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?

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