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Honoring Kohanim

In this week parasha we read: “You shall sanctify him, for he offers the food of your G-d; he shall be holy to you, for I, the Lord Who sanctifies you, am holy” (Vayikra 21:8). Rashi here explains: “He shall be holy to you: Treat him with holiness, e.g., he should be the first to commence any matter, and [be the one who] begins the blessings at a meal.” Our article last year discussed the general obligation of honoring a kohen; this year, we will discuss some applications: when dividing up a property or a meal, does the Kohen get first dibs? When one sees a kohen standing in line, is one obligated to let him skip ahead? If one is a kohen, is he obligated to honor another kohen?

In a world that reverberates with the message that all men are created equal, the concept of societal hierarchy seems foreign. What’s the Torah’s view on this matter? We’ll touch on these issues and more in the coming article.


The Gemara (Nedarim 62a-b) adds detail to our halacha: “The phrase “You shall sanctify him” applies with regard to every matter of sanctity: [he is to] begin the communal reading of the Torah, recite a blessing first, and take a distinguished portion first.

The braisa seems to contain a contradiction – on the one hand, the Torah commandment is to sanctify the kohen in matters of sanctity; on the other, included in this commandment is serving him a distinguished portion first, which appears to be a mundane matter.

First Dibs on Similar Portions

In order to address the problem, we must clarify the intended meaning of the phrase “take a distinguished portion first.”

Some Rishonim – Rashi (Gitin 59b), Ritva (Moed Katan 28b) and Ran (Nedarim 62b) – explain that this reference includes the halacha that when a kohen and yisroel split a jointly owned property or business, the yisroel is required to yield to the Kohen and allow him to pick the half he prefers.

(The Tosefos [Gitin 59b] argue with this halacha, based on a statement from the Gemara [Pesachim 50b] that one who wants to take the better part of a split business will never see blessing from that choice. The Ritva, though, writes that since the Kohen is being awarded the portion, as opposed to taking it on his own, the problem the Gemara [Pesachim 50b] notes is circumvented.)

The Tosefos and the Rosh (Tosefos HaRosh, Gitin 59b) interpret the Gemara in Nedarim 62a-b to be referring to a situation in which friends dining together must yield to the kohen, allowing him to serve himself first. In addition, when distributing tzedakah or maaser ani (the poor man’s tithe), a poor kohen may take a portion first. The Ritva (Moed Katan 28b) adds that, according to the Tosefos, when people come for a Din Torah, the Kohen should be admitted first even if he is last in line. Finally, on the first halacha mentioned, the Shittah Mekubetzet (Nedarim 62b) adds that not only should the Kohen be given first dibs at a meal, but one should serve him as well. Rashi would concur with this view of the Tosefos, as we presented it.

A third view is that of the commentary on Nedarim 62b (attributed to Rashi), the Rid (Gitin 59b), and the Rabbenu Yehonason of Lunel (Moed Katan 18b). They argue that the statement of the Gemara refers to the right of the Kohen Gadol, the High priest, to choose the part he wants from the Lechem Hapanim (The Showbread) and other sacrifices in the Mikdash. He is to be honored by his fellow kohanim (Indeed, according to this view, regarding mundane matters such as a weekday meal, there is no obligation to allow the kohen to eat first.). The Rishonim in the first two camps would agree to this halacha.

First Dibs Continued

According to the last view (Rashi, Rid, Rabbenu Yehonason) mentioned above, the braisa reads well, as it speaks only of a commandment to honor the kohanim in matters of sanctity. But according to the former Rishonim, the apparent contradiction in the braisa persists.

The Rosh (Nedarim 62b) understands the phrase “matter of sanctity” to refer to “everything that looks big and holy.” In other words, in whichever matter a kohen is honored, it should be clear that the kohen is greater and more sanctified than the rest of the nation.

The Pri Megadim issues a ruling that could be seen as an explanation for shittas Tosefos (Orech Chayim 135, introduction): the mitzva to serve a kohen a distinguished portion first only refers to a seudas mitzva (a meal served in honor of a mitzva such as on Shabbos, at a bris, or at a wedding). However, at an ordinary weekday meal there is no such obligation.

Cutting the Line

By way of introduction, we’ll first discuss halachos concerning a talmid chacham and then we’ll focus on the kohen.

The Gemara (Nedarim 62a) writes that if a Talmid Chacham asks to cut the line when people are waiting to be admitted into beis din, we allow him to do so. This is based on the pasuk: “And Benayahu the son of Yehoyada [was presiding over] the archers and the slingers; and David’s sons were kohanim” (Shmuel II 8:18). In a simple sense, the term kohanim here connotes prominence. But from the equation of talmidei chachamim (as King David’s sons were) with kohanim, the Gemara learns just as a kohen is shown preferential treatment, so too is a talmid chacham.

The Rambam (Hilchos Talmud Torah 6:10) and Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 243:4-5) cite this as a case in which talmidei chachomim are given preferential treatment. In addition, they write that a talmid chacham who brings his merchandise to the marketplace may sell before others are able to. Interestingly, there is no mention of the Kohen receiving preferential treatment in these cases. Indeed, see, Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 15:2) in which he presents the list of individuals with priority to be admitted into a din Torah (an orphan, a widow, a talmid chacham, and a woman) while notably omitting the kohen.

The Tumim (15:3) asks: if our preferential treatment of a talmid chacham is derived from the halacha of preferential treatment towards a Kohen, why does the Shulchan Aruch omit the main halacha? The Tumim explains that the halacha concerning the talmid chacham is indeed derived from the one concerning the Kohen, but that preferential treatment means something different for each.  While the reason for honoring the kohen is the sanctity of his priesthood, the reason for honoring the talmid chacham is his knowledge of Torah. Since his time can be productively invested in learning Torah, we are willing to give a talmid chacham a pass to cut the line. Rabbi Yitzchak Elchonon (Nachal Yitzchak 15) argues on the derivation of the halacha of preferential treatment for a talmid chacham, but agrees with the concept that honor manifests differently for the talmid chacham than for the kohen.

Rabbi Yitzchak Elchonon adds that if a yisroel and a kohen came to ask a halachic question, the Kohen should be answered first. He proves this from the Rama (Yore Deah 246:15) that if two people came to receive a halachic ruling: an uneducated kohen and a talmid chacham, the talmid chacham should be answered first. Indeed, we see that the chacham precedes the kohen, but not the layman.

Halachic Summary and Conclusion

So let’s summarize the approaches to the commandment of honoring a kohen.

1) Rashi and others hold that one must honor a kohen in mundane matters when no significant loss will be incurred. Therefore, after splitting a partnership equally, the kohen is offered first dibs.

2) The Tosefos and the Rosh understand that a kohen should have precedence in mundane matters such as tzedakah distributions and at a meal, but not in the division of a partnership. The Mishna Brura’s ruling (201:13) follows this approach. Furthermore, the Pri Megadim rules that the mitzva is to serve a kohen first only applies at a seudas mitzvah.

3) Another approach is that preferential treatment is relevant only for sacred matters such as consumption of sacrifices. This is apparently approach of the Rambam as the Tumim suggests. Furthermore, we can suggest that the Shulchan Aruch concurs with this view, in light of the fact that he omits the kohen in from the list of those who should receive preferential treatment in mundane matters (see prior section).  Of course, the Shulchan Aruch does not mention the need to honor a kohen in sacred matters, since this halacha anyway is not applicable in our day.


The Magen Avraham (Orach Chayim 201:3) suggests that people are not so careful to fulfill this commandment today because we are not skilled at assessing the authenticity of kohanim’s lineages. The Mishna Brura (ibid), however, stresses that anyway one should give a kohen preferential treatment.

If allowing the kohen to cut the line will cause others a considerable loss of time or money, there is no obligation to honor the kohen with the first spot in line. However, if the wait is slight and the results inconsequential, it is proper to honor the kohen to go first, especially in light of the Mishna Brura’s assertion that this mitzva is a Biblical commandment, not merely an asmachta.

Kohen vs. Kohen

Does the obligation to honor kohanim pertain to kohanim as well?

On this matter, there are several approaches amongst the poskim:

1) The Makne (Kiddushin 21b) is of the opinion that one kohen has no obligation to honor another kohen. The obligation to honor kohanim is solely that of the Jewish Nation at large. The Mishnah Brura agrees with this opinion (Biur Halacha 128:45). These poskim likely understand the obligation to honor a kohen as a way of maintaining the kohen’s distinctiveness amidst his people.

2) The Ksav Sofer (Orech Chayim 15) and his son, the Shevet Sofer (Orech Chaim 33), write that a kohen is obligated to respect another kohen. In particular, he must not employ or assign him to a disgraceful job because kohanim are meant to be on a higher social standing than the rest of the nation. Nevertheless, the Aruch Hashulchan (Orech Chaim 128:72) writes that as long as the kohanim are not wearing their distinctive garb, they have the right to waive their due honor.

The Ksav Sofer seems to understand the obligation to honor a kohen both as a way to maintain the kohen’s distinctiveness amidst the Jewish people and as a matter of honoring his service in the Beis Hamikdash. Honoring him for his service in the Mikdash is a way of honoring the Mikdash itself (this is reminiscent of honoring a talmid chacham for the Torah he knows).

3) The Minchas Chinuch (mitzva 269) agrees that, in principle, a kohen is not obligated to show honor to another kohen. However, nowadays it may be proper for one kohen to respect another, lest one Kohen himself be of inauthentic lineage and his friend an authentic kohen. However, this is really a stringency because it is a sfek sfeika (a double doubt) – a safek that the other kohen may not be a kohen, and a safek that even if both are kohanim, halachically they are not obligated to honor one another.

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