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.

 

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?