DESECRATION (Heb. חִלּוּל, ḥillul; lit., "desanctification" or "profanation").
In the Bible
Desecration occurs when the holy is replaced by the profane or impure, the difference between the two being that the impure must be purified before it can be resanctified (e.g., the purging and consecration of the altar on the
*Day of Atonement
, Lev. 16:19). The holy things which are subject to desecration or contamination are (1) objects, e.g., sacrifices (Lev. 19:8; 22:3), priestly dues (Num. 18:22), the sanctuary and its sancta (Lev. 21:12, 23; Ezek. 23:39; 44:7); (2) persons, e.g., priests (Lev. 21:4, 9); (3) sacred time, e.g., the Sabbath (Ex. 31:14); and (4) God's name (see below).
The paradigm of desecration is Ezekiel 22:26: "They [the priests] have desecrated My sancta: they did not differentiate between the holy and the profane and did not teach [distinguish] between the impure and pure … so that I am profaned in their midst" (cf. Lev. 10:10; Ezek. 44:23). Thus, owing to priestly negligence in protecting the holy realm, the sancta, and even God, have been desecrated. Actually, there is but one cause for desecration: the illicit contact of the holy realm with the profane or impure, as in the case of the lay person's consuming sacred food reserved for the priests (Lev. 22:15; Num. 18:22); the priest incurring forbidden impurity (Lev. 21:4); the practicing of Moloch worship (Ezek. 23:29; cf. Lev. 20:3); and foreigners entering the temple area (Ezek. 44:7; cf. Ps. 74:7). By figurative extension, desecration is also applied to whoredom (Lev. 19:29; 21:9,14; Num. 25:1) and to the violation of God's injunctions (Lev. 22:9; Ps. 89:32) and covenant (Mal. 2:10). Legitimate desecration (lit., desanctification) takes place when the Nazirite (called "holy," Num. 6:8) ends his vow and brings a purification offering to return to his former profane state (Num. 6:14), and when the fourth-year fruit harvest is dedicated to the Lord (Lev. 19:24; cf. Deut. 20:6; Jer. 31:4). The sages logically applied the term to the redemption of all property given over ("sanctified," Lev. 27:14ff.) to the sanctuary (TJ, Naz. 2:1, 51 d). The sphere of holiness is identified with God's presence on earth. Any reduction in holiness is ipso facto a reduction in the divine domain; it is therefore a ḥillul shem YHWH ("a desecration of God's [power or] Name"). The desecrations described above are also desecrations of God's name, e.g., those connected with priests (Lev. 21:6; 22:2), sacrifices (Lev. 22:32; Mal. 1:12), altars (Amos 2:7–8), and Moloch worship (Lev. 18:21; 20:3). One other desecration falls exclusively within this category: the false oath (Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:3; Jer. 34:16). The prophets, moreover, not only condemn Israel on this charge but turn it back upon God in their lawsuit against Him. The exile, they argue, is a desecration of God's name (e.g., Isa. 48:11) not only because the nations look upon Israel's humiliation as a sign of their God's impotence (so pleads Moses, Num. 14:15–16), but because it constitutes a violation of God's promise of the land to the forefathers. In Ezekiel this argument is especially prominent. Basing himself on the priestly promise that God's covenanted oath is inviolable (Ezek. 20:44; cf. Lev. 26:42–45), the prophet affirms that Israel will be restored to its land (Ezek. 20:37ff.; 36:20–23; 39:7) though it does not merit it (Ezek. 20:44; 36:32). The principle of intention plays a part in the penalties prescribed for desecration; if the desecration is willful, it is punishable by death (e.g., Num. 18:32), but if caused by accidental tampering with sancta (Lev. 5:14–19) or by swearing falsely (Lev. 5:20ff.), it is expiable through proper remorse and sacrifice (ʾasham). See
After the Bible
In the Mishnah sacred things could often be profaned by reciting the correct formula, a procedure obviously adopted to simplify social and commercial intercourse. It enabled the scholar to dine at the home of the
who was suspected of not tithing his produce, or to partake of his own produce that he had not managed to tithe before the Sabbath (Dem. 7:1–5). Incense donated to the Temple or left over from a previous year's allocation had to be temporarily "profaned" in order to make it available in the following year for use in the Temple service, which the rabbis insisted could not be financed
by private offerings or surpluses. It was profaned by paying the salaries of the incense makers with it and then repurchasing it from them with the moneys from the obligatory annual
contributions of the community. This was in fact a purely bookkeeping operation which, however, served to impress upon the people the highest standards of probity and ritual propriety when dealing with sacred things, which could permanently revert to lay use by payment to the Temple treasury in money only, but not in labor (Shek. 4:5, 6; Tosef., Shek. 2:9).