Until recently, members of synagogue boards did not always cover their heads at board meetings. Some did not generally carry a kippah with them either. Hence during a passionate debate at a certain meeting, a member was anxious to persuade his colleagues to adopt a particular line of policy.
It would be a Kiddush HaShem, he kept saying. And every time he said Kiddush HaShem, he slapped his hand on his head in place of a kippah, and his colleagues were mesmerised – not by his argument but by his hand movements.
How the vote went I do not recall, but the incident illustrates the importance of the phrase Kiddush HaShem.
Literally it means Sanctification of the Name. Its opposite is Chillul HaShem. The source of both phrases is today’s sidra, in which God says, “You shall not profane My holy name: but I will be sanctified among the Children of Israel. I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Lev. 22:31-33).
It is the kohanim who in the first instance have the obligation to sanctify and not profane the Divine name, but in time it became the duty of every Jew to bring credit and not discredit on the name of God.
Sincere prayer was a Kiddush HaShem, especially when one said kadosh, kadosh, kadosh (“holy, holy, holy”) in the Kedushah, or yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabba (“magnified and sanctified be His holy name”) in the Kaddish.
Martyrdom for the sake of God was deemed to be Kiddush HaShem, hence the name kedoshim for the martyrs of the ages (though if possible the greatest Kiddush HaShem is to stay alive in order to defy a persecutor).
It was also a Kiddush HaShem to act ethically towards others. Jeremiah said that mistreating slaves was a profanation of the Divine name (Jer. 34:16), as was, said Amos, exploitation of the poor and acts of promiscuity (Amos 2:7).
There are many who, these days, object strongly when the media identify as Jews certain people who get involved in questionable behaviour. Do the media name others as Catholics or Protestants? The answer is no. But because Judaism places such emphasis on Kiddush HaShem and Chillul HaShem, a Jew who does the wrong thing brings discredit on our tradition and community.
Agreed, the media should not single out Jews for adverse mention… but Jews should not let themselves injure the Jewish name and people.