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Relating to The Holiness of the Priesthood

July 25, 2014

Two weeks ago, when we were discussing the “covenant of eternal priesthood” (Numbers 25:12) rewarded to Phinehas, someone raised the possibility that according to the opinion that says that Phinehas was a priest all along, just like his father, perhaps that just like a priest who has killed someone may no longer administer the priestly blessing, so too is such a priest disqualified from actually performing the sacrificial service, and thus Phinehas was in need of a special, divinely approved dispensation in order to continue serving in the Tabernacle. This idea was suggested and then rejected by some of the Tosafists. We then saw that while it is true that such a priest may not bless the people, the halacha is that he is not disqualified from performing the sacrificial service.

We then brought up the commandment to “sanctify [the priest] because he offers the bread of thy God.” (Leviticus 21:6) Most are aware of the priority and preference with which we are to treat the Aaronide priests, but many are unaware of a rule found in the Yerushalmi, namely, that it is forbidden to make use of a priest in a servile manner.

YT Berachoth 8:5:

Abba Bar Bar Hanna (the son of the son of Hanna) and Rav Huna were sitting and eating, and Rabbi Zeira was standing and serving them. He came up and put both [the cup of wine and the fragrant oil] in one of his hands. (Earlier, the schools of Hillel and Shammai disputed which hand should hold the wine and which should hold the oil during the recitation of havdala, but neither school suggested putting both in one hand.) Said Abba Bar Bar Hanna to him: “Have your hands been cut off?” (As though to ask why he was not using both of his hands.) His (Abba’s) father (Bar Hanna) was angry at him. He said to him, “It is improper that you lie down (They used to eat while reclining on couches) while he stands and serves. Further, he (Rabbi Zeira) is a priest, and [the amora] Samuel has said that one who uses a priest has committed m’ila, (lit. treason, a term used to describe using Temple property for a non-ritual purpose. The laws of m’ila as laid down by the rest of the Talmud and Maimonides are usually restricted to objects and funds.) You are acting inappropriately leniently. I order that he lie down and you get up and serve instead of him!” What is the source for this rule that one who uses a priest has committed treason? Rabbi Aha said in the name of Samuel: “It says, (Ezra 8:28) ‘And I told them, “You are holy to the Lord, and the vessels are holy.”’ Just like one who uses the Temple vessels has committed treason, so too, one who uses priests has committed treason.”

The relevant halachic discussion is found at the end of Orah Hayim 128. There, the Vilna Gaon prefers the explanation given by the Taz (128:39) as to how this rule of the Yerushalmi can be reconciled with the various other halachoth found in the Babylonian Talmud that seemingly permit using priests in servile manners, most obviously the rule that a Jewish priest may be sold into indentured servitude in order to pay off a debt or to make restitution for a theft. The Taz writes that the priest has the right to act in a servile manner if it is to his own benefit, like working for a living, or being honored to serve an eminent scholar like Rabbeinu Tam.

It should be noted that while Maimonides does codify the various laws involving priestly day laborers and indentured servants, he does not make mention of the rule of the Yerushalmi, above. It is intellectually satisfying to search for the sources for halachoth that Maimonides codifies. This work has been ongoing for centuries, and is the central feature of the method of Talmud study known as the Brisker Derech. It is much more challenging to seek to explain why other rules were left out.

I believe the answer is along these lines: Many rules were recorded in the Shulhan Aruch that Maimonides and the Vilna Gaon felt were not halacha. In this case, the rule about not making use of priests is al pi mussar, according to proper behavioral standards, and not the letter of the law. The most well-known examples have been discussed earlier: head covering, washing the hands after sleeping even if not for prayer or eating bread, and putting on the right shoe first. Many of these do not appear in the Mishneh Torah because they are either just good advice, or because they are based on beliefs that Maimonides (and many of the sages) did not subscribe to.

The same is true of the incident above. The letter of the law allows for the sons of Aaron to be made into servants; it is an act of piety to prevent oneself from taking advantage of that allowance, but it does not need to be included in the code. Note that Bar Hanna only made his son Rabba switch roles with Rabbi Zeira after Rabba acted impudently. Had the the prohibition against using priests been the letter of the law, Bar Hanna should have objected from the outset! Rather, up until Rabba spoke up, there was no problem with Rabbi Zeira serving distinguished scholars. Further, the language Samuel uses clues us to the fact that the letter of the law is not discussed. As we mentioned earlier, m’ila only actually applies to non-people, and thus he was using exaggerated language when declaring that one who makes use of a priest has committed treason. This become even clearer when one reads the original Hebrew and Aramaic text.

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From → halacha, original

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