The Mishnayot in chapters 10 and 11 discuss the mitzvah of giving certain gifts to the Kohanim:
certain parts of every slaughtered domestic animal;
certain parts of animals that are sacrificed;
the firstborn of a cow, sheep or goat; and
the first shearing of sheep.
There are a total of twenty-four gifts that are given to the Kohanim (Baba Kama 110b) many of which are listed in chapter eighteen of Vayikra.
What is the purpose of these gifts? The gifts allowed the Kohanim to focus on their role of working in the Beit Ha’Mikdash and acting as the interface between Bnei Yisrael and Hashem without worrying about earning a living. Today, when we no longer have the Beit Ha’Mikdash, there are still many reminders of these gifts and the special role that the Kohanim play, such as:
separating challah when baking bread.
the blessing of the Kohanim.
the various honours that we give to Kohanim such as the first
aliyah and leading the birkat ha’mazon.
Whenever we are involved in any of these activities they should serve as a reminder to us of the proper role of the Kohanim and of how far we have fallen.
We can learn a powerful lesson from these gifts - a lesson which is very timely given that we have just entered into Elul and the lead up to Rosh Hashanah.
Many of the gifts that we give to the Kohanim involve the concept of ‘first’:
the firstborn of our flocks
the first of our crops
the first shearing of our sheep
Many of our crops are forbidden tevel until we first give trumah to the Kohanim.
Most of these gifts become sanctified and must be consumed in a sanctified way:
only by the holiest members of the people i.e. the Kohanim and in
some cases their families
only in the holiest place – e.g. some of the gifts must be consumed
within the Beit Ha’Mikdash
only in a state of purity – both the item itself and the person
consuming the item must not be tamei
only at certain times – e.g. gifts from sacrifices which must be
consumed within a certain time period.
What is the connection between ‘first’ and ‘sanctified’?
Around the time of the high holydays, and in particular during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva we become more introspective and we focus on doing teshuva. Many have the custom of taking on an additional mitzvah or chumrah. For example, the Shulchan Aruch (603:1) suggests that one should be extra careful to only eat bread that was cooked by a Jew during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva – even if one is not so careful about this during the rest of the year.
At first glance, this custom appears somewhat hypocritical. As Hashem is about to judge us, it is as if we are telling Hashem how wonderful we are and asking Him to take into account this extra mitzvah that we are keeping. However we usually know, and Hashem certainly knows, that as soon as the Yamim Noraim are over we will very quickly give up this extra mitzvah and return to our old ways. Who are we trying to fool?
If we spend the first part of the year on a higher level we can spend the rest of the year trying to reach those heights once again. We may not make it but at least we are working in the right direction. By being extra careful around this time of year, we are demonstrating to Hashem and to ourselves where our priorities lie and the direction in which we are oriented. Our behaviour at the head of the year can be held up as an example of what we hope to achieve.
The same principle applies with the various gifts to the Kohanim. The first of our crops, the first born of our flocks, the first shearing of our sheep, etc, need to be elevated into a state of kedusha. They are devoted to Hashem by giving them to His representatives – the Kohanim. This can be held up as an example when we consume the rest of our flocks, crops etc. We do not have to consume the rest in a sanctified manner but at least we are reminded that we should be oriented towards Hashem and kedusha.
A Gift Implies Responsibility
How are we to respond to the gifts that we have received? What should our reaction be when we recognise that we been granted with talent or benefit over our peers?
The Chovot Ha’Levavot explains: “Whomever Hashem distinguishes from all others by means of some special favour must, in turn, distinguish himself from the others by accepting upon himself some special service, in addition to his efforts in the service which embraces them all.”
Put simply, the more we are given, the greater the sense of obligation and the greater responsibility one must bear toward his creator.
He use the matanot kehuna as the prime example of this: “You will therefore find twenty-four priestly commandments, corresponding to the twenty-four special benefits (gift) which the Creator has bestowed up the Priests.
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