In Parashas Emor we are instructed to give special honor to the Kohanim: “You shall sanctify him, for he offers the bread of your G-d; he shall be holy unto you, for I, Hashem who sanctifies you, am holy” (Vayikra 21:8).
In the instruction to construct the Mishkan, Hashem also tells Moshe to “single out Aharon, your brother, and his sons, from among the Children of Israel, to officiate before Me” (Shemos 28:1). Hashem Himself sanctifies the Kohanim: “And Ahron and his sons I will sanctify to serve me” (Shemos 29:44). Just as He singles out and sanctifies Kohanim, so we, too, are instructed to sanctify them.
But what is the meaning of this sanctification? In which sense are we to afford Kohanim special honor and respect? Does a Torah scholar take precedence over a Kohen? It is permitted to ask a Kohen to do a favor? And what is the status of Kohanim today whose lineage is not clear? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Sanctifying the Kohanim
The Pasuk cited above is written in the context of the Kohanim performing the service of the Mishkan. The Ramban explains that since the Kohanim perform Hashem’s service, the sanctification of the entire nation depends on them—and therefore we must sanctify them.
How are we to sanctify the Kohanim? According to the Rambam, it seems that the principal mitzvah of sanctifying the Kohanim refers to preparing them for their performance of duties in the service of Hashem. Thus, the Rambam writes that “there is a positive commandment to separate the Kohanim, to sanctify them and to prepare them for the sacrifices” (Hilchos Kelei HaMikdash 4:1). This interpretation of the Rambam is mentioned by Maaseh Roke’ach (4:2), as well as by other commentaries on the Rambam.
Yet, in his Sefer Hamitzos (Aseh 32) the Rambam seems to understand that honoring a Kohen in all matters is a Torah mitzvah. This also emerges from most Torah commentaries (see Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, and others), who understand that the principal mitzvah of the Torah refers to an obligation to give the Kohanim special deference. Chazal (see below) certainly teach us that even when there is no Mishkan or Mikdash, so that Kohanim are unable to fulfil their basic role of officiating before Hashem, the obligation to give special honor and reverence to the Kohanim remains in place.
One way or another, the obligation to honor the Kohanim is certainly a full obligation, as the Rambam notes.
The principal tannaitic mention of honoring Kohanim is a baraisa brought by the Gemara (Gittin 59b; Horiyos 12b), where we learn: “The school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: You should sanctify him in all matters of holiness—to be the one to open, to bless first and to take the best portion first.”
Rashi explains that “opening” refers to speaking first. When there are multiple speakers, the Kohen must be given the first slot. Blessing first refers to a situation in which several people need to recite a blessing. Then the Kohen should be honored to make the beracha on behalf of the others. The same applies concerning making Kiddush for everyone (Mishnah Berurah 201:12) and leading the benching (Rashi, Moed Katan 28b; Ran and other Rishonim, Nedarim 62b).
The third matter, of taking the best portion, refers to a meal or event at which the Kohen can be given precedence to receive the best portion of food. The Kohen should be offered the best portion by the others in attendance (Tosafos, Gittin 59b). Likewise, if the Kohen is poor, he is entitled to choose the best available portion of tzedakah or maaser given to the poor.
Poskim understand that these matters are examples, and that the same applies to other matters of honor. However, this applies only to matters of honor alone, and not to matters that have monetary consequences (see Nedarim 62a concerning a Torah scholar taking precedence as a litigant in Beis Din; there is some discussion as to whether this applies even to a Kohen, as noted for instance by the commentary of Ohr Ha’yashar to the Rambam).
Kohen and Talmid Chacham
The preference of a Kohen does not apply when the Kohen is in the presence of a Torah scholar, if he himself is not a talmid chacham. The talmid chacham takes precedence over the Kohen, and one must honor the Torah scholar rather than the Kohen.
In fact, the Gemara (Megillah 28a) notes that one who honors a Kohen am ha’aretz over a talmid chacham desecrates the name of Hashem and denigrates the Torah (see also Yoma 71b, concerning the greatness of Shmaya and Avtalyon which surpassed the virtue of the Kohen Gadol).
These principles are ruled by the Rema (Orach Chaim 167:14; see also Shulchan Aruch 201:2 concerning benching), who writes that if all are equal at a meal, the Kohen must be given preference. But if the Kohen is an am ha’aretz then a talmid chacham takes precedence. If, however, the Kohen is also a Torah scholar, though even if not on the same level as a Yisrael who is present, the Rema rules that it is worthy for the Yisrael to honor the Kohen to come first, though he notes that this is not a full obligation. The Mishnah Berurah (70) adds that it is forbidden for a talmid chacham to give a Kohen am ha’aretz precedence in reciting a beracha.
If somebody else, other than a Kohen (or a talmid chacham) is given the honor of reciting the beracha, the Magen Avraham states that he must first say “birshus ha’Kohen”—with permission of the Kohen. He adds that it is only permitted to proceed if the Kohen actually gives permission.
Note that when the meal takes place in somebody’s house, the host takes precedence in reciting the beracha before the meal on behalf of everybody, even if he is neither a Kohen nor a talmid chacham (Shulchan Aruch 167:14) The source for this is the Gemara in Berachos 46a, since he is being generous by inviting others to his meal. Even in this situation (and even when the person reciting the beracha is a talmid chacham), it is proper to take permission from others. The Mishnah Berurah 75 writes that this is out of modesty.
The First Aliyah
According to the Rambam (Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 4:2; see also Rashi, Moed Katan 28b), the reference to a Kohen “opening” before others does not refer to speaking at public engagements, but rather to being called up to the Torah: The Kohen must be given the first aliyah when the Torah is read. It is possible that the Rambam understood this because the wording of the baraisa is that the Kohen is given precedence for “matters of holiness.”
Although we have noted that a talmid chacham generally takes precedence over a Kohen, in the matter of the first aliyah, in order to ensure peace and harmony in the Shul, Chazal enacted that the first aliyah is always given to a Kohen, even in the presence of a greater Torah scholar (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 135:4). This departs from the original custom mentioned by the Gemara, by which the greatest Torah scholar would be given the first aliyah even if he was not a Kohen, if the talmid chacham was a godol hador.
Sometimes, when aliyos are in short supply (for instance, when there is a bar mitzvah or yahrzeit that involves levi’im) , the gabay of the Shul might ask a Kohen to leave the shul, circumventing the obligation to give him the first aliyah. While technically permitted, this is not proper practice, and the mitzvah of vekidashto takes precedence over such aliyah customs as the bar mitzvah or yahrzeit.
Is there a mitzvah to honor a Kohen who is a minor?
Some Poskim contend that since a child cannot perform the service in the Beis HaMikdash, it follows that there is no requirement to honor him since the mitzvah of honoring the Kohen derives from his being appointed to officiate in Hashem’s service. Others, however, opine that since he will eventually be able to perform this service, he should receive honor.
The Maharit (no. 145) sided with this latter opinion, and ruled that when there is no adult Kohen in shul, the first aliyah should be given to a child Kohen, rather than to an adult non-Kohen. However, the prevalent practice is that there is no mitzvah of vekidashto for a minor (Magen Avraham 282:6; see also Sdei Chemed 3:188).
Asking for Favors
While in general there is no disrespect in asking somebody for a favor, the Yerushalmi states that it is forbidden to have personal benefit from a Kohen. The reason is that just as it is forbidden to have personal benefit from the vessels of the Mikdash, so one must not derive benefit from Kohanim. This halacha is noted by the Rema (Orach Chayim 128:45).
However, the Gemara refers to an eved ivri (Hebrew slave) who is a kohen, which raises a clear difficulty: How can someone own a Hebrew slave if one is not permitted to have personal benefit from a Kohen? The Hagahos Maimonis (Hilchos Avadim 3:8) raises this problem, and several approaches are presented to resolve the difficulty.
The Mordechai (Gittin no. 461) states that in fact there is no prohibition in deriving benefit from a Kohen if the Kohen chooses to forgo his honor, and therefore it is permitted (when he agrees) to derive benefit. Other authorities, however, rule explicitly that it is forbidden to use a Kohen even if he forgoes his honor (based on Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvos 32; Smag, Aseh 83).
On the question of forgoing his honor, most authorities rule that a Kohen may forgo his honor, as noted by the Rema (128:45), the Magen Avraham, Pri Chodosh (Mayim Chayim on Gemara Gittin 59b), and others. The Taz (Orach Chayim 128:39) disagrees and rules that a Kohen may not forgo his honor.
Others explain that although it is forbidden to use a Kohen without paying him, it is permitted to hire a Kohen (Smag, Aseh no. 83). It is therefore permitted to use a Kohen when he derives benefit from his work, and it is therefore permitted for a Kohen to sell himself as a slave. Some, wishing to rely on this option, offer a token payment to a Kohen in exchange for a favor, though the efficacy of this token payment can be questioned.
The Magen Avraham (201:4) notes that the common practice is not to give Kohanim honor in everyday circumstances. Why are we not careful in this matter? If the mitzvah of giving the Kohen honor is a Torah precept, we should surely adhere to it with great devotion. He answers: “It is possible that today we are not certain of the lineage of Kohanim.”
The Magen Avraham thus justifies, on a post factum level, the practice of not following the Torah law of giving Kohanim even honor they should get by the suggestion that their lineage is not certain.
Of course, we should be careful to give Kohanim precedence, following the simple ruling of Shulchan Aruch, and the Mishnah Berurah (201:13) writes that lechatchilah one must surely be careful of this. Yet, concerning asking favors from Kohanim, for which it seems clear that most are not careful, perhaps the justification is the post factum ruling of the Magen Avraham.
We have already dedicated a past essay to the status of Kohanim today and will not expand on the matter here.
We have seen that the Torah obligates us to honor Kohanim, and that (according to most authorities) this is a Torah mitzvah of vekidashto. Thus, we must be careful to afford Kohanim proper honor in matters such as speaking first, in benching and in taking their portions before others. As noted, not all are as careful as they can be concerning these and other matters, and Poskim seek to justify their apparent laxity in the matter. Nonetheless, we should be careful in this probable Torah obligation, and ensure its fulfillment to the degree possible.
We pray for the Mikdash to be speedily rebuilt, when we will once again see Kohanim at their appointed service.