From Haifa to Reykjavik

Parshas Emor teaches about the halachos prohibiting a kohen from becoming contaminated by contact to a corpse, a mitzvah that, as a kohen, I am privileged to observe.

From Haifa to Reykjavik

In the nearly 20 years since our aliyah, I have traveled to the US many times – generally combining business and pleasure by attending family simchahs and fundraising in the same week. Since I now have two married children in the States, these visits have become more frequent, but they are also for the most part uneventful.

That word cannot be used to describe my most recent trip to the East Coast, scheduled for two weeks after Sukkos. The “fun” began on erev Sukkos, when my son forwarded me a news item that, due to runway repair construction at Ben Gurion Airport, all flights for 16 days in November would be flying over the Holon Cemetery and thereby pose a problem for kohanim.

Since I am a kohen, I quickly contacted several rabbanim I know who are in the loop on these matters. Each one answered that we were indeed facing a serious problem. I then e-mailed my travel agent and put the matter to rest until after Sukkos, confident that something would straighten out way before the situation became germane to me.

When I fly El Al out of the New York area,  I usually travel via Newark Airport (EWR), since El Al does not carry cargo from EWR, thus avoiding any tumas meis issues as a kohen. My original booking had been a simple, round-trip flight from Tel Aviv to Newark.  The fare was very reasonable, there were no issues for kohanim, and the connection times were excellent. I planned to leave Wednesday night, attend a family chasuna in Lakewood on Thursday, and spend two Shabbosos with my children and grandchildren in the New York area. My wife was also planning to attend the wedding and be in the US at the same time, so we could also plan on spending some much-needed vacation time together.

As the old expression goes, man plans and G-d laughs.

After Sukkos, I contacted the travel agent again. Runway repair work was still scheduled; the airport had not made any concessions for kohanim; some airlines were so nice as to offer to refund any tickets for flights during that time. But rescheduling the trip would mean missing the wedding and changing all of our vacation plans. What other options did I have? And since my wife is not a kohen, her ticket was not refundable.

I soon discovered that it was possible to fly out of Israel from Haifa, which has an international airport with daily flights to Cyprus on an airline called Tus. But when my travel agent attempted to find me a connection through Haifa, he could find only a convoluted travel path that would involve four flights, an overnight stopover in Cyprus’s Larnaca Airport, and two one-hour plane changes in Athens and Frankfurt. This seemed neither logical, nor wise. What if I missed one of the flights and ended up missing all the connections as well?

My agent told me that some kohanim were planning to continue their flights as planned and place themselves in plastic bags during the trip over Holon Cemetery. This approach is based on the concept called tzamid pasil which means that a sealed vessel can prevent tumah from entering it. While this procedure has been followed, the rabbanim I consulted agreed with me that placing oneself a large plastic bag and closing the top does not qualify as a tzamid pasil. So, it was Haifa or nothing.

But how? Looking online, my resourceful son found me several connections on, shall we generously call them, discount airlines, without an overnight in Cyprus. My new travel plans would involve a one-hour flight from Haifa to Cyprus, a three-hour stopover for a connecting flight to London’s Stanstead airport, an overnight layover in London, and finally a connection to the US. The new travel plans meant that I would be leaving for the US three days earlier than I had originally planned and would land on Tuesday night for a Thursday night wedding in Lakewood.. Since I had no reason to be in Lakewood three days before the wedding, I found a connection via Reyjkavik to Baltimore, where I was planning to fundraise. I planned on renting a car there and then driving to Lakewood for the wedding.

I booked the flight, hoping for the best. Of course, all the tickets were nonrefundable.

I quickly found overnight accommodations in London with a former talmid of mine, now doing kiruv work in London, and figured I was all set up. I would leave home in Yerushalayim Sunday night, two days earlier than planned, spend one night at my son’s house in Haifa so that I could catch my 9 am Monday flight on Tus Airlines from Haifa to Larnaca, Cyprus. Monday night I would sleep over in London, and Tuesday night I would arrive in Baltimore, where I would have time to do some fundraising before the wedding. Who gets to fly from Eretz Yisrael to the US or back without missing a proper night’s sleep in a proper bed? I would.

After all these non-refundable tickets were ordered and paid for, we received an e-mail from Tus that my Monday morning flight had been cancelled. The airline offered to book me on alternative flights later that day or refund my money. But leaving on the next available flight wouldn’t do me any good – I would miss my connection to London! Instead, I said that I had to leave the day before, and only if the airline provided me with a hotel room in Cyprus and transportation to the hotel. They agreed.

Thus, instead of leaving Sunday night to Haifa to spend the night in my son’s house, I davened early Sunday morning so that I could get to Haifa in time for a 12:30 pm Sunday flight from Haifa International Airport to Larnaca, Cyprus. I would then have a 24-hour stopover in Larnaca before proceeding to London.

Trying to make the best of it, I decided to view my stopover in Cyprus as an adventure. My flight from Haifa, on a prop jet whose air conditioning was on the blink, took only an hour. Upon landing, I located the ticket agent desk and asked her about my hotel reservation. She said she would follow up. Less than five minutes later, she told me that arrangements had been made, and that a courtesy cab would be coming to the cab stand and the driver would hold a handwritten card with my name on it.

The drive to the hotel took about ten minutes. The driver, who was my age but looked twenty years older, was a Greek resident of Cyprus from birth. He told me that Larnaca is not the largest town in Cyprus. The capital, Nicosia, located in the middle of the island, is. However, the cabbie explained that during the civil war in 1974 the Nicosia airport had been destroyed, and since that time the Larnaca airport, which is only about a half hour drive from Nicosia, has been used as the primary one for the Greek part of the island.

Since I would be in Cyprus for a whole day, I had thought about renting a car in Cyprus and touring the country, which is only one hundred miles from east to west. I discovered that one can cross the border between the two countries that comprise Cyprus, the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. However, I soon realized that I would be landing only two hours before sunset, and in the morning I wouldn’t have much time to go anywhere before I it would be time to head to the airport to catch my next flight. In addition, although the spoken language in Cyprus is exclusively Greek, since it was once a British colony, they drive on the left side of the road, which, for me, would have proven to be a challenge. I decided to do without a car.

My hotel room turned out to be a beautiful, small suite, two-and-a-half rooms, including a nice-sized sitting room with two couches, a coffee table and another small table; a small kitchenette outfitted with a stove and refrigerator, cutlery, carving knives, can openers, pots and even china, as well as a bedroom. The room also had a beautiful porch. The apartment was in the heart of Larnaca.

Once I had settled in, I went for a brief walk to feel out the town and try to find the Chabad House, which, according to Google Maps, was not far away. Initially, I had difficulty finding it. The road signs were all Greek to me, but I was able to hold my Google map printout in the direction of the sign and try to compare the symbols of the Greek alphabet to try to figure out which street I had just located. Asking passersby was not successful, since they all spoke only Greek. I was about to give up, when I tried one more turn, and finally hit upon the tiny side street on which the Chabad House was located. The building was unmarked and protected like a fortress, although I saw no indication of this being necessary.

I arrived at the building called “The Jewish Community of Cyprus,” which is also the Chabad House, about ten minutes later than Mincha had been scheduled. In a stroke of tremendous hashgacha pratis, I found nine people there despairing of having a minyan. I was the tentziger, the tenth man for the minyan that evening, the only minyan in the entire country!

Only three of the attendees looked like your usual shul-goers (the others removed their yarmulkes when they left the building). The brief shiur between mincha and maariv was conducted in Hebrew. It seemed that the Chabad sheluchim present were Israeli, and that some of the attendees were originally Israeli as well. After davening, I asked one of the attendees for a ride to my hotel, since I was afraid of getting lost in the dark in an unfamiliar city. I asked him about his background during the brief drive, and he told me that he was originally from Romania and had moved to Cyprus for a job.

Returning to the hotel, I ate dinner, which I’d brought from home, worked on my computer and went to sleep early. The electric outlets were very strange-looking, but the hotel desk gave me an adapter, and I was able to plug in my computer and recharge my phone.

Shacharis at the Chabad House was called for 8:00, and I was awake well in advance of this time. I walked back to the shul in the morning, observing the local population as I did so. Although Larnaca is a tourist town, I saw very few tourists – perhaps because of my location, or perhaps because of the time of year (November). The town itself gave me an impression of being a bit grimy, and not glitzy.  Few people in the street spoke any English, although the hotel clerk spoke with a perfect British accent.

There were nine people at the minyan, but one of sheluchim called someone to make a minyan, so we had kerias haTorah, borchu, and kadeishim – not a common occurrence during travel! While most of the attendees did not seem particularly frum, there was one religious Israeli from Bnei Brak, a middle-aged baal teshuvah who, together with his wife, had accompanied his mother to her vacation home. He introduced himself to me and offered me a ride to the airport, a suggestion that I took him up on.

My flight to London, on Cobalt Airlines, was unremarkable. In London, I was happy to reconnect with the talmid who hosted me, and we had the opportunity to discuss a number of matters pertaining to his kiruv work.

My continuing flight out of London was out of Gatwick. In addition to Heathrow, London is serviced by a tiny airport called “City Airport” and three airports outside the city – Gatwick, Stanstead, and Luton – all quite a distance outside London. When I made my reservation out of London, I booked a flight out of Gatwick for 10:55 am, figuring this would allow me plenty of time to make a trip out of the city in the opposite direction of morning traffic. Little did I realize what was in store…

The car service was booked for 7:05 am, and the driver was on time. Still stuck in London traffic at 9:05, I asked the driver how far we were from the airport, and he told me about another hour! After much driving heroics, the driver left me off at what he told me was the correct terminal at 10:05. When I entered the airport and looked for my airline, I was informed by security that I was at the wrong terminal! (With non-refundable tickets!) Airport security was very helpful and showed me how to catch the internal rail service to the correct terminal.

I’m not sure how, but I indeed was able to get onto the plane! The fly-by-night airline I traveled on charged me for two bags – one for my checked luggage, and the other for my carry-on, which they ruled was oversized.

In the announcements made by the airline in the terminal and on the flight, passengers were always referred to as the airline’s “guests.” Since they charged for everything, including bottled water, I wonder how they treat their paying customers! They announced that they would accept all standard currencies, including dollars, euros, and pounds, at the airline’s special exchange rate, and that all items available for sale are priced in the online magazine. Indeed, everything is priced there – in the currency of the airline’s main hub, Icelandic Krona. So you had no idea what an item costs until you ordered it, asking them what it costs in the currency that you had handy. But, baruch Hashem, both of my flights – London to Reykjavik and Reykjavik to Baltimore — were uneventful, and I arrived in Baltimore only two and a half days after I’d left Yerushalayim.

Almost every day we have experiences in life where Hashem’s hashgacha pratis is there waiting for us to see it. Sometimes we do see it, and sometimes we miss it. This trip, which was supposed to be so simple, ended up being very complicated, yet I was privileged to see several obvious instances of hashgacha pratis along the way, and for that I am very grateful. And all of this because I am zocheh to being a kohen!

 

The Mitzvah of ViKidashto – To Treat a Kohen with Respect

Since the kohen’s role is significant in parshas Naso, read this week in chutz la’aretz, I present…

The Mitzvah of ViKidashto – To Treat a Kohen with Respect

Question: I know the Torah teaches that we are to treat a kohen with honor, yet I always see people asking kohanim to do them favors. Am I permitted to ask a kohen to do a favor for me?

Answer:

You are asking a very excellent and interesting question. It is correct that a look at the early poskim implies that one should not ask a kohen to do him a favor, yet the prevalent custom is to be lenient. Let us explore the subject to see whether this practice is correct.

In Parshas Emor, after listing many specific mitzvos that apply uniquely to the Kohen, the Torah states: “And you shall make him (the kohen) holy, because he offers the bread of your G-d. He shall be holy to you because I, Hashem, Who make you holy, am Holy” (VaYikra 21:8). We are commanded by the Torah to treat a kohen differently, since he is charged with bringing the offerings in the Beis HaMikdash (Gittin 59b; Rambam, Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 4:2).

There are both positive and negative aspects to this mitzvah. On the negative side, a kohen who violates his kedushah by marrying a divorcee or other woman prohibited to him must divorce his prohibited wife. The Gemara states that “you shall make him holy,” even against the kohen’s will. Thus, when the Jewish community and its beis din have control over Jewish affairs, they are required to force a kohen to divorce his wife under these circumstances and to physically remove him from the household if necessary (Yevamos 82b).

There is also the positive aspect of this mitzvah, which is to treat the kohen with honor. According to the Rambam, this responsibility is considered a mitzvah min hatorah (Sefer HaMitzvos Aseh 32; Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 4:2), whereas other rishonim contend that this aspect of the mitzvah is only midarabanan (Tosafos, Chullin 87a end of s.v. vichiyivu; Tur, Yoreh Deah 28: Bach ad loc.). Later poskim rule that the mitzvah to treat a kohen with respect is indeed min hatorah (see Magen Avraham 201:4 and Mishnah Berurah op. cit.).

How should the kohen be honored?

The Gemara explains that this respect manifests itself in several ways: “The kohen should open first (liftoach rishon), he should bless first, and he should take a nice portion first” (Gittin 59b, Moed Katan 28b). Similarly, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Berachos 5:4) teaches that when a yisroel walks alongside a kohen, the kohen should be given the more honorary place, which is on the right.

What is intended by the Gemara when it states that “the kohen should open first”? Some commentaries explain that this means that the kohen should be the first speaker, whether in divrei Torah or at a meeting (Rashi, Gittin 59b). Others explain it to mean that the kohen should receive the first aliyah, when the Torah is read (Rambam, Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 4:2 and Rashi in Moed Katan 28b).

The kohen should make the brocha on the meal first (Rashi, Gittin 59b), make kiddush for everyone (Mishnah Berurah 201:12) and lead the benching (Rashi, Moed Katan 28b; Ran and other Rishonim, Nedarim 62b). If he is poor, he is entitled to choose the best portion of tzedokoh available or of the maaser given to the poor (Tosafos, Gittin 59b). According to some opinions, when dissolving a partnership, after dividing the property into two portions of equal value, the kohen should be offered the choice between the two portions (Rashi, Gittin 59b). However, the accepted approach is that this is not included in the mitzvah, and it is also not in the kohen’s best interest (Tosafos ad loc.). However, when a group of friends are together, they should offer the kohen to take the best portion.

Similarly, poskim rule that a kohen should be chosen ahead of a levi or a yisroel to be chazan (Pri Megadim, Eishel Avraham 53:14). Presumably, he should also be given preference for a position to be a Rav, Rosh Yeshiva, or Magid Shiur in a yeshiva, if he is qualified for the position.

It should be noted that the kohen deserves special respect only when he is at least a peer to the yisroel in learning. However, if the yisroel is a Torah scholar and the kohen is not, the Torah scholar receives the greater honor.

There is one exception to this ruling. In order to establish peace and harmony in the Jewish community, the first aliyah to the Torah is always given to a kohen, even when there is a Torah scholar in attendance (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 135:4). As far as other honors go, the Torah scholar should always be given honor ahead of the kohen. (It is interesting to note that, at the time of the Gemara, the gadol hador was given the first aliyah, even if he was not a kohen.)

If the yisroel is a greater talmid chochom than the kohen, but the kohen is also a talmid chochom, some rule that one is required to give the kohen the greater honor (Shach, Yoreh Deah 246:14). Others rule that it is preferred to give the kohen the greater honor, but it is not required (Rema, Orach Chayim 167:14 and Mishnah Berurah 201:12).

According to the Gemara, the kohen should be seated in a place of honor at the head of the table. The Gemara that teaches us this halacha is very instructive. “Rav Chama bar Chanina said: ‘How do we know that a choson sits at the head of the table, because the verse states: ‘kichoson yechahen pe’er, like a choson receives the glory of a kohen (Yeshaya 61:10)’. Just like the kohen sits at the head of the table, so, too, the choson sits at the head of the table” (Moed Katan 28b). Contemporary poskim contemplate why we do not follow this halacha in practice (Rav Sholom Shvadron in his footnotes to Daas Torah of Maharsham 201:2). Although our custom is to seat the choson in the most important place at the wedding and sheva berachos, we do not place the kohanim in seats that demonstrate their importance!

Asking a favor

From the above discussion, we see that I am required to treat a kohen with honor and respect, but we have not discussed whether I may ask him to do me a favor. Perhaps I can treat the kohen with honor and respect, and yet ask him to do things for me. However, the Talmud Yerushalmi states that it is forbidden to have personal benefit from a kohen, just as it is forbidden to have personal benefit from the vessels of the Beis HaMikdash (Berachos 8:5). This Yerushalmi is quoted as halacha (Rema, Orach Chayim 128:44).

However, many authorities note that there appears to be evidence that conflicts with the position of the Yerushalmi. Specifically, the Gemara Bavli refers to a Hebrew slave (eved ivri) who is a kohen. How could someone own a Hebrew slave, if one is not permitted to have personal benefit from a kohen (Hagahos Maimonis, Hilchos Avadim 3:8)?

Several approaches are presented to resolve this difficulty. Some early poskim contend that there is no prohibition in having personal benefit from a kohen, provided that he does not mind. These authorities contend that a kohen may be mocheil on his honor (Mordechai, Gittin #461). On the other hand, many authorities rule explicitly that it is forbidden to use a kohen, even if he is mocheil (Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvos Aseh #32; Smag, Mitzvas Aseh #83).

Other poskim explain that although it is forbidden to use a kohen without paying him, one is permitted to hire a kohen (Smag, Mitzvas Aseh # 83). According to this approach, it is prohibited to use a kohen only when the kohen receives no benefit from his work. In a situation where the kohen gains from his work, one may benefit from him. Thus, the kohen is permitted to sell himself as a slave, since he gains material benefit from the arrangement.

This dispute, whether a kohen has the ability to be mocheil his kovod, is discussed by later poskim also. Rema (128:44), Magen Avraham (ad loc.), and Pri Chodosh (in his commentary Mayim Chayim on Gemara Gittin 59b) rule that a kohen can be mocheil on his honor, whereas Taz (Orach Chayim 128:39) disagrees. However, Taz also accepts that the kohen can be mocheil when he has benefit from the arrangement, as in the case of the Hebrew servant.

Thus, as a practical halacha, the majority opinion permits having a kohen do a favor, provided he is mocheil on his honor. According to the minority opinion, it is permitted only if he is paid for his work.

There is another line of reasoning that can be used in the contemporary world to permit asking a kohen for a favor. The Torah requires giving a kohen honor because he performs the service in the Beis HaMikdash, and, therefore, he has a halachic status similar to that of the vessels of the Beis HaMikdash, which have sanctity. However, only a kohen who can prove the pedigree of his lineage may perform the service in the Beis HaMikdash. Such kohanim are called kohanim meyuchasim. Kohanim who cannot prove their lineage are called kohanei chazakah, kohanim because of traditional practice. These kohanim fulfill the roles of kohanim because they have a family tradition to perform mitzvos, like a kohen does. However, they cannot prove that they are kohanim.

Since today’s kohanim are not meyuchasim, they would not be permitted to perform the service in the Beis HaMikdash and they do not have sanctity similar to the vessels of the Beis HaMikdash. Therefore, some poskim contend that one may have personal benefit from today’s kohanim (Mishneh LaMelech, Hilchos Avadim 3:8, quoting Yefei Mareh).

In this context, the Mordechai records an interesting story (Gittin #461). Once, a kohen washed Rabbeinu Tam’s hands.  A student of Rabbeinu Tam asked him how he could benefit from the kohen, when the Yerushalmi prohibits this. Rabbeinu Tam responded that a kohen has kedushah only when he is wearing the vestments that the kohen wears in the Beis HaMikdash. The students present then asked Rabbeinu Tam: if his answer is accurate, why do we give the kohen the first aliyah even when he is not wearing the kohen’s vestments? Unfortunately, the Mordechai does not report what Rabbeinu Tam answered. The Mordechai does cite R’ Peter as explaining that a kohen can be mocheil on his kovod, something this kohen had clearly done. Thus, we have explained why it is permitted to have a kohen do a favor for a yisroel.

The unresolved question is: why don’t we demonstrate honor to a kohen whenever we see him? This question is raised by the Magen Avraham (201:4), who explains that the custom to be lenient is because our kohanim are not meyuchasim. However, he is clearly not comfortable with relying on this heter. Similarly, the Mishnah Berurah (201:13) rules that one should not rely on this heter. On the contrary, one should go out of one’s way to show honor to a kohen.

A kohen who is blemished (a baal mum)

Does the mitzvah of treating a kohen with kedushah apply to a kohen who is blemished (a baal mum) and thus cannot perform the avodah in the Beis HaMikdash?

After all, the Torah states: “And you shall make him (the kohen) holy, because he offers the bread of your G-d” (VaYikra 21:8). Thus, one might think that only a kohen who can offer the “bread of Hashem” has this status. Nonetheless, we derive that these laws apply even to a kohen who is blemished (Toras Kohanim to VaYikra 21:8). Apparently, the other special laws of being a kohen are sufficient reason that he should be accorded honor.

Is there any mitzvah to give honor to a kohen who is a minor?

This matter is disputed by early poskim. Some poskim feel that, since a child is not obligated to observe mitzvos and furthermore cannot perform the service in the Beis HaMikdash, there is no requirement to give him honor. On the other hand, there are poskim who contend that the Torah wanted all of Aaron’s descendants to be treated with special honor, even a minor.

This dispute has very interesting and commonly encountered ramifications. What happens if there is no adult kohen in shul, but there is a kohen who is a minor? If the mitzvah of vikidashto applies to a minor, then the kohen who is under bar mitzvah should be called to the Torah for the first aliyah! This is indeed the opinion of an early posek (Shu”t Maharit #145). However, the prevalent practice is that there is no mitzvah of vikidashto on a kohen who is under bar mitzvah, since he cannot bring the korbanos in the Beis HaMikdash (Magen Avraham 282:6)

A very interesting minhag

A fascinating discussion about the mitzvah of calling the kohen for the first aliyah is found in the responsa of the Maharik (#9). Apparently, there was a custom in his day (the fifteenth century) in many shullen in France and Germany that on Shabbos Breishis they would auction off the first aliyah in order to help pay for community needs. This was considered a major demonstration of kovod hatorah, to demonstrate that people value the first aliyah of the year by paying a large sum of money for it. Maharik compares this practice to a custom we are more familiar with: The selling of Choson Torah on Simchas Torah for a large sum of money.

If a non-kohen bought the first aliyah of the year, the custom was that the kohanim would either daven in a different shul or they would walk outside the shul, so that the non-kohen donor could be called up to the Torah for the aliyah.

In one congregation with this custom, a kohen refused to leave the shul and also refused to bid on the donation. Instead, he insisted that he be given the aliyah gratis. The members of the shul called upon the city government authorities to remove the recalcitrant kohen from the premises, so that they could call up the donor for the aliyah.

The issue was referred to the Maharik, as one of the greatest poskim of his generation. The Maharik ruled that the congregation is permitted to continue their practice of auctioning off this aliyah and calling the donor to the Torah, and they may ignore the presence of the recalcitrant kohen. Since this is their well-established minhag, and it was established to demonstrate kovod hatorah, in such a case a minhag can override the halacha; specifically, the requirement to call the kohen to the Torah as the first aliyah.

In the same tshuvah, Maharik mentions another related minhag that was well-accepted in his day. Apparently, during this period and place, most people fasted on bahav, the three days of fasting and saying selichos that take place during the months of MarCheshvan and Iyar. In addition, the custom on these fast days was to call up for an aliyah only people who were fasting, similar to the practice we have on our fast days. Maharik reports that if all the kohanim who were in shul were not fasting, the kohanim would exit the shul to allow them to call up a non-kohen who was fasting. He rules that this custom is halachically acceptable, since it is a kovod hatorah to call to the Torah on a community-accepted fast only people who are fasting.

Thus, we see from the Maharik’s responsum that, although it is a mitzvah to honor the kohen, there is a greater mitzvah to safeguard the community’s minhag. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the Mishnah Berurah and other late poskim is that one should, in general, try to show at least some honor to a kohen, following the literal interpretation of the statement of Chazal.

 

The Mitzvah of Duchening (Birchas Kohanim)

In Parshas Naso, the Torah teaches about the beautiful mitzvah of Birchas Kohanim, wherein the kohanim are commanded to bless the people of Israel. This mitzvah is usually referred to by Ashkenazic Jews as “duchening” and by Sefardic Jews as Birchat Kohanim, or occasionally as Nesiyat Kapayim, which refers to the raising of hands that the kohanim do in order to recite the blessings.

Why Is This Mitzvah Called Duchening?

Duchen is the Aramaic word for the platform that is in front of the Aron Kodesh. The duchen exists to remind us of the ulam, the antechamber that stood in front of the Kodesh and the Kodshei HaKodoshim, the holy chambers in the Beis HaMikdash. The Kodshei HaKodoshim was entered on only one day of the year, on Yom Kippur, and then only by the Kohen Gadol. The Kodesh was entered a few times daily, but only to perform the mitzvos of the Menorah, the Golden Mizbayach (altar), and the Shulchan (the Holy Table that held the Lechem HaPanim). Before entering the Kodesh, one ascended into the Ulam as a sign of respect, so as not to enter the Kodesh immediately.

Similarly, in our shuls the Aron Kodesh represents the Kodesh, since we are permitted to open it and to remove the Sifrei Torah when we need to. But, before entering the Kodesh, one ascends the duchen, in this case, also, to show respect by approaching the Aron Kodesh after a preliminary stage.

The duchen also serves other functions, one of which is that the kohanim stand upon it when they recite the blessings of Birchas Kohanim. For this reason, this mitzvah is called duchening (duchenen in Yiddish). In the absence of a duchen, or if there are more kohanim in the shul than there is room on the duchen, the kohanimduchen” while standing on the floor in the front of the shul.

Basics of Duchening

There is a basic order to the duchening that occurs during the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrai. When the chazan completes the brachah of modim and the congregation answers “amen” to his brocha, someone (either the chazan or a member of the congregation, depending on minhag) calls out “kohanim” to inform the kohanim that it is time for them to begin the brachah. After the kohanim recite the brachah on the mitzvah, the chazan then reads each word of the Birchas Kohanim that is recorded in the Torah (Bamidbar 6:24-26) for the kohanim to recite, and the kohanim respond. The congregation responds “amen” after each of the three brochos. After the last brachah of Birchas Kohanim is completed by the kohanim, the chazan returns to the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrai by reciting the brachahsim shalom“.

The Gemara and poskim teach that at each of these stages, one must be careful not to recite one’s part before the previous step has been completed. Thus, the person who calls out “kohanim” must be careful not to do so before the congregation has finished answering “amen” to the chazan’s brachah; the kohanim should be careful not to recite the words of the brachah before the chazan has completed saying the word “kohanim”; the chazan may not call out “yevarechecha” before the congregation has completed saying “amen” to the brachah of the kohanim, etc. It is important to be mindful of these halachos and allow each stage to be completed before beginning the next. Unfortunately, even well-learned people are sometimes not sufficiently careful and patient to wait until it is time for their part to be recited.

Wearing Shoes During Duchening

A kohen may not duchen while wearing shoes. The Gemara teaches that this was one of the nine takkanos that were instituted by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai (Sotah 40a). Although there would seem to be an obvious association with the halacha that the kohanim were barefoot when they performed the service in the Beis HaMikdash, the actual reason for this takkanah is unrelated. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was concerned that a kohen’s shoelace would tear while he was on the way to the duchen and, while stopping to retie his shoelace, he would miss the duchening. However, people who saw that he missed the duchening would not realize what happened. They might start a rumor that he did not duchen because he is not a valid kohen! For this reason, Chazal instituted that every kohen simply removes his shoes before duchening.

What if the Chazan is a Kohen?

The mishnah states that when there is only one kohen in shul, and he is the chazan, then he may (and should) duchen (Berachos 34a). In this instance, the kohen will remove his shoes and wash his hands prior to beginning repetition of the Shemoneh Esrai. There is a dispute among poskim whether a kohen may duchen when he is the chazan and there are other kohanim who will be duchening. The Shulchan Aruch rules that he should not duchen under these circumstances, because of a concern that he will become confused where he is up to in the davening and have difficulty resuming his role as chazan (Orach Chayim 128:20). Chazal instituted this prohibition even when we are certain that the chazan will not become confused, such as today, when he has a siddur in front of him (Mishnah Berurah 128:72).

However, the Pri Chodosh rules that he may duchen, and that the concern referred to by the Shulchan Aruch was only when the chazan might become confused (such as when he does not have a siddur to daven from). In most communities in Eretz Yisrael, the custom is to follow the Pri Chodosh’s ruling allowing a kohen who is the chazan to duchen. However, in chutz la’aretz the practice is to follow the Shulchan Aruch, and the chazan does not duchen (unless he is the only kohen).

In a situation where the chazan is the only kohen and there is a platform (the “duchen”) in front of the aron kodesh, there is a very interesting halacha that results. Since the duchening should take place on the platform, the kohen walks up to the duchen in the middle of his repetition of the Shemoneh Esrai. After completing the duchening, he returns to his place as chazan and completes the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrai.

The Minyan Disappeared

What do you do if you started davening with a minyan, but in the middle of davening, some men left, leaving you with less than a minyan? Can you still duchen?

If the minyan started the duchening with ten men or more, and then some men left in the middle of the duchening, they should complete the duchening (Biur Halachah 128:1 s.v. bipachus).

What Happens if a Kohen Does Not Want to Duchen?

A kohen who does not want to duchen should stand outside the shul from before the time that the word “kohanim” is called out, until the duchening is completed.

The Days that We Duchen

The prevalent custom among Sefardim and other Edot Hamizrach is to duchen every day. There are many Ashkenazic poskim who contend that Ashkenazim should also duchen every day. However, the standard practice in chutz la’aretz is that Ashkenazim duchen only on Yomim Tovim. In most of Eretz Yisroel, the prevalent practice is that Ashkenazim duchen every day. However, in Tzfas and much of the Galil, the custom is that the kohanim duchen only on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

Why do Ashkenazim duchen in Eretz Yisrael every day, and in chutz la’aretz only on Yom Tov?

Several reasons are cited to explain this practice. Rama explains that a person can confer blessing only when he is fully happy. Unfortunately, except for the Yomim Tovim, the kohanim are distracted from true happiness by the difficulties involved in obtaining basic daily needs. However, on Yomim Tovim, the kohanim are in a mood of celebration. Thus, they forget their difficulties and can bless people with a complete heart (Rama 128:44; cf. Be’er Heiteiv ad loc.). Thus, only on Yom Tov do the kohanim duchen.

In Eretz Yisroel, the practice is to duchen daily, because the Ashkenazim there followed the ruling of the Vilna Gaon. He contended that Ashkenazim everywhere should duchen every day.

Why do the kohanim in Tzfas duchen only on Shabbos and Yom Tov?

The reason for this custom is unclear. I was once told in the name of Rav Kaplan, the Rav of Tzfas for many decades, that since Tzfas had many tzoros over the years, including many serious earthquakes and frequent attacks by bandits,  the people living there did not have true simcha. However, they were able to achieve enough simcha on Shabbos and Yom Tov to be able to duchen. This reason does not explain why the other communities in the Galil duchen only on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

It should be noted that the Sefardim in Tzfas duchen every day, not only on Shabbos.

Placement of Shoes

As I mentioned before, Chazal instituted that a kohen should remove his shoes before duchening. Unfortunately, some kohanim leave their shoes lying around in the front of the shul when they go up to duchen. This practice is incorrect. The kohanim are required to place their shoes under the benches or in some other inconspicuous place when they go up to duchen. It shows a lack of respect to leave the shoes lying about (Mishnah Berurah 128:15)

Washing Hands

Prior to duchening, there is a requirement that the kohanim wash their hands. In some shuls, the Kohanim wash their hands in the front of the shul before they go up to duchen. What is the reason for this practice?

This custom has a source in Rishonim and Poskim and should definitely be encouraged. Tosafos (Sotah 39a s.v. kol) rules that one should wash one’s hands relatively near the duchen, whereas washing further away and then walking to the duchen constitutes an interruption, a hefsek, similar to talking between washing netilas yadayim and making hamotzi  on eating bread. (His actual ruling is that one should wash one’s hands within twenty-two amos of the duchen, which is a distance of less than forty feet.) Thus, according to Tosafos, we are required to place a sink within that distance of the duchen where the kohanim stand to duchen. The Magen Avrohom rules according to this Tosafos and adds that since the kohanim wash their hands before Retzei, the chazan should recite the brachah of Retzei speedily. In his opinion, the time that transpires after the kohen washes his hands should be less time than it takes to walk twenty-two amos (128:9). Thus, Retzei must be recited in less time than it takes to walk twenty-two amos. The Biur Halachah adds that the kohanim should not converse between the washing of their hands and the duchening, because this, also, constitutes a hefsek.

Duchening and Dreams

A person who had a dream that requires interpretation and does know whether the dream bodes well should recite a prayer at the time of the duchening (Berachos 55b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 130:1). It should be noted that the text of the prayer quoted by the Gemara is different from that quoted in the majority of siddurim. The Gemara cites the following text for this prayer:

“Master of the World, I am yours and my dreams are yours. I dreamed a dream that I do not understand its meaning — whether it is something I have dreamt about myself or it is something that my friends dreamt about me or whether it is something that I dreamt about them. If these dreams are indeed good, strengthen them like the dreams of Yosef. However, if the dreams need to be healed, heal them as Moshe healed the bitters waters of Marah, as Miriam was healed of her tzaraas, as Chizkiyahu was healed of his illness and as the waters of Yericho were healed by Elisha. Just as You changed the curse of Bilaam to a blessing, so, too, change all my dreams for the good.” According to the opinion of the Vilna Gaon, this prayer should be recited at the end of all three blessings, rather than reciting the “Yehi Ratzon” that is printed in most siddurim (Mishnah Berurah 130:5).

One should complete the prayer at the moment that the congregation answers Amen to the blessings of Birchas Kohanim. This prayer can be recited not only when one is uncertain of the interpretation of the dream, but even when one knows that the dream bodes evil (Mishnah Berurah 130:4).

Among Ashkenazim in chutz la’aretz, where the practice is to duchen only on Yom Tov, the custom is to recite this prayer every time one hears the duchening, because there is a likelihood that since the last Yom Tov one had a dream that requires interpretation (Mishnah Berurah 130:1). This prayer is not recited on Shabbos, unless one had a bad dream that night (Mishnah Berurah 130:4). In Eretz Yisrael, where the custom is to duchen daily, the practice among Ashkenazim is to recite the prayer for dreams at the last of the three berachos of the duchening at musaf on Yom Tov, when it does not fall on a Shabbos. The custom is that the kohanim chant the last word of the brachah on these Yom Tov days to allow people sufficient time to recite this prayer.

In all places, the custom among Sefardim is not to recite the prayer unless the person had such a dream.

As a kohen, myself, I find duchening to be the most beautiful of mitzvos. We are, indeed, so fortunate to have a commandment to bless our fellow Jews, the children of Our Creator. The nusach of the brachah is also worth noting. “Levarach es amo Yisrael b’ahava” — to bless His nation Israel with love. The blessings of a kohen must flow from a heart full of love for the Jews that he is privileged to bless.

 

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

This week’s reading is either Acharei Mos/Kedoshim or Emor depending on whether you are in Chutz La’aretz or in Eretz Yisrael. Either way, Kohanim figure significantly in the parsha – thus…

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Question #1: May a Mechalel Shabbos Duchen?

“The only kohen in our shul operates his business on Shabbos. Until recently, he had never duchened, and the rav was comfortable with that. Recently, the shul’s chazzan encouraged the kohen to duchen, and he began doing so. Should we stop him?”

Question #2: The Strength of a Rock

How did a tremendous talmid chacham, a correspondent of the Rogatchover Gaon, a close talmid of both the Chofetz Chayim and Rav Itzele Ponevitzer, become the Rosh Av Beis Din of the thriving Jewish metropolis including Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa?

Answer:

The first question was asked of Rav Moshe Feinstein by a first-class talmid chacham, Rav Shlomoh Yehudah Leib Levitan, then rav of Rock Island, Illinois. Rav Moshe’s response is published in Shu’t Igros Moshe, Volume 1, Number 33. Igros Moshe does not include the full correspondence on the topic, for which one needs to find a copy of Rav Levitan’s teshuvos, Yeriyos Shlomoh, where it is included as Siman #6.

Who was Rav Shlomoh Yehudah Leib Levitan, and what was he doing in Rock Island, Illinois?

Rav Ben Zion Levitan

Rav Shlomoh Yehudah Leib Levitan’s father, Rav Ben Zion Levitan, was one of the foremost poskim in Lithuania in his time. The older Rav Levitan had been the rav of Tzitavian, the tiny Lithuanian shtetl that, at different times, boasted several prominent gedolim as its rav, including, much later, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky.

Rav Shlomoh Yehudah Leib Levitan studied in the Chofetz Chayim’s yeshivah in Radin, where he became exceedingly close to the Chofetz Chayim, whom he viewed as his primary rebbe. While there, he was appointed as a rebbe to younger students. He also studied in the famed mussar yeshivah of Kelm (which later was the main yeshivah where Rav Eliyahu Dessler studied).

Rock-solid lamdus

Later, Rav Levitan studied in the yeshivah of Ponevitz, Lithuania, under the famed tzadik and gaon, Rav Itzele Rabinovitch, who was known as Rav Itzele Ponevitzer, because he was also the rav of the city.

To illustrate Rav Itzele’s tremendous yiras shamayim, Rav Shach used to tell the following story: When, for the first time in Ponevitz, a Jew opened his business on Shabbos, Rav Itzele, whose sole income was from his position as rav, resigned from the position, explaining that he was petrified to go to the Beis Din shel Maalah (the heavenly tribunal) as the rav of a community where Shabbos was publicly desecrated. (Eventually, the chevrah kadisha forced the storeowner to close on Shabbos by refusing to bury his father until he agreed to keep it closed!)

Rav Itzele’s hasmadah (diligence in Torah study) was legendary. He would learn until his last ounce of energy was exhausted and, invariably, fell asleep with his boots on, even when they were covered with mud. (In his era, the streets of Ponevitz were unpaved.)

Rav Itzele was considered by many to be the genius of his era, a generation that included such luminaries as Rav Chayim Brisker, Rav Dovid Karliner, the Ohr Somayach, the Rogatchover Gaon, Rav Chayim Ozer, and the Aruch Hashulchan. Indeed, Rav Itzele and Rav Chayim Brisker had been chavrusos (study partners) for a few years shortly after their marriages (in the 1870’s). Rav Itzele was a disciple of Rav Chayim’s father, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichek, the Beis Halevi. Unfortunately, very few of Rav Itzele’s brilliant chiddushei Torah were saved for posterity, other than a small sefer entitled Zecher Yitzchak.

Thus, Rav Levitan’s two main rabbei’im, the Chofetz Chayim and Rav Itzele Ponevitzer, were both renowned gedolim, known both for their tzidkus and their lamdus.

The rock of the yeshivah

After his years of study in these yeshivos, Rav Levitan taught in the yeshivah of Brisk, at the same time that Rav Elchonon Wasserman was also a magid shiur there. (This was prior to Rav Elchonon opening his yeshivah in Baranovitch.) Rav Levitan then became a magid shiur in the yeshivah in Shavel. Eventually, Rav Levitan became rav of Tver, Lithuania. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky used to say that in the Lithuania between the wars, the period of time that we are now discussing, there were at least 200 shtetlach and towns each of which boasted a rav who was a complete baki in shas and poskim. The difference between the highly respected posek and one who was considered a rav of “ordinary” status was the depth to which the highly respected posek understood shas!

Between a rock and a hard place

Where is Rock Island? How did it get its unusual name? And, most important, how did a gadol of Rav Levitan’s stature become rav there?

Rock Island is in western Illinois, across the Mississippi River from Davenport, Iowa. Although a visit there today would never reveal this, there was once a strong frum community there of immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe. It was a shul in this community, Bnai Jacob Congregation, that hired Rav Levitan as its rav after his arrival in the United States in the 1920’s. He remained the rav of the community for 38 years, until almost his last days, eventually becoming the rav of the other shul in the city, Beis Yisroel, and also of Congregation Anshei Emes of Davenport. In 1965, he retired, two and half years after his rebbitzen had passed away on the seventh day of Chanukah, 5723 (December 28, ’62). He was referred to as one of top rabbonim in the United States.

In 5724 (’64), Rav Levitan published a sefer, Siach Chein, droshos on the parshiyos, yomim tovim and special occasions. His sefer halachah, Yeriyos Shelomoh, from whose introduction the biographical information for this article was gleaned, was published posthumously by his children, and includes dialogues in halachah between Rav Levitan and a who’s who of gedolei Yisroel, including the Rogatchover Gaon and Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Levitan passed away on the sixteenth of Elul, 5726 (September 1, ‘66).

On the rocks

Why is the city named Rock Island? Rock Island was the original name of what is now called Arsenal Island, the largest island in the Mississippi River. One of the largest employers in the area is a US government-owned weapons manufacturing facility, which gave Arsenal Island its new name, but the name Rock Island remained. The metropolitan area of Davenport and Rock Island includes several other cities, and the current population estimate of the metropolitan area covering both states and both sides of the mighty Mississippi is 380,000.

Rock bottom

Although the core of the community of Rock Island was solidly frum when Rav Levitan arrived, with time, the older generation of committed Jews passed on, and the younger people either moved away or did not remain staunch in their Yiddishkeit. Several of Rav Levitan’s teshuvos reflect the sad reality of being rav in a community that is slowly disappearing. Among these questions is a teshuvah concerning whether one may build a mikveh in a boarded-up, no longer functional shul.

Rock kohen echad

The halachic question that opened this article reflects another manifestation of this problem. In 1949, when Rav Levitan sent this question to Rav Moshe, the shul no longer had any shomer Shabbos kohanim, and there was no longer any duchening. There was one kohen who came to shul on yomim tovim, a man who owned and operated a store on Shabbos. He had not been duchening until the chazzan of the shul encouraged him to do so. The question was whether it was permitted to allow the kohen to continue duchening or whether Rav Levitan must insist that the kohen stop. He wrote a lengthy missive detailing the aspects of the question and mailed it to Rav Moshe Feinstein for the latter’s opinion. Here is the halachic background:

Rocky conflict

At first glance, whether a sinner may duchen appears to be a dispute between the two Talmudim, the Bavli and the Yerushalmi. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Gittin 5:9) states: “Don’t say, ‘This man violates prohibitions like arayos’, or ‘He is a shedder of blood — and he should bless me?’ The Holy One, blessed is He, said: ‘Who is blessing you? I am blessing you.’” This passage of Yerushalmi implies that even someone violating the most serious of crimes may recite the duchening.

However, this passage of Yerushalmi seems to conflict with a ruling of the Talmud Bavli (Brochos 32b), which states that a kohen who killed someone should not duchen. The Kesef Mishneh (Hilchos Tefillah ubirchas Kohanim 15:3) clarifies that the Yerushalmi may be understood in a way that it does not conflict with the Bavli. He explains the Yerushalmi to mean that we do not know for certain whether the kohen actually sinned, but that there is a persistent rumor of his violating very serious sins. The halachah is that were we certain that the kohen killed someone or worshipped idols, he would not be permitted to duchen, as stated in the Bavli, but definite knowledge that he commits other sins does not preclude his duchening, nor do rumors that he commits violations such as arayos or murder.

This approach is supported by the ruling of the Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah ubirchas Kohanim 15:3, 6): “A kohen who killed someone, even if only through negligence and even if he subsequently did teshuvah, should not duchen… a kohen who worshipped idols, even if under coercion or he did so negligently, may never duchen again, even if he did teshuvah… However, other sins do not prevent him… A kohen who does not have any of the things that prevent him from duchening, even if he is not a Torah scholar, is careless in his mitzvah observance, has a scandalous reputation, and his business dealings are dishonest, should nevertheless duchen. We do not stop him — because it is a positive mitzvah for every kohen who may duchen. Do not say to an evil person, ‘add more iniquity and don’t observe mitzvos.’”

Thus, the Rambam rules that a kohen who killed someone or worshipped idols may not duchen, but a kohen who violated any other mitzvos of the Torah may and should still duchen, even if his sinning was intentional and he has as yet not done teshuvah.

All of this does not present any reason to exclude a kohen who desecrates Shabbos from duchening. Although he performs heinous sins, even sinners, with very few exceptions, are encouraged to duchen. However, to decide whether we may allow this kohen to duchen requires more research.

Worshipping rocks

The Gemara (Chullin 5a) says that we accept korbanos from Jewish sinners, in order to encourage them to do teshuvah. One can infer that these sinners are treated just as the sinning kohanim whom we allow to duchen – even though they sin intentionally and have no intention of doing teshuvah!

Notwithstanding this “liberal” attitude in treating sinners, the Gemara makes two exceptions whose korbanos are not accepted — someone who worships idols and someone who desecrates Shabbos openly. We do not accept the korbanos of these two categories of sinners.

On the basis of this Gemara, the Pri Chodosh (Orach Chayim 128:39) explains that just as an idol worshipper is not permitted to duchen, so too, a mechalel Shabbos in public may not duchen. In other words, although sinners are both permitted and encouraged to offer korbanos and to duchen, there are certain sins that place a perpetrator beyond the pale of permitting him to duchen. Once we see that a Shabbos breaker may not offer korbanos because he is compared to an idol worshipper, so too, he is prohibited from duchening. This position is shared by several other prominent acharonim (Pri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav 128:39; Rav Shulchan Aruch 128:52; Mishnah Berurah 128:134; Kaf Hachayim 128:217).

Thus, Rav Levitan was in a predicament. Now that the storeowner had begun to duchen, it would create a major ruckus to stop him. If halachah requires that he be stopped, then there is no choice. On the other hand, if this kohen may duchen, there would be no reason to turn the situation into a battleground.

Rock of Gibraltar

This was the question that Rav Levitan sent to Rav Moshe, including an analysis of the sources in halachah on the topic. In his response, Rav Moshe noted that although the Gemara compares a Shabbos desecrater to an idol worshipper and rules that, in both instances, we do not accept their korbanos, there is, nevertheless, a qualitative difference between the gravity of these two aveiros. The possibility exists that, although someone who committed idolatry may not duchen, a blatant mechalel Shabbos might be permitted.

Rav Moshe then notes that this distinction can be proved. The Rambam rules that an idol worshipper may not duchen even after he has done teshuvah, whereas Rav Moshe contends that a former Shabbos breaker may. There is a qualitative difference between idolatry and desecrating Shabbos.

Rock of ages

Here is an even stronger proof that a Shabbos desecrator may duchen. The Mishnah (Menachos 109a) rules that “kohanim who served in the Temple of Chonyo may not serve in the Beis Hamikdash in Yerushalayim, and certainly those who once served avodah zarah may not… They are treated like blemished kohanim, who may receive a portion of the meat of the offerings and eat it, but they may not offer korbanos.”

What was the temple of Chonyo? Chonyo, who had been passed over as kohen gadol, built his own altar in Alexandria, Egypt (Menachos 109b). Constructing this place of worship was a clear violation of halachah, although the Mishnah concludes that Beis Chonyo, as it refers to this structure, was not a house of idol worship. Nevertheless, any kohen who ever served in Beis Chonyo was forever banned from serving in the Beis Hamikdash, even if he subsequently did full teshuvah for his sins.

Rock Gornish

Notwithstanding the Mishnah’s statement that anyone who served idols may never again serve in the Beis Hamikdash, the Gemara draws a distinction between how he served idols. Although slaughtering for an idol is a sin that merits capital punishment (Sanhedrin 7:6), the Gemara (Menachos 109a-b) rules that a kohen who slaughtered an animal for avodah zarah, but never performed any other idol worship, who then did teshuvah, may still perform the service (avodah) in the Beis Hamikdash (see Rashi). Slaughtering for idols is treated more leniently than other violations of idolatry, such as offering to the idol, which invalidate the kohen forever from serving in the Beis Hamikdash or duchening. Certainly, a kohen who slaughtered for avodah zarah may still duchen, just as he may still serve in the Beis Hamikdash, in spite of the severity of his sin.

Rav Moshe notes that although flouting Shabbos publicly is as sinful as venerating idols, not all forms of idolatry invalidate the perpetrator from ever again offering korbanos or from duchening. Thus, although desecrating Shabbos is a grievous sin, we cannot prove that it invalidates the perpetrator from duchening. It may be parallel to slaughtering to idols, which does not invalidate the perpetrator from duchening. Rav Moshe notes that this ruling of his runs against the consensus of the acharonim on the subject.

Rav Moshe then adds another logical reason why a Shabbos desecrator may still duchen. The Gemara states that someone who brazenly desecrates Shabbos is treated like an idolater. The halachah is that only one who desecrates Shabbos openly has this status and not someone who defiles Shabbos only behind closed doors. Why do we draw a distinction between someone who violates Shabbos overtly and one who does so clandestinely? The transgression is the same, and, truthfully, transgressing covertly is a more serious offence than doing so explicitly, since one who violates only in private implies that he is more concerned about what people think of him than he is concerned about what Hashem knows!

Rav Moshe explains that one who is mechalel Shabbos openly is considered an idolater because publicized chillul Shabbos is a colossal chillul Hashem. Rav Moshe further suggests that perhaps it is such a colossal chillul Hashem only when the reason for the sin is his disdain for mitzvos, but not when it is obvious that his motivation to transgress is for profit. Although Shabbos desecration for monetary gain is grievous, it may not be tantamount to idol worship, even when performed blatantly.

Rocking the boat

Rav Moshe then rules that, although it is permitted for the recalcitrant storeowner to duchen, the rav has the right to ban him from duchening in order to discourage chillul Shabbos, even when this ruling will discontinue duchening in shul. Nevertheless, Rav Moshe concludes that the rav should not ban a mechalel Shabbos from duchening if the chazzan recited the word kohanim aloud, or someone invited the kohen to duchen since there now may be a requirement min hatorah for him to duchen. In any instance, Rav Moshe suggests that one not “rock the boat” should a mechalel Shabbos want to duchen.

In conclusion – Falling from the rock

When I was a rav in a Buffalo, New York suburb, I often had occasion to drive through the small towns in the area. In most of the towns, there was a building that one could easily identify as having once been a frum shul. Unfortunately, none of these towns has any frum presence anymore, although there may have been prominent rabbonim and talmidei chachamim living there at one time.

Who Is the True Redeemer?

Discussing the mitzvah of pidyon haben is certainly appropriate to this week’s parsha—I therefore bring you…

Who is the True Redeemer?

Ìàøóëå 1 ìåñÿöQuestion #1: Deadbeat dad

Mrs. Gerusha* calls me with the following question:

“I am a divorced baalas teshuvah with two young children, a son and a daughter. My son never had a pidyon haben, and my ex-husband is an agnostic who is not interested in participating. Am I required to perform the pidyon haben for my twelve-year-old son, and what is the procedure if I do?”

Question #2: Who’s on first?

Mrs. Gerusha’s son asks: “May I perform my pidyon haben at my bar mitzvah?”

Question #3: Late bloomer

The Schwartz family discovered observant Judaism sometime after their oldest son was born some twenty years ago. Recently, they realized that they have never fulfilled the mitzvah of pidyon haben. The question is: Who should perform the mitzvah now, Mr. Schwartz or his yeshivah-bachur oldest son? In other words, if a father did not redeem his firstborn son who is now an adult, may he still fulfill the mitzvah?

Answer

This week’s parshah includes one of the places where the Torah mentions the mitzvah of pidyon haben, the redeeming of a firstborn son. This mitzvah is usually fulfilled by a father giving to a kohen five silver coins, each of which is worth a sela (plural sela’im), the cost established by the Torah to fulfill this mitzvah. This mitzvah is required only if the firstborn is not a kohen or a levi, his mother is not the daughter of either a kohen or a levi, and his delivery was a natural birth, in which case he is called a petter rechem.

The Gemara (Kiddushin 29a) derives that a father is required to fulfill the mitzvah of redeeming his firstborn son.

There are three obvious situations in which the father would not perform this mitzvah:

  1. The father died before he performed the mitzvah.
  2. The father is not Jewish or is unknown.
  3. The father did not fulfill the mitzvah, although he could have.

Regardless as to why the father does not perform the mitzvah, the mother has no responsibility to do so. Rather, upon becoming bar mitzvah, the firstborn son himself becomes obligated in the mitzvah.

Thus, we can already examine Mrs. Gerusha’s question concerning her son who never had a pidyon haben, and whose father is unwilling to perform the mitzvah. She asked whether she is required to perform the pidyon haben.

Certainly, Mrs. Gerusha is not required to redeem her son.

May she?

When Mrs. Gerusha was told that she is not required to perform pidyon haben, she immediately asked whether she may perform the mitzvah. Answering this question requires an introduction.

Pidyon haben vs. bris

Pidyon haben is similar to the mitzvah of bris milah in that the father is the individual primarily responsible to fulfill it. However, there is a major difference between the two mitzvos: Should the father not fulfill the mitzvah of bris milah, the rest of the Jewish people become obligated to perform the bris milah on the uncircumsized child. The Gemara calls this “beis din being obligated in the mitzvah,” since they are the representative of the Jewish people.

On the other hand, in the case of pidyon haben, the community is not obligated to redeem this child. Should there be no father or should he fail to redeem his son, the mitzvah becomes the child’s to perform upon his becoming old enough to do so.

May they redeem?

Granted that no one is obligated to perform pidyon haben other than a father of the firstborn or, upon becoming of age, the firstborn son himself, may someone else give money to a kohen for the purposes of pidyon haben and thereby redeem the firstborn?

This question is discussed by several halachic authorities, the Taz (Yoreh Deah 305:11) concluding that someone other than the father cannot perform the redemption on behalf of a minor, whereas most authorities rule that a third party may redeem the firstborn (Nekudas Hakesef and Gra ad loc; Machaneh Efrayim, Hilchos Zechiyah #7; see also Ketzos Hachoshen 243:7 and Milu’ei Choshen ad locum). Thus, although Mrs. Gerusha is not required to redeem her son, according to most authorities, should she choose to do so, the redemption is effective.

When the bechor redeems himself, he recites a different version of the text than a father does when he redeems his son. When a father redeems his son, he recites Asher kideshanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu al pidyon haben [He Who commanded us in His commandments concerning redeeming the son] (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 305:10). According to the Shulchan Aruch and the prevalent practice among Sefardim, when the bechor redeems himself, since he is not redeeming his son he closes the brocha with the words lifdos habechor (to redeem the firstborn). According to the Rema and the prevalent Ashkenazic custom, he concludes with the words al pidyon habechor (concerning redeeming the firstborn).

Early responsum

One of our opening questions asked whether a father is still responsible to observe the mitzvah of pidyon haben after his son becomes old enough to fulfill the mitzvah himself. This very question is discussed by the Rashba (Shu’t Harashba 2:321). The rabbonim of the city of Toledo, Spain, asked the Rashba (who lived his entire life in Barcelona) to rule on a situation in which a father had not redeemed his son shortly after the latter’s birth. Many years have passed, and the son is an adult who is interested in performing the mitzvah himself. The father has decided that he would like now to do the mitzvah, and contends that it is his mitzvah to perform. On the other hand, the son feels that once he became an adult the mitzvah is entirely his and no longer his father’s. Does the father still have a requirement to perform the mitzvah? Assuming that he does, is there a preference which of the two, the father or the son, performs the mitzvah?

The Toledo contention

The rabbonim of Toledo were unsure what to do, and therefore decided to have both the father and the son give the required amount for pidyon haben to the kohen, to be certain that the mitzvah was performed correctly. Since they were undecided as to whether the father or the son was observing the mitzvah, they ruled that neither one should recite the brocha prior to giving the kohen the redemption money. Since the kohen had now received more money than he was entitled to according to the halachah, he was required to return the difference. (The responsum does not say to whom the money was returned.)

Rashba’s ruling

Although the pidyon had already been performed according to their ruling, the rabbonim of Toledo asked the Rashba whether their decision was accurate. The Rashba explained that the rabbonim of Toledo had not ruled correctly. The mitzvah of a father to redeem his son never ends, even when the son becomes old enough to be required to perform his own redemption. Since both father and son are now required to perform the redemption, yet only one pidyon is required, whoever performs it first fulfills the mitzvah and should recite the brocha prior to giving the kohen the redemption money. The Rashba concludes that if the father and son ask which of them should preferably perform the mitzvah, the answer is the father. Therefore, in the case of Toledo, the son could have performed the mitzvah and recited the brochos (including shehecheyanu, see below), but, preferably, the father should have performed the mitzvah, in which case he would recite the brochos.

At this point, we can return to our opening question #3: The Schwartz family joined observant Judaism some time after their oldest son was born, some twenty years ago. Recently, they realized that they had never fulfilled the mitzvah of pidyon haben. The question is: Who should perform the mitzvah now, Mr. Schwartz, or his yeshivah-bachur oldest son? In other words, if a father did not redeem his firstborn son who is now an adult, may he still fulfill the mitzvah?

The answer is that either the father or the son can perform the mitzvah, and whoever does so recites the brochos. If they ask who should preferably perform the mitzvah, the answer is that it should be Mr. Schwartz.

Coercion

Should a father fail to perform the mitzvah of pidyon haben, the beis din has the halachic right and responsibility to coerce him to perform his mitzvah. What is the law if the father did not perform the mitzvah when his son was young, and now the son is old enough to perform the mitzvah himself? Does beis din coerce one of them to perform the mitzvah, and if it does, which one, the father or the son?

The Rashba rules that if the son is in a financial position to perform the mitzvah, we coerce the son, rather than the father, to do so. If the son is not in a financial position to perform the mitzvah himself, beis din should force the father.

Redeeming yourself

What is the procedure for performing pidyon haben when the adult son redeems himself?

Let us first review the basic steps of a regular pidyon haben performed by a father to redeem his recently born son.

A festive meal is celebrated in honor of the pidyon haben, in order to call attention to the mitzvah. After hamotzi has been recited, the father brings the bechor to the kohen, who is seated at a place of honor. The father declares to the kohen that the baby is a firstborn son, whom he is required to redeem.

The kohen then responds with the famous and enigmatic thousand-year old question: “Mai ba’is tefei?” “Which do you prefer? Would you rather have your child or the five silver coins, sela’im, of pidyon?”

The father responds that he would prefer his son, and that he has the money on hand with which to redeem his son. The father then recites two brochos: Asher kideshanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu al pidyon haben for the mitzvah of pidyon haben, and Shehecheyanu (Rema, Yoreh Deah 305:10). He then places the silver coins in the kohen’s hand. The kohen recites the verses of the birchas Kohanim and other words of blessing over the head of the bechor. The procedure is completed by the kohen reciting a brocha on a cup of wine and drinking it.

Redeeming oneself

An early halachic authority, the Maharshal, adapts the choreography of a standard pidyon haben to the situation in which a firstborn is redeeming himself because his father died before fulfilling the mitzvah:

The adult firstborn begins the proceedings by reciting the following declaration: “I am a firstborn petter rechem (see above) and Hashem commanded us to redeem the firstborn. Unfortunately, my father died before he redeemed me, and I remain with the responsibility to redeem myself… I am now prepared to fulfill the mitzvah of Hashem.”

The kohen then tells the firstborn, “Would you prefer your own body or the five sela’im that you are required to pay as your redemption money?” To which the firstborn answers: “I want to keep myself, and here are the five sela’im coins.” The firstborn then recites two brochos, the brocha on the mitzvah of pidyon haben and the brocha of Shehecheyanu (Yam shel Shlomoh, Kiddushin 1:53).

At this point, we can complete our answer to Mrs. Gerusha’s opening inquiry: “I am a divorced baalas teshuvah with two young children, a son and a daughter. My son never had a pidyon haben, and my ex-husband is an agnostic who is not interested in participating. Am I required to perform the pidyon haben for my twelve-year-old son, and what is the procedure if I do?”

As we mentioned above, the halachah is that a mother is not required to perform the mitzvah of pidyon haben. If the father refuses to perform the mitzvah, the mitzvah will devolve upon the firstborn son, upon his becoming obligated in mitzvos. In this latter case, the choreography would follow the Maharshal’s approach, making a slight modification in the text to accommodate the difference in circumstances – the firstborn’s father is alive.

Should the mother perform the pidyon on behalf of her son, as we mentioned above, most authorities consider the redemption valid, and the son will not be obligated in this mitzvah upon his becoming an adult. If she followed this approach, she should modify the pidyon haben choreography to note that she is redeeming her son. Personally, if I were asked what to do, I would advise them to wait until the son is old enough to perform his own pidyon, and to follow the text mentioned by the Maharshal, with the appropriate change reflecting the fact that the father is still alive.

When to redeem himself?

If the son is performing his own pidyon haben, when should he do it?

Since he becomes obligated in this mitzvah upon his bar mitzvah, he should perform the pidyon haben as soon as he has money with which to perform it. He is not required to beg or borrow money in order to do so, but may wait until he has earned the money or received it as a present. Other people may give him money so that he can perform the pidyon haben. Anyone may pay for the festive pidyon haben seudah.

This leads us to a new question: Since they would be celebrating a special meal on the occasion of his turning bar mitzvah, should they make the pidyon haben at that meal, or have two separate festive meals, one for the pidyon and the other for the bar mitzvah?

Combining semachos

Is it permitted for the firstborn bar mitzvah to combine his bar mitzvah celebration party with the pidyon haben? The background to this question is as follows:

The Mishnah (Moed Katan 8b) prohibits getting married on Chol Hamoed. The Gemara presents several disputing reasons for this ruling. One approach is that one should not overlap two festivities. Does this concern apply should the firstborn son celebrate his pidyon haben and his bar mitzvah at the same banquet – that this joint celebration deters from the celebration of one of the mitzvos?

Pidyon haben on Chol Hamoed

Tosafos (Moed Katan 8b s.v. Mipenei) discusses whether the prohibition against marrying on Chol Hamoed extends to other celebrations, such as a pidyon haben. At first, he considers that this might be prohibited, but he concludes that the Mishnah’s prohibition includes only getting married on Chol Hamoed, but not pidyon haben and other celebrations that are not as festive as is a wedding. This decision is followed by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 546:4) and others (Birchei Yosef, Yoreh Deah 305:18), but not by all authorities (see Rema, Yoreh Deah, 305:11). Similarly, we rule that a bris, a sheva brachos or a bar mitzvah may be celebrated on Chol Hamoed (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 546:3, 4), and that the only combined celebration prohibited is a wedding on Chol Hamoed.

Thus, it is perfectly fine for the son to do his pidyon haben at his bar mitzvah celebration. As a matter of fact, I would strongly encourage that he do so if he has the money with which to fulfill the mitzvah, since this accomplishes that fulfilling the mitzvah of pidyon haben is not delayed, and that it is observed at a festive occasion.

Thus we can now answer Mrs. Gerusha’s son’s question that we quoted at the beginning of this article: “May I perform my pidyon haben at my bar mitzvah?”

The answer is that he certainly may, and, since it is the first opportunity for the son to do so, it is, indeed, an exemplary time to perform the mitzvah.

Conclusion

Since the time of makas bechoros, all first-born males have a certain kedusha. This special sanctity should have resulted in their taking a special role in the service in the Beis Hamikdash. However, because the bechorim were involved in worshipping the eigel hazahav, they lost their unique status and could no longer perform any special role there. As a result, the bechor must undergo a redemption ceremony to make amends – which is accomplished by giving money to a kohen as a means of “redeeming” his kedusha.

* All names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.

 

The True Saga of Charles, the “Kohen” – or Am I a Kohen?

In honor of Parshas Korach, in which kohanim feature so significantly, I bring you the following:

Imagine the splendor of the Beis HaMikdash, with the kohanim wearing their pure white robes and turbans and their techeiles belts, racing to fulfill the wondrous avodah that brings the Jewish people close to Hashem! Not to mention the ornate garments of the kohen gadol, so beautiful that a gentile who heard about them was inspired to become Jewish, simply for the opportunity to wear them (Shabbos 31a)!

Indeed, the magnificent role of the kohen, not only for klal Yisrael, but also for the entire world, was not lost on Charles, the hero of the following story.

All his life, even before he was at all observant, Charles had known that he was a kohen. He knew that as a kohen he was entitled to the first aliyah when the Torah is read. When Charles became observant, he began duchening. He then learned about receiving pidyon haben money and began to envision himself wearing kohen’s garb and serving in the Beis HaMikdash. And so, Charles made it his hobby to study the laws that affect kohanim and particularly to know the gifts that they receive.

Charles knew about many of the honoraria a kohen receives today, and also began studying about what kohanim will receive when the Beis HaMikdash will be rebuilt. Here are some of the laws he learned:

CHALLAH

Instead of the small challah portion that we separate from our doughs and burn nowadays, when the Beis HaMikdash is rebuilt, we will separate a larger piece that we will then give to the kohen, for him and his family to eat in a state of taharah.

TERUMAH

Similarly, the terumah portion separated on all produce grown in Eretz Yisrael will be larger and given to the kohen, in addition to terumas maaser which constitutes 1% of the crop. Both the kohanim and their family members may eat terumah and terumas maaser when they are tahorim.

Before eating terumah or challah, a kohen will recite a special bracha, “Asher kideshanu bikedushaso shel aharon vetzivanu al achilas terumah,” Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, who sanctified us with the holiness of Aharon and commanded us concerning the eating of terumah (see Rambam, Hil. Terumos 15:22). The daughter of a Levi or Yisrael who married a kohen may also eat terumah and challah; however, the poskim debate whether she recites this bracha before eating terumah. Some contend that she does not, since she is not “sanctified with the holiness of Aharon,” but married into it. Her ability to eat terumah is technically a gift to her husband, since he may now provide for her with his terumah (Yeshu’os Malko, Hil. Bikkurim 1:2). Others maintain that she does recite a bracha, although they are uncertain whether she recites the text of the bracha with the words kideshanu bikedushaso shel aharon, that you have sanctified us with the holiness of Aharon, since she herself does not have this kedusha; perhaps she recites a bracha with a different text (Mishnah Rishonah, Terumos 8:1).

BIKKURIM

When the Beis HaMikdash is rebuilt, each farmer will bring there the first fruits of the seven species for which Eretz Yisrael is famous (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates) and make a lengthy declaration of thanks to Hashem for all the help He has given us. These fruits (grains are also fruits) will become the property of the kohanim with the same sanctity as challah and terumah. The kohen will recite a bracha before eating them (Rambam, Hil. Bikkurim 1:2).

BECHOR

Male firstborn of kosher animals owned by Jews are sanctified as korbanos. Because, unfortunately, we still have no Beis HaMikdash, the sanctity of these korbanos creates a serious quandary, since using the animal violates a major Torah prohibition. To avoid this problem, we sell part of the pregnant heifer, ewe or nanny goat to a gentile before she births, which guarantees that the calf, lamb, or kid has no kedusha.

When the Beis HaMikdash is rebuilt, we will no longer be permitted to sell part of the mother animal to a gentile since this would be evading the mitzvah. Instead, the firstborn will be given to the kohen, who will bring it as a korban. He and his family receive the meat from the animal, which they eat while tahorim in Yerushalayim.

By the way, the halachic borders of Yerushalayim affecting these and several other mitzvos are not determined by its current municipal borders, nor are they determined by the current “Old City” walls. The Ottomans built the current Old City walls which exclude parts of the original city that has kedushas Yerushalayim and include areas that were not part of the city. The Mishnah (Shavuos 14a) instructs what one must do in order to expand the city of Yerushalayim from a halachic perspective, and, until the Sanhedrin performs this procedure, one may perform the mitzvos that require being in Yerushalayim only in places that had kedusha in the time of the Second Beis HaMikdash (see Keilim 1:8).

PETTER CHAMOR

A firstborn male donkey owned by a Jew is exchanged for a sheep or goat that is given to a kohen (Shemos 13:13; Mishnah Bechoros 9a). Instead of giving the kohen a sheep or goat, the owner may elect instead to give the firstborn donkey itself to a kohen or give the kohen something of equal value to the firstborn donkey. Exchanging for a sheep or goat is to save the owner money should he want to – he may exchange a more expensive donkey for a newborn lamb or kid which are worth far less.

Why is there no mitzvah to redeem the firstborn of other non-kosher species as well? The Gemara (Bechoros 5b) explains that this mitzvah is a reward for the donkey for helping transport Bnei Yisrael and their property out of Egypt. Thus, this mitzvah teaches hakaras hatov, the importance of gratitude. If the Torah requires honoring an animal as a reward for appreciating and reciprocating the assistance we received from its ancestors thousands of years ago, how much more must we appreciate and reciprocate the good we receive and have received from our parents, teachers, and spouses!

MATANOS

Every time a Jew slaughters a kosher domestic animal, a kohen receives three sections of the animal: the upper right foreleg (this includes half the shoulder roasts); the mandible (cheek and jaw) area including the tongue; and the animal’s abomasum, its fourth stomach, which is highly useful in food production. Why does the Torah give the kohen these three specific parts? Rav Hirsch (in his commentary to Devarim 18:1) explains that they represent the Jew’s desire that the kohen provide Torah guidance to the Jew’s actions (represented by the right forearm), his speech, and his pleasure (represented by the stomach that digests).

THE MEAT AND THE HIDES FROM KORBANOS

The kohanim also receive the hides and meat from most korbanos. The location where the kohen eats this meat and whether his family shares it with him depend on the sanctity of the korban; kodoshei kodoshim are eaten only by male kohanim and only in the chatzeir (courtyard) of the Beis HaMikdash, whereas kodoshim kalim may be eaten by the kohen’s family anywhere in the Biblical city of Yerushalayim.

REISHIS HAGEIZ – First Fleece

The kohanim also receive a portion from the first shearing of a Yisrael’s wool.

In total, the kohanim receive 24 special gifts (Rambam, Hilchos Bikkurim, Chapter 1) that are meant to remind us of the kohen’s special kedusha and to enable him to spend his time bringing the Jewish people close to Hashem by teaching them His Torah.

This all leads to the following question. If the Torah wanted to provide the kohen with a proper stipend so that he could devote himself to teaching Torah and other aspects of kedusha, why didn’t it simply provide him with a proper salary? Why provide him with all these small gifts, which add up to a respectful livelihood?

The answer is that the Torah’s method requires the Yisrael to interact with the kohen constantly. Since the kohen is a person whose role is to exude holiness, this constant interaction with kohanim influences the rest of Klal Yisrael, increasing its kedusha.

BACK TO CHARLES, OUR KOHEN!

By now, Charles had learned all of these wonderful aspects about being a kohen and this excited him greatly. He also knew about a kohen’s special obligations. Divinely bestowed gifts are accompanied by Torah responsibilities. For example, a kohen may not marry a divorcee or a convert, and may not come into contact with a human corpse. Charles also did not make the common error of thinking that adopting a non-Jewish baby automatically makes the child Jewish. He knew that the baby must be halachically converted, and that a converted girl may not later marry a kohen. Thus, an adopted girl would usually be ineligible to marry a kohen.

Charles also learned that a kohen may not marry a woman whose father is not Jewish (Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 4:5, 19; cf. Beis Shmuel and Beis Meir, who disagree) and that if a kohen marries a woman forbidden to him, he damages the pedigree of his offspring from this union forever. His wife and children from this union became tarnished and are called chalalim, defiled descendants of a kohen. Not only are the daughters of chalalim forbidden to marry kohanim, but also their sons’ daughters and the sons’ sons’ daughters etc..

PIDYON HABEN FOR A CHALAL’S SON

Charles’ rebbe, who was a kohen, told him how he once performed pidyon haben for a baby whose paternal grandfather was a kohen. “How could this be?” Charles asked him.

“The baby’s grandfather had unfortunately married a divorcee,” the rebbe explained, “and the father performing the pidyon haben was the son of this marriage.”

“Prior to performing the pidyon haben for this first-born son,” his rebbe had continued, “I met with the parents privately — very sincere people. I explained to them that any daughters they have in the future may not marry kohanim, although they may marry anyone else. I also told them that when their newborn son has daughters, they also will not be able to marry kohanim. It pained me tremendously to share this information with this sincere young baal teshuvah couple, but I had a halachic responsibility to make sure that they knew this.”

WERE THEY REALLY KOHANIM?

Charles had studied the unfortunate story recorded in the Books of Ezra and Nechemiah about certain kohen families who wanted to bring korbanos in the second Beis HaMikdash. He knew that Nechemiah rebuffed them because of concerns about their pedigree (Ezra 2:61-63; Nechemiah 7:63-65). The Gemara states that, although Nechemiah permitted them to eat terumah and to duchen, he prohibited them from eating korbanos or serving in the Beis HaMikdash (Kesubos 24b).

He remembered saying to his rebbe, “Either they are kohanim or they are not! If they are not valid kohanim, then they cannot eat terumah or duchen either. If they can eat terumah and duchen, then why can’t they offer korbanos and serve in the Beis HaMikdash?”

His rebbe replied: “The Gemara explains that there is a halachic difference between kohanim meyuchasim, who can prove their pedigree in Beis Din, and kohanei chazakah, kohanim who cannot prove their pedigree, but have a family tradition that they are kohanim. In the time of the Beis HaMikdash only a kohen who could prove the purity of his lineage could serve” (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Biyah 20:2; Kaftor VaFerach Vol. 1, page 101 in the 5757 edition. Note that some poskim contend that this requirement was not essential, see Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #236 and writings of Rav Tzvi Hersh Kalisher).

Charles was stunned, “If only a kohen who can prove his kehunah may offer korbanos, and there are no surviving kohanim who can prove their kehunah, how will we ever again be able to bring korbanos?”

“The Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 12:3) explains that Moshiach will use his Ruach HaKodesh to determine who is indeed a kosher kohen who may serve in the Beis HaMikdash,” his rebbe told him.

IS THE REALLY A KOHEN?

When Charles was in Yeshiva, one of his baal teshuvah friends, Mordechai, had the following shaylah: “My grandfather, who was not observant and often boastful, often claimed that we are kohanim, but I have no verification of this. I even had someone check the cemetery where my great-grandfather was buried, and there is no mention of his being a kohen on his tombstone. Should I be duchening, and may I marry a woman prohibited to a kohen?”

Mordechai was told that he was not a kohen, and should treat himself as a Yisrael concerning all halachos. Since most Jews are Yisraelim, someone who is uncertain of his pedigree should assume that he is a Yisrael. Furthermore, Mordechai was told that there was no point for him to check tombstones unless one knew that a halachically knowledgeable and reliable person had authorized the inscription. One cannot assume that the person who authorized the data on a tombstone had any halachic authority, and therefore its information carries no credibility.

Mordechai’s shaylah got Charles thinking. All his life, even before he was at all observant, he had known that he was a kohen. Why did he assume so when no one had been observant in his father’s family for several generations? When Charles became observant, he began duchening. He envisioned himself wearing kohen’s garb and serving in the Beis HaMikdash. Now he had to try to trace his kohanic origins. Were they authentic? He remembered his grandfather, a proud, although not a halachically observant or knowledgeable, Jew, saying that they were kohanim.

Many times Charles tried to trace the lineage, but each of his leads led nowhere.

Meanwhile, Charles discovered that being a kohen meant more than avoiding cemeteries and funerals; he discovered that there were streets, parks and highways to avoid, and that even going to museums was frequently problematic. Flying to and from Eretz Yisrael required advanced research to make sure that there were no meisim on the plane and that it did not fly over cemeteries. Touring Israel also required advanced planning and certain sites, such as the Arizal’s mikveh, Kever Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Kever Rachel were completely off-limits.

CHARLES STARTS SHIDDUCHIN

When the time came for Charles to begin shidduchin, he could postpone no longer. He knew he had to ask a shaylah, yet he procrastinated for a long time before he asked what to do. Finally, he went to a prominent gadol and asked him.

After hearing Charles’ story, the gadol asked him if he had continued to duchen even after he realized that there was no real evidence of his being a kohen. Charles answered that he had continued to duchen. The gadol then asked him why he continued duchening if he was convinced that there was no evidence that he was a kohen. Charles answered because he does not believe his grandfather would fabricate a story that they were kohanim. The gadol then ruled that since Charles truly believed he was a kohen, and had acted as such, he must treat himself as a kohen lechumrah, a term Charles had never heard before.

Afterwards, Charles’ rebbe explained to him the rationale of the gadol’s psak. By continuing to duchen despite the lack of evidence to that affect, Charles had declared that he believed himself to be a kohen. Halacha calls this shavyei anafshei chaticha de’isura, one who has made items prohibited for himself by his actions or declarations. Since only a kohen may duchen, when Charles duchened he was declaring that he considered himself a kohen, which obligated him to adhere to all the strictures of being a kohen. Thus, he may not marry any woman forbidden to a kohen or make himself tamei to a corpse.

However, since Charles has no evidence that he is a kohen, he is not entitled to the benefits of that noble status. He may not receive the money for pidyon haben, duchen, or receive the first aliyah to the Torah.

Charles stopped duchening and began informing people that they should call him to the Torah as a Yisrael. Upon the advice of his rebbe, he decided not to advertise his unusual halachic status, but would discreetly assume that his shidduchin should only be with women who could marry a kohen. He does not attend funerals and is careful not to travel on roads where trees overhang cemeteries.

The gadol had told Charles that his unique halachic status applies only to himself, but not to his children in the future. Since they never duchened, they never declared that they believe themselves to be kohanim, and are considered Yisraelim regarding all halachos. Charles truly believes he is a kohen, although he has no evidence to sustain this belief. His sons have no reasons to believe that they are kohanim since they never knew his grandfather.

Charles now uses his Hebrew name, has in the interim become a big talmid chacham, and now has adult children who do not know why their father never seems to have time to go to a funeral. They never noticed that “Charles” rarely goes to museums and is always tremendously curious about kohen-related issues. Aside from his rebbe and his wife, few people know any more about Charles’ unique status. He might even be the fellow who was just called up for shlishi!

Does Mrs. Cohen Go to the Head of the Line?

You are waiting patiently in the checkout line at “The Kosher Grocer,” together with three other women — the Rebbitzen of your shul, the widowed Rebbitzen of a famous Rosh Yeshiva, and Mrs. Cohen, who is the wife of a kohen at your shul. Do you have a mitzvah or a requirement to step aside and allow either of the Rebbitzens or the kohen’s wife to go first?

Most people would feel that this is simply a question of good midos, while others might argue that inviting them to go first is allowing others to take unfair advantage. Who would realize that this situation involves halachic issues?

Please circle what you consider the correct answer:

(1) No halachic requirement to give away your turn.

(2) Allow one rebbitzen to go first, but not both.

(3) The kohen’s wife goes first.

(4) First the Shul Rebbitzen, then the Rosh Yeshiva’s Rebbitzen, then Mrs. Cohen, and then me.

(5) First the Rosh Yeshiva’s Rebbitzen, then the Shul Rebbitzen, then Mrs. Cohen, and then me.

(6) First the Shul Rebbitzen, then the Rosh Yeshiva’s Rebbitzen, then me, and then Mrs. Cohen.

Although you may “luck out” and choose the correct answer, surely it is better to determine the halachic issues involved in this multiple choice question.

The issues that need resolving include:

1. Should a talmid chacham be placed at the head of the line?

2. Should a kohen be placed at the head of the line?

3. If the answer to either question is yes, does the same mitzvah apply to the talmid chacham’s or the kohen’s wife?

4. Should we place the widow of a talmid chacham (or a kohen) at the head of the line?

5. Is there any restriction as to when these honorees should be placed at the head of the line?

We will begin our discussion with the Gemara (Nedarim 62a) that says: “A talmid chacham who appears in Beis Din as a litigant may say, ‘I am a talmid chacham. My case should be heard first.’” The Gemara proves this from the pasuk (Shmuel II 8:18) that refers to the sons of Dovid as kohanim when, of course, they were actually from the shevet of Yehudah and not kohanim at all. Thus, the pasuk means that because they were talmidei chachamim, they were treated with (at least) the respect due to kohanim (Ran to Nedarim ad loc.). The Gemara adds that just as we honor a kohen to “open first” (liftoach rishon), bless first, and choose a good portion first, so we give a talmid chacham these same honors (Gittin 59b, Moed Katan 28b).

IS THIS HUMBLE?

But isn’t it arrogant for a talmid chacham to tell people that he is a Torah scholar and therefore entitled to certain rights?

Actually, this act is not gaavah, conceit, but rather allows people the opportunity to perform a mitzvah. However, if people will not provide him with the kavod they are required to, one should not mention that he is a talmid chacham. In general, a talmid chacham has the right to be mocheil (forgive) his special rights as a talmid chacham (Kiddushin 32a).

OPEN FIRST

What does the Gemara mean when it says that “the kohen (or talmid chacham) should “open first?” This means that he should be the first speaker, whether in divrei torah or at a meeting, that he should make the bracha on the meal first (Rashi, Gittin 59b), make kiddush for everyone (Mishnah Berurah 201:12), and lead the benching (Rashi, Moed Katan 28b; Ran and other Rishonim, Nedarim 62b). (Even though the kohen is usually honored, there is one exception — it is recommended that the host himself make hamotzi, since he is thereby able to apportion food generously [Berachos 46a].) Also, if the talmid chacham or kohen is poor, he is entitled to choose the best available portion of tzedakah or maaser given to the poor (Tosafos, Gittin 59b). According to some opinions, if one dissolves a partnership and divides the property into two similar shares, one should offer the kohen or talmid chacham the choice between the two shares (see Rashi, Gittin 59b). However, the accepted approach is that this last situation is not regarded as a fulfillment of the mitzvah (Tosafos ad loc.). Nevertheless, when a group of friends are together, they should offer the talmid chacham or kohen the opportunity of taking the best portion.

We see from the above Gemara that honoring a talmid chacham includes listening to his din torah first, and that he does not have to wait for other people. In fact, even if the talmid chacham arrives in beis din when a different din torah is already underway, we interrupt that din torah and give precedence to the talmid chacham’s din torah (Rama, Choshen Mishpat 15:1). Consequently, if you want your din torah handled very efficiently, don’t schedule it in a beis din that might be handling the dinei torah of talmidei chachamim! All this makes it obvious that a talmid chacham’s groceries should be “checked out” at the grocery first.

MISPLACED INDIGNITY

But won’t people be upset when a talmid chacham jumps the line?

They should not – because, on the contrary, they should be proud to perform the mitzvah. Anyone aware of the honor due to talmidei chachamim would beg a talmid chacham to go ahead.

WHAT IF IT COSTS ME MONEY?

Must I honor the talmid chacham even if it costs me money? How much must I forgo to fulfill this mitzvah?

In general, the responsibility of giving kavod requires expenditure of time, but not money (see Gemara Kiddushin 32a). Therefore, if giving up my place on line will cost me money, I am not required to do so. Thus, if I will have to put more money in the parking meter in order to allow for the time delay, I am not required to give up my spot. However if it only costs me time, I am required to give up my place. (Some contemporary poskim contend that one is not required to give up time to fulfill the mitzvah of kavod. However, I believe the halachic sources demonstrate otherwise.)

WHO QUALIFIES AS A TALMID CHACHAM?

Someone who understands most of Shas and the halachic authorities and is able to discuss these issues intelligently is considered a talmid chacham (Rama, Yoreh Deah 243:2).

HOW CAN I DETERMINE IF HE IS A TALMID CHACHAM?

What if I am unable to test a person and know if he meets the requirements of being a talmid chacham?

If the Torah-knowledgeable members of his community view him as a talmid chacham, I should treat him as such.

NON-JEW IN LINE

What happens if a gentile customer is behind me in the cashier’s line, and a talmid chacham is waiting at the back of the line?

A non-Jew is not required to honor a talmid chacham — it is not one of his mitzvos. Thus one cannot ask the talmid chacham to go ahead if this will delay a non-Jew. You may offer the talmid chacham to switch places with you, if his order will take about the same or less time to check out, since this will not affect the gentile.

THE REBBITZEN

So far we have demonstrated that the mitzvah of showing respect to a talmid chacham includes placing him ahead on a grocery checkout line. Does this mitzvah extend to his rebbitzen — that is, must one also show honor to the wife of a talmid chacham?

The halacha is that “eishes chaver k’chaver,” the wife of a talmid chacham should be treated with the same respect given to her husband (Gemara Shavuos 30b). This is because one fulfills the mitzvah of respecting a talmid chacham by showing his wife respect, and therefore one should stand up in her presence, just as one rises before her husband (Gemara Shavuos 30b), seat her in a place of respect, and one should certainly place her ahead in a line.

IN THE DOCTOR’S OFFICE

I have an appointment at the doctor and discover that the appointment immediately after mine is that of a talmid chacham or the wife of a talmid chacham. Must I allow them to go first?

I am indeed required to encourage them to go first, unless I lose money out of pocket to do so.

THE WIDOW OF A TALMID CHACHAM

What about the widow of a talmid chacham? Does the respect due a talmid chacham include rising for his wife after he has passed on? Early poskim rule that although no Torah mitzvah of respecting a talmid chacham applies here, there is still a rabbinic mitzvah to honor her (Ramban, quoted by Ran to Shavuos 30b).

Therefore, I should show kavod for the widow of a talmid chacham and rise in her presence. But, if I have to choose between giving honor to the wife of a living talmid chacham and to the widow of a late talmid chacham, the wife of the living talmid chacham comes first. However, if the widow will realize that she is receiving less honor because her husband is deceased, one should give her extra respect to avoid hurting the feelings of a widow.

HONORING A KOHEN

Earlier, I mentioned the Gemara that one should treat a kohen with special honor. How much honor must a kohen receive, relative to a talmid chacham?

A kohen who is not a talmid chacham is not entitled to as much honor as a talmid chacham. This halacha has several ramifications; for example, whereas one must rise before a talmid chacham, there is no requirement to do so before a kohen. If a yisrael is a Torah scholar and the kohen is not, the Torah scholar receives the greater honor. (The one exception is the first aliyah to the Torah, where, in order to maintain peace and decorum, a kohen receives the first aliyah, even in the presence of a yisrael who is a greater scholar.)

Based on the above, when serving guests at a meal, one should first serve the talmidei chachamim, then their wives, and then the kohanim before serving the rest of the guests. This means the host should instruct those serving to serve these honored guests first. If the host did not instruct his wife to serve the kohen first, then his wife must serve her husband first (since her obligation to her husband comes before the kohen).

If the yisrael is a greater talmid chacham than the kohen, but the kohen is also a talmid chacham, some rule that one is required to give the kohen the greater honor (Shach, Yoreh Deah 246:14). Others rule that it is preferable, but not obligatory, to give the kohen the greater honor (Rama, Orach Chayim 167:14 and Mishnah Berurah 201:12).

A MINOR KOHEN

Is there any mitzvah to honor a kohen who is a minor?

The early poskim dispute this question, some contending that since a child cannot perform the service in the Beis HaMikdash there is no requirement to honor him. On the other hand, other poskim contend that since he will eventually be able to perform this service, he should receive special honor.

This dispute has very interesting and commonly met ramifications. What happens if there is no adult kohen in shul, but there is a kohen who is not yet bar mitzvah? If the mitzvah of vikidashto, honoring a kohen, applies to a minor, then we should give the minor kohen the first aliyah! This is indeed the opinion of the Maharit (Shu”t #145). However, the prevalent practice is that there is no mitzvah of vikidashto for a minor (Magen Avraham 282:6; cf. Sdei Chemed 3:188).

WHAT ABOUT MRS. COHEN?

Does Mrs. Cohen deserve special treatment because her husband is a kohen? According to halacha, although the wife of a talmid chacham is treated with the respect due to a talmid chacham, there is no requirement to honor the wife of a kohen because of her husband’s special status. This is because the kohen’s wife cannot perform the service in the Beis HaMikdash.

We can now begin to answer the questions raised at the beginning of our article:

1-2. Does a talmid chacham and/or his wife go to the head of the line?

The answer is that they both have this right, and that it is a mitzvah for others to place them ahead in the line. Thus, if you are in a doctor’s office and you see that the patient after you is a talmid chacham or the wife or widow of a talmid chacham, you should encourage them to switch slots with you. As we mentioned above, you are not required to do this if it will result in an out-of-pocket loss.

4. Does a Kohen have a right to go the head of the line?

Indeed he does, and one should encourage this.

5. Does a Kohen’s wife have the right to go to the head of the line?

As we mentioned above, the kohen’s wife does not receive special honors because of his status.

At this point, I invite you to one again examine the multiple choice question included at the beginning of this article. You are waiting patiently in the checkout line at “The Kosher Grocer,” together with three other women — the Rebbitzen of your shul, the widowed Rebbitzen of a famous Rosh Yeshiva, and Mrs. Cohen, wife of a kohen at your shul. Please circle what you consider the correct answer:

(1) No halachic requirement to give away your turn.

(2) Allow one rebbitzen to go first, but not both.

(3) The kohen’s wife goes first.

(4) First the Shul Rebbitzen, then the Rosh Yeshiva’s Rebbitzen, then Mrs. Cohen, and then me.

(5) First the Rosh Yeshiva’s Rebbitzen, then the Shul Rebbitzen, then Mrs. Cohen, and then me.

(6) First the Shul Rebbitzen, then the Rosh Yeshiva’s Rebbitzen, then me, and then Mrs. Cohen.

Did you choose correctly? The correct answer is (6). Can you explain why?

Do Clothes Make the Kohen? — Identifying the Materials from which the Bigdei Kehunah Are Made

In the year 5017 (1257), several hundred Baalei Tosafos, led by Rav Yechiel of Paris, left Northern France on a journey to Eretz Yisrael. Rav Eshtori HaParchi, who lived two generations later, records a fascinating story he heard when he went to Yerushalayim to have his sefer, the Kaftor VaFarech, reviewed by a talmid chacham, named Rav Baruch. Rav Baruch told him that Rav Yechiel had planned to offer korbanos upon arriving in Yerushalayim! Rav Eshtori writes that he was too preoccupied with his sefer at the time to realize that there were several halachic problems with Rav Yechiel’s plan.[1] In Kaftor VaFarech, he mentions some of his own concerns; in addition, later poskim discuss many other potential difficulties. Among the concerns raised is identifying several of the materials necessary for the kohanim’s vestments.

Vestments of the kohen

The Torah describes the garments worn by the kohanim in the Beis HaMikdash as follows: “Aharon and his sons shall don their belt and their hat, and they (the garments) shall be for them as kehunah, as a statute forever.”[2] The Gemara[3] deduces, “When they wear their special vestments, they have the status of kehunah. When they are not wearing these vestments, they do not have this status.” This means that korbanos are valid only if the kohen offering them attires himself correctly.

The regular kohen (kohen hedyot) wears four garments when performing service in the Beis HaMikdash; three of them, his undergarment, his robe, and his turban are woven exclusively from white linen. The Torah never describes how one makes the fourth garment of the regular kohen, the avneit, or belt, but it does mention the material of the belts worn by the kohen gadol – on Yom Kippur he wears a pure linen belt, whereas his regular belt also contains techeiles, argaman, and tola’as shani, different colored materials that I will describe shortly. The Gemara cites a dispute whether the kohen hedyot’s belt also includes these special threads, or whether he wears one of pure linen.[4] The Rambam concludes that the regular kohen’s avneit includes threads of techeiles, argaman, and tola’as shani.[5]

Assuming that Rav Yechiel concluded that the regular kohen’s avneit also includes techeiles, argaman, and tola’as shani, his proposal to offer korbanos required proper identification of these materials, a necessary prerequisite to offering korbanos. This article will be devoted to the fascinating questions that we must resolve to accomplish this task.

What is argaman?

The Midrash Rabbah reports that argaman is the most valuable of these four threads and is the color of royal garments.[6] The Rishonim dispute its color, the Rambam ruling that it is red, whereas the Raavad understands that it is multicolored cloth, woven either from different species or of different colored threads.[7] The Raavad explains that the word argaman is a composite of arug min, meaning woven of different types. This approach appears to be supported by a pasuk in Divrei HaYamim[8] that lists argavan, rather than argaman, as the material used in building the Beis HaMikdash.[9] The word argavan seems to be a composite of two words, arug gavna, meaning woven from several colors, an approach that fits the Raavad’s description much better than it fits the Rambam’s.[10]

The Raavad’s approach that argaman is multicolored is further supported by a comment in the Zohar[11] that describes argaman as multicolored. However, the Radak[12] understands the word argavan according to Rambam’s approach, and Kesef Mishneh, similarly, states that the primary commentaries followed Rambam’s interpretation. The Rekanti[13] quotes both approaches, but implies that he considers the Raavad’s approach to be primary.

By the way, the Ibn Ezra[14] implies that argaman might have been dyed silk rather than wool, whereas most opinions assume that it is wool.[15] Rabbeinu Bachyei[16] contends that silk could not have been used for the mishkan or the Beis HaMikdash, since it is manufactured from non-kosher species. This is based on the Gemara’s[17] statement that non-kosher items may not be used for mitzvos. I will discuss this point further below.

Is argaman a color or a source?

It is unclear if the requirement to use argaman thread means that the thread used for the Kohen’s belt must be a certain shade of color, or whether it must be dyed with a specific dye. Rambam implies that the source for the argaman color is irrelevant. These are his words:

Argaman is wool dyed red, and tola’as shani is wool dyed with a worm.”[18] (The Rambam explains elsewhere what he means when he says “dyed with a worm.” It should also be noted that the Hebrew word tola’as, which is usually translated worm, may include insects and other small invertebrates.) The Rambam’s wording implies that the source of the argaman dye is immaterial, as long as the thread is red. Thus, there may be no halachically required source for the dye, provided one knows the correct appearance of its shade.

Tola’as shani

One of the dye colors mentioned above is tola’as shani. In addition to its use for dyeing the kohen’s belt and some of the kohen gadol’s vestments, tola’as shani was also used for some of the curtains in the mishkan and in the Beis HaMikdash, in the manufacture of the purifying ashes of the parah adumah[19] and for the purifying procedure both of a metzora and of a house that became tamei because of tzaraas.[20]

Tola’as shani is a red color.[21] This presents us with a question: According to the Rambam that argaman is red, the source of which is irrelevant, what is the difference between the shade of argaman and that of tola’as shani? The Radak explains that they are different shades of red, although he provides us with no details of this difference.[22]

Must tola’as shani be derived from a specific source, or is it sufficient for it to be a distinctive shade of red, just as I suggested above that argaman is a color and not necessarily of a specific dye source?

The words of the Rambam that I quoted above answer this question: “Argaman is wool dyed red, and tola’as shani is wool dyed with a worm.” These words imply that although argaman can be used from any source that produces this particular color, tola’as shani must be from a very specific source.

A worm-based dye

Can the pesukim help us identify what is tola’as shani? The description of tola’as, which means worm, implies that the source of this dye is an invertebrate of some type. For this reason, some authorities seem to identify tola’as shani as “kermes,” a shade of scarlet derived from scale insects or some similar animal-derived red color.[23] Support for this approach could be rallied from a pasuk in Divrei HaYamim,[24] which describes the paroches (curtain) that served as the entrance to the kodoshei hakodoshim, the Holy of Holies of the Beis HaMikdash, as woven from the following four types of thread: techeiles, argaman, karmil, and butz, which is linen. The Torah, in describing the same paroches, refers to it as made of techeiles, argaman, tolaas shani, and linen. Obviously, karmil is another way of describing tola’as shani.[25] Similarly, in Divrei HaYamim II,[26] when describing the artisans sent by the Tyrian King, Hiram, to help his friend King Shelomoh, the pasuk mentions karmil as one of the materials in place of tola’as shani. Thus, karmil, a word cognate to kermes, seems to be a synonym for tola’as shani.[27]

However, as I mentioned above, Rabbeinu Bachyei takes issue with this approach, insisting that only kosher species may be used for building the mishkan and the garments of the kohanim. He bases his opinion on the Gemara[28] that states that “only items that one may eat may be used for the work of heaven,” which teaches that only kosher items may be used in the manufacture of tefillin. How does this fit with the description of tola’as shani as a worm derivative?

The Rambam states that the dye called tola’as shani does not originate from the worm itself, but from a berry that the worm consumes.[29] Thus, according to the opinion of Rambam, Rabbeinu Bachyei and others, although tola’as shani and karmil are the same, they are not from non-kosher sources, but from kosher vegetable sources.

Although this is probably the primary approach we would follow in a halachic decision, we cannot summarily dismiss those who identify tola’as shani as kermes or a different invertebrate-based dye. Although Rabbeinu Bachyei objects to a non-kosher source for tola’as shani, those who accept that its source is kermes have several ways to resolve this issue. One possibility is that this halacha applies only to a substance used as the primary item to fulfill the mitzvah, but not if it serves only as a dye.[30]

Others resolve the objection raised by Rabbeinu Bachyei by contending that the color derived from these non-kosher creatures may indeed be kosher. Several different reasons have been advanced to explain this approach. Some contend that this coloring is kosher, since the creatures are first dried until they are inedible, or, because a dead insect dried for twelve months is considered an innocuous powder and no longer non-kosher.[31] (The halachic debate on this issue actually concerns a colorant called carmine red that is derived from a South American insect called cochineal. This color, which is derived from the powdered bodies of this insect, is used extensively as a “natural red coloring” in food production. To the best of my knowledge, all major contemporary kashrus organizations and hechsherim treat carmine as non-kosher, although I have read teshuvos contending that it is kosher and know that some rabbonim of the previous generation considered it to be kosher.)

A similar approach asserts that kermes dye is kosher, since it is no longer recognizable as coming from its original source.[32] This approach is based on a dispute among early poskim as to whether a prohibited substance remains non-kosher after its appearance has been completely transformed. The Rosh[33] cites Rabbeinu Yonah, who permitted using musk, a fragrance derived from the glands of several different animals, as a flavor, because it has been transformed into a new substance that is permitted. The Rosh disputes Rabbeinu Yonah’s conclusion, although in a responsum[34] he quotes Rabbeinu Yonah’s approach approvingly.[35]

It is noteworthy that this dispute between the Rosh and Rabbeinu Yonah appears to be identical to a disagreement between the Rambam and the Raavad[36] in determining the source of the mor, one of the ingredients burnt as part of the fragrant ketores offering in the Beis HaMikdash.[37] The Rambam rules that mor is musk, which he describes as “the blood of a well-known undomesticated (in Hebrew, chayah)[38] Indian species of animal.” (Although the Rambam calls it blood, he probably means a body fluid.) The Raavad disagrees, objecting that the blood of a chayah would not be used in the construction of the Beis HaMikdash, even if it were to be derived from a kosher species, certainly from a non-kosher one. In explaining the Rambam’s position, Kesef Mishneh contends that once musk is reduced to a powder that bears no resemblance to its origin, it is kosher. Thus, the disagreement between the Rambam and the Raavad as to whether a major change of physical appearance changes the halachos of a substance may be identical to the dispute between Rabbeinu Yonah and the Rosh. It turns out that the Radak, who implies that tola’as shani derives from non-kosher invertebrates, may also accept the approach of Rabbeinu Yonah.

Some authorities have a different approach that would explain how tola’as shani may be acceptable for Beis HaMikdash use, even if it derives from a non-kosher source. They contend that the rule prohibiting the use of non-kosher items applies only to tefillin and other mitzvos that utilize kisvei hakodesh, holy writings, but does not apply to most mitzvos or to items used in the Beis HaMikdash.[39] This approach requires some explanation.

The Gemara states that tefillin may be manufactured only from kosher substances, deriving this halacha from the following verse: Lemaan tihyeh toras Hashem b’ficha, in order that the law of Hashem should always be in your mouth;[40] i.e., whatever is used for the Torah of Hashem must be from kosher items that one may place into one’s mouth. In order to resolve a certain question that results from the Gemara’s discussion, some authorities explain that this halacha refers only to items that have words of the Torah or Hashem’s name in them, such as tefillin, mezuzos or a sefer torah, but does not include the garments worn by the kohen hedyot in the Beis HaMikdash, which do not contain Hashem’s name.[41] (The halacha requiring kosher substances would still apply to the tzitz and the choshen, garments of the kohen gadol, both of which carry Hashem’s name.)

Techeiles

The next material or shade we need to identify, the techeiles, is also a factor in the wearing of our daily tzitzis. Indeed, the Torah requires us to wear techeiles threads as part of this mitzvah. Nevertheless, Jews stopped wearing techeiles about 1300 to 1500 years ago, and with time, its source has been forgotten. Although the Gemara[42] mentions a creature called chilazon, whose blood is the source of techeiles, and even discusses how to manufacture the dye, the use of techeiles ended some time after the period of the Gemara. The Midrash states that “now we have only white tzitzis, since the techeiles was concealed,[43] which implies that Hashem hid the source for the techeiles. Indeed some poskim interpret the writings of the Arizal as saying that techeiles should not be worn until moshiach comes.[44]

Attempts to identify the techeiles

In 5647 (1887), the Radziner Rebbe, Rav Gershon Henoch Leiner, zt”l, published a small sefer, Sefunei Temunei Chol, which concluded that the mitzvah of wearing techeiles applies even today. In his opinion, the Midrash quoted above means that techeiles will become unavailable, but we are both permitted and required to wear it. Based on his analysis of every place the Gemara mentions the word chilazon, the Radziner drew up a list of eleven requirements whereby one could identify the chilazon, and concluded that if one locates a marine animal that meets all these requirements, one may assume that it is the chilazon. He then traveled to Naples, Italy, to study marine animals that might fit all the descriptions of techeiles, and concluded that a squid-like creature called the cuttlefish, which in many languages is called the inkfish, is indeed the chilazon from which one produces techeiles. The Radziner then published his second volume on the subject, Pesil Techeiles, in which he announced his discovery of the chilazon and his proofs as to how the cuttlefish can be identified as the chilazon. Subsequently, the Radziner published a third volume, Ayn HaTecheiles, to refute those who disagreed with him.

The Radziner attempted to convince the great poskim of his generation to accept his thesis, particularly Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector (the Rav of Kovno and the posek hador at the time), the Beis HaLevi (then the Rav of Brisk), Rav Yehoshua Kutno (author of Yeshuos Malko, the Rav of Kutno), the Maharil Diskin (who had been Rav of Brisk and was living in Yerushalayim), and Rav Shmuel Salant (the Rav of Yerushalayim). None of these rabbonim accepted the Radziner’s proposal, although the Maharsham, the posek hador of the time in Galicia, felt that the Radziner’s approach had merit and wore a talis with the Radziner’s techeiles, although apparently only in private. Nowadays, only Radziner Hasidim and some Breslever Hasidim wear the techeiles that the Radziner introduced.

Some later authorities have attempted to identify the techeiles as being one of several varieties of sea snail, although the objections raised by the generation of poskim of the Radziner’s own time apply to these species as well. Many today feel that Murex trunculus is the source of the techeiles. Several years ago, I discussed their position and the position of their opponents.[45] We should also note that Rashi’s understanding of the chilazon that is the source of the techeiles cannot possibly describe any variety of sea snail since Rashi describes the process of extracting the techeiles as involving squeezing out its blood by hand.[46] One cannot squeeze the shell of a sea snail to extract its dye component – one must smash or drill through the shell to reach it.

Among the many objections to both of these identifications of the chilazon is the contention that neither the cuttlefish nor a snail could possibly be the source of the techeiles, since they are not kosher. In addition to the reasons I mentioned above, the Radziner presents a novel approach to explain why techeiles may derive from a non-kosher source. He contends that although the flesh of a non-kosher fish is forbidden min haTorah, the blood of non-kosher fish is forbidden only miderabbanan. Since min haTorah one may eat this blood, it is permitted as a source for a kosher dye.

It is noteworthy that a prominent nineteenth century posek, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalisher, contended that the garments of the kohen do not require chilazon as the dye source, only the color of techeiles. In his opinion, chilazon dye is only necessary for tzitzis.[47] In Rav Kalisher’s opinion, it is sufficient to dye the threads of the avneit the correct techeiles color in order to perform the service in the Beis HaMikdash. However, not all poskim accept this interpretation, but require the specific dye source of chilazon to dye the vestments.[48]

In review, what we know for certain is that the regular kohen (kohen hedyot) wears four garments when performing service in the Beis HaMikdash, including the avneit, or belt, which the Rambam rules includes threads of techeiles, argaman, and tola’as shani. In identifying these materials, however, we have several disputes: the first, as to whether the techeiles must be derived from chilazon for offering korbanos, or if merely dyeing clothes the appropriate color is sufficient; a second dispute, whether the chilazon has been hidden until moshiach comes, and a third dispute whether the chilazon must be kosher or not. In identifying the argaman, we are faced with a dispute between rishonim whether its color is red or a mix of different colors. And in identifying the tola’as shani, we face a dispute as to whether its source is a berry that “worms” eat or a worm of some type. All these questions will need to be resolved before we can again manufacture kosher bigdei kehunah, either by having Eliyahu Hanavi teach us how the bigdei kehunah were made, or by having the poskim of klal Yisrael determine what the halacha is.

Several earlier poskim devoted much time and energy to clarifying the correct procedures for offering korbanos, because of their intense desire to bring sacrificial offerings. Do we, too, have such a burning desire to see the Beis HaMikdash rebuilt speedily in our days? May we soon merit seeing the kohanim offering the korbanos in the Beis HaMikdash in purity and sanctity. Amen.


[1] Vol. 1, page 101 in the 5757 edition

[2] Shemos 29:9

[3] Zevachim 17b

[4] Yoma 6a, 12a, 69a

[5] Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 8:2; cf. Rashi, Pesachim 26a s.v. Kesheirim

[6] Naso 12:4

[7] Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 8:13

[8] II, 2:6

[9] See also Daniel 5:7; Rashi on Divrei HaYamim II, 2:6

[10] See Ibn Ezra on Shemos 25:4

[11] Parshas Naso

[12] Divrei HaYamim II, 2:6

[13] Shemos 25:3

[14] Shemos 25:4

[15] Rambam, Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 8:13; Rashi, Shemos 25:4; 26:1; Rashbam, Shemos 25:4

[16] Shemos 25:3

[17] Shabbos 28a

[18] Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 8:13

[19] Bamidbar 19:6

[20] Vayikra 14:4, 49

[21] See Yeshaya 1:18

[22] Divrei HaYamim II 2:6

[23] See Radak on Divrei HaYamim II 2:6

[24] II 3:14

[25] Rashi ad loc.

[26] 2:13

[27] See Radak on Divrei HaYamim II 2:6

[28] Shabbos 28a

[29] Hilchos Parah Adumah 3:2; see Rashi on Yeshaya 1:18 who explains it in a similar way.

[30] Shu’t Noda Bi’Yehudah II, Orach Chayim #3

[31] See Shu’t Minchas Yitzchak 3:96:2

[32] Pesil Techeiles, pg. 48 in the 1990 edition

[33] Berachos 6:35

[34] Shu’t HaRosh 24:6

[35] We should note that the Rosh’s descendents contend that their father wrote the Halachos after he wrote his Teshuvos, and that therefore the Halachos should be considered most authoritative. See Tur, Choshen Mishpat, at the end of Chapter 72, and the Beis Yosef, Yoreh Deah Chapter 341, quoting Rabbeinu Yehudah, the son of the Tur. However, the Perisha, Choshen Mishpat 72:35, notes that this rule is not absolute, and that some of the Rosh’s responsa were written after he wrote the Halachos.

[36] Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 1:3

[37] See Shemos 30:23

[38] As I explained in a different article, on identifying what is a beheimah and what is a chayah, translating the word chayah as an “undomesticated species” is not really accurate. The halachic difference between chayah and beheimah is highly complicated and also obscure, and is certainly not dependent on whether the species can be domesticated. For example, the reindeer qualifies as a chayah notwithstanding its ability to be domesticated. In the above quoted article, I discussed whether the American bison is halachically a chayah or a beheimah. For simplicity’s sake, I used the more common and inaccurate translation here.

[39] Shu’t Noda Bi’Yehudah 2, Orach Chayim #3; cf. Magen Avraham 586:13

[40] Shemos 13:9

[41] Shu’t Noda Bi’Yehudah II, Orach Chayim #3

[42] See Menachos 42b

[43] Midrash Tanchuma, Shelach 15; Midrash Rabbah, Shelach 17:5

[44] Shu’t Yeshuos Malko #1-3

[45] This article can be read at RabbiKaganoff.com

[46] Rashi, Shabbos 75a s.v. HaPotzo

[47] He based this approach on the wording of the Rambam in Hilchos Tzitzis 2:1-2.

[48] Likutei Halachos, Zevachim Chapter 13, pg. 67a in the original edition

Finding a Compatible Place for an Extended Family Outing

By Jerry Kaufman

As reported to Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

My sister and her family are coming for Yom Tov for the very first time, which has us all very excited! But, we need to figure out all the logistics of having everyone together for Yom Tov — where will everyone sleep, how to arrange sufficient seating space and chairs. After all, they have a very large family, and our two boys are accustomed to each having their own room.

And we want to make sure that the visiting family is comfortable. In truth, there have been some sticky situations in the past. Well, let me put it this way. We are frum, but we do not keep all the chumros that they do. This has created some uncomfortable situations in the past. What we realized is that to have an optimal relationship with them, we need to be very accommodating to their needs, which is sometimes complicated since we are not always certain what their needs are. And to complicate matters, we have discovered that they don’t trust the opinions of our rabbi. But they are really wonderful people, and in addition, mishpacha is mishpacha!

We already know that when they come we should make sure to have plenty of cholov yisroel products available and to double check what hechsherim they accept. And we know that they will not use the eruv, which our rabbi uses himself. So, I guess, to each his own. But I want to make sure that they are comfortable; we really want to have a nice Yom Tov together, and so do they.

Since they have never been here for such an extended stay, we would really like to show them the sites of town. Our city is blessed with many really nice museums, many of them extremely child friendly. Hopefully, these will help make the Yom Tov memorable for all.

But one second. My brother-in-law Muttie is a kohen, and has told me that he is very careful about checking museums before he goes. It would be really nice if I can figure out in advance which museums he can visit so that we can plan the Chol HaMoed itinerary.

But maybe we can take his under-bar-mitzvah boys to the Children’s Museum without any concern? I am going to call the rabbi. After all, he is also a kohen.

I reached Rabbi Katz on the first try. He told me that the prohibition of making a kohen tamei also applies to a kohen who is too young to be obligated in mitzvos. An adult Yisroel may not bring a child or baby who is a kohen into a place where he would become tamei meis, such as a cemetery or funeral home. He told me that some kohanim are extremely careful not to visit people in hospitals even in places where most of the patients are not Jewish – not that we are planning any hospital visits during this Yom Tov.

While on the phone, I asked Rabbi Katz if there was any problem with a kohen going to a museum. He answered me that he himself goes, but he knows of kohanim who refrain from going. I asked him what the issue was, to which he responded that he would check it out and call me back.

Rabbi Katz telephoned a day later, having spoken to the city’s av beis din, Rav Gross. The senior rabbi had explained that there is a dispute whether a kohen may enter a museum in which there are human remains inside a glass enclosed display area. He explained that whereas Jewish remains certainly convey tumah whether they are touched, carried or in the same room as a person; and sometimes even if they are in the same building, it is disputed whether gentile remains convey tumah when they are in the same room if they are not touched or carried.

Rabbi Katz explained that the tumah that spreads throughout a room or building is called tumas ohel. This does not affect non-Kohanim today, since everyone is tamei anyway, and to remove this tumah requires ashes of the parah adumah. However, a kohen must be careful not to enter the same ohel as Jewish remains.

However, whereas the remains of a non-Jew convey tumas meis if they are touched or carried, there is a dispute whether they convey tumas ohel, that is, the tumah that spreads through a room or building. The halacha is that one should try to be careful and, therefore, a kohen should not enter a building containing the remains of a non-Jew.

When a museum contains parts of human bodies, we do not usually know whether these are from Jewish bodies or not, and we may assume that since most of the world is not Jewish, that they are from non-Jews. In addition, the remains in a museum are usually inside glass displays that can be opened when necessary. Some authorities contend that this glass enclosure is halachically equivalent to having the remains in a different room; in their opinion a kohen may enter a museum (see Shu”t Maharsham #215).

Thus, Rav Gross had concluded that a kohen wanting to visit a museum where all the remains are inside display cases has a basis to be lenient because of these two reasons.

Although I was glad to discover that my kohen friends who attend museums have a basis, I realized that Muttie would probably not accept the lenient approach. I remembered a time that we were visiting them and they had taken us to a neighborhood children’s museum with many “hands-on” science exhibits perfect for children. Upon turning a corner of the museum, we discovered an area described as an “Indian Burial Ground,” complete with bones for realistic affect. Assuming that the bones were artificial, Muttie had casually asked the receptionist, “Are these bones authentic?”

The receptionist answered, “Actually, they are not. They are probably not Indian bones, but acquired elsewhere.” Upon hearing this information, Muttie bee-lined an abrupt exit from the museum. Indeed, they were not authentic Indian bones, but they were authentic human bones! Unquestionably, Muttie is concerned about human bones even when they are probably of a gentile. I was also fairly certain that Muttie would not rely on the fact that the remains are inside a glass display.

At this point, I remembered a cute little theater that runs actual Shakespeare plays. What could be wrong with Shakespeare? Until I inquired, and discovered that one of the props for Hamlet is a real skull! I had just about given up on this idea, when I mentioned it to Rabbi Katz. He commented: “Check it out. I remember once discovering that these skulls are not complete, and that there is a halacha that a damaged skull does not convey tumah throughout a building.”

Off I went, to check Hamlet’s skull. Much to my surprise, they were willing to show me the actual skull that they used, although they told me that they have no crossbones. Sure enough, I discovered that the top of the skull had been replaced with a metal plate. I am no Torah scholar, and had no idea whether this would be acceptable.

I called Rav Gross, the city’s av beis din, myself and described to him the Shakespearian skull, explaining the family situation so that he would realize that I was not hunting for a lenient opinion. He told me that there was no kohen issue. “If one removes enough of an area of a skull that a live person would not be able to survive, the partial skull remaining no longer spreads tumah unless it is touched or carried. The subsequent repair with a metal plate does not cause the skull to spread tumas ohel, although it would spread tumas ohel if the removed skullcap was in the same room.”

Since I did not envision Muttie or his sons joining the cast of Hamlet, it seemed that we would be able to take them to the Shakespeare Theater as a special activity for Chol HaMoed. I thanked Rav Gross for sharing his scholarship with me, at which point he made the following observation:

“Are you sure that this is the type of entertainment that your brother-in-law and his children would appreciate?”

Admittedly, this question had not even occurred to me. What could be risqué about Shakespeare? But then again, Muttie’s priorities in education are very different from mine. I am not sure if this is the type of Chol HaMoed outing that he would consider memorable.

So I resigned myself to try to verify if any of our museums are kosher for kohanim. I asked the local Vaad Ha’Ir if they have ever researched the museums. They told me that although it is a good idea, they have never done so, but would be very eager to follow up on whatever I discover.

I called the information desk at the children’s science museum, and explained that I have company from out of town who are unable to visit the museum if it contains any human remains. I realized that they must have thought I was absolutely bonkers! I can just imagine the conversation that transpired among the receptionists on their lunch break!

Although the information desk notified me that there were no human remains to be had anywhere in the museum, I did not get any sense that they took me seriously and decided that I would have to take a trip there to check it out myself.

I decided the best way to handle the situation was to call Muttie directly, and try to get direction from him what the parameters are.

I received quite an education from Muttie. If I can paraphrase what he told me: “A close friend of mine, who is not a kohen, often visits museums to verify whether a kohen may enter. Among the most common remains he finds are mummies, human bones, skeletons, and preserved fetuses, but occasionally he has discovered preserved human organs or entire cadavers. One museum had an empty stone casket that had been found in Eretz Yisroel with an obvious Jewish name on it. Since the supports of a grave are also sometimes tamei, we had a shaylah whether this contaminates the entire museum.

“Often displays of these items are not inside glass-enclosed areas, which increases the halachic concerns. For example, he has discovered on the shelves of museums such artifacts as Aztec musical instruments carved from the femurs of captured prisoners as well as bowls hollowed out from skulls. By the way, Muttie noted, these bowls pose a problem only if the kohen touches them or picks them up – boy, was he impressed when I told him why!

“During one visit, he noticed a display of a giant, which he assumed was a mannequin, but on closer inspection turned out to be a giant whose remains had been preserved in formaldehyde!”

Muttie’s friend feels that a kohen who would like to visit a particular museum should first have a knowledgeable non-kohen carefully research the entire museum. From first-hand experience, he can attest that one should not rely on the information desk personnel – they are often uninformed of what the museum owns. In one instance, the information desk insisted that a museum displaying ossuaries containing human bones had absolutely no human remains!

“The curators also often make mistakes. In one museum, there was a skull on display, which we asked the curator whether it was real. She told us that she knows that the museum purchased it from a supplier who sells only replicas and not real skulls or skeletons. I asked her if there was any way that one could look at a skull and tell if it was real. She responded that you can usually tell by making a very careful inspection of its teeth. To demonstrate the difference between the replica and a real skull, she opened the display to show him – and discovered, much to her surprise, that the skull was real! It turned out that the museum had purchased it at a time that the supplier sold real specimens!

“Lesson to learn: Be careful, and ask lots of probing questions.”

Muttie then told me an interesting bit of information. “When approaching a museum, one should ask if it contains any remains that fall under the NAGPRA act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This was a law passed by Congress requiring many institutions to return Native American cultural items and human remains to their respective peoples. Under one provision of this law, these institutions are required to catalog all Native American burial items and religious artifacts in their collections in order to identify the living heirs, culturally affiliated Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations of remains and artifacts.

“Someone trying to find out whether a museum contains tamei remains can easily begin his conversation with the curator or collection manager by mentioning NAGPRA. Since they are familiar with the requirements of this law, the subject of human remains and their cataloging in the museum’s collections are no longer so strange to them. One can use this as an entrée to discuss what a kohen is and what our halachic concerns are. I have found that the curators are usually very helpful; however, one must ask very specifically about each type of item, such as skeletons, skulls, bones, preserved organs, and mummies, since they are not thinking about tumah but about science.

“Furthermore, sometimes the curators themselves do not know what the museum has in storage. Here one often gets into very interesting halachic questions that one needs to discuss with a first-line posek. For example, while looking at one museum, someone discovered that a different floor of the building contained drawers filled with all sorts of human artifacts.

“By the way,” Muttie noted, “there are other things to be concerned of in museums even if one is not a kohen. Many museums contain actual idols that constitute real avodah zarah. The question arises whether one may even look at them.”

At this point, my brother-in-law educated me by pointing out that when the Torah states al tifnu el elilim, do not turn to idols (VaYikra 19:4), the prohibition includes looking at idols (Yerushalmi, Avodah Zarah 3:1; Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 2:2; Sefer HaMitzvos, Lo Saaseh #10; Chinuch #213). The Magen Avraham (307:23) explains that the Torah prohibits only gazing at an idol, but does not prohibit glancing at it. Therefore, seeing it is not prohibited, but intentionally looking at it is. Thus, one must be wary of this prohibition when visiting a museum that may include icons, statues, and images.

While I was contemplating the last fact, Muttie called me back to our original topic with the following comment: “Jerry, do you know what kind of massive undertaking this is? The reason I rarely take the family to museums is that I am always uncertain what they contain, and I know how difficult it is to really determine what they have – the curators themselves often don’t know.

“I must tell you. I am so appreciative of your putting this effort into making sure we have a nice time. But you have to work and make Yom Tov. Besides, my kids are not oriented towards museum visits — they spend most of their time in Yeshiva, and they much prefer spending time playing ball and running around in the park. I am sure your wonderful boys have nice friends and the cousins and the friends can play some ball. For my kids that will be seventh heaven – and something much more memorable.”

I must admit that it had not even occurred to me that the cousins would enjoy just playing ball together. Indeed we had an absolutely wonderful Yom Tov that the cousins will all remember for years to come! And I left to someone else to research whether the local museums are kohen-appropriate. Are you interested in working on this project on behalf of klal Yisroel?

Some Basics about Redeeming Donkeys

clip_image002Question #1: Donkey Rides

Have you ever ridden a donkey? Did you stop to wonder whether the donkey might be firstborn and that it might be prohibited to ride it?

Question #2: Pony Rides

May I ride a horse without checking first whether it is firstborn?

Question #3: Ask its mother!

How do I know whether my donkey is firstborn? I can’t go ask its mother!

Answer:

As a kohen, I often participate in the mitzvah of Pidyon Haben, redeeming a firstborn male child, a bechor, but I have never been asked to participate in redeeming a firstborn donkey, in Hebrew called peter chamor.

After Korach’s maligning Aaron, the Torah lists the awards Aaron and his descendants, the kohanim, receive for their service to the Jewish Nation (listed in Bamidbar 18: 8 -19). There are a total of twenty-four gifts that the Torah grants the kohanim (see Bava Kamma 110b; Rambam, Hil. Bikkurim ch. 1). One of these twenty-four grants is the mitzvah of peter chamor, redeeming the firstborn donkey, the firstborn of a non-kosher animal you shall redeem (Bamidbar 18:15). This is a grant because the kohen benefits by receiving a lamb or goat or the value of the donkey, as I will explain.

This is not the only place in the Torah that this mitzvah is mentioned. The Torah mentions the mitzvah of peter chamor in two other places also:

(1) In Parshas Bo, the pasuk says: Every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a “seh,” and if you do not redeem it, you should break its neck. Furthermore, the firstborn of your children you shall also redeem (Shemos 13:13). I intentionally did not translate the world “seh” since it includes both sheep and goats, and I am unaware of an English word that includes both species.

(2) The Torah mentions this mitzvah again in Parshas Ki Sissa: The first issue of a donkey you shall redeem with a “seh” (Shemos 34:20). Here the Torah refers to the first issue, from which we derive that the mitzvah applies only if the donkey was born in the normal fashion. This means that a firstborn donkey delivered through caesarean section does not have the sanctity of being firstborn and that there is therefore no mitzvah to redeem it. Sorry, kohen, better luck next time, or more accurately, on the next mother donkey. — If a donkey was delivered through caesarean section, the next naturally-born fetus also does not become sanctified.

No Sanctity to a Puppy

Although the verse in Parshas Korach the firstborn of a non-kosher animal you shall redeem, implies that it includes any species of non-kosher animals, including puppies, kittens and baby elephants, since the two verses in the book of Shemos both specifically mention donkeys, the halacha is that the mitzvah applies only to one species of non-kosher animals: donkeys. Thus, although a dog might be man’s best friend, a firstborn puppy does not have the sanctity of a firstborn donkey foal. There is no mitzvah to redeem a firstborn colt, camel, or wolf (Tosefta, Bechoros 1:2). Thus we can now answer one of our above questions:

May I ride a horse without checking first whether it is firstborn? The answer is that firstborn horse foals have no sanctity. We will soon learn why the donkey is an exception.

Is a Peter Chamor Holy?

Does a firstborn donkey have kedusha?

Prior to its being redeemed, a firstborn donkey has kedusha similar to that of a korban. It is prohibited min haTorah to ride it, use it as a beast of burden, or even use its hair. The hair that falls off it must be burnt and may not be used. Someone who uses this donkey violates a prohibition approximately equivalent to eating non-kosher (Rashi, Pesachim 47a s.v. ve’hein; Rivan, Makkos 21b s.v. ve’hein; cf., however, Tosafos, Makkos 21b s.v. HaChoresh).

Until the donkey is redeemed, one may not sell it, although some poskim permit selling it for the difference between the value of the donkey and a sheep (Rosh, Bechoros 1:11; Tur and Rama, Yoreh Deah 321:8). Many poskim contend that if the donkey is sold, the money may not be used (Rambam, Hilchos Bikkurim 12:4; Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 321:8)).

What if the Peter Chamor is Never Redeemed?

If the firstborn donkey is unredeemed, it maintains its kedusha its entire life! If it dies in its unredeemed state, the carcass must be buried to make sure that no one ever uses it. We may not even burn the carcass because of concern that someone might use its ashes, which remain prohibited (Mishnah Temurah 33b-34a). The owner who failed to redeem the donkey missed the opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah. Thus we see the value of redemption.

May I Ride a Donkey — Maybe it is a Firstborn?

Have you ever ridden a donkey? Although it is not common to ride donkeys them in North America, in Eretz Yisroel this is a fairly common form of entertainment. Did you stop to wonder whether the donkey might be firstborn and one is prohibited to ride it?

One need not be concerned. Since most of the donkeys of the world are not firstborn, one need not assume that this donkey is. Truthfully, the likelihood of a donkey being holy is very slim for another reason- most donkeys are owned by non-Jews, and a non-Jew’s firstborn donkey has no sanctity.

How do we Effect Redemption?

As mentioned above, the Torah commands the owner of a firstborn male donkey to redeem him by giving a kohen a seh, a word we usually translate as lamb. However, we should be aware that the word seh in the Torah does not mean only a lamb, but also includes a kid goat, as we see from the mitzvah of korban Pesach, where the Torah mentions this explicitly (Shemos 12:5; see Mishnah Bechoros 9a). Other species of animal, such as cows and deer, are not referred to as “seh” by the Torah (Mishnah, Bechoros 12a; Rambam, Hil. Bikkurim 12:8; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 321:1).

By the way, one does not need a lamb or kid to redeem a firstborn donkey –a mature adult is perfectly fine. Furthermore, the lamb, kid, sheep or goat that may be either male or female (Mishnah Bechoros 9a).  Lamb chops enthusiasts take note — since they also may be either young or adult, and either male or female.

Saving the Owner Money

In actuality, using a sheep or goat to redeem the donkey is merely a less expensive way of fulfilling the mitzvah Hilchos Bikkurim 12:11). There is an alternative way to fulfill the mitzvah — by redeeming the donkey with anything that is worth at least as much as the donkey (Gemara Bechoros 11a). Thus, someone who gives a cow or deer to the kohen would fulfill the mitzvah of peter chamor if they are worth at least as much as the donkey (Rashi, Bechoros 12a Tur, Yoreh Deah 321; Shach ad loc. #1. and Taz ad loc. #3).

However, if the owner redeems the donkey with a sheep or goat, he fulfills the mitzvah even if the sheep or goat is worth far less than the donkey (Bechoros 11a, Rambam, Hil. Bikkurim 12:11). Thus by giving a lamb or kid to the kohen, the owner saves money.

Some authorities contend that it is preferable to use a seh for the redemption, and that one should redeem the peter chamor with other items only if he has no sheep or goat with which to redeem it (Rambam as understood by Beis Yosef, Yoreh Deah 321 and Perishah ad loc. #6). Others, however, maintain that redeeming a peter chamor with other items is as acceptable as redeeming it with a sheep or goat (see Tur, Yoreh Deah 321; see also Divrei Chamudos, Bechoros 1:26).

By the way, the sheep or goat cannot be a tereifah, meaning an animal bearing a terminal defect, it must be alive at the time of redemption (Mishnah, Bechoros 12a) and it may not be a  non-viable premature fetus even if it is still alive (Minchas Chinuch 22:5).

A Blemished Record

On the other hand, the redeeming seh may be of either gender, it may be blemished; and it may be of any age (Mishnah, Bechoros 9a).

Giving the Kohen the Foal

What if the owner decides to give the firstborn donkey to the kohen instead?

What is the halacha if the owner decided to give the firstborn donkey to the kohen, instead of redeeming it with a sheep, goat, or other item? Some authorities rule that if the owner gives the firstborn donkey to a Kohen he has fulfilled the mitzvah (Teshuvos HaRadvaz, I:496; Birkei Yosef, Yoreh Deah 321:4; Maharit Algazi, Hil. Bechoros 8; Minchas Chinuch 22:16). According to this view, the Torah merely gives the owner the option (emphasize by italicizing the word option) of keeping the donkey by redeeming it and giving the instrument of redemption to a Kohen.

Others disagree, arguing that redemption is not merely an option but the only means of fulfilling  the mitzvah, and that one who gives the peter chamor to a kohen does not fulfill the mitzvah (Levush, Yoreh Deah 321:8; Chazon Ish, Bechoros 17:6; see also Terumas HaDeshen vol.II #235).

Conclusion:

Why was the donkey an exception? It is the only non-kosher species of animal whose firstborn carries kedusha!

The Gemara teaches that this is a reward for the donkey. When the Bnei Yisroel exited Egypt, the Egyptians gave us many gifts (see Shemos 11:2-3; 12:35-36). The Bnei Yisroel needed to somehow transport all these gifts out of Egypt and through the Desert unto Eretz Yisroel. The Jews could not simply call Allied Van Lines to ship their belongings through the Desert. Instead Donkey Lines performed this service for forty years without complaint or fanfare! In reward for the donkey providing the Bnei Yisroel with a very necessary shipping service, the Torah endowed the firstborn of this species with sanctity (Gemara Bechoros 5b). In essence, Hashem rewarded the donkey with its very own special mitzvah. Thus, this mitzvah teaches us the importance of acknowledging when someone else helps us, hakaras hatov, for we appreciate the species of donkeys because their ancestors performed kindness for us. If we are required to appreciate the help given to our ancestors thousands of years ago, how much more do we need to exhibit hakaras hatov to our parents, teachers, and spouses for all that they have helped us!