Kohanim, Keep Out

Bechorot (4:1) | Yisrael Bankier | 11 years ago

In the beginning of the fourth perek of Masechet Bechorot we learn that one is obligated to care for and raise the bechor (first born domesticated kosher animal) prior to handing it over to the kohen. The exact time of this care is the subject of debate and varies with the type of animal. We also learnt that if a kohen volunteers to care for the animal within this time period, his offer is rejected. Why?

The Gemara (26b) explains that if a kohen were to take care of the animal during this time, it would be comparable to the case where a kohen helped the field-owner at the threshing floor. The Beraita explains that in such a case the kohen is not given trumah. If one however does so it is considered as if he “desecrated” the gifts.

The difficulty with the above quoted Beraita is that it also includes the Levi in this prohibition. In other words, the Levi is likewise not allowed to help the field-owner at the threshing floor and then consequently be given ma’aser. The difficulty is the expression that one who gives the kohen or levi the trumah or ma’aser, is considered as having desecrated the gifts. Ma’aser has no inherent sanctity; so it is puzzling why this specific expression is used in this context.

A more basic question is - why does the prohibition exist at all? It should be seen as a positive gesture of gratitude that the kohen or levi wants to be able to assist the owner. Surely acknowledging the good benefited from others is a fundamental principle of our faith.

Rashi explains that the problem is that it appears that the kohen or levi, is paying the field-owner to give it to him and no one else. We can understand this firstly, on a simple level, that it is unfair to other kohanim. Secondly the protocol by which the kohen and levi receive these gifts is that they are indeed just that – gifts. By helping out, this idea of ‘giving a gift’ is shattered. Nonetheless the term used to describe this (“desecrate”) needs more explanation.

Rav Nebenzahl answers differently by explaining why the kohanim and levi’im receive this gift. We wrongly perceive them as being “gifts”. These gifts should rather be seen as their payment. He explains, essentially all of Am Yisrael were chosen to be engaged in Avodat Hashem. Yet the Torah decreed that twelve tribes should receive inheritance and settle throughout the land, while one tribe would be free to work in the Beit Ha’Mikdash. This tribe, the levi’im would be effectively working in their stead. The work was not a privilege that could be enjoyed. The Rambam writes that a Levi refusing to work would be forced to do so, as the work in the Beit Ha’Mikdash was a personal obligation.

Rav Nebenzahl continues and says that when a field worker comes to pick up his pay check, it would not cross his mind to start doing extra work. He worked and he should get paid. If a kohen or levi would help out, despite his good intentions, he is perceived as saying that his work, his avodah in the Beit Ha’Mikdash, is not enough to warrant the trumah or ma’aser. He is “only” involved in spiritual matters and feels he needs to contribute a bit more. This is a chilul of the highest order.

With this understanding, our perception of the avodah and trumot and ma’asrot is drastically changed. On the one hand great responsibility and weight is given to the kohen and levi’s work in the Beit Ha’Mikdash as “employees”. On the other hand, the ma’asrot given are not given out of the kindness of our hearts, but rather as paying them their dues.

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