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The Paw, the Jaw and the Maw

When Yaakov sent Eisav all those animals, he did not include instructions that the kosher ones required giving certain parts to a kohein. So, we need to fill in the rest of the picture.

Question #1: Four leg or foreleg?

Why does the kohein receive the femur, if, in any instance, we are accustomed not to eat the hindquarters?

Question #2: Tongue in cheek!

Can the kohanim really corner the market on kosher tongue?

Question #3: The jaw and the maw!

How many of a cow’s stomachs does a kohein receive?

Introduction:

There are a total of 24 different gifts that the Torah requires be given to the kohein (Chullin 132b). Many of these, such as bikkurim and the meat and hides from various korbanos, are applicable only when we have the Beis Hamikdash. Others, such as terumah, pertain only to produce that grows in Eretz Yisroel, or, because of a rabbinic requirement, on lands near Eretz Yisroel, such as Egypt and Jordan. On the other hand, other mitzvos, such as pidyon haben, challah, petter chamor (the redemption of a firstborn donkey) and the firstborn kosher animal, are relevant everywhere and at all times. Although challah is applicable everywhere today, since a kohein may eat challah only when he is tahor, prevalent practice is that it is burnt or allowed to spoil, rather than given to a kohein. Therefore, in the contemporary world, the kohein does not end up benefiting from this mitzvah.

Among the gifts the kohein receives are three parts of every slaughtered animal. (As we shall see later, whether this mitzvah applies only in Eretz Yisroel or also in chutz la’aretz is the subject of a dispute between Tanna’im.) The pasuk states: “And this shall be the allocation to which the kohanim are entitled of the people, from those who slaughter animals, whether species of cattle or of flock: they must give the kohein the zero’a (the arm), the lecha’ya’yim (the cheeks or jaws) and the keivah (the fourth of an animal’s stomachs, called the abomasum)” [Devorim 18:3]. We will discuss shortly exactly what parts are included in “the arm, the cheeks and the abomasum.”

Of the people

The pasuk leads us to several questions that we will address. Why does it emphasize that the kohanim receive these gifts because they “are of the people”? It would be highly unusual for the animals themselves to give these portions to the kohein, or for anyone other than “people” to do so!

I will answer this question shortly, but will first present a different, but related, issue. Does the mitzvah of giving away the zero’a, lecha’ya’yim and keivah apply to a kohein’s own animal? In other words, must a kohein give the zero’a, lecha’ya’yim and keivah to another kohein?

The Tosefta (Peah 2:13) states that not only may a kohein keep the zero’a, lecha’ya’yim and keivah for himself, but a Levi, also, may keep them for himself. The Gemara (Chullin 131a) cites that the great amora,Rav, was uncertain as to whether the Levi is obligated to give zero’a, lecha’ya’yim and keivah or not.

Why does the Tosefta exempt a Levi from giving zero’a, lecha’ya’yim and keivah?

In true Jewish style, we are going to answer this question with a question: Why does it emphasize that the kohanim receive these because they “are of the people”?

The answer is that the word the Torah uses for “of the people”, העם, am, implies “the common people,” not the top echelons of the Jewish people, who are always called Bnei Yisroel.The pasuk implies that the mitzvah to give zero’a, lecha’ya’yim and keivah applies only to the “commoners.” A Levi may contend that he is not part of the “ordinary” people, but of special stock. Thus, the word עם, in this pasuk, should probably not be translated as “the people,” but the “common people.”

By the people

Who is obligated to perform this mitzvah?

The pasuk states that the mitzvah is observed by “those who slaughter animals,” implying that it is the shocheit who is obligated to perform the mitzvah. But, is it not the owner of the animal who is obligated to give away part of his animal to a kohein, and not the person he hired to shecht it for him?

The Gemara rules that the obligation of the mitzvah falls on the shocheit, even when someone else owns the animal (Chullin 132a). On the other hand, the owner of the animal, not the shocheit, has the right to choose which kohein or kohanim receive the zero’a, lecha’ya’yim and keivah (Tosefta, Peah 2:13; Rema, Yoreh Deah 61:28). In other words, whereas the owner may decide which kohein receives the matanos, the shocheit is the one who actually presents them. He asks the owner to which kohein he should give them (Taz, Yoreh Deah 61:29 and Pri Megadim ad loc.).

If the owner of the animal has a grandson who is a kohein, he may instruct the shocheit to give the zero’a, lecha’ya’yim and keivah to his grandson.

For the people

What if there is no kohein nearby when I shecht the animal? This question was a more acute problem in the era before refrigeration, particularly in hot climates where meat will spoil if it is not consumed immediately after slaughter (unless salted heavily). The Tosefta explains that if no kohein is available, the Yisroel should evaluate what the zero’a, lecha’ya’yim and keivah of this animal are worth and keep them for himself, and then compensate a kohein, when he locates one, the value of the three pieces of meat (Chullin 9:7).

Share the wealth!

Although the Torah mentions giving three different parts of the animal, the act is counted as only one mitzvah — by the Rambam as mitzvas aseih #143 and by the Sefer Hachinuch as mitzvah #506. Notwithstanding that giving the three parts constitutes one mitzvah, they may be given to more than one kohein, as the Gemara states: Rav Chisda says, “The zero’a to one, the lecha’ya’yim to two and the keivah to one,” which means that the zero’a, lecha’ya’yim and keivah are divided to be given to a total of four different kohanim.

The Gemara then challenges Rav Chisda: “Is this really true? Did not Rav Yitzchak bar Yosef teach that, in Eretz Yisroel, the practice is to divide the zero’a into its two component bones,” giving each one (with its attached meat) to a different kohein! Thus, the custom in Eretz Yisroel was to divide the zero’a between two different kohanim, unlike Rav Chisda’s ruling.

The Gemara answers that when giving the zero’a from a bull, each bone and the meat on that bone may be given to a different kohein – thus, you are splitting the zero’a between two kohanim. Rav Chisda was discussing a sheep, goat or calf, which are much smaller, where splitting the zero’a between two kohanim would provide each kohein with a portion too small to be a meaningful gift (Chullin 132b; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 61:9). Thus, when donating matanos of a bull, they can be given to five different kohanim, and when donating those of a smaller animal, they can be given to four kohanim.

Dividing the matanos

The Rambam permits giving all three matanos to the same kohein (Hilchos Bikkurim 9:17). Although, in general, the Gemara discourages giving all of one’s matanos to the same kohein, preferring that one “spread the wealth” among the kohanim, this applies only when all of one’s matnos kehunah are provided to the same individual. However, giving the zero’a, lecha’ya’yim and keivah to one kohein, while giving terumah to a different kohein, is certainly not a problem, even should one always give the zero’a, lecha’ya’yim and keivah to the same kohein (Pri Chadash, Yoreh Deah 61:15), and certainly not a concern if done on an occasional basis.

Fowl play!

Does this mitzvah apply to fowl?

The Mishnah (Chullin 11:1) indicates that it does not. The wording of the Mishnah is that “the mitzvah of zero’a, lecha’ya’yim and keivah has a stringency over the mitzvah of reishis hageiz, in that zero’a, lecha’ya’yim and keivah apply to cattle and flock… whereas reishis hageiz applies only to sheep.” This is implied by the pasuk when it rules that the mitzvah applies to “species of cattle or of flock.” In other words, when shechting a bird, there is no mitzvah to give away part of it, and all a kohein can do is “cry fowl!”

What’s gnu?

The inference of the Gemara (Chullin 132a, 135a; see also, Rashi, Devorim 18:3) and the conclusion of the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 61:17) is that the mitzvah of zero’a, lecha’ya’yim and keivah does not apply to chayos, including, for example, deer, giraffe, pronghorn and wildebeest. Again, this is implied by the pasuk, when it states that the mitzvah applies to species of cattle or of flock. So, now you know that the next time you shecht a giraffe, you can keep and pickle that long tongue for yourself!

Barbecued and with mustard!

The kohein is supposed to eat these parts as would a wealthy man. The Gemara suggests that he “barbecue them and eat them with mustard” (Bechoros 27a). These are not requirements, but suggestions: they should be eaten in a royal, honorable manner.

One or two?

Why is the word zero’a, foreleg, in the Torah singular and lecha’ya’yim plural? Obviously, since an animal has only one keivah, this word must be singular – but an animal has two forelegs and four jaw bones, an upper one and a lower one on each side. So why does the Torah teach that the kohein receives zero’a (singular) and lecha’ya’yim (plural)?

The answer is that the kohein receives only one of the two forelegs, and the conclusion is that he receives the right foreleg, which corresponds to the human right arm (Tosefta, Chullin 9:12; Chullin 134b). We will discuss shortly how much of this foreleg he receives. But the kohein receives both jaws, right and left, and everything included, as we will soon see.

Four leg or foreleg?

At this point, let us examine our opening question: “Why does the kohein receive the femur, if, in any instance, we are accustomed not to eat the hindquarters?”

Our questioner has erred, not realizing that although animals have four legs, they are not equivalent. The femur is the extension of the hind leg, corresponding to the human thigh bone. Just as we have no femur in our anterior appendages, which we refer to as our hands and arms, neither do animals. Thus, the answer to this question is that the zero’a is a foreleg and not in the hindquarters, and, in fact, has no femur.

An arm and a leg?

How much of the animal’s foreleg does the kohein get? The Mishnah (Chullin 134b) teaches that it includes from the “joint of the arkuvah until the palm of the foreleg.” From the Mishnah’s description, we know that one border is a joint; but which joint? If you look at the foreleg of an animal, you will notice that it has several joints. Cattle have no fingers, but, from the ground up, the bones of an animal’s joint can be described as the phalanges (corresponding to the human fingers), the metacarpus (the hand), the carpus (the wrist), the radius and ulna (which together form the lower arm), the humerus (the upper arm) and the shoulder blade. The bones at the very bottom have no meat (“muscle” and “meat” are two ways of referring to the same thing) attached to them; as we go up the leg, the meat increases, both in quality and quantity.

What is the joint of the arkuvah?

The Gemara (Chullin 76a, 122b) uses an expression arkuvah hanimkeres im harosh, which literally means “the joint sold with the head.” This market term meant that parts of the animal that contain little in the way of edible meat were sold together. Just as the head contains little muscle, the bones beyond this joint contain little meat and were sold “together with the head.”

The early authorities dispute what is included in this gift to the kohein; in other words, what is meant by the Mishnah’s words: From the joint of the arkuvah until the palm of the foreleg. There are three basic opinions:

1. According to the Rambam, the kohein receives the metacarpus and the radius/ulna bones and the meat attached to them. Unless you are a veterinarian or a butcher, you are not familiar with these as cuts of meat. Even in large cattle, there is no meat to speak of on the metacarpus, and little meat on the radius/ulna; what is there is usually thrown into the butcher’s ground beef pile.

2. According to the Shulchan Aruch, the two parts are the humerus and the radius/ulna. The metacarpus is considered beyond the palm of the foreleg, and the the perek shel arkuvah is the shoulder blade. The muscle on the humerus does include some quality meat that is considered shoulder roast or shoulder steak – not as good as ribeye or brisket, but certainly quality meat cuts.

Both opinions we have quoted above contend that the zero’a includes two bones and the meat on those bones, and the Tosefta (Chullin 9:3) adds also the joint above the bone.

3. According to the disciples of the Vilna Gaon, he held that the mitzvah included only one bone and the meat on that bone.

The halacha is that the kohein receives the bone, plus the meat attached to it.

JAWS!

The pasuk said “jaws” plural, which could mean two jaw bones, or all four. This is the subject of an ancient dispute among halachic authorities, since the Targum Yonasan explains that the kohein receives both the upper and lower jaw, an approach to which the Vilna Gaon concurs, maintaining that this is the correct girsa in the Sifrei (Shoftim #165). Those who rule this way, which include the Gra and the Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh Deah 61:12), conclude that the kohein receives both sides of the upper jaw in addition to the lower jaw. This approach means that the kohein receives all of the “cheek meats” of the animal.

However, most poskim (Rashi, Chullin 134b, s.v. haperek shel lechi; Pri Chadash, Yoreh Deah 61:5; Yad Efrayim to Yoreh Deah 61:3) rule that the kohein receives only the lower jaw, and this is the girsa that we have in the Sifrei. According to this approach, the kohein receives only the meat attached to the lower jaw, but not what is attached to the upper jaw.

Jawed down

How much is included with the lecha’ya’yim? The Mishnah states that it includes from “the joint of the jaw until the pikah of the throat” (Chullin 134b). The “pikah” is the top of the trachea (see Pri Chadash, Yoreh Deah 61:5). The lecha’ya’yim includes, therefore, the tongue, some meat, hide, bone, hair, and, on sheep, a small amount of wool (Chullin 134b).

Since the lower jaw includes the tongue (Rashi; Rav), this means that, indeed, where these mitzvos are observed, the kohanim have a virtual monopoly on the tongues.

Why did I write “in places where these mitzvos are observed?” The answer is that there is a dispute among tanna’im whether this mitzvah applies in chutz la’aretz, notwithstanding that it is not one of the mitzvos ha’teluyos ba’aretz, a mitzvah dependent on the land. There is a major discussion among halachic authorities how we rule in this dispute.

The maw?

What is the keivah? Several of the chumashim I have seen translate the word as “maw,” but this translation is neither professional nor accurate, since the word maw simply means a stomach, mouth or other opening. (The origin of the word maw is a “bag” or other receptacle, and it later came to mean “mouth” or “stomach,” since these are “bag” functions of the body — areas that receive food.) To translate keivah as maw is, therefore, inaccurate, because the word “maw” does not refer to a specific stomach or compartment of the stomach, and, if it did, it would refer to the first stomach of cattle, the rumen or paunch. The keivah, however, is the fourth, and last, stomach.

Can’t stomach it!

At this point, we can examine the last of our opening questions: How many of a cow’s stomachs does a kohein get?

All kosher beheimos are ruminants, and all of them have several stomachs, or more technically accurate, a four-chambered stomach. The four parts are called the rumen, reticulum, obasum, and the abomasum. As I mentioned above, the keivah is the abomasum. Although today the keivah has limited value, in earlier days, it was the natural source of the enzyme called rennet, which is used to curd milk into cheese. How kosher rennet, which is halachically meat, may be used to curd milk into kosher cheese is beyond today’s topic, but rennet can be used, and, in earlier times, had much commercial value.

There are several questions germane to this mitzvah that we have not yet discussed; we will leave them for a future article.

Conclusion

Why does the Torah give the kohein these three, unusual parts of the animal?

The Gemara (Chullin 134b), quoted by Rashi (Devorim 18:3), explains that these three remind us of Pinchas’s courageous and zealous act, when he sanctified Hashem’s Name during the Midyan debacle – he grabbed his spear with his hand, he prayed with his mouth (Tehillim 106:30), and he plunged his weapon into the stomach of the dishonorable woman Kozbi, who brought Zimri to sin (see Bamidbar 25:8). Thus, every kohein is rewarded in Pinchas’s merit, or, more accurately, all the Bnei Yisroel are constantly reminded of what Pinchas did to save the Jewish people.




Birkas Kohanim

Question #1: Why is this bracha different?

“Why is the bracha for duchening so different from all the other brochos we recite before we perform mitzvos?”

Question #2: Hoarse kohein

“If a kohein is suffering from laryngitis, how does he fulfill the mitzvah of Birkas Kohanim?”

Question #3: The chazzan duchening

“If the chazzan is a kohein, may he duchen?”

Answer:

I have written other articles about the mitzvah of duchening; this article will deal with a few specific issues not mentioned in the other articles.

First of all, I should explain the various names of this beautiful mitzvah. Ashkenazim usually colloquially refer to the mitzvah as duchening. The word “duchen” means a platform, and refers to the raised area in front of the aron kodesh on which the kohanim traditionally stand when they recite these blessings. However, in many shullen today, there is no platform in front of the aron kodesh, and, even when there is, in many shullen there are more kohanim than there is room for them on the duchen. In all these instances, the mitzvah is performed with the kohanim standing on the floor alongside the wall of the shul that has the aron kodesh, facing the people.

There are at least two other ways of referring to this mitzvah. One way of referring to the mitzvah is “Birkas Kohanim,”which is very descriptive of the mitzvah. I will use this term throughout this article, because it avoids confusion.

Nesi’as kapayim

The Mishnah and the Shulchan Aruch call this mitzvah by yet a third term, nesi’as kapayim, which means literally “raising the palms,” a description of the position in which the kohanim hold their hands while reciting these blessings. According to accepted halacha, the kohanim raise their hands to shoulder level, and each kohein holds his hands together. (There are some mekubalim who raise their hands directly overhead while reciting the Birkas Kohanim [Divrei Shalom 128:2]. However, this is a very uncommon practice.) Based on a midrash, the Tur rules that, while he recites the Birkas Kohanim, the kohein should hold his hands in a way that there are five spaces between his fingers. This is done by pressing, on each hand, the index finger to the middle finger and the small finger to the ring finger. This creates two openings — one between the middle finger and the ring finger on each hand. Another two are created between the index finger and thumb on each hand. The fifth opening is between the thumbs. There are various ways for a kohein to position his fingers such that he has a space between his thumbs. I know of several different methods, and I have never found an authoritative source that states that one way is preferable over any other. Most kohanim, myself included, follow the way that they were taught by their father.

An unusual bracha:

Immediately prior to beginning Birkas Kohanimbracha, the kohanim recite a birkas hamitzvah, as we do prior to performing most mitzvos. The text of the bracha is: Boruch Attah Hashem Elokeinu Melech ha’olam asher kideshanu bikedushaso shel Aharon, ve’tzivanu levareich es amo Yisroel be’ahavah. “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who sanctified us with the sanctity of Aharon, and commanded us to bless His people, Yisroel, with love.”

Two aspects of this bracha are different from the standard structure of brochos that we recite prior to fulfilling mitzvos. The first change is that, instead of the usual text that we say, asher kideshanu bemitzvosav ve’tzivanu, “Who sanctified us with His mitzvos and commanded us,” the kohanim leave out the reference to “His mitzvos” and instead say “Who sanctified us with the sanctity of Aharon.” The second change is that the kohanim not only describe the mitzvah that they are performing — that Hashem “commanded us to bless his people Yisroel” –but they add a qualitative description, “with love.”

The fact that the kohanim make reference to Aharon’s sanctity is, itself, not unusual. It is simply atypical for us to recite or hear this bracha since, unfortunately in our contemporary world, we have no other mitzvos for which we use this text. However, when we are again all tehorim and when we have a Beis Hamikdash, every time a kohein performs a mitzvah that only a kohein can perform, such as eating terumah, korbanos or challah, donning the bigdei kehunah in the Beis Hamikdash (Artzos Hachayim, Eretz Yehudah 18:1, page 81b), or performing the mitzvos of offering korbanos, he recites a bracha that includes this reference. Unfortunately, since we are all tamei and we have no Beis Hamikdash, a kohein cannot perform these mitzvos today, and therefore we do not recite this bracha text at any other time.

“With love”

The other detail in this bracha that is highly unusual is the statement that the mitzvah is performed be’ahavah,“with love.” No other mitzvah includes this detail in its bracha, and, in general, the brochos recited performing mitzvos do not include details about how the mitzvos are performed. For example, the bracha prior to kindling the Shabbos or Chanukah lights says simply lehadlik neir shel Shabbos or lehadlik neir shel Chanukah,and does not add that we do so “with wicks and oil.” Similarly, note that the bracha recited before we pick up and shake the lulav and esrog does not even mention the esrog, aravos and hadasim, and says, simply, al netilas lulav. Again, the bracha for washing our hands is simply al netilas yadayim without mentioning any of the important details of the mitzvah. Yet, the bracha recited prior to Birkas Kohanim includes the word be’ahavah, with love. Why is this so?

Let us examine the original passage of the Gemara (Sotah 39a) that teaches us about the text of this bracha: “The disciples of Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua (who was a kohein) asked him, ‘Because of what practices of yours did you merit longevity?’ He answered them, ‘I never used a shul as a shortcut, I never stepped over the heads of the holy nation (Rashi explains that this means that when people were sitting on the floor in the Beis Hamedrash, as was common in his day, he never walked over them, but either arrived before everyone else did, or else he sat outside) and I never recited the nesi’as kapayim without first reciting a bracha.’”

The Gemara then asks, “What bracha is recited prior to Birkas Kohanim? Answered Rabbi Zeira, quoting Rav Chisda, asher kideshanu bikedushaso shel Aharon, ve’tzivanu levareich es amo Yisroel be’ahavah.

Thus, we see that the text that we recite prior to Birkas Kohanim is exactly the way the Gemara records it, and that the word “be’ahavah” is part of the original text. Why is this required?

The Be’er Sheva, a European gadol of the late 16th-early 17th century, asks this question. To quote him (in his commentary, Sotah 39a): “Where is it mentioned or even hinted in the Torah that the kohein must fulfill this mitzvah ‘with love’? The answer is that when the Torah commanded the kohanim concerning this mitzvah, it says Emor lahem, ‘Recite this blessing to the Jewish people,’ spelling the word emor with a vov, the full spelling of the word, when it is usually spelled without a vov. Both the Midrash Tanchuma and the Midrash Rabbah explain that there is an important reason why this word is spelled ‘full.’ ‘The Holy One, blessed is He, said to the kohanim that they should bless the Jewish people not because they are ordered to do so, and they want to complete the minimum requirement of that “order,” as if it were “forced labor” and therefore they say it swiftly. On the contrary, they should bless the Jews with much focus and the desire that the brochos all be effective – with full love and full heart.’”

We see from this Gemara that this aspect of the mitzvah, that the kohanim bless the people because they want to and not because they are required to, was so important to Chazal that they included an allusion to this in the text of the bracha, something that is never done elsewhere!

Brochos cause longevity

There are several puzzling questions germane to this small passage of Gemara that we quoted above. What was unique about Rabbi Elazar’s three practices that he singled them out as being the spiritual causes of his longevity? The commentaries explain that each of these three acts were personal chumros that Rabbi Elazar, himself one of the last talmidim of Rabbi Akiva and a rebbe of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi, practiced (Keren Orah, Meromei Sadeh et al). Since our topic is Birkas Kohanim, we will address only that practice: What was unique about Rabbi Elazar’s practice of reciting a bracha before performing the mitzvah of Birkas Kohanim? Didn’t every kohein do the same? And, if so, why did the other kohanim not achieve the longevity that he did?

The Keren Orah commentary notes that the Gemara quotes the amora, Rav Zeira, as the source for the bracha on Birkas Kohanim, implying that the bracha on Birkas Kohanim was not standardized until his time, and he lived well over a hundred years after Rabbi Elazar’s passing. This implies that a bracha on this mitzvah was not necessarily recited during the era of the tanna’im and early amora’im. The Keren Orah suggests the reason for this was because Birkas Kohanim itself is a blessing, and we do not recite a bracha prior to reciting birkas hamazon or birkas haTorah, even though they themselves are mitzvos. Notwithstanding this consideration, Rabbi Elazar was so enthusiastic about blessing the people that he insisted on reciting a bracha before performing Birkas Kohanim. This strong desire to bless people was rewarded by his having many extra years to continue blessing them (Maharal).

Notwithstanding that the mitzvah is such a beautiful one, technically, the kohein is required to recite the Birkas Kohanim only when he is asked to do so, during the repetition of the shemoneh esrei. We will see shortly what this means practically.

Hoarse kohein

At this point, let us examine the second of our opening questions: “If a kohein is suffering from laryngitis, how does he fulfill the mitzvah of Birkas Kohanim?”

Let us examine this question thoroughly, starting from its sources in the Gemara: “One beraisa teaches: Koh sevarchu (‘this is how you should bless’): face to face… therefore the posuk says Emor lahem (say to them), as a person talks to his friend. Another beraisa teaches: Koh sevarchu, in a loud voice. Perhaps it means that the bracha should be said quietly, therefore the posuk says Emor lahem, as a person talks to his friend” (Sotah 38a).

This derives from the words of the posuk Koh sevarchu and Emor lahem two different laws. The first is that the audience receiving the kohanim’s bracha should be facing them during the Birkas Kohanim. (In error, some people turn around while the kohanim recite Birkas Kohanim, in order to make sure that they do not look at the kohanim’s hands. It is correct that they should not look at the hands of the kohanim who are duchening, but they can look down to avoid this problem, and, anyway, most kohanim cover their hands with their talis while duchening.)

The second law derived from these pesukim is that the kohein should recite the Birkas Kohanim loudly enough so that the people can hear him. Although there are kohanim who shout the words of the Birkas Kohanim, the continuation of the Gemara clearly explains that be’kol ram, in a loud voice, means simply loud enough for the people to hear the kohein. However, someone whose voice is so hoarse that people cannot hear him is not permitted to recite Birkas Kohanim and should leave the sanctuary part of the shul before the chazzan recites the word retzei in his repetition of shemoneh esrei (Mishnah Berurah 128:53).

Why retzei?

Why should the kohein leave the shul before retzei?

Some mitzvos aseh, such as donning tefillin daily, making kiddush, or hearing shofar, are inherent requirements. There isn’t any way to avoid being obligated to fulfill these mitzvos. On the other hand, there are mitzvos whose requirement is dependent on circumstances. For example, someone who does not live in a house is not obligated to fulfill the mitzvah of mezuzah. Living in a house, which most of us do, creates the obligation to install a mezuzah on its door posts. Someone who lives in a house and fails to place a mezuzah on the required doorposts violates a mitzvas aseh.

Similarly, the mitzvah of Birkas Kohanim is not an inherent requirement for the kohein. However, when someone asks the kohein or implies to him that he should perform the Birkas Kohanim, the kohein is now required to do so, and, should he fail to, he will violate a mitzvas aseh.

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 128:2) rules that a kohein who remains in shul is required to recite Birkas Kohanim if (1) he hears the chazzan say the word kohanim, (2) someone tells him to ascend the duchen or (3) someone tells him to wash his hands (in preparation for the Birkas Kohanim). Any of these three actions summon the kohanim to perform the mitzvah, and that is why they create a requirement on the kohein. A kohein for whom it is difficult to raise his arms to recite the Birkas Kohanim should exit the shul before the chazzan says the word kohanim (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 128:4 and Mishnah Berurah). The Magen Avraham and the Elyah Rabbah conclude that it is preferred if he exits before the chazzan begins the word retzei. The Shulchan Aruch mentions that the custom is for any kohein who is not reciting Birkas Kohanim to remain outside until the Birkas Kohanim is completed.

Washing hands

The Shulchan Aruch we just quoted rules that telling a kohein to wash his hands creates the same obligation to recite Birkas Kohanim as directly summoning him to recite the Birkas Kohanim. Why is that so?

This is because the Gemara rules that “any kohein who did not wash his hands should not perform nesi’as kapayim.” The Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah Uvirkas Kohanim 15:5) rules that the washing before Birkas Kohanim is similar to what the kohanim do prior to performing the service in the Beis Hamikdash. For this reason, he rules that their hands should be washed until their wrists. We rule that this is done even on Yom Kippur, notwithstanding that, otherwise, we are not permitted to wash the entire hand on Yom Kippur (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 128:6). Several acharonim rule that, since Birkas Kohanim is a form of avodah, washing before performing this mitzvah includes other requirements, such as washing with a cup, with clear water, and with at least a revi’is (about three ounces) of water (see Magen Avraham, Yeshuos Yaakov, Shulchan Shelomoh and Mishnah Berurah).

In many shullen, a sink is installed near the duchen, so that the kohanim can wash immediately before Birkas Kohanim. Others have a practice that water and a basin are brought to the front of the shul for this purpose. These customs have a source in rishonim and poskim and should definitely be encouraged. Tosafos (Sotah 39a s.v. Kol) concludes that the kohein should wash his hands immediately before ascending the duchen. He rules that the kohein should wash his hands within twenty-two amos, a distance of less than forty feet, of the duchen. The Magen Avrohom (128:9) rules according to this Tosafos, and adds that, according to Tosafos, since the kohanim wash their hands before retzei, the chazzan should recite the bracha of retzei rapidly. In his opinion, the time that transpires after the kohein washes his hands should be less time than it takes to walk twenty-two amos, and, therefore, retzei should be recited as quickly as possible. The Biur Halacha (128:6 s.v. Chozrim) adds that the kohanim should not converse between washing their hands and reciting Birkas Kohanim, because this also constitutes a hefsek.

The chazzan duchening

At this point, let us examine the third of our opening questions: “If the chazzan is a kohein, may he duchen?”

This question is the subject of a dispute between the Shulchan Aruch and the Pri Chodosh. According to the Shulchan Aruch, if the chazzan is a kohein, he should not recite Birkas Kohanim, unless he is the only kohein. The reason he should not recite Birkas Kohanim is out of concern that he might get confused and not remember the continuation of the davening. The Pri Chodosh disagrees, concluding that this was a concern only when the chazzan led the services from memory, which, although very common in earlier era, is today quite uncommon. If the koheinchazzan is using a siddur, such that Birkas Kohanim will not confuse him from continuing the davening correctly, he can recite Birkas Kohanim

In chutz la’aretz, the accepted practice in this halacha follows the Shulchan Aruch, whereas in Eretz Yisroel, customs vary in different locales. In Yerushalayim and most other places, the accepted practice follows the Pri Chodosh, and the chazzan performs Birkas Kohanim.

When the chazzan does recite Birkas Kohanim, he turns around to face the people, recites Birkas Kohanim, and then turns back to complete the repetition of the shemoneh esrei. He is even permitted to walk to the front of the shul from his place in order to recite Birkas Kohanim should he be leading the services from the middle of the shul rather than the front.

Conclusion

As a kohein myself, I find duchening to be one of the most beautiful mitzvos. We are indeed so fortunate to have a commandment to bless our fellow Jews, the children of Our Creator. All the more so, the nusach of the bracha is to bless His nation Israel with love. The blessings of a kohein must flow from a heart full of love for the Jews that he is privileged to bless.




Finding a Compatible Place for Our Family’s Outings

As reported to Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

My sister and her family are coming for an extended summer visit for the first time in many, many years which has us all very excited! We need to figure out all the logistics of having everyone together– where will everyone sleep, and how to arrange sufficient seating space and chairs. After all, they have a very large family, and each of our boys is accustomed to having his 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. We realized that, to have an optimal relationship with them, we need to be very accommodating to their needs, which is not so simple when we are not always certain what their needs are. To complicate matters further, 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 chalav Yisrael products available and to double check which hechsherim they accept. We know that they will not use the eruv, which our rabbi himself does. To each his own, I guess. 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 like to show them the sites of town. Our city is blessed with many interesting museums, many of them extremely child friendly. Hopefully, these will help make the visit memorable for all.

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

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 Yisrael 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 their stay.

While on the phone, I asked Rabbi Katz if there was any problem with a kohen going to a museum. He replied that he himself does go, but he knows of kohanim who refrain from doing so. I asked him what the issue was, to which he responded that he would speak to Rav Gross, the city’s av beis din, so that he provides me with fully accurate information.

Rabbi Katz called back to explain that the tumah that spreads from human remains 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 – which are, of course, not available today. However, a kohen must be careful not to enter a building that contains Jewish remains.

Rav Gross 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 non-Jewish remains convey tumah when they are in the same room if they are not touched or carried.

Rabbi Katz added, “When a museum contains parts of human bodies, we do not usually know whether these are from Jewish bodies or not. Since most of the world is not Jewish, we may assume 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, and, in their opinion, a kohen may enter a museum.”[1]

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

Although I was glad to discover that my kohen friends who visit museums have a basis to do so, 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 a “Native American Burial Ground,” complete with bones for realistic effect. Assuming that the bones were artificial, Muttie had asked the receptionist, “Are these bones authentic?”

The receptionist answered casually, “Actually, we have no reason to assume that the bones are from Native Americans; they were acquired from a medical school, which receives them as donations. Based on the bone structure, our curator feels that these are really Caucasian, but he is not certain.”

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 non-Jew. I was also fairly certain that Muttie would not want to rely on the fact that the remains are inside a glass display, although I had no idea why this would provide a reason to be lenient.

At this point, I remembered a cute little theater that runs actual Shakespeare plays. What could be wrong with Shakespeare? 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.”[2]

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, 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.[3] 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.”[4]

Since I did not envision Muttie or his sons joining the cast of Hamlet and actually touching the skull, it seemed that we would be able to take them to the Shakespeare Theater as a special activity. 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 inappropriate about Shakespeare? Then again, Muttie’s priorities in education are very different from mine. I was no longer sure if this was the type of 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 had ever researched the museums. They told me that although that would be a good idea, they had never done so. They added that they 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. Apparently, I would have to take a trip there to check it out myself.

Before visiting the museum, 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. To 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 Yisrael with an obvious Jewish name on it. Since the supports of a grave are also sometimes tamei,[5] we had a shaylah whether this contaminated 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.” Muttie noted that these bowls pose a problem only if the kohen touches them or picks them up – boy, was he impressed when I was able to explain to him why! (Actually, I found out later that my reasoning was wrong, but explaining this will have to wait for a different time.)[6]

Muttie mentioned that on one visit, his friend noticed a display of a giant, which he assumed was a mannequin – but on closer inspection, it 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 regarding what the museum owns. In one instance, the information desk insisted that a museum had absolutely no human remains although it had on display ossuaries containing human bones!

Muttie continued: “The curators also often make mistakes. In one museum, we asked the curator whether the skull on display 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, or if there are culturally affiliated Native American tribes or Native Hawaiian organizations who are interested in the remains or 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 is 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. A museum curator categorizes these different items according to their branch of science: either as biology, anatomy, ancient history, or anthropology.

“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 top-of-the-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 remains.

“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.”

My brother-in-law pointed out that when the Torah states al tifnu el elilim, do not turn to idols,[7]the prohibition includes looking at idols.[8] The Magen Avraham[9] 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 idols, statues, and images.

While I was contemplating this last detail, 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 for the next few weeks I am sure that you have plenty of other responsibilities. Besides, my kids are not oriented toward museum visits — they spend most of their time in yeshiva, and they much prefer spending time playing ball and running around in the park over visiting museums. 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 time together 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 Yisrael?


[1] See Shu’t Maharsham #215

[2] Ohalos 2:3

[3] Ohalos 2:3

[4] This conclusion is based on Ohalos 2:6 and 3:1.

[5] It would seem that according to Rashi (based on his explanation of Eruvin 15a and Kesubos 4b and other places) and other authorities, this would qualify as a dofek that spreads tumas ohel; see Ohalos 2:4. However, for a variety of reasons, most later authorities would be lenient in this instance.

[6] The reason there is no tumas ohel in this instance is because there is not enough bone to present a problem; see Ohalos 2:1, 3. However, even a very small amount of human bone will cause tumah if it is touched or carried; see Ohalos 2:5.

[7] Vayikra 19:4

[8] Yerushalmi, Avodah Zarah 3:1; Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 2:2; Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Saaseh #10; Sefer Hachinuch #213

[9] 307:23




More on Bikkurim

Question #1: Pre-Mikdash Bikkurim

Were bikkurim brought before the first Beis Hamikdash was built?

Question #2: My very own kohein!

“May I choose which kohein receives my bikkurim, just as I can choose which kohein I use for pidyon haben?”

Question #3: Geirim and bikkurim

“Does a geir bring bikkurim, or perhaps this mitzvah is incumbent only on those who received an inherited portion in Eretz Yisroel?”

Question #4: Juice and oil?

Is a farmer allowed squeeze his bikkurim fruits into juice or oil, and bring the liquid as bikkurim?

Introduction

Although most of us are familiar with the basics of the mitzvah of bikkurim, the details of this mitzvah, which we have been unable to observe for thousands of years, are often unclear to us. Since we pray three times a day that Hashem rebuild the Beis Hamikdash where we will again be able to fulfill this beautiful mitzvah, we should be fully prepared to observe it. In addition, we want to comprehend the parsha of bikkurim thoroughly, fulfill the mitzvah of talmud Torah, and grow from internalizing the hashkafos associated with this mitzvah.

According to the Rambam and the Sefer Hachinuch, the mitzvah of bikkurim involves three different mitzvos. The first is the mitzvah of separating the bikkurim and bringing them to the Beis Hamikdash. The second is reciting parshas bikkurim, the special reading that the Torah records at the beginning of this week’s parsha, which is called viduy bikkurim. The third is a lo saaseh, a negative commandment, that the kohein may not eat bikkurim outside Yerushalayim. The first two mitzvos are observed by the farmer; the third is observed by the kohein.

In a previous article, I described the pomp and circumstance involved when bringing bikkurim. That article explained much of what is involved with the first of the three mitzvos I just mentioned, separating the bikkurim and bringing them to the Beis Hamikdash. The sources for these laws are in Mishnayos Maseches Bikkurim, which, with only three chapters, is one of the shortest mesechtos. Let us begin by explaining the pesukim that describe this mitzvah.

The Chumash

The opening words of parshas Ki Savo read: “And when you enter the land that Hashem your G-d is giving you as an inheritance, have taken possession of it and are dwelling there, then you should take from the first of the fruits of the soil that you bring home from your land that Hashem your G-d is giving to you, place them in a basket and go to the place that Hashem your G-d will choose to place His name there.”

Chazal explain that the words “you have taken possession of it and are dwelling there” mean that there was no requirement to separate bikkurim until after Bnei Yisroel had completed the conquest of Eretz Yisroel and the division of the land among the shevatim, a process that took fourteen years (Kiddushin 37b).

“To the place that Hashem your G-d will choose to place His Name there.”

This means that the pilgrims brought their bikkurim to the Beis Hamikdash. But the Beis Hamikdash was not constructed until 426 years after the Jews had completed dividing the land (see Melachim I, 6:1). Since we know that they were already required to bring bikkurim fourteen years after they crossed the Yarden, where did they bring bikkurim during those intervening years?

The Sifrei explains that the bikkurim were brought even prior to the building of the Beis Hamikdash. During these years, Klal Yisroel was required to bring the bikkurim to the mishkan when it was in Shiloh, where it stayed for 369 years. When the mishkan in Shiloh was destroyed (see Tehillim 78:60; Yirmiyohu 26:6), there was a period of 57 years prior to the building of the Beis Hamikdash when there was no mishkan, but there was a mizbei’ach for public use, which is where the korbanos tzibur were offered. This mizbei’ach was located first in the town of Nov, and then, when that town was destroyed by Shaul, in the town of Giv’on. The Ramban (Devorim 26:2) discusses whether bikkurim were offered when the main mizbei’ach was in Nov and in Givon, but he does not resolve the matter conclusively.

Reciting the declaration

“Then you will come to the kohein who is in that time and say to him: Today, I declare to Hashem, your G-d, that I have come to the land that Hashem swore to our forefathers to give to us.”

At this point, we are beginning the second of the three mitzvos associated with bikkurim: reciting parshas bikkurim.

The Targum Yonasan and the Targum Yerushalmi both rule that “the kohein” means specifically the kohein gadol – otherwise the Torah should simply write “a” kohein. However, nowhere does the Mishnah, Gemara or any other halachic source rule that bikkurim must be brought to the kohein gadol. Rather, the bikkurim are brought to a kohein hedyot who was working in the Beis Hamikdash on the day that the pilgrims arrived. Other authorities also rule, unlike the two Targumim, that bikkurim can be brought to any kohein who is on duty in the Beis Hamikdash on the day that the pilgrims arrived (Ramban).

“Who is in that time”

The Torah instructs us to bring the bikkurim to the kohein who is in your time. This raises a question: To which other kohein could you possibly bring your bikkurim? Since the Torah does not mention walking into a time machine, once we are told to bring bikkurim to a kohein, presumably you are bringing them to someone walking the face of the earth at the time that you arrive in Yerushalayim. Is it not clear that you are bringing bikkurim to a kohein “of that time”?

Rashi explains that you should not ignore the mitzvah of bikkurim with the excuse that, “Since the kohanim available are not as great tzaddikim or talmidei chachamim as those of earlier generations; these are not the kohanim to whom I have to bring my bikkurim.” No, you are required to bring bikkurim to a kohein who is in your generation, even if you think that a kohein from a previous generation may have been a bigger tzaddik or talmid chacham or might have provided a greater degree of positive influence on you.

The Ramban suggests a different approach to explain why the Torah says, who is in that time. The posuk requires you to give the bikkurim to a kohein who is on duty in the Beis Hamikdash on the day of your arrival. The kohanim were divided into 24 mishmoros, shifts (singular, mishmor), each of which left their hometown to serve for a week in the Beis Hamikdash. The halacha requires the pilgrim to give the bikkurim to one of the kohanim on duty, that is, a member of the mishmor of the week that the pilgrim farmer arrives in the Beis Hamikdash with his bikkurim; he is not permitted to give his bikkurim to any other kohein.

Thus, we can answer one of our opening questions: “May I choose which kohein receives my bikkurim, just as I can choose which kohein I use for pidyon haben?”

The answer is that I must give my bikkurim to a kohein who is on duty in the Beis Hamikdash at the time that I arrive with my bikkurim. I may choose which of the kohanim on duty I want to be the beneficiary of my bikkurim.

Continuing the declaration

And the kohein takes the basket from your hand and places it down in front of the altar of Hashem, your G-d. Then, you shall raise your voice and declare before Hashem, your G-d:

Arami oveid avi vayeireid mitzrayma vayagar shom bimsei me’at. Va’yehi shom legoy gadol atzum vorov.”

This quotation, which I have thus intentionally left untranslated, and its continuation, are well familiar to us from the haggadah of Pesach, where we quote the declaration of the pilgrim bringing his bikkurim to the Beis Hamikdash. In the haggadah, this is followed by an interpretation of these pesukim quoted from an early midrash. This practice at the seder is already recorded in the Mishnah (Pesachim 116a). The midrash that we quote in the haggadah is very similar to the midrash Sifrei on these pesukim.

Since there is a wide variation among early commentaries regarding how to translate the words, Arami oveid avi,any translation I provide forces me to choose sides in this basic dispute. Rashi, following the approach of the Targum Onkelos, explains the verse to mean: Lovon the Aramean destroyed my father. Although Lovon did not succeed in destroying Yaakov, the posuk states it as if he did, because he truly wanted to. This approach is followed also by the midrash quoted by the haggadah.

The ibn Ezra takes issue with this translation of the posuk, contending that the word oveid is intransitive, meaning that there is no object in this sentence to receive the “action”. He explains that if the posuk is to be translated as Rashi does, its wording should be ma’avid or me’abeid, which are transitive, and could be translated as “destroyed my father.” The ibn Ezra also questions why, according to this approach, the continuation of the posuk blames Lovon for the descent of Yaakov and his family to Egypt, since this was neither Lovon’s intention nor a result of his action.

Ibn Ezra’s approach

For these reasons, the ibn Ezra explains the phrase, “Arami oveid avi,”to mean, “a lost Aramean was my father,” with Yaakov, rather than Lovon, being referred to as an Aramean. He was considered “lost” because he arrived in Aram penniless, without any financial wherewithal, and he never owned any land with which to create a family home. The Seforno explains the verse in a similar manner.

Targum Yonasan’s approach

Targum Yonasan has a third approach, a cross between the two approaches, in which the words, Arami oveid avi, are explained: “Yaakov, my forefather, traveled to Aram. There, someone (Lovon) wanted to destroy him, but the Word of Hashem saved Yaakov from the hands of Lovon. Sometime afterward, Yaakov went down to Egypt…”

Rashbam’s approach

Yet a fourth approach is presented by the Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson. He accepts ibn Ezra’s point that the word oveid is intransitive. However, rather than explaining the posuk as a reference to Yaakov – as do ibn Ezra, Seforno and Targum Yonasan – he understands the “lost Aramean” to be Avraham, Yaakov’s grandfather. Avraham has a valid claim to being “an Aramean,” as he was born and raised in Aram. He is called a “lost” Aramean because he left Aram when commanded by Hashem: “Lech lecha mei’artzecha umi’molad’techa umi’beis avicha – leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s household,” and go “el ha’aretz asher ar’eka – to the land that I will show you,” which refers to the Promised Land, the possession of which is celebrated with the bikkurim. However (the posuk continues), this plan was interrupted by a rather extensive and unpleasant sojourn in Egypt.

Returning to bikkurim

After quoting these pesukim, the pilgrim bringing the bikkurim adds a brief statement that is not quoted in the haggadah: “And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruits of the land that Hashem has given me.”

Dried or fresh?

Not all crops ripen at the same time. For that matter, certain crops need to be dried, or they will spoil before they reach Yerushalayim. For this reason, the Mishnah (Bikkurim 3:2) shares that people who lived some distance from Yerushalayim brought their bikkurim from figs and grapes in the form of dried figs and raisins. Otherwise, by the time they arrived, the fruit would not look nice, which would diminish the beauty of the mitzvah.

For a similar reason, the Mishnah (Bikkurim 1:3) reports that bikkurim are not brought from areas in which the fruit is not top quality, such as from date trees that grow in the mountains or from inferior olive orchards.

The verse then concludes by instructing how to complete the fulfillment of the mitzvah, “Then place the bikkurim down before Hashem, your G-d, and bow down to Hashem, your G-d. Now rejoice with all the good that Hashem, your G-d, has given you and your household.”

The posuk says: “Now rejoice with all the good.”

What additional halacha does this teach? The Mishnah (Bikkurim 1:4) teaches that bikkurim were not brought to the Beis Hamikdash until Shavuos. There are two verses that associate bikkurim with the festival of Shavuos. In parshas Ki Sisa, the Torah says, “You shall make for yourself the festival of Shavuos, with the bikkurim of your wheat harvest”(Shemos 34:22), and, in parshas Pinchas, the posuk refers to Shavuos as Chag Habikkurim (Bamidbar 28:26). When the bikkurim were brought to the Beis Hamikdash before Sukkos, meaning between Shavuos and Sukkos, the verses beginning with the words Arami oveid avi are declared. In other words, the second mitzvah mentioned above, that of reciting the pesukim, is seasonal, and can be fulfilled only between Shavuos and Sukkos. This is derived from the words of the posuk in our parsha, “Now rejoice with all the good,” meaning the season of rejoicing, Sukkos (Pesachim 36b). However, if the owner tarried and brought his bikkurim after Sukkos, these verses are not declared, because after Sukkos is no longer “the time of simcha.”

The association of bikkurim with Sukkos is also based on another posuk, “And [you should also observe] the festival of the harvest, with the bikkurim of your deeds that you planted in the field” (Shemos 23:16).

The Mishnah concludes that bikkurim can be brought only until Chanukah. This means that the first mitzvah mentioned above, that of designating and bringing the bikkurim to the Beis Hamikdash, can be fulfilled only until Chanukah.

Why Chanukah?

Why only until Chanukah?

The Ra’avad (Hilchos Bikkurim 2:6) explains that bikkurim are not brought after Chanukah because, by this time, the fruit being brought will be inferior.

The Rambam provides a completely different rationale why bikkurim are brought only until Chanukah. The Sifrei states that bikkurim are brought only once a year. Based on this Sifrei, the Rambam explains that bikkurim fruit that ripen after Chanukah should be brought with the coming year’s bikkurim.

The Levi and the convert

Continuing with the posuk: “This mitzvah applies to you and to the Levi and to the geir who is in your midst.”

Rashi notes that the posuk is emphasizing that the Levi and the geir also have the mitzvah of bringing bikkurim: The Levi, whom I might think does not bring bikkurim because he did not receive a true portion in Eretz Yisroel, and the geir, because he cannot make the declaration that accompanies the bikkurim, “behold I have brought the first of the fruits of the land that Hashem has given me,” since he does not receive a portion in the land of Israel. For this reason, the halacha is that a geir brings bikkurim, but he cannot recite the parsha (Bikkurim 1:4). In other words, the geir is required to observe the first mitzvah of bikkurim, but is exempt from the second.

Wine or pomegranate juice?

Could the farmer squeeze his bikkurim fruits into juice or oil, and bring the liquid as bikkurim?

This topic is a matter of dispute between early tanna’im, with Rabbi Eliezer ruling that he can, and Rabbi Yehoshua ruling that the liquid squeezed from grapes and olives can be brought, but not juice that is squeezed from dates, figs or pomegranates (Terumos 11:3; Chullin 120b). The halacha follows Rabbi Yehoshua (Rambam, Hilchos Bikkurim 2:4), and therefore, grape juice, wine or olive oil can be brought as bikkurim, but pomegranate wine or juice, fig juice, date honey or silan (date syrup) cannot.

Conclusion

Rabbeinu Yosef ibn Shu’ib, an early fourteenth century darshan, cites four reasons provided by the Rambam for the mitzvah of bringing bikkurim, the first fruits of one’s land, to the Beis Hamikdash (Drashos ibn Shu’ib, Parshas Ki Savo, s.v. U’ve’inyan habikkurim). Obviously, the main reason for bringing bikkurim is to express our gratitude to Hashem that He not only gave us Eretz Yisroel, but He also provided us with delicious fruits. Rav Hirsch notes that a careful reading of the pesukim highlights other important aspects of the mitzvah. The Beis Hamikdash represents our relationship to Eretz Yisroel as being completely dependent on the Torah; this is why the bikkurim must be brought to the Beis Hamikdash and placed at the southwest corner of the mizbei’ach, which, he explains, represents that “G-d’s land, with all its riches, is subordinated to the spirit imparted by the light of the Torah.” Our acquisition of Eretz Yisroel is only for the purpose of our observing the Torah.

Relating Hashem’s Kindness

The Sefer Hachinuch (#606) adds another element to the mitzvah of bikkurim. As we noted above, the farmer observes two separate mitzvos, one of separating bikkurim and bringing them to the Beis Hamikdash, and a separate mitzvah of declaring the viduy bikkurim. This appreciation thanks Hashem for His help way before the birth of our pilgrim farmer. He praises Hashem for foiling Lovon’s evil plans to destroy Yaakov. The declaration continues recapping the history of Klal Yisroel in Mitzrayim, and the miracles that He performed for us.

In explaining the reason for the second mitzvah, the Chinuch notes that there is a special requirement for the pilgrim to verbalize his thanks. It is through the power of speech that a person can awaken himself. When a person states how much Hashem blesses him, it awakens his heart to remember that everything comes from the Master of the world.




Bringing Bikkurim

When our parsha mentions Shavuos it calls it Beyom Habikkurim.

Question #1- Where?

“Is there an obligation to bring bikkurim from the Golan?”

Question #2: What?

“Must I separate bikkurim from my lemon tree?”

Question #3: When?

“I know people separate terumah and maasros and keep shevi’is, but why do I never hear about anyone separating bikkurim?”

Introduction

The opening words of parshas Ki Savo describe the mitzvah of bikkurim. Although most of us are familiar with some of the basics of this beautiful mitzvah, many are unaware of a lot of its details. Since we pray three times a day that Hashem rebuild the Beis Hamikdash where we will again be able to fulfill this mitzvah, we should be fully prepared and know all about the observance of bikkurim. In addition, we want to comprehend the parsha thoroughly, fulfill the mitzvah of Talmud Torah by understanding this mitzvah, and grow from internalizing the hashkafos associated with it. So, our task for today’s article is clearly defined.

According to the Rambam and the Sefer Hachinuch, there are actually three different mitzvos involved in performing bikkurim. The first is the mitzvah of separating the bikkurim and bringing them to the Beis Hamikdash. The second is reciting parshas bikkurim, the special reading that the Torah records at the beginning of parshas Ki Savo, and the third is a lo saaseh, a negative commandment, that the kohein may not eat bikkurim outside Yerushalayim. In the course of this article, we will discuss some of the details of all three of these mitzvos.

Here are the basics: When the first produce of the seven fruits — wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates — begins ripening, the owner/farmer marks the ripening fruit.  (I know that someone is going to criticize my calling wheat and barley “fruits,” since you will not find them in the produce department of your local supermarket. However, if you check your dictionary, you will see that wheat and barley kernels are indeed “fruits.” This explains why the Mishnah frequently refers to them as peiros.) This applies only if the farmer is working his inherited land in Eretz Yisroel, the land that his ancestors received when the land was divided among the tribes under the rule of Yehoshua.

Marking the bikkurim

The Mishnah describes how the farmer ties a ribbon or other marker around the first blossoming fruits, so that he can later ascertain which ones are his bikkurim. When the farmer marks these young, immature fruits, he declares them to be bikkurim. This declaration creates the fruit’s sanctity, its kedusha, and we will soon explain the ramifications of this kedusha. Rather than tie a ribbon around the bikkurim, the farmer may mark them in a different way, if he prefers (Peirush Hamishnayos of Rambam) — tying something to it is merely a suggestion, so that he will know which fruit he declared as bikkurim.

On to Yerushalayim!!

When the bikkurim complete ripening, the farmer places them in a basket, and, as the Torah states, he takes them to “the Place where Hashem chose to associate His Name.” Until the building of the Beis Hamikdash, the farmer brought the fruits to the Mishkan. Afterwards, he brought them to the Beis Hamikdash, as our farmers will again do when the Moshiach comes. As we will soon see, to execute this mitzvah fully, the farmer must be completely tahor, something that, unfortunately, we cannot achieve today, until we again have ashes of the parah adumah available.

The Mishnah describes the bringing of the bikkurim as a very elaborate procession, beginning at the farmer’s home village and continuing all the way to the Beis Hamikdash. “How did they bring the bikkurim? All the towns that were part of the same ma’amad (a type of district) would gather to the capital of the ma’amad.”

What is the ma’amad? In the Beis Hamikdash, there were regular shifts, not only of kohanim to perform the service, and Levi’im to serve as honor guards and doormen and to sing while the korbanos were offered, but also shifts of Yisroelim, who were called the men of the ma’amad, whose job was to pray on behalf of the rest of the Jewish people while the korbanos were being offered.

The Mishnah (Bikkurim 3:2) describes the pilgrims gathering together in the capital city of their ma’amad so that they would collectively bring their bikkurim together. During their trip to Yerushalayim, they did not enter anyone’s house, to make sure that they not become tamei, which would adversely affect their plans to bring the bikkurim. To quote the Mishnah, “They would sleep in the city street, and not enter any house. Early the next morning, the appointed head would announce: ‘Rise, and let us head towards Tziyon, to the House of Hashem, our G-d!’” paraphrasing a posuk in Yirmiyohu (31:5). For their entire journey to Yerushalayim, which might take weeks, the pilgrims bringing the bikkurim would sleep in the streets or parks of the towns they visited along the way.

The Mishnah continues: “Those people who brought their bikkurim from nearby brought fresh figs and grapes, whereas those who lived at a distance…” processed these two species into dried figs and raisins and brought them as bikkurim that way. Otherwise, by the time they arrived the fruit would not look nice, which would diminish the beauty of the mitzvah. For a similar reason, the Mishnah (Bikkurim 1:3) reports that bikkurim were not brought from areas in which the fruit is inferior, such as from date trees that grow in the mountains or inferior olive orchards.

The procession continues…

“An ox led the way, its horns overlaid with gold and a diadem of olive branches on its head, with a flutist playing ahead of the pilgrims’ procession.” This parade continued until they neared Yerushalayim. When the procession reached the outskirts of Yerushalayim, they halted temporarily, and the flute stopped playing (Mishnah Rishonah). The pilgrims sent a message ahead of them that they were about to arrive, and then decorated their bikkurim. Once the message of the pilgrims’ imminent arrival was received in the Beis Hamikdash, the officers, associates and treasurers of the Beis Hamikdash went out to greet them, at which time, the procession, with the flutist leading the way, continued towards the Holy City. When they entered the city of Yerushalayim, all the craftsmen working in the city would stand up for them as the Bikkurim-laden pilgrims passed through the city, and greet them: “Our brothers, from such-and-such a place, Come in Peace!” (Bikkurim 3:3).

“The flute continued to play until they reached the Har Habayis (the Temple Mount). When they reached the Har Habayis, even King Agrippas (should he have been one of the pilgrims, and certainly everyone else) placed his basket on his own shoulder and continued walking until they reached the Azarah, the courtyard of the Beis Hamikdash. When they reached the Azarah, the Levi’im began singing the words of Tehillim 30:2, Aromimcha Hashem, I praise you Hashem…” (Bikkurim 3:4).

Upon bringing the bikkurim to the Beis Hamikdash, the farmer makes a lengthy declaration, which is stated verbatim in the Torah. The recital of this declaration fulfills a separate mitzvah of the Torah, and is one of the ritual recitations that must be stated in the original Hebrew words of the Torah, as ruled by the Mishnah (Sotah 32a).

We are very familiar with the declaration of the pilgrim bringing his bikkurim, since the Sifrei on it forms the basic structure of our haggadah on Pesach, as required by the Mishnah. At the seder, after the son asks the four questions, “the father exposits from the words, Arami oveid avi, an Aramean wanted to destroy my father, until he completes explaining midrashically the entire passage” (Mishnah, Pesachim 116a).

The kohein and the owner perform some acts of avodah with the bikkurim in the Beis Hamikdash. After these are performed, the bikkurim are divided among the kohanim who are on duty that day.

Bikkurim have the halachic status of terumah

Because the Torah, in parshas Re’eih (Devorim 12:17), refers to bikkurim as terumas yadecha, the terumah in your hand, they have the same halachic status as terumah (Bikkurim 2:1). Like terumah, bikkurim are the property of the kohein. They are given to him as one of the 24 gifts of the kohanim, called matanos kehunah, that the Torah awards him for this service in the Beis Hamikdash and to the Jewish people. It should be noted that the primary purpose of these 24 gifts seems more for the Yisroel who is donating than for the kohein. It requires the Yisroel to have a regular, ongoing relationship with kohanim, which thereby helps to foster a rebbe-talmid relationship between a farmer, wherever he lives and works, and someone who can be totally committed to learning and teaching Torah.

Terumah and bikkurim may not be eaten by anyone except a kohein and his immediate family, that is, his wife and children, with the exception of his daughters who have married non-kohanim who may no longer eat them. In addition, bikkurim and terumah may also be eaten by the non-Jewish slaves of a kohein who have the halachic status of eved Cana’ani, which means that they accepted upon themselves that they will observe most mitzvos of the Torah and immersed in a mikveh to achieve the sanctity that this status entails.

Prior to eating terumah or bikkurim, the kohein recites a brocha, Boruch Atta Hashem Elokeinu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bikedushaso shel Aharon, vetzivanu al achilas terumah. (Some have the text vetzivanu le’echol terumah.) Blessed are You Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with holiness of Aharon and commanded us concerning the eating of terumah (see Rambam, Hilchos Bikkurim, 1:2). The beginning of this brocha sounds somewhat familiar to us because it is identical to the beginning of the brocha that the kohanim recite prior to duchening. Unfortunately, duchening is the only mitzvah that a kohein performs today in his special role. (The mitzvah of pidyon haben is not performed by the kohein, but by the father.) However, when we are again tahor and the Beis Hamikdash is rebuilt, this style of brocha will again be recited frequently, since brochos that begin with asher kideshanu bikedushaso shel Aharon will be recited by kohanim prior to eating terumah, bikkurim and korbanos. According to some authorities, these brochos are also recited prior to a kohein donning the bigdei kehunah, the special vestments that he wears when performing the service in the Beis Hamikdash (Artzos Hachayim, Eretz Yehudah 18:1, page 81b).

There is a dispute among halachic authorities whether a kohein’s wife recites this brocha before she eats terumah or bikkurim. The Mishnah Rishonah (Terumos 8:1) and others rule that she recites the brocha (Kovetz He’aros #47; Imrei Moshe 13:3), the Yeshuos Malko (Hilchos Bikkurim 1:2)is inclined that she does not, and the Derech Emunah (Terumos 15:145, 7:18 Biur Hahalacha, Bikkurim 1:8; see also Tzelach, beginning of Brochos) rules definitely that she does not, unless she herself is the daughter of a kohein.

Inedible bikkurim

Bikkurim share with several other agricultural mitzvah products — including terumah, shevi’is, and maaser sheini — many halachos concerning how they may be eaten and that it is forbidden to ruin them. Nevertheless, should they become inedible, they lose their special sanctity. For this reason, there is no halachic problem with using hair shampoo that includes oats or wheat germ that were originally terumah, shevi’is, or maaser sheini, since the mixing of the other ingredients makes them unappealing to the human palate, notwithstanding that it is prohibited to use terumah, shevi’is, or maaser sheini as an ingredient in shampoo.

More than terumah

Bikkurim actually have greater sanctity than does terumah, since terumah may be eaten anywhere, whereas bikkurim, similar to korbanos, may be eaten only within the walls of the halachic old city of Yerushalayim (Rambam, Hilchos Bikkurim 1:3, based on Tosefta, Challah 2:8). (The current walls of Yerushalayim have little to do with where the halachic old city was, but include areas that are outside the halachic old city and exclude areas that are halachically considered to be inside Yerushalayim for purposes of korbanos and bikkurim, such as the area today called Silwan or Ir David.)

Bikkurim are more stringent than terumah in that an onein, someone who has just lost a close relative, is not permitted to eat bikkurim, although he may eat terumah (Bikkurim 2:2).

Like terumah, bikkurim may be eaten only when the person eating them is completely tahor. If the bikkurim become tamei by contact with someone or something that is tamei, they are invalidated, just like terumah, and may not be eaten. If bikkurim or terumah become tamei min haTorah, they must be burnt, and not destroyed or disposed of in a different way. After they are burnt, there is no remaining sanctity to the ashes, and they can be used for fertilizer or any other purpose (Mishnah Temurah 33b).

Bikkurim leniencies

There are several leniencies that apply to bikkurim. For example, the responsibility of separating bikkurim rests only when the farmer owns the land, but not to a sharecropper, tenant, or squatter (Bikkurim 2:3).

If the farmer/owner fails to separate or declare product as bikkurim, the crop remains perfectly kosher for anyone to consume, including its first fruits. This halacha is quite different from terumah, in which the crop may not be eaten until terumos and maasros have been separated.

As mentioned above, bikkurim applies only to the seven fruits for which Eretz Yisroel is praised, unlike terumos and maasros, which apply to all produce grown in Eretz Yisroel.

The requirement to separate bikkurim applies only to the land that was promised to Avraham Avinu, and does not apply min haTorah to the part of Eretz Yisroel east of the Jordan River, nor to the area called Syria that Dovid Hamelech conquered (Rambam, Hilchos Bikkurim 2:1). Miderabbanan it was applied to these two areas, but Chazal did not extend the mitzvah to the areas outside Eretz Yisroel. This is different from the mitzvos of terumos and maasros, which apply miderabbanan not only to all these areas but also to the border countries near Eretz Yisroel, such as Egypt, Amon and Moav (Rambam, Hilchos Terumos 1:1).

Thus, at this point, we can answer our opening question: “Is there an obligation to bring bikkurim from the Golan?”

The answer is that min haTorah, there is an obligation to bring bikkurim only from the “Promised Land” areas of Eretz Yisroel, which are those west of the Jordan River. However, miderabbanan there is a requirement to bring them from the eastern side of the Jordan, but only when the land there produces quality fruit.

Bikkurim on lemons?

At this point, we can address the second of our opening questions: “Must I separate bikkurim from my lemon tree?”

The answer is that the mitzvah of bikkurim, applies only to the seven fruits for which the posuk praises Eretz Yisroel, which does not include lemons.

Other differences between bikkurim and terumah

The Mishnah (Bikkurim 2:4) records several other halachic differences between bikkurim and terumah: For example, there is no minimal requirement concerning how much to set aside for bikkurim, whereas maaser must be a tenth of the produce, and terumas maaser, which is taken from maaser, must be one hundredth of the produce.

Here are several other distinctions between terumah and bikkurim. Whereas one cannot declare his entire field to be terumah, there is no such law regarding bikkurim. Should a farmer want to, he could declare his entire field to be bikkurim.

Another difference is that the sanctity of terumah cannot be created until the produce is harvested. This is different from bikkurim, where the sanctity is created when the farmer declares the blossoming fruit to be bikkurim, even though it is still growing!

There are several laws that must be observed when the bikkurim are offered, which do not exist regarding terumah. For example, there is a requirement to offer a korban shelamim upon arriving in the Beis Hamikdash with bikkurim. There is a mitzvah to accompany the bringing of the bikkurim with song. The pilgrims who bring the bikkurim to the Beis Hamikdash are required to remain in Yerushalayim overnight, after offering them. None of these requirements exists in regard to terumah, which is not even brought to Yerushalayim, but given to the local kohein of the farmer’s choice.

Conclusion

Obviously, one reason for bringing bikkurim is to express our gratitude to Hashem that not only did He give us Eretz Yisrael, but He also provided us with delicious fruits, as evidenced in the viduy bikkurim, the declaration that the Torah puts in the mouth of the grateful pilgrim. Yet, the parsha extends the declaration of thanks to include praising Hashem for foiling Lavan’s evil plans to destroy Yaakov when he pursued him (Rashi, Devorim 26:5). The declaration continues recapping the history of Klal Yisrael in Mitzrayim, and the miracles that He performed for us.

The Sefer Hachinuch (#606) adds another element to the mitzvah of bikkurim. He observes that there are two positive mitzvos, one of declaring the fruits to be bikkurim and bringing them to the Beis Hamikdash, and a separate mitzvah of declaring the viduy bikkurim. In explaining the reason for the second mitzvah, the Chinuch notes that there is a special requirement on the pilgrim to verbalize his thanks. It is through the power of speech that a person can awaken himself. When a person states how much Hashem blesses him, it awakens his heart to remember that everything comes from the Master of the world.




Redeeming a Firstborn Donkey!

As a cohen, 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 petter
chamor
.

The Torah mentions this mitzvah in three different places.

(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 will explain later
why I did not translate the world “seh.”)

(2) The pasuk repeats the same commandment almost verbatim in Parshas Ki Sissa (Shemos 34:20).

(3) In Parshas Korach, the
Torah states: And the firstborn of a non-kosher animal you shall redeem (Bamidbar
18:15). Although this third verse does not mention specifically that
it refers to a donkey, the halacha is that it refer exclusively to donkeys.
There is no mitzvah to redeem a firstborn colt, camel, or puppy (Tosefta,
Bechoros
1:2).

WITH WHAT DO WE REDEEM?

As mentioned above, the Torah commands the owner of a
firstborn male donkey to redeem him by giving the cohen a seh, a
word we usually translate as lamb. However, the word seh in the
Torah does not mean only a lamb, but includes a kid goat (Mishnah Bechoros 9a).
(In the mitzvah of Korban Pesach, Shemos 12:5, the Torah mentions
this explicitly.) In actuality, one fulfills this mitzvah by giving the cohen
either a sheep or a goat to redeem the donkey – whether they are young or
mature, male or female (Mishnah Bechoros 9a). Furthermore, 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 (Bechoros 11a). However, if
the owner redeems the donkey with a sheep or goat, he fulfills the mitzvah,
even though the sheep or goat is worth far less than the donkey (Rambam,
Hilchos Bikkurim
12:11).

As we saw above, the Torah mentions the mitzvah of pidyon haben immediately after discussing the mitzvah of redeeming the firstborn donkey. Based on this juxtaposition of the two mitzvos, Chazal made several comparisons between them. For example, just as the mitzvah of pidyon haben applies only to a male child, so, too, the mitzvah of petter chamor applies only to a firstborn male donkey and not to a female. Similarly, just as the child of a cohen or levi is exempt from the mitzvah of pidyon haben, so, too, a donkey that is owned (or even partially owned) by a cohen or levi is exempt from the mitzvah of petter chamor (see Mishnah Bechoros 3b). And just as a newborn child whose mother is the daughter of a cohen or a levi is exempt from the mitzvah of pidyon haben, so, too, a donkey that is owned or even partially owned by the daughter of a cohen or a levi is exempt from the mitzvah of petter chamor (Shu”t HaRashba 1:366). This is true even if the bas cohen or bas levi is married to a yisroel (Rema, Yoreh Deah 321:19).

Thus, a yisroel who owns a donkey that is pregnant for the first time could avoid performing the mitzvah of petter chamor by selling a percentage of the pregnant donkey or a percentage of her fetus to a cohen,a levi,a bas cohen or a bas levi. He could even avoid the mitzvah by selling a percentage to his own wife, if she is a bas cohen or a bas levi. However, in order to perform this transaction in a halachically correct fashion, he should consult with a rav.

This is assuming that he wants to avoid the opportunity to
perform a mitzvah and save himself a few dollars. However, a Torah-observant
Jew welcomes the opportunity to observe every mitzvah he can, and certainly a
rare one. (How many people do you know who have fulfilled the mitzvah of petter
chamor
? Wouldn’t you want to be the first one on your block to have done
so?) Thus, he will try to create a chiyuv of petter chamor, not
try to avoid it. However, in the case of a different, but similar, mitzvah, we
try to avoid the mitzvah for very good reason, as we will explain.

BECHOR OF A KOSHER SPECIES

A firstborn male calf, kid, or lamb has kedusha,
sanctity, which requires treating this animal as a korban. When the Beis
HaMikdash
stood, the owner gave this animal to a cohen of his
choice, who offered it as a korban and ate its meat. Today, when,
unfortunately, we have no Beis HaMikdash, this animal still has the kedusha
of a korban, but we cannot offer it. Furthermore, as opposed to the
firstborn donkey that the owner redeems, the firstborn calf, kid, or lamb
cannot be redeemed.

This presents a serious problem. Many Jews are cattle
farmers, raising beef or dairy cattle. If a Jew owns a heifer (a young, female
cow that has not yet borne a calf) that calves for the first time, the male
offspring has the sanctity of a korban. Using it in any way is
prohibited min haTorah and is therefore a serious offense. One must wait
until the animal becomes permanently injured in a way that makes it not
serviceable as a korban, and then the animal may be slaughtered and
eaten. Until the animal becomes this severely injured, anyone who benefits from
this animal in any way will violate a serious Torah prohibition. Furthermore,
it is forbidden to injure this animal in any way or to cause it to become
blemished or damaged.

Thus, possessing a male firstborn calf, goat or lamb can be
a big problem, and could easily cause someone to violate halacha, certainly
something that we want to avoid. The method of avoiding these problems is to
sell a percentage of the mother or its fetus to a non-Jew before the
calf is born. If a non-Jew owns any part of either the mother of the firstborn
or the firstborn himself, there is no sanctity on the offspring. In this
instance, we deliberately avoid creating the kedusha on the offspring in
order to avoid a situation that may lead to undesired results. Since the animal
has kedusha that could be violated, and we cannot remove its kedusha,
we want to avoid creating this situation.

DOES A PETTER CHAMOR HAVE KEDUSHA?

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

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 Rema, 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 PETTER CHAMOR WAS NEVER REDEEMED?

If the donkey is unredeemed, it maintains its kedusha
its entire life! Thus, if it dies unredeemed, the carcass must be buried to
make sure that no one ever uses it. We may not even burn it, because of concern
that someone might use its ashes, which remain prohibited (Mishnah Temurah
33b-34a).

Furthermore, by not redeeming it, the owner violated the
mitzvah that requires him to redeem it.

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

One need not be concerned. Since most of the donkeys of the
world are not firstborn, one does not need to 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, as we explained before.

VANISHING KEDUSHA!!

Once the firstborn donkey is redeemed, both he and the lamb
used to redeem him have no kedusha at all. In this halacha, petter
chamor
is an anomalous mitzvah. In all other cases when we redeem an item
that may not be used, the kedusha is transferred to the redeeming item.
Only in the mitzvah of petter chamor does the kedusha disappear,
never to return. It is almost as if the kedusha that was on the donkey
vanished into thin air!

REFUSES TO REDEEM

What is the halacha if the owner refuses to redeem his
donkey?

As we know from the Torah, there is another option. If the
owner chooses not to redeem his firstborn donkey, he could instead perform the arifah,
in which he kills the firstborn donkey in a specific prescribed way. The Torah
does not want the owner to follow this approach — he is supposed to redeem the
donkey, rather than kill it (Mishnah Bechoros 13a). The Rishonim
dispute whether performing the arifah fulfills a mitzvah or, instead, is
considered an aveirah (see dispute between Rambam and Raavad in
Hilchos Bikkurim 12:1).

WHEN SHOULD THE OWNER PERFORM THE REDEMPTION?

In this halacha, there is a major difference between the
mitzvah of pidyon haben and the mitzvah of petter chamor. The father
of a newborn bechor does not perform the mitzvah of pidyon haben
until his son is at least thirty days old. However, the owner of the firstborn
donkey should redeem
him within the first 30 days of its birth, and should preferably perform the
mitzvah as soon as possible (Rambam, Hilchos Bikkurim 12:6; Shulchan
Aruch, Yoreh Deah
321:1).

PERFORMING THE MITZVAH

There are actually two stages in performing the mitzvah of petter
chamor,
although the two can be performed simultaneously. For our purposes,
we will call the two steps, (a) the redeeming and (b) the giving. In the
redeeming step, the owner takes a lamb, kid, or something else worth at least
as much as the donkey, and states that he is redeeming the donkey in exchange
for the redemption item. Prior to making this statement, the owner recites a bracha,
Asher kideshanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu al pidyon petter chamor
(Tosafos,
Bechoros
11a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 321:6). He then states that he is exchanging
the lamb or other item for the kedusha of the donkey. As soon as he
performs this exchange, the sanctity is removed from the petter chamor and
one may use the donkey (Mishnah Bechoros 12b).

In the giving step, the owner gives the lamb (or the item
exchanged for the donkey) to the cohen as a gift. The owner has the right to decide to which cohen he
gives the gift (see Rambam, Hilchos Bechoros 1:15). No bracha
is recited on this step of the mitzvah, and there is much discussion in poskim
regarding why this is so (Taz, Yoreh Deah 321:7).

Although there are two different parts of this mitzvah —
redeeming the kedusha from the firstborn and giving the gift to the cohen
— both parts of this mitzvah can be performed simultaneously, by giving the
lamb (or items of value) to the cohen and telling him that this is
redemption for the donkey. When redeeming the donkey this way, the owner does
recite a bracha.

Now, what does the cohen do with the lamb? He does
not need to leave it tied to a bedpost in his apartment, nor have it graze in
his backyard. He may sell it, should he choose, or can have it converted into
lamb or goat chops!

Conclusion

Why was the donkey an exception? Why is this the only one of
the non-kosher species whose firstborn carries kedusha?

The Gemara teaches that this is a reward for the donkey.
When the Bnei Yisroel left Egypt, the Egyptians gave us many gifts (see Shemos
11:2-3; 12:35-36). The Bnei Yisroel needed to transport all these
gifts out of Egypt and through the Desert to Eretz Yisroel. They could
not simply call Allied Van Lines to ship their belongings. Instead, they used
Donkey Lines, who performed this service for forty years, without complaint or
fanfare! In reward for the donkeys’ providing the Bnei Yisroel with a
very necessary shipping service, the Torah endowed the firstborn of this
species with sanctity (Bechoros 5b). Hashem rewarded the donkey with its
very own special kedusha.

Thus, this mitzvah teaches us the importance of hakaras
hatov
, acknowledging when someone helps us. We acknowledge 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 done and do for us!




A Tale of Four Islands

A brief introduction is in order so as to explain why I chose this topic for this week. A few years ago, as a kohein, I had to change my travel plans, and instead of flying from Ben Gurion airport to Newark, I had to fly via Haifa to Larnaca, Cyprus, and then to London and Reykjavik to reach my destination. The trip whetted my appetite to find out more about Cyprus, and this article is a result.

Those who want to read about that trip can access From Haifa to Reykjavik here. Since this week’s parsha includes most of the laws of tumas meis, which was the reason why I needed to travel via Haifa, I decided to share this article.

Question #1: When in Crete, do as the Cretans do?

“I was told that when I am in Crete, I should separate terumos and maasros from the vegetables and avoid the fruit, because of concerns of orlah. Is this halachically accurate?”

Question #2: Which esrog?

“Is it better to use an esrog from Corfu, from Corsica, or from the mainland in between?”

Question #3: Which minhag should I observe?

“I am of Greek/Sefardic background, but my immediate ancestors were not observant. Should I follow Sefardic custom or Greek custom?”

Introduction:

Among the many beautiful islands that grace the Mediterranean Sea, we will discuss four whose English names all begin with the letter “C.” Although none of these four – Corfu, Corsica, Crete and Cyprus – is currently home to a sizable Jewish community, at one time each figured significantly in Jewish history. I’ll provide a short description of the location and history of each of these islands, and then address the unique role that each had in Jewish history and halacha.

Cyprus

The largest of these four islands, Cyprus, is the third largest island in the Mediterranean. (The two largest islands in the Mediterranean are Sicily and Sardinia. Although they are both sounded with what phonetics calls a “soft ‘c’,” since both islands are spelled in English with the letter “s,” we will discuss their halachic significance in a different article.) Cyprus is located only forty miles south of Turkey, east of Greece, west of Syria and Lebanon and north of Egypt. Of the four islands that we are discussing, it is the closest to Eretz Yisroel, with a distance of less than three hundred miles.

Jews in Cyprus

We know of Jews living in Cyprus as early as the time of the Chashmonayim, over 2200 years ago. The Jewish population of Cyprus has waxed and waned; at times there was a substantial Jewish community there. When the traveler Binyamin of Tudela visited the island in the 12th century, he discovered three Jewish communities: a halachically abiding kehillah, a community of Kara’im, and yet another group that kept Shabbos from the morning of Shabbos until Sunday morning but desecrated it on Friday night.

Neither Sefardim nor Ashkenazim

Although historians usually group all Jews into either Sefardim or Ashkenazim, this categorization is simplistic and inaccurate. For example, there are several different groups of Italian Jews who are neither Sefardim nor Ashkenazim, but have their own distinct customs and practices. Similarly, although the Jewish communities of twelfth and thirteenth century Provence (southern France) are often referred to as Sefardim, they followed practices of neither Sefardim nor Ashkenazim but had their own unique way of doing things. For example, they began reciting vesein tal umatar on the 7th of Marcheshvan, which is the practice of Eretz Yisroel and not of either Sefardim or Ashkenazim in chutz la’aretz.

Greek Jews

The original Jewish population of Cyprus followed neither Ashkenazic nor Sefardic practice, but rather the very distinctive practices of the ancient Jewish communities of Greece, which is called Romaniote (not to be confused with Roman or Romanian; According to my research, the origin of the term Romaniote goes back to the days when they were part of the Eastern Roman Empire, usually referred to as the Byzantine Empire, after the fall of Rome.) They have their own unique nusach hatefillah, their own tune for reading the Torah and many other halachic practices that are different from both Sefardic and Ashkenazic custom. At one time in history, the customs of the Romaniote communities were widespread throughout Salonika, Athens, and other places in mainland Greece, and among the various Greek islands, including Cyprus, Crete and Corfu. However, the massive influx of Sefardic Jews after the Spanish expulsion caused many of the Greek communities to adopt Sefardic practices. Today, few communities, if any, left in the world follow the Romaniote nusach, although some Romaniote practices are still observed by some shullen in places as diverse as Eretz Yisroel and New York.

One common Romaniote shul practice is that Aleinu is recited not at the end of davening, but at the beginning. Another is that the shulchan for reading the Torah is placed towards the back of the shul, not in the middle.

Corsica

Corsica is the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, located due west and very close to the Italian Peninsula. It is probably most famous for its native son, Napoleon Bonaparte. Historically, it has been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Goths, Byzantines and Arabs; and later by Pisa, Genoa and many others. French rule is relatively recent, only since the 18th century, and the original, native Corsican language is really a dialect of Italian. Although Corsica is legally part of France, it is both physically and culturally much closer to southern Italy than to France. For this reason, there is a troubled relationship between the French mainland and Corsica, which benefited the Jews during World War II, as we will soon learn.

Corsica was the last of the four Mediterranean islands of our article to have an organized Jewish community. Nevertheless, there is some relevant history related to Jews and Corsica, which we will discuss shortly.

Crete

Crete is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean and the largest and most populous of the islands of Greece. It is located southeast of mainland Greece, in the southern part of the Aegean Sea, and it is less than 600 miles from the coast of Eretz Yisroel.

Crete’s known archeological history is possibly the most ancient in the world – it dates back to the time of the dispersion after Migdal Bavel. Later, Crete was the home of the ancient Minoan civilization. Afterward, it became part of the Roman Empire and then the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire. It was conquered by the Arabs, the Crusaders, and in 1204, by the Venetians, who ruled it for over four hundred years, until it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Muhammad Ali (the founder of the modern Egyptian dynasty, not the boxer) desired control over it as payment for his military services to the Ottoman Empire in the Greek Rebellion (1820s), in which case it would have become part of Egypt, but he did not succeed in procuring the island.

Jewish Crete

It is known that there was ongoing Jewish settlement in Crete since the times of the Maccabees. Crete’s Jewish community was existent from the time of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash until the era of the Nazis, but by 1941, most Jews had moved to Athens or Salonika, both of which are in mainland Greece. When the Nazis conquered Crete, less than 400 Jews were known to be on the island. Unfortunately, my research indicates that they were all killed in the war.

Halachic Crete

At this point, we can address one of our opening questions: “I was told that when I am in Crete, I should avoid eating locally grown fruit because of concerns about orlah and be careful to separate terumos and maasros. Is this halachically correct?”

The laws of terumos and maasros apply min haTorah only in Eretz Yisroel, and the laws of orlah, the fruit that grows during a tree’s first three years, are far more stringent in Eretz Yisroel than they are in chutz la’aretz. It is therefore important to know whether something grew in Eretz Yisroel or in chutz la’aretz.

It is fascinating to note that, according to a minority opinion among the tanna’im, both Crete and Cyprus have the halachic status of being part of Eretz Yisroel (see Gittin 8a and Tosafos ad locum). Allow me to explain:

In Parshas Masei, the Torah describes the western border of Eretz Yisroel:

The western border will be the Great Sea, and its territory [“ugevul”]; that will be for you the western border. (I have followed the translation of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch that the word gevul means its territory.) According to the Gemara (Gittin 8a), the word ugevul teaches that there are islands in the Mediterranean, the “Great Sea” of the pasuk, that are halachically considered part of Eretz Yisroel. There, the Gemara quotes a dispute between tanna’im regarding which islands located in the Mediterranean are halachically part of Eretz Yisroel and which are not. Rabi Yehudah contends that the word ugevul includes any island in the Mediterranean situated directly west of Eretz Yisroel. These islands are imbued with the sanctity of the Holy Land. Since, according to some opinions, the Biblically promised area of Eretz Yisroel extends quite far north, many of the southern Greek islands, including both Cyprus and Crete, are halachically Eretz Yisroel, according to Rabi Yehudah.

However, we do not follow this approach, but that of the rabbonon. They draw an imaginary line from the northwestern-most point of Eretz Yisroel to its southwestern-most point and include only islands that are east of this imaginary line. There are few islands in this area, and certainly both Cyprus and Crete are not included (Derech Emunah, Terumos 1:89).

Corfu

Corfu, by far the smallest of the four islands we are discussing, is today part of the country of Greece. It is on the opposite side of Greece from Crete, northwest of the Greek mainland; the second largest and most northern of the Ionian Islands. On the above map, Corfu is too small to be identified, but the island in the northeastern corner of the Ionian Sea, near the border of Greece and Albania, is Corfu.

Jews of Corfu

The 12th century Jewish traveler, Binyamin of Tudela, writes that he crossed the Ionian Sea from Otranto, Italy, to Corfu. From Corfu, he sailed to Arta on the Greek mainland, and from there he traversed the rest of Greece. In his day, there was no Jewish community in Corfu, but it appears that about a century after his trip, there was what we can call a “Jewvenation” of the island. It appears that Jews arrived there from Greece to the east, and from Italy to the west. The communities of southeastern Italy (the heel of the Italian boot) – again, neither Ashkenazim nor Sefardim – had their own customs, which were usually called Puglian, taken from a geographic term applied to this area of Italy. (In English, this area is usually called Apulia.) The Puglian Jews trace their history in the Italian boot to the time of the Second Beis Hamikdash, when Jews often settled in Italy as a result of the increasing influence of the Roman Empire.

Apparently, there were two different communities in Corfu, each with its own shul and its own cemetery. After the Spanish expulsion, a new ingredient was added to the Corfu mix, when the Sefardic Jews arrived. Thus, there were three distinct kehillos in this relatively small community: Romaniote, Puglian, and Sefardic. Still later, I found reference to a fourth kehillah in Corfu following the customs of the Sicilian communities (Shu”t Haredach #11). In a relatively unknown chapter of Jewish history, there was a vibrant Jewish community in Sicily (which begins with an S, not a C) that was expelled in 1492, at the same time the Jews were expelled from Spain.

As a result of this interesting background, the Jews of Corfu spoke their own distinctive local dialect, a mixture of Greek, Hebrew and Italian. This language was distinct from that of other Greek Jews, who spoke their own dialect of Greek called Yevanic. (Think of the relationship between German and Yiddish.) The Corfu Jews were the only significant minority among a population that was otherwise exclusively Greek Orthodox.

Of the four islands that we have discussed, Corfu contained the most prominent Jewish community, including many prominent rabbonim and poskim. For example, in the early sixteenth century, the Shu”t Binyamin Ze’ev refers to the city of Corfu as boasting of a resident, Rav Shabsi Kohen, as a great talmid chacham among a community of talmidei chachamim. We have extant a heter agunah signed by this Rav Shabsi together with two other local rabbonim in the year 1510.

Not long thereafter, the rav of the Romaniote kehillah of Corfu was Rabbi David ben Chaim Hacohen (the Radach) a prominent posek who corresponded with the great Sefardic poskim of his time. He may have had a yeshiva there, since the author of Teshuvos Mishpetei Shmuel calls himself a disciple of Rabbi David ben Chaim Hacohen.

Corfu is mentioned in the context of various halachic issues in hundreds of responsa. At one point, it even boasted its own Jewish printing house.

By the nineteenth century approximately 5,000 Jews lived on the island, each affiliated with one of the various kehillos. In the course of time, the Sefardic community became the strongest and, although the other shullen were still called the Greek, Puglian or Sicilian shullen, they all davened the nusach of the original Spanish communities.

The unfortunate destruction of this once-vibrant community occurred in two stages. In the late nineteenth century, there was a blood libel, the result of which was that the majority of the Jewish community dispersed to other lands. Of course, the final blow was the Nazis, who wiped out virtually the entire remaining population of about 2,000 Jews. Today, there are less than one hundred highly assimilated Jews on Corfu among a population of about 100,000 people, and only one shul is known to still exist.

Corfu esrog

Corfu’s semi-tropical climate allowed it to make a unique contribution to Jewish history. For well over a century, it was the primary source for esrogim used all over Europe. Corfu esrogim, which were apparently predominantly grown by non-Jewish farmers, were known for their beauty. Since they were grown by non-Jews for the Jewish market, there was much halachic discussion, beginning as far back as the 18th century, concerning whether one could rely that the esrogim had not been crossbred with other species, which would invalidate them according to most opinions. (Discussions about crossbred esrogim date back to the sixteenth century, with the majority of halachic authorities ruling that one cannot fulfill the mitzvah on Sukkos with an esrog grafted onto a tree of another species.) One very prominent authority, the Beis Meir, invalidated the Corfu esrogim (responsum at the end of the Orach Chayim volume of his commentary to Shulchan Aruch), while others ruled that they were kosher (Shu”t Beis Efrayim, Orach Chayim #56; Shaarei Teshuvah 649:7; Shu”t Zecher Yehosef #232).

Corfu vs. Corsica

Esrogim also grow on Corsica, which is on the other side of the Italian peninsula from Corfu. At one point, these three areas, the two islands of Corfu and Corsica, and the Italian mainland in between, were the main sources of esrogim shipped to central and Eastern Europe. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, we find various disputing responsa regarding which esrogim were acceptable or preferable. Some authorities ruled that one may use the Corfu esrogim but not those from Corsica, while others ruled just the opposite (Shu”t Tuv Taam Vadaas, #171; Shu”t Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor #28; also see Shu”t Sho’eil Umeishiv, Mahadura Telisa’i #144; Shu”t Or Somayach 2:1; Shu”t Tzitz Eliezer 10:11:7). Still others ruled that both of these varieties of esrogim were kosher, but that it was preferable to purchase only from Eretz Yisroel, where the modern business of growing and shipping esrogim was just beginning (Shu”t Yeshuos Malko, Orach Chayim #46; Shu”t Avnei Neizer, Choshen Mishpat #115).

In 1875, we have recorded the following halachic inquiry: An esrog retailer in Poland received esrogim from Corsica, and wanted to return them to his distributor, claiming that he had always previously received esrogim from Corfu. Is the buyer entitled to a refund?

Shu”t Beis Yitzchok rules that he is entitled to get his money back. Since the esrogim sold in that area were from Corfu, the distributor was required to tell the retailer that the esrogim were from a different source before he shipped them (Orach Chayim #108).

At this point, we can answer the second of our opening questions: “Is it better to use an esrog from Corfu, from Corsica, or from the mainland in between?”

The answer is that in the 21st century, most authorities will tell you to purchase an esrog grown in Eretz Yisroel. In earlier times, there were halachic disputes about the subject.

Corsican salvation

I mentioned earlier the troubled relationship between the French mainland and Corsica, from which the Jews benefited during the Holocaust. During World War II, France was divided into Nazi-occupied northern France, and the collaborative Pétain government, colloquially referred to as Vichy France, named for its capital. (Paris was occupied by the Nazis.) Mainland France under Marshal Pétain organized a census of its Jewish population that was subsequently used to hunt thousands of Jews who were rounded up, placed on trains and sent to the death camps. The remaining French Jews tried frantically to find shelter with those comparatively few sympathetic French people who were willing to hide them. Many fled to Corsica, where a small Jewish community existed.

Post-war historians have discovered documents from France’s Vichy government archives that imply that relatively few Jews were turned over by the non-Jewish Corsicans. According to recently published magazine articles, the Corsicans’ hatred of the French was put to good use, as the Corsicans kept the Jewish presence a secret from prying French eyes. The Corsican authorities’ explanation for not handing over any Jews was that there were none on the island. This explanation was accepted by Vichy, because the mainland, too, widely believed that hardly any Jews were in Corsica. In fact, thousands of Jews survived the war there.

Thus we see that, although none of these islands has a significant Jewish community, each was important at one time. Perhaps of greatest interest is that although Corsica’s community was always small, it ended up being a refuge that saved thousands of Jewish lives. Hashem rules the world and clearly destined that each of these islands fulfill a role in Jewish history and halacha.

 




Of Umbrellas, Trees and Other Kohen Concerns

Question #1: Does tumah spread under umbrellas?

Question #2: The exit off the highway I take to work borders on a non-Jewish cemetery, and there are trees overhanging the road. One of the fellows I carpool with is a kohen, but he is not bothered about this issue. Even though I am not a kohen, should I be concerned?

INTRODUCTION

Parshas Chukas discusses tumas meis, the spiritual defilement that results from contact with a corpse or other human remains. When the parah adumah is restored and we endeavor to keep ourselves tahor whenever possible, Jews will be more mindful of how tumah spreads. In that era, every Jew will be careful to be tahor when separating challah and terumah, eating maaser sheini and korbanos, and entering the Beis HaMikdash, all of which should be performed only when tahor. (Unfortunately, today we separate challah, terumah and maaser sheni when we are tamei because we have no other option.) For these and many other reasons, the laws of tumah and taharah will then affect everyone.

In the interim, the laws of tumas meis do not directly concern most people, but they certainly affect kohanim, since the Torah prohibits them from contracting tumas meis. Nevertheless, every Jew should be familiar with these halachos since a knowledgeable non-kohen can often prevent a kohen from becoming tamei, as we will soon see. Furthermore, a non-kohen may not cause a kohen to become tamei.

SOME BASIC LAWS OF TUMAH

A person can become tamei meis in three different ways: 1) maga (touching), 2) masa (carrying or moving, even if one does not touch the remains), and 3) being under the same ohel (roof). A kohen is prohibited from becoming tamei meis by any of these methods and therefore he may not touch, move, or be in the same ohel as human remains. (There are two exceptions when a kohen must become tamei: either to a close relative, or to a meis mitzvah, the corpse of a Jew that has no one else to take care of it.)

DO REMAINS OF A NON-JEW CONVEY TUMAH?

The remains of a gentile convey tumas meis if they are touched or carried. There is a dispute whether these remains convey tumas ohel, and the Shulchan Aruch rules that it is proper to be careful (Yoreh Deah 372:2). Therefore, a kohen should not enter a room containing the remains of a non-Jew. This last halacha affects kohanim entering hospitals when it is not a life threatening emergency, and visiting museums which may have human remains. (My experience is that most museums contain some form of tumas meis.)

AN OHEL IS NOT JUST A TENT

Although the word ohel also means “tent,” or “roof,”  tumas ohel has much broader connotations and  is conveyed via almost any cover or overhang at least a tefach wide (about three inches) [Ohalos 3:7]. Therefore, a protrusion, overhang, umbrella, or branch with this width is an ohel; if it is over a grave or corpse, it conveys tumah to anyone standing anywhere underneath.

NARROW BRANCHES

Many authorities contend that an ohel that is a tefach wide at one point spreads tumah under its entirety, even under a narrower part (Rambam, Tumas Meis 12:6; 18:1; cf. the Rosh’s commentary to Ohalos 15:10, who disagrees). According to this approach, a tree branch that is a tefach-wide at one point continues to be an ohel when it narrows and can thus spread tumah rather extensively. Some contend that this is true only when the branch or protrusion is a tefach-wide for a majority of its length (Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh Deah 371:25; the Tosafos Yom Tov seems to disagree.), whereas others maintain that it becomes an ohel only if the tumah is located beneath its tefach-wide section (Sidrei Taharos, Ohalos 12:6).

CONNECTING OHEL AREAS

Tumas ohel spreads from one ohel area to any other ohel that overlaps or connects even if the different ohel “roofs” are of very different heights. Therefore, a series of overlapping or connecting roofs, ledges, caves, umbrellas, tree branches, or even people, can create a continuous ohel that transfers tumah for great distances. Indeed, what appears to be separate buildings or structures may be one large ohel connected by open doors and windows (under certain circumstances, even through closed ones), ledges or tunnels, and tumah in one building may spread across an entire complex of buildings. This is particularly common in hospitals, museums, shopping malls, university campuses and airport terminals where remains in one part of the building, or even on an airplane connected to the terminal through a jetway, may spread tumah throughout the entire facility.

Another example of this principle is that if human remains are transported into an airport terminal or medical facility that connects to a subway station, tumah spreads throughout the entire subway system and prohibits any kohen from remaining anywhere in the subway, since the entire system qualifies as one large ohel. Therefore someone dying in a Bronx subway station contaminates a kohen awaiting his commuter train in Penn Station!

KEEP YOUR DISTANCE

The human body can also function as an ohel that conveys tumah. For this reason, a person leaning out of a window over a corpse or grave becomes an ohel that transfers tumah into the house (Ohalos 11:4). Similarly, people crowded around a corpse or a grave can create a continuous ohel that transfers tumah to anyone who touches them. Because of this, a kohen attending a funeral should keep his distance from the crowd.

In the same vein, when a crowd of people escort a meis on a rainy day, one person whose body is partly above the casket spreads tumah via his body to the area under an umbrella, and then the tumah spreads throughout the crowd from umbrella to overlapping umbrella. Some authorities contend that a kohen must distance himself four amos (about seven feet) away from the umbrella nearest him.

I once attended a funeral in a yeshiva beis hamedrash where the tumas meis spread through an open door under the building’s awning, under umbrellas outside, and then from umbrella to umbrella for a very extended area. The tumah eventually reached an area where many kohanim had gone to avoid becoming tamei, but they were completely unaware that they had violated a Torah prohibition! All this could and should have been avoided with a little foresight and planning, such as arranging an assembly area for kohanim distant enough to keep them tahor. A well-educated yisroel could have resolved the unfortunate problem. Since many people have told me that this is not an uncommon problem, I advise that funerals be arranged for sunny days!

TREES

As we saw above, a kohen must be careful not to pass beneath a tree branch that also overshadows a grave. It is common to find large trees overhanging a cemetery and a section of roadway at the same time. As I pointed out, even if the cemetery is not Jewish the Shulchan Aruch advises that a kohen should avoid defiling himself in the ohel of a non-Jew. It is certainly a problem if the cemetery is Jewish. If this case affects you, I suggest asking a shaylah what to do.

Also, it often happens that one side or one lane of a road passes under trees that overhang a cemetery while the other side or lanes do not. Sometimes, while driving down a city street, a kohen suddenly realizes that the street ahead passes alongside a cemetery and that there are trees overhanging the roadway. Obviously, he should not swerve suddenly and endanger people in order to avoid defiling his kedusha; however, people should prevent this situation by notifying kohanim that the road is problematic.

LEAVES OR ONLY BRANCHES?

Although several places in the Mishnah and Gemara (Bava Basra 27b; Negaim 13:7; Kiddushin 33b) assume that tumas meis spreads underneath trees, the authorities dispute whether leaves and twigs create an ohel, or only branches. Some poskim contend that leaves and twigs rarely become an ohel; others make a distinction between sturdy ones that can bear weight and those that cannot; others distinguish between large leaves and small ones; and still others discriminate between leaves of deciduous trees and those of evergreens that have leaves all year round (see Sukkah 13b; Rambam, Tumas Meis 13:3).

DATELINE: LVOV, POLAND, ROSH HASHANAH, 1620

The halachic questions raised above became mired in controversy in 17th Century Lvov (more commonly known to Jews as Lemberg), Poland. (Because of the extensive shift of international borders at the end of World War II, this city is now located in the Ukraine.)

On Rosh Hashanah 5381 (corresponding to September 1620), Lvov’s new rav, Rav Yaakov Kopel Katz, noticed that people were walking into a nearby forested area. Rav Katz noticed that the dense foliage under which people were relaxing continued until the local cemetery. Rav Katz prohibited kohanim from entering this area, contending that tumah from the cemetery spread under the tree canopy, contaminating the entire area. Thus, he felt that kohanim relaxing in this area were violating the Torah prohibition of contracting tumas meis.

The townspeople claimed that the Drisha, possibly the greatest posek of his generation, who had himself been a kohen, had walked and sat under these same trees when he had served as Rav of Lvov only a few years before. Rav Katz countered that at the time of the Drisha, the tree canopy must not have extended so far, and the areas he walked under were not connected to the cemetery.

What exactly was the question? Apparently, the trees in question did not have wide branches, but did have dense foliage comprised of small leaves that touched together, leaving no space between them. Rav Katz held that even twigs and leaves not strong enough to support any weight can still combine to form an ohel. He also held that although plants that die in the winter are not significant enough to be an ohel, the deciduous leaves of trees that survive from year to year do qualify as an ohel.

Rav Katz wrote an extensive responsum outlining his halachic concerns and sent it to a different kohen in Lvov, a talmid chacham named Rav Avraham Rapaport. Rav Rapaport disagreed with Rav Katz and penned his own correspondence wherein he maintained that these trees did not spread tumah. Rav Rapaport contended that twigs and leaves form an ohel only when they fulfill the following conditions:

  1. They are strong enough to bear the weight of a layer of plaster applied to them.
  2. Each leaf is itself the size of a square tefach, approximately three inches by three inches. He maintained that one does combine different leaves and/or twigs to form an ohel, even if there is no space between them at all.
  3. The leaves are evergreen (see also Gesher HaChayim pg. 87).

According to Rav Rapaport, the Drisha might indeed have been relaxing under the same foliage that still existed in 1620! (Of course, we will never know.)

Rav Rapaport then mailed the two responsa, his own and Rav Katz’s, to a third scholar, Rav Aharon Abba HaLevi, who concluded like Rav Rapaport, although for slightly variant reasons. He agreed with Rav Katz that leaves combine to form an ohel, but in addition to remaining through the winter and being strong enough to withstand the weight of a layer of plaster, he added yet another condition: They must be sturdy enough not to be blown by a typical wind (see Tosafos, Sukkah 13b).

Rav Rapaport then sent the three responsa to the gadol hador, the Tosafos Yom Tov, for his ruling on the famed trees of Lvov. The Tosafos Yom Tov sided with Rav Rapaport and Rav Aharon HaLevi that the leaves involved were not an ohel. However, the Tosafos Yom Tov held a stringent opinion concerning a related issue that none of the other scholars had addressed. He contended that if the branches are a tefach wide at any point, tumah continues to spread even when they narrow. (As I mentioned above, this is subject to a dispute between the Rambam and the Rosh. Among the later authorities, most rule like the Rambam and the Tosafos Yom Tov [Dagul MeiRevavah on Shach 371:14; Chochmas Odom; Aruch HaShulchan], whereas some rule like the Rosh [Chasam Sofer, Chullin 125a].) (Rav Rapaport printed the correspondence of the four rabbonim as a chapter in his own magnum opus, Shu”t Eisan HaEzrahi #7.)

FROM LVOV TO NORTH AMERICA

This last distinction is critical. It is very common that the branches of a mature tree are a tefach wide near the trunk although they narrow as they grow. According to Tosafos Yom Tov’s conclusion, these trees will spread tumah under their boughs even if they narrow considerably, thus spreading tumah to a considerable extent. The result is that if the branch of a tree one tefach wide at one point spreads over the graves, and this branch then extends over or under a branch from another tree, which in turn stretches over or under a branch from another tree, the tumah will continue to spread as long as each branch is a tefach wide at some point. (As mentioned above, some commentaries contend that the tumah spreads from one branch to another only when both branches are a tefach wide at the point that they cross one another.) This is because beneath each branch is an ohel, and the tumah extends from one ohel to another.

In the contemporary world, this shaylah is extremely germane due to the widespread use of large trees as urban landscape. It is very common for trees to overhang cemeteries in a way that spreads tumah onto nearby highways, streets, and sidewalks. With this information, we can now address the first question raised above: “The exit off the highway I take to work borders on a non-Jewish cemetery, and there are trees that overhang the road. One of the fellows I carpool with is a kohen, but he is not concerned about this issue. Do I need to be?”

There is indeed cause for concern. Due to technical factors such as the width of the branches and the locations of the graves, and halachic factors, one should ask one’s rav what course of action to follow in this situation.

EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

A shaylah very similar to our contemporary case involved a dispute between two mechutanim, both of them prominent rabbonim, Rav Yosef Hock and the Teshuvah Mei’ahavah, Rav Elazar Flekelis, who was the primary disciple and successor of the Noda BiYehudah. The case involved a shul adjacent to a cemetery that was used for fetuses and stillborns, whose unmarked graves convey tumas meis and tumas ohel. A tree’s branches extended over the cemetery and its branches brushed against the shul building. When the windows of the shul were open, if indeed the tree conveyed tumah, the tumah would now spread from the tree through open windows into the shul, creating a problem for kohanim. Rav Hock contended that the tree limbs did not require trimming since they were very weak and would not withstand any weight. Furthermore, it was uncertain whether the tree overhung the unmarked graves, since no one was certain exactly where the fetuses were laid to rest.

However, the Teshuvah Mei’ahavah took issue with many of the facts presented by his mechutan, contending that it was possible that the entire cemetery was already filled with graves, that the tree branches would eventually grow strong enough to bear weight, and that it is far better to accustom the community to trim the branches regularly and avoid any problem. Furthermore, he notes that it is not certain that a branch too weak to support any weight is not an ohel (Teshuvah Mei’ahavah Vol. 1 #89).

CONCLUSION

Certainly umbrellas and trees can convey tumas meis; the halacha discussion is whether thin branches, twigs, and leaves do. Thus, a tree overhanging both a cemetery and a highway provides good reason to research whether a halachic problem exists. The checking of the layout and other factors should be performed by a non-kohen who is highly knowledgeable in the laws of tumas meis.

WHY IS IT PROHIBITED FOR A KOHEN TO COME IN CONTACT WITH A MEIS?

Although it is beyond our ability to fathom the reasons for the mitzvos, we can and should attempt to glean a taste of Hashem’s mitzvos in order to grow from the experience of observing them. Thus, it behooves us to attempt to explain why the Torah bans a kohen from having contact with a meis under normal circumstances.

Rav Hirsch, in his commentary on Vayikra 21:5, provides us with a beautiful insight into this mitzvah. In most religions, fear of death and what happens afterwards are the major “selling points.” Thus, the role of the priest is most important when dealing with death. However, the Torah’s focus is how to live like a Jew—to learn Torah and perform mitzvos, and devote our energies to developing ourselves in Hashem’s image. To emphasize that the Torah is the blueprint of perfect living, the kohen, who is the nation’s teacher, is excluded from anything to do with death. The kohen’s role is to imbue us with the knowledge and enthusiasm to live!!

 




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.