AskDefine | Define holy

Dictionary Definition

holy adj : belonging to or derived from or associated with a divine power [ant: unholy] n : a sacred place of pilgrimage [syn: holy place, sanctum] [also: holiest, holier]

User Contributed Dictionary



Old English halig, compare German heilige


  • /ˈhoʊli/ (US)
  • /"hoUli/ (US)
  • Rhymes: -əʊli



  1. Dedicated to a religious purpose or a god.
  2. To be revered according to a religion.
  3. To be perfect or flawless.
  4. Separated or set apart from something unto something or someone else.
  5. Set apart or dedicated for a specific purpose, or for use by a single entity or person.
  6. : An intensifier in an interjection.
    Holy cow, I can’t believe he actually lost the race!



dedicated to a religious purpose
to be revered according to a religion
slang intensifier
Translations to be checked


  1. A thing that is extremely holy; used almost exclusively in the context of the phrase "holy of holies".
    Franz von Reber, Joseph Thacher Clarke, History of Ancient Art (1882) p. 146:
    The holy of holies, a cubical space of ten cubits on the side, was separated from the larger antechamber by four columns, which were also covered with gold and stood upon silver sockets; they bore a second curtain of four colors.

Derived terms


holy thing

Extensive Definition

Holiness, or sanctity, is the state of being holy or sacred, that is, set apart for the worship or service of gods. It could also mean being set apart to pursue (or to already have achieved) a sacred state or goal, such as Nirvana. It is often ascribed to people, objects, times, or places.

The sacred in comparative religion

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim emphasized the social nature of religion, in contrast to other leading thinkers of his day such as William James, who emphasized individual experience. Based on studies of Indigenous Australians, Durkheim proposed that most central to religion was not deity but the distinction between sacred and profane: "religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden." In Durkheim's theory, the sacred represented the interests of the group, especially unity, which were embodied in sacred group symbols, totems. The profane, on the other hand, involved mundane individual concerns. Durkheim explicitly stated that the dichotomy sacred/profane was not equivalent to good/evil: the sacred could be good or evil, and the profane could be either as well.
The German theologian Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy (originally in German, Das Heilige), defined the holy as an experience of something "wholly other," most famously mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a frightening and fascinating mystery. (He was following the tradition of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who defined religion as a feeling or experience rather than adherence to doctrine.) Otto claimed that this experience was unlike any other; the subject experienced the spirit (the numinous, in Otto's terminology) as overwhelming, sublime, truly real, while he or she was nothing.
Mircea Eliade, among the most influential twentieth-century scholars of religion, adopted Durkheim's terminology, but Otto's idea. Eliade defined the sacred as "equivalent to a power, and in the last analysis, to reality." Like Otto, Eliade insisted that this experience was not reducible to any other experience: in other words, that the sacred is not a mere experience, such as a hallucination, but it really exists. Eliade's analysis of religion focused on the sacred, especially sacred time and sacred space, and very many comparative religion and religious studies scholars in the twentieth century followed him, though scholars such as Jonathan Z. Smith and Russell McCutcheon have challenged his theories.


The word "sacred" descends from the Latin sacrum, which referred to the gods or anything in their power, and to sacer, priest; sanctum, set apart. It was generally conceived spatially, as referring to the area around a temple.
The origin of the word "holy" comes from the 11th Century Old High German hulis and Old English holegn meaning Holly as in Holly Tree, considered a sacred plant to both pre-Christian Celtic and Roman worship. The word hulis originates from an even older proto-Germanic word khuli a shortened derivation of the ancient Gaelic cuilieann both meaning Holly. The distinction of the word holy appeared around the 13th Century with the Old English word hālig derived from hāl meaning health, happiness and wholeness. As “wholeness”, holiness may be taken to indicate a state of religious completeness or perfection.
In non-specialist contexts, the term "holy" is used in a more general way, to refer to someone or something that is associated with a divine power, such as water used for Baptism.

Holiness in Judaism

The Hebrew word for "holiness," "kedushah" (Hebrew: קדושה) has the connotation of "separateness." That which is holy in Judaism is set apart, and the separation is maintained by both legal and spiritual measures.
Certain places and times are intrinsically sacred, and strictures are placed on one's actions in those situations. However, holiness is not a single state, but contains a broad spectrum. The Mishnah lists concentric circles of holiness surrounding the Temple in Jerusalem: Holy of Holies; Temple Sanctuary; Temple Vestibule; Court of Priests; Court of Israelites; Court of Women; Temple Mount; the walled city of Jerusalem; all the walled cities of Israel; and the borders of the Land of Israel. Distinctions are made as to who and what are permitted in each area. Likewise, the holidays, including and especially the Sabbath, are considered to be holy in time; the Torah calls them "holy [days of] gathering. Work is not allowed on those days, and rabbinic tradition lists 39 categories of activity that are specifically prohibited.
The Torah describes the Aaronite priests and the Levites as being selected by God to perform the Temple services; they, as well, are called "holy." A righteous person (tzadik) is also considered to be holy.
Beyond the intrinsically holy, objects can become sacred through consecration. Any personal possession may be dedicated to the Temple of God, after which its misappropriation is considered among the gravest of sins. The various sacrifices are holy; those which may be eaten have very specific rules as to whom may eat which of their parts, and time limits on when the consumption must be completed. Most sacrifices contain a part to be consumed by the priests - a portion of the holy to be consumed by God's holy devotees.
The encounter with the holy is seen as eminently desirable, and at the same time fearful and awesome. For the strongest penalties are applied to one who transgresses in this area - one could in theory receive either the death penalty or the heavenly punishment of karet, spiritual excision, for mis-stepping in his close approach to God's domain.
Thus, in Judaism holiness denotes the realm of the divine, which is to be set apart, and whose power is particularly evident when the separation is not properly maintained. There are various stories in the Hebrew Bible of disease and destruction resulting from improper contact with or handling of holy things such as the Ark. Holiness seems to be a direct result of the manifestation of the Divine Presence. This conception of holiness expresses the distinctively scriptural perception of God as both transcendent (utterly separate) and powerfully immanent in His relationship with the world.

Holiness in Catholicism

Catholicism has adopted much of the Jewish vision of the world in terms of holiness, with certain behaviour appropriate to certain places and times. The calendar gives shape to Catholic practice, which tends to focus on the Eucharist, in which the Real Presence of Christ is manifested. Many features of the Jewish temple are imitated in churches, such as the altar, bread, lamp, incense, font, etc, to emphasise the extreme holiness of the Eucharistic elements, which are reserved in a tabernacle. In extension of this focus on the Sacrament as holy, many objects in Catholicism are also considered holy. They are called sacramentals and are usually blessed by a priest. Such items include rosaries, crucifixes, medals, and statues of Jesus, angels and saints (Virgin Mary).
People in a state of sanctifying grace are also considered holy in Catholicism. A central notion of Catholicism as articulated in contemporary theology is the "[personal] call to holiness," considered as a vocation shared by every Christian believer. Profound personal holiness has traditionally also been seen as a focus for the kind of contagious holiness primarily associated with the Sacrament. So the communion of saints in Catholicism is not only the acclamation of their piety or morality, but also reverence for the tangible holiness that flows from their proximity to the divine. Hence the places where saints lived, died, performed miracles, or received visions frequently become sites of pilgrimage, and notable objects surviving a saint (including the body or parts of it) are considered relics. The holiness of such places or objects, resulting from contact with a deeply holy person, is often connected with the miraculous long after the death of the saint.

Holiness in Protestantism

The Protestant Reformation stood in opposition to the beliefs of tangible holiness in the Catholic Church and rejected most of its teachings regarding devotional practice, language and imagery. The early Reformers, who were often scholars of ancient Greek and also borrowed from Jewish scholarship, recognized that holiness is an attribute of God, and holiness is always part of the presence of God. Yet they also recognized that practical holiness was the evidence of the presence of God in the converted believer. Martin Luther, viewed God's grace (and therefore God's holiness), as an invasion of the life. Actions that demonstrated holiness would spring up, not premeditated, as the believer focused more and more on his or her relationship with Christ. This was the life of faith, according to Luther, a life in which one recognizes that the sin nature never departs, yet grace invades and draws the person after Christ.
Calvin, on the other hand, formulated a practical system of holiness that even tied in with culture and social justice. All unholy actions, Calvin reasoned, resulted in suffering. Thus he proved out to the city fathers of Geneva that dancing and other social vices always ended with the wealthy oppressing the poor. A holy life, in his outlook, was pietistic and simple, a life that shunned extravagance, excess, and vanity. On a personal level, Calvin believed that suffering would be a manifestation of taking on the Cross of Christ, but suffering was also part of the process of holiness. He expected that all Christians would suffer in this life, not as punishment, but rather as participation in union with Christ, who suffered for them. And yet, socially, Calvin argued that a holy society would end up as a gentle, kindly society (except to criminals), where the poor would be protected from the abuses of the wealthy, the lawyers, and others who normally preyed upon them.
In Protestantism, especially in American branches of Protestantism of the more Pentecostal variety, holiness has acquired the secondary meaning of the reshaping of a person through spiritual rebirth. The term owes its origin to John Wesley's concept of "scriptural holiness" or Christian perfection.
The Holiness movement began within Methodism in the United States, among those who thought the church had lost the zeal and emphasis on personal holiness of Wesley's day. In the latter part of the 19th century revival meetings were held, attended by thousands. In Vineland, N.J in 1867 a camp meeting was begun and the National Holiness Camp Meeting Association, which went on to establish many holiness camp meetings across the nation. Some adherents to the movement remained within their denominations; others founded new denominations, such as the Free Methodist Church, the Church of the Nazarene, and the Church of God (Anderson). Within a generation another movement, the Pentecostal movement was born, drawing heavily from the Holiness Movement. Around the middle of the 20th century, the Conservative Holiness Movement was born - a conservative offshoot of the Holiness movement.
The Higher Life movement appeared in the British Isles during the mid 1800's.
In the contemporary Holiness movement, the idea that holiness is relational is growing. In this thought, the core notion of holiness is love. Other notions of holiness, such as purity, being set apart, perfection, keeping rules, and total commitment, are seen as contributory notions of holiness. These contributory notions find their ultimate legitimacy one when love is at their core (Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl).

Holiness in Buddhism

In Theravada Buddhism one finds the designation of 'noble person' or ariyapuggala (Pali). The Buddha described four grades of such person depending on their level of purity. This purity is measured by which of the ten fetters (samyojana) and klesha have been purified and integrated from the mindstream. These persons are called (in order of increasing sanctity) Sotapanna, Sakadagami, Anagami and Arahant. The latter term designates an enlightened human being and is sometimes rendered into English as the Holy One.


For the study of hieroglyphics, see hieroglyphology. For the study of sacred writings, see hierographology.
Hierology (Greek ιερος, hieros, "sacred" or "holy", + λογος, logos, "word" or "reason") refers to analysis and explanation through reasoned discourse of the sacred traditions or religions of the peoples of any time or place that tries to reconcile faith with reason. It especially refers to philosophical speculations about religion that involve the traditions of multiple cultures or belief systems. It differs from theology in that a god or gods are not necessarily a focus and in that it may include sources with no origin in Western philosophy or religion.



  • Durkheim, Emile (1915) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: George Allen & Unwin (originally published 1915, English translation 1915).
  • Eliade, Mircea (1957) The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Translated by Willard R. Trask. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World).
  • Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl (2006) Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love. Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill.
  • Pals, Daniel (1996) Seven Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press. US ISBN 0-19-508725-9 (pbk).
  • Sharpe, Eric J. (1986) Comparative Religion: A History, 2nd ed., (London: Duckworth, 1986/La Salle: Open Court). US ISBN 0-8126-9041-9.
holy in Romanian: Sacru
holy in Korean: 신성 (종교)
holy in Yiddish: הייליגקייט

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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