What’s the difference between something that’s ‘holy’ and something that’s ‘forbidden’?

It’s crucial to understand that the enjoyments that we get from the side of tumah and spiritual impurity also contain Divine light, and that Ein od Milvado! There is nothing else except Hashem. G-d forbid, that we should believe that the yetzer hara (evil inclination) has any enjoyment it can give us independently of Hashem.

If this is the case, then why is this ‘pleasure’ holy, and that one defiling, spiritually? If that’s a pleasure that’s effectively coming from Hashem, and this is a pleasure that is coming from Hashem, then why are you calling this holy and that it’s coming from the inclination for good, while that one is called spiritually-impure and coming from the inclination for evil?

What, then, is the real difference between them?

We can’t know what’s ‘holy’ by ourselves

This is an extremely deep question, and it gets to the very heart of the matter in regards to the yetzer hara’s true role in our world. By ourselves, we don’t know what’s ‘holy’ and what isn’t – but the Torah reveals this information to us, and tells us what is permitted and what is forbidden.

We’re back to the two cream cakes that are identical in every way, except one has a kosher certificate, and the other one doesn’t.

If every pleasure is actually coming from Hashem, then why does the Torah forbid us to have and do certain things? We have to understand that the Torah’s commandments are not at all random or arbitrary, but are actually based on an extremely deep spiritual principle.

A spirit of holiness

The things that the Torah permits us are imbued with a spirit of holiness. And the things that the Torah forbids us are imbued with a spirit of tumah, of impurity and defilement.

The Torah doesn’t forbid things because they are enjoyable or pleasurable. It forbids the things that are soaked through with tumah.

So then, what is the difference between this spirit of holiness and the spirit of tumah? The difference is that the spirit of holiness wakes up very great feelings of love and fear of Hashem within us.

When we experience a pleasure in the ways that the Torah teaches us, and proscribes for us, that causes us to yearn very greatly to come closer to G-d. But when we get our enjoyment from the other side, that causes us to be more distanced from G-d. So the difference between holiness and tumah, or spiritual impurity, comes down to whether it connects us more to Hashem, or disconnects us and distances us from Him.

Holiness simply means we connect to Hashem. And tumah simply means we become distanced from Him.

By ourselves, we can’t know what will have this effect, so the Torah reveals this information to us, and the Tzaddikim then elaborate on this point and reach an increasingly deeper understanding of it, as time goes on. They tell us what is permitted and what is forbidden – and this a very difficult internal battle that each of us has to face, as Hashem has given the yetzer hara so much strength to confuse us on this point.

How Am Yisrael failed the test in Babylonia

This is what caused Am Yisrael to stumble, during the Babylonian exile.

Nevuchadnetzer destroyed the First Temple. His Minister of War was called Nevuzaradan. The midrash says that Nevuchadnetzer told Nevuzaradan: “When you expel Am Yisrael from Eretz Yisrael, and bring them to Babylon, don’t give them even a single second of peace.”

So Nevuzaradan put them in wooden stocks, and barely gave them any food or water. Am Yisrael underwent an extremely difficult journey. And as soon as they got to Babylon, the stocks were removed, they were given food and drink, and they were installed in beautiful houses. Everything was arranged perfectly, and not only that, Nevuchadnetzer even arranged for them to receive bridal gowns for their kallahs (Jewish brides).

In contrast to their terrible journey, Am Yisrael were treated with great respect in Babylon. Most of the king’s advisors were Jews, and he knew who the wisest people were. The king didn’t leave the wise men of Am Yisrael alone for a moment, and he would bow to their opinions.

So, Babylonia was a potent cross between Manhattan and Thailand. The very essence of Babylon was fabulous wealth, and the height of culture – and the pinnacle of every form of tumah in the world.

Nevuchadnetzer said to himself: “Until they get here, they are going to cry the whole way: ‘Why did you exile us?’ But after two days here, in Bablyonia, they already won’t want to leave.”

Fallen love and non-Jewish women

The Gemara in Masechet Kiddushin tells us that there was a lot of promiscuity and mingling with non-Jewish women… So the whole issue of clarifying ‘fallen love’ revolves around non-Jewish women. Am Yisrael fell into this problem greatly in Bablyonia, and this was the main spiritual ‘blemish’ that occurred during the Bablyonian exile.

The Ari writes that: Because they stumbled and had relationships with non-Jewish women, they also stumbled and ate at the meal of that rasha (i.e. the King Ahashverosh). These two things are connected.


The moment that a person enters into the yetzer hara’s spiritual domain, it’s impossible to know where they might end up.

‘Stop taking the Torah’s commandments so seriously!’

Something else is now controlling them, namely the ‘spirit of tumah’ (impurity and defilement). The spirit of tumah is very clever. It doesn’t come to a person and spell out what exactly it’s trying to do. It doesn’t say: “Come and be a heretic! Come and stop believing in Hashem!”

No, the first thing it tries to do is to make a person ‘light-headed’, i.e. to persuade them to stop taking things so seriously. “It’s not so terrible…what’s the problem with watching a few movies? Why do you have to be so strict with yourself?”

The spirit of tumah leads a person down a path. A person starts walking down it, and he has no idea where he’s going to end up. All the time, we’re being tested and seduced. The piece of advice on how to deal with this is to cry out to Hashem for help – and particularly in our generation, when no-one even knows what’s going to happen in the next half an hour because of all the terrible confusions we experience, because of everything we’re going through.

And He will rescue us.

Based on Rav Ofer Erez’s writings in the Ohr HaDaat newsletter, #117


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