Blemished in Our Day
Since parshas Balak mentions that Balak and Bil’am offered korbanos, it is appropriate to discuss the details of these mitzvos.
Question #1: Not Politically Correct?
“Why does the Torah ban ‘blemished’ people and animals from the service in the Beis Hamikdash? Does this not convey the incorrect message that people with disabilities are inferior in Hashem’s Eyes?”
Question #2: Are We Affected by Blemishes?
“Do the halachos defining which animals are blemished affect us before the Beis Hamikdash is rebuilt?”
Question #3: Selling a Bechor that is Treif
“May I sell a bechor that is treif to a non-Jew?”
Question #4: In the Midst of Calf-Birth
“May I sell an animal that is in the process of calving?”
In parshas Emor, the Torah discusses the laws of blemishes mumim (singular, mum) that affect both kohanim performing the service in the Beis Hamikdash and animals that can be brought for korbanos. Notwithstanding that we daven three times a day for the Beis Hamikdash to be rebuilt, most people do not focus on the laws of korbanos, assuming that they have no need to know these laws. Yet, if we truly want the Beis Hamikdash to be rebuilt, we should familiarize ourselves with the relevant halachos. Doing so demonstrates that we indeed anticipate the reinstating of the korbanos every minute. In addition, there are applications of these halachos that affect us even when the Beis Hamikdash lies in ruin.
Here is an example: What is the halacha if someone has an animal that has the sanctity of a korban? Although many people assume that this cannot happen in today’s world, this is a mistake – it can happen with any kosher beheimah. The question is even more germane to the laws of bechor, a firstborn animal (Shulchan Aruch Yorah Deah, 306:1).
Many years ago, I was asked about the following situation: A couple, whom we will call the Brauns, purchased a farm. They planned to use it to develop a Torah educational museum to teach about many less-known or less-understood mitzvos – such as the laws of mixing species (kelayim) of plants, mesorah of kosher bird species, orlah, different varieties of wool and plants that will and will not constitute shatnez, reishis hageiz — the mitzvah of giving to the kohen a percentage of the shearing — and so on. (I strongly encourage anyone who would like to entertain such an educational process to do so, since people learn much more from seeing and experiencing than from textbooks.)
A question came up when one of the Brauns’ heifers became pregnant for her first time. If this heifer would give birth to a male offspring, the calf would be a bechor, which has the halachic status of a korban. When the Beis Hamikdash is rebuilt, the bechor of a kosher animal is given to a kohen, who brings it as a korban and then eats its meat. Someone who ignores the sanctity of this bechor and uses, slaughters or sells it violates a serious Torah prohibition.
When there is no Beis Hamikdash, what do you do with a kosher beheimah that is a bechor?
It is strictly forbidden to use the animal in any way while it is still alive. The custom is to avoid any contact with the bechor animal, in order to make sure that no one mistakenly uses it.
Regarding using the animal, the only solution is to wait until the animal injures itself to the point that it becomes permanently blemished. At that point, the bechor that now has a mum may be shechted and eaten; however, it is still prohibited min haTorah to use it in any other way.
It is prohibited to place impediments in the animal’s way or to cause the bechor to injure itself (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 313:1). The halacha is that should the owner tell a non-Jewish employee that the animal cannot be shechted until it becomes injured, and the non-Jew then chops off its ear, knowing that this benefits his employer, one may not shecht the animal on this basis. This is considered as if you instructed your employee to damage the bechor (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah (313:3).
Ruling it permitted
Assuming the bechor “successfully” injured itself, whose authority can be used to permit shechting it? In other words, how do we know that the injury it has sustained is indeed permanent, and meets the halachic status of a mum?
In this context, we have a fascinating passage of Gemara (Sanhedrin 5a-b): Rabbah bar Channah was planning to return to Bavel, his birthplace, after attending Rebbe’s yeshivah in Eretz Yisroel for many years. Rav Chiya, Rabbah bar Channah’s uncle, asked Rebbe to give his nephew semicha covering three distinct areas of halacha: the most basic level, the laws of kashrus (subsequently called yoreh yoreh); a more advanced semicha on money matters (subsequently called yadin yadin); and the highest level, to rule that firstborn animals are blemished sufficiently and permanently to permit their slaughter, called yatir bechoros. Rebbe granted Rabbah bar Channah all three levels of semicha. Subsequently, Rav, who was also a nephew of Rav Chiya and a first cousin of Rabbah bar Channah, and who was known for being a much bigger talmid chacham than Rabbah bar Channah (which does not detract from Rabbah bar Channah’s greatness in Torah learning), applied for the same levels of semicha. Rebbe granted him only the lower two levels, yoreh yoreh and yadin yadin, but did not grant him authorization to permit blemished firstborn animals. When asked why Rav was not granted the highest level, Rebbe answered because Rav was so experienced with the subject that he would permit blemishes in cases where other people would not understand how he was able to be so lenient!
We see from this Gemara that only a properly authorized expert may rule that an animal is permanently blemished. Today, when we lack this expertise, three scholars may rule a blemish to be very obviously permanent, and, on this basis, permit shechting and eating the bechor (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 309:1). Even if it has an obviously permanent blemish, we do not allow it to be shechted until a ruling to this effect has been issued (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 310:1).
Once the animal is blemished, the owner gives it as a gift to a kohen, who arranges for the animal to be shechted. Anyone may eat the meat of this bechor, which the Gemara (Temurah 8b) mentions is very nutritious.
Our firstborn calf, lamb or kid has successfully injured itself so that it is now a baal mum, which permits its shechitah. We are not yet finished with its saga. After it is shechted, it is permitted to be eaten only if it completely kosher and is not a tereifah¸which means that it has internal damage that prohibits it from being eaten. There is a stringency that applies to bechor that does not apply to other animals. Any other animal that is a tereifah may be sold to non-Jews as non-kosher, or may be given to animals to eat, since they are not required to keep kosher. A bechor is different. It is prohibited for any benefit until it becomes permitted for a Jew to eat, by having a blemish and yet still being kesheirah. However, if it became a tereifah, and therefore cannot be eaten by a Jew, it remains prohibited for benefit (Yam shel Shelomoh, Chullin 4:4).
Selling a Bechor that is Treif
At this point, we can begin to discuss the third of our opening questions. “May I sell a bechor that is treif to a non-Jew?”
Since the heter to shecht the bechor is only to allow it to be eaten, slaughtering this bechor is not permitted. If it found to be a tereifah after shechitah, as is usually the case, the meat may not be given or sold to a non-Jew, nor given to an animal to eat.
Avoiding the problem
Having figured out what to do with a bechor after it damages itself permanently, we are faced with a new question: Is there a simpler and safer method to avoid having a firstborn animal running around on your property?
Leg of lamb
There is a simple solution to the problem. The halacha is that, as long as a non-Jew owns some part of the mother at the time that it gives birth, its firstborn has no sanctity whatsoever. Therefore, we arrange a sale, similar to the mechiras chometz we perform before Pesach, in which the Jewish owner sells part of the mother, such as a leg, to a non-Jew. (When the Beis Hamikdash exists and we have a mitzvah of offering korbanos, such a sale would constitute an attempt to evade the performance of a mitzvah, and would be forbidden. However, when we cannot offer the korban, and the bechor becomes a potential michshol – a stumbling block that might cause people to sin — we avoid creating the sanctity of bechor by selling part of the mother to a non-Jew.)
In the midst of calf-birth
In this context, we can now address another of our opening questions: “May I sell an animal that is in the process of calving?”
Your cow is in labor, and you realize that you have not yet sold it to a non-Jew. The Gemara (Chullin 69b) discusses this case where the calf is in the process of being born, to the point in which one third of it has already emerged, and at the moment there is a transaction that makes the mother the property of a non-Jew. When the rest of the calf is born, do we say that it has sanctity or not? The Gemara (Chullin 69b) quotes a dispute among amora’im. Rav Huna rules that the calf is holy, because once its birth begins, it is already considered a bechor. Rabbah disagrees, ruling that it is not considered a bechor until the birth is complete (or, more technically, when more than half has emerged), at which point its mother was already sold. It is unclear what the halachic conclusion is (Maharit Algazi, Bechoros 3:33).
In the situation at hand, the Braun family asked a local rabbi to take care of the sale, so that it would be performed correctly according to halacha. However, Nellie, the cow, had no interest in waiting for either the rabbi or the vet to show up, nor did she inquire who owned her leg. Nellie and her newborn son were both doing fine, notwithstanding the unattended farm birth. Thus, we now had a bechor to deal with. Unlike the mitzvos of pidyon haben, peter chamor, maaser sheini and reva’i,whose sanctity can be redeemed, the sanctity of a bechor cannot.
Not politically correct
At this point, let us discuss the opening question: “Why does the Torah ban ‘blemished’ people and animals from the service in the Beis Hamikdash? Does this not convey the incorrect message that people with disabilities are inferior in Hashem’s Eyes?”
Certainly, Hashem and His Torah do not look down on someone whose abilities or appearances are irregular. Rav Hirsch explains that non-Torah religions thrive on people who suffer, and on fears of the unknown. Their temples become gathering points for those whom life appears to have treated unfairly, or who suffer from illness, injury or worse. Religion, for them, becomes something to comfort the pained and the oppressed.
Torah’s purpose, on the other hand, is to be a guide to teach every person how to use their limited years on this world to grow. Serving Hashem, whether in His Mikdash or outside, demands that man is completely devoted to serving Hashem and to growing.
With this introduction, Rav Hirsch explains many concepts of the Torah, including such diverse ideas as tumah, baalei mum and kehunah. The only reason that those with blemishes cannot perform the service is to demonstrate that all people, certainly even the healthy, have their place in serving Hashem.