Contemporary Mechir Kelev Questions
Question #1: Practical applications of Mechir Kelev
“Are there any practical applications of the mitzvos of esnan zonah and mechir kelev that apply before the Beis Hamikdash is rebuilt?”
Question #2: Unusual Rashi
Stew Dent asked me the following question:
“Someone told me that there is a comment of Rashi in this week’s parshah that does not follow the accepted halachah. Is this true? Why would Rashi explain a pasuk not according to the accepted halachah?”
Question #3: Doug from the Outback
Doug, originally from the Outback, asked one of the most unusual questions of my rabbinic career:
“Rabbi, I am a recent baal teshuvah, and I discovered that the Torah prohibits offering a korban of an animal that was once exchanged for a dog. Although this problem should not be germane when we have no Beis Hamikdash, I believe I created such a problem, and I want to rectify the situation. I grew up in a rural area, where my folks still live. They own sheep and other livestock. My folks, like all their neighbors, own watchdogs, sheep dogs, and a few pet dogs, one of which, Charlie, was always regarded as mine. A neighbor’s child had taken a liking to Charlie, and, before I left home for yeshivah in Israel, I wanted to give Charlie to the neighbor, figuring that this child would provide Charlie with a good, loving home, and plenty of attention. My neighbor insisted on giving us something in return for Charlie – a yearling lamb — which I accepted.
“Although I understand that I did nothing wrong in exchanging Charlie for a lamb, I also understand that this lamb is no longer kosher for a korban. I am concerned that this lamb may get confused with the other lambs and sheep on Dad’s ranch, and then none of them will be usable for korbanos. May I have them brand the lamb, so that it does not get confused with the other lambs on the ranch? After all, it would be nice to be a purveyor of animals for korbanos in the rebuilt Beis Hamikdash!”
I am quite certain that I have not been asked previously about the mitzvah of mechir kelev, which is mentioned in this week’s parshah. To quote the Torah:
Lo savi esnan zonah umechir kelev beis Hashem Elokecha lechol neder, ki so’avas Hashem Elokecha gam sheneihem, “You shall not bring the gift of a harlot or something exchanged for a dog to the house of Hashem your G-d as a donation, for both of them are despicable to Hashem, your G-d (Devarim 23:19). The animal, or item, bartered for a dog is called mechir kelev, and this term is also used to describe the prohibition. Before answering the above questions, we need to discuss the basic laws of this mitzvah.
If someone exchanged a dog for a lamb, a calf, or some doves, none of these animals may be used any longer as korbanos; and the same is true if he exchanged a dog for flour, wine or oil: they may no longer be used for korbanos (Temurah 30b).
However, the prohibition applies only to the actual item that was exchanged for a dog. If someone sold a dog, and then used the cash to purchase a lamb, this lamb may see service as a korban (see Temurah 30b; Aruch Hashulchan He’asid 56:18).
Shinuy – the item changed
What if the original exchanged item has undergone major modification? Is there still a prohibition of mechir kelev?
The Gemara (Temurah 30b) records a dispute between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel whether an esnan zonah or a mechir kelev that underwent a permanent physical change is still prohibited to be used as a korban. According to Beis Hillel, only an esnan zonah or a mechir kelev that appears as it originally did, or could be converted back to its original appearance, is prohibited, but not if it has been processed into a different form (see Minchas Chinuch 571; Aruch Hashulchan He’asid 56:23). Thus, for example, if grain, grapes or olives were used either as an esnan zonah or as a mechir kelev, and then the grain was ground into flour, the grapes were pressed into wine or the olives were crushed into oil, the resultant flour, wine and oil may be used for korbanos, since they have undergone a permanent transformation. This change is called a shinuy.
Beis Shammai disagrees, contending that a transformation, even a permanent one, does not remove the stigma of the item being an esnan zonah or a mechir kelev. This approach contends that grain, grapes or olives used as an esnan zonah or a mechir kelev remain prohibited forever as korbanos, even after they have been processed into flour, wine or oil.
What is the basis of the dispute between Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai? It is based on a dispute regarding how one understands the end of our verse: Lo savi esnan zonah umechir kelev beis Hashem Elokecha lechol neder, ki so’avas Hashem Elokecha gam sheneihem. The Gemara (Temurah 30b) notes that the words gam sheneihem, literally, “for both of them,” appear to be redundant, which provides basis for deriving halachos from the seemingly extra words of the Torah. Both Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel interpret the word them in the verse to mean that the offspring of a ewe or cow that became an esnan zonah or a mechir kelev may be offered as a korban – the stigma of esnan zonah or mechir kelev is restricted to the animal that was, itself, presented as a gift or exchanged, not to its offspring. The offspring is permitted, unless the original “business deal” of esnan zonah or mechir kelev specified that the unborn offspring was included in the transaction of the esnan zonah or the mechir kelev (Minchas Chinuch 571; Aruch Hashulchan He’asid 56:23).
Beis Shammai explains that the additional word gam, “for,” expands the items included in the prohibition of esnan zonah and mechir kelev to teach that even if the original esnan zonah or mechir kelev became transformed permanently, it remains prohibited. Thus, Beis Shammai derives from the word gam that the grain, grapes or olives used as an esnan zonah or a mechir kelev remain prohibited as korbanos, even after they have been processed into flour, wine or oil.
Beis Hillel, on the other hand, holds that the word them in the verse teaches both that the offspring of an esnan zonah or mechir kelev mother may be used as a korban and that an esnan zonah or a mechir kelev that underwent a change become permitted as a korban. Thus, Beis Hillel derives two laws from one extra word of the verse, and no law from the other extra word, which is unusual. The Gemara notes this difficulty with Beis Hillel’s approach, but does not resolve it. Nevertheless, the authorities assume that the halachah is in accordance with the opinion of Beis Hillel, as it usually is (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Mizbeiach 4:18).
An obscure Rashi
At this point, I would like to examine Stew Dent’s question, quoted at the beginning of our article:
“Someone told me that there is a passage of Rashi in this week’s parshah that does not follow the accepted halachah. Is this true? Why would Rashi explain a pasuk not according to the accepted halachah?”
Rashi explains that the word gam teaches that if someone gave wheat as an esnan zonah or a mechir kelev and it was then processed into flour, the prohibition remains intact, and the flour cannot be offered as a korban. Thus, Rashi explains the verse in a way that follows Beis Shammai’s opinion. The Ramban questions how Rashi can explain the verse in accordance with Beis Shammai, when the halachic conclusion follows Beis Hillel.
One of the answers provided to explain Rashi’s opinion allows much food for thought. The Mizrachi contends that Rashi follows Beis Shammai’s opinion since the Gemara raises a question on Beis Hillel’s opinion that it does not resolve. Thus, Beis Shammai’s ruling is the approach that fits the verse with more clarity. According to the Mizrachi, this means that, in this instance, Rashi disputed the halachic conclusion of the other authorities and ruled according to Beis Shammai. Alternatively, Rashi felt it more important to explain the Chumash in a clearer way, regardless of the halachic ramifications (Sifsei Chachamim).
Thus, indeed, Stew’s question is very much in order.
Which of the nineteen?
The Gemara discusses the following case: Reuven owned ten lambs, whereas Shimon owned a dog and nine lambs that were smaller or otherwise less valuable than Reuven’s ten lambs. The two of them agreed to trade Reuven’s ten lambs in exchange for Shimon’s dog and nine scrawny lambs. The Gemara asks whether any or all of these lambs are now prohibited as mechir kelev.
The Gemara concludes as follows: The nine scrawny lambs that were swapped along with the dog may be used for korbanos, whereas the ten lambs that were received in exchange all qualify now as mechir kelev and are therefore prohibited as korbanos.
Why is this so? The answer is that, since the dog is clearly worth more than any of the lambs, part of the value of the dog was included in the exchange differential when ten more expensive lambs were traded for nine of lesser value. Therefore, each of the ten is considered to have been exchanged, albeit only partially, for a dog, and this is sufficient to confer on them the status of mechir kelev (Temurah 30a). However, the nine scrawnier lambs were never exchanged for a dog – they were on the same side of the deal as the dog.
Similarly, in a case where two brothers divided an estate in such a way that one received a lamb while his brother received a dog, the lamb is now considered a mechir kelev, prohibited for a korban (Temurah 30a).
What is prohibited?
Someone who shechted (slaughtered) either an esnan zonah or a mechir kelev as a korban, or performed zerikah or haktarah, putting parts of these animals on the mizbeiach, the altar, is subject to the punishment of malkus for violating the Torah’s prohibition (Minchas Chinuch 571).
It is curious to note that, although one may not offer an esnan zonah or a mechir kelev as a korban, someone who declares them to be a korban does not violate any technical prohibition of the Torah. Furthermore, it is permitted to declare these animals as property of the Beis Hamikdash (bedek habayis), in which case, the treasurers of the Beis Hamikdash sell the esnan zonah or the mechir kelev and use the money for repairs in the Beis Hamikdash. This is permitted, since the esnan zonah or the mechir kelev will not be used for a korban.
One prohibition or two?
Are esnan zonah and mechir kelev two different prohibitions, lo saaseh commandments, of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah, or are they counted together as one lo saaseh commandment?
This matter is the subject of a dispute between rishonim. The Rambam contends that esnan zonah and mechir kelev are counted together as one of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah, whereas the Ramban contends that they are counted as two different mitzvos. The practical dispute between them is whether someone who offered both an esnan zonah and a mechir kelev at the same time receives punishment for violating two different offenses of the Torah, which means that he incurs two sets of malkus, or whether he is punished with malkus only once.
Mitzvos other than korbanos
The opening question of our article was: “Are there any practical applications of the mitzvos of esnan zonah and mechir kelev that apply before the Beis Hamikdash is rebuilt?” I would like to first expand this question a bit. Do the mitzvos of esnan zonah and mechir kelev apply to any laws other than korbanos?
The answer is that the prohibitions of esnan zonah and mechir kelev are not restricted to the korbanos offered on the mizbeiach in the Beis Hamikdash, but extend to several other mitzvos of the Torah. For example, one may not bring bikkurim, brought of the seven types of produce for which Eretz Yisroel is celebrated, from produce that has the status of esnan zonah (Yerushalmi, Bikkurim 1:6; Aruch Hashulchan He’asid 56:22). This is because bikkurim are also brought to the Beis Hamikdash, and the Torah states: “You shall not bring the gift of a harlot or something exchanged for a dog to the house of Hashem, your G-d.”
The mitzvos of esnan zonah and mechir kelev apply also to items used to decorate the Beis Hamikdash itself, such as the gold plate applied to its walls (Temurah 30b). Some authorities contend that a parah adumah may also not be from either an esnan zonah or a mechir kelev, since the Torah calls parah adumah a chatas, a sin offering (Minchas Chinuch 571). There is also discussion about whether an eglah arufah may be from either an esnan zonah or a mechir kelev, since the Torah says that its purpose is to atone, similar to a korban. However, the halachic conclusion is that an esnan zonah or a mechir kelev calf may be used for the mitzvah of eglah arufah (Minchas Chinuch #571).
A shul donation
Do the mitzvos of esnan zonah and mechir kelev have any practical application today? In actuality, there is a halachic ramification of these two mitzvos that is applicable today. The halachah is that the prohibitions of esnan zonah and mechir kelev both apply to an item donated for use in a shul (Rema, Orach Chayim 153:21). This is understood to mean that the Torah’s prohibition “You shall not bring the gift of a harlot or something exchanged for a dog to the house of Hashem, your G-d, as a donation” should be applied to any house of G-d, even a shul or a Beis Medrash. Therefore, a candelabrum or other item that was once exchanged for a dog, cannot be used in a shul or as building material for a shul (Minchas Chinuch 571:2). However, if someone sold a dog for money, the money received may be donated to the shul, since the money itself is not being used.
We are now ready to analyze Doug’s question. Doug correctly noted one of the interesting aspects of mechir kelev: It is permitted to trade something for a dog, yet the item received in exchange becomes prohibited as a korban. This juxtaposes to esnan zonah, which is banned only when the gift was in exchange for an illicit relationship (Temurah 30a).
Korbanos from outside Eretz Yisroel
Doug is also correct that korbanos may be brought from animals from outside of Eretz Yisroel (Parah 2:1; Temurah 21a; Rambam, Hilchos Maasei Hakorbanos 18:1). Therefore, any sheep in Dad’s flock that are unblemished are all valid for korbanos, at least until the introduction of a mechir kelev into their midst.
Went along with the herd
Doug is also correct that if one animal that is a mechir kelev was in a large herd of cattle, and one does not know which one is the mechir kelev, none of the animals in that herd may be offered as korbanos (Mishnah, Temurah 28a). Thus, there is a basis for his concern that the introduction of one mechir kelev could invalidate his father’s entire flock from use for korbanos.
The Sefer Hachinuch explains that although we never know why Hashem commanded us to observe specific mitzvos of the Torah, we can, nevertheless, derive a moral lesson, a taste, of what the mitzvah teaches. The Ramban presents a very nice explanation why the animals acquired by way of esnan zonah and mechir kelev may not be used as korbanos. Often, it happens that a person performs activities that are unacceptable, but feels that he can redeem himself by donating a percentage of his profits to a good, charitable cause. In his mind, he has now justified his misdeeds, because of the mitzvah he performed afterwards. By prohibiting esnan zonah, the Torah demonstrates that this is completely unacceptable. A person must face the sinful nature of his actions and not try to create an excuse with which to cover them up. Similarly, says the Ramban, those who use dogs for hunting and for other ill-advised activities may want to donate their exchanged value as atonement for their own misdeeds. The Torah wants it to be clearly understood that such donations are, themselves, misdeeds and are unacceptable; the perpetrator cannot attempt to hide his sins behind his charitable activities.