Question: I know the Torah teaches that we are to treat a kohen with honor, yet I always see people asking kohanim to do favors. Am I permitted to ask a kohen to do me a favor?
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 mitzvohs 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 makes 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. A kohen who violates his kedushah by marrying a divorcee or other woman prohibited to him should be separated from 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 besdin have control over Jewish affairs, they bear the responsibility to force a kohen to divorce his wife under these circumstances (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 yisrael 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 item into two similar portions, 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 yisrael 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 of the yisrael in learning. However, if the yisrael 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 yisrael 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 to the choson sits at the head of the table” (Moed Katan 28b). Contemporary poskim contemplate why we do not follow this halacha in contemporary 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!
From the above discussion we see that one is required to treat a kohen with honor and respect, yet we have not discussed whether I can ask a kohen 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 receive 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). Thus, it would seem that one may not use a kohen for any personal benefit just as one may not use the vessels of the Beis HaMikdash.
Nevertheless, this conclusion is not obvious. Many commentaries point out that there appears to be conflicting evidence to this Yerushalmi. Specifically, the Gemara Bavli refers to a Hebrew slave (eved ivri) who is a kohen. How could a kohen become 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 if he does not mind. In their opinion, a kohen may be mocheil on his honor (Mordechai, Gittin #461). However, 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 to work for you (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 a kohen. Thus, the kohen is even 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 on his kovod, is further discussed by later poskim. 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, according to the majority opinion, I am permitted to have a kohen do me a favor provided he is mocheil on his honor. According to the minority opinion it is permitted only if I pay him for his work.
There is another line of reasoning that can be used to permit using a kohen for a favor today. The reason why the Torah required giving a kohen honor is because he does the service in the Beis HaMikdash. Thus, he is considered like the vessels of the Beis HaMikdash, which also 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 tradition and family practice to act and perform mitzvohs 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. Thus, 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 Yafeh Mareh).
Based on our discussion, we should raise the question why don’t we honor the kohen all the time? 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, Mishneh 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.
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 could he benefit from the kohen, when the Yerushalmi states that it is prohibited? 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 himself answered. The Mordechai does cite R’ Peter as explaining that a kohen can be moichel on his kovod.
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? One would think that only a kohen who can offer the “bread of Hashem” has this status. Nonetheless, we derive that the laws do apply to a kohen who is blemished (Toras Kohanim to VaYikra 21:8). Apparently, the other unique halachos 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, that 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 descendents to be treated with special honor, even a minor.
This dispute has very interesting and common 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 and a Machlokes
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 pay for certain 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 donor could be called to the Torah for the aliyah.
In one congregation with this custom, one 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 a case like this we rule that 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 a non-kohen to the Torah who was fasting. He rules that this custom is halachically acceptable since it is a kovod hatorah that on a community-accepted fast to call to the Torah 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. In regard to the honor of the kohen, the conclusion of the Mishneh Berurah and other late poskim is that one should try to honor the kohen, following the literal interpretation of the statement of chazal.