be business as
usual. The considerable sanctity of the intermediate days would be all but
(Although leniencies at times exist for performing various types of labor on
chol ha'mo'ed, working for pay is generally not permissible. Exceptions may
be found if an employee does not have enough vacation time to take off or if
the work itself is time-critical (technical support, accounting work during
tax season (when Passover generally falls), etc.). However, such questions
must be posed to a competent rabbinical authority. Simply treating the day
as ordinary -- not even *considering* taking off -- the Sages cannot
The final case the Rambam cites is "one who desecrates sacred items," also
listed in Pirkei Avos. The commentators there understand this to be
referring to one who treats sacrifices or other Temple artifacts as profane.
No doubt included in this is one who disrespects all sacred items and
places, such as one who mistreats religious books or who clowns around in
There is a very basic unifying thread running through all of the cases
cited. In every one of them, something which is sacred is treated as
commonplace -- be it another human being, the Temple, Torah scholars, or the
holidays. Thus, the theme of the Rambam this week is a very simple one: If
you do not view items sacred to G-d as holy, then clearly you do not take
spirituality very seriously. How could a person treat a holiday or a
sacrifice lightly? Clearly he sees no holiness in it. And if so, he does not
truly regard the G-d who imbued sanctity into it.
Thus, one who disrespects G-d's holy items does not truly revere G-d and all
He stands for. He may perform good deeds, but they are hollow. For if
nothing is sacred, why would such a person earn heavenly reward? His acts
are not divine means of cleaving to G-d. They are empty actions, devoid of
any true sanctity. And so, they earn him no eternality. If G-d is not
important to such a person, his good deeds, no matter how numerous, are
Based on this, we can also appreciate why the Rambam states that one loses
his share in the World to Come only if he engages in such sins on a regular
basis. The commentators point out that all of the Rambam's categories are
based on passages in the Talmud, none of which say anything about
transgressing these sins regularly. But the reason is as follows. If, say,
I disrespect a Torah scholar or embarrass my fellow one time, it is most
certainly a terrible sin. Yet losing one's share in the World to Come is a
very serious affair. That does not occur for idolatry, neither does it occur
for an occasional religious lapse, even very serious.
One, however, who regularly acts such a way is different. It is not so much
the sin itself; it is the attitude it reflects. You do not regard a Torah
scholar, or a human being fashioned in the image of G-d. Sinning in such a
way once in a while is terrible but does not necessarily reflect so flawed
an attitude. Doing it regularly means that the G-d who invested sanctity
into such things is not important either. And someone who cares not for G-d
will receive no share in the hereafter. He may well have done many good
deeds in his day, but ultimately his actions were empty. If he did not
venerate the G-d who commanded them, his deeds are devoid of true holiness
and earn him no eternal closeness to the G-d who commanded them.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org