by R. Daniel Mann
Question: I am a kohen who likes to fit in with others. When I lend a helping hand, occasionally someone tells me that I need not or should not because I am a kohen. Should I listen to them?
Answer: The Torah (Vayikra 21:8) writes about a kohen “v’kidashto” (you shall sanctify him), from which Chazal learn to treat a kohen as an honored person (Gittin 59b). Examples include giving a kohen the first aliya or first choice of food being served. The Yerushalmi (Berachot 8:5) writes: “One who uses a kohen is like one who misappropriates objects in the Beit Hamikdash.” Having a kohen serve another in various ways seems to contradict his elevated status. While here there is only a positive commandment to honor, this is reminiscent of the mitzva of respect for parents (see Kiddushin 31b), which has a positive element of kavod and an avoidance of disrespect (mora).
There are indications that sometimes a kohen may “serve” others. The Hagahot Mordechai (Gittin, 461) tells a story of a kohen pouring water on Rabbeinu Tam’s hands (a classic act of reverence/subservience – see Melachim II, 3:11). Upon being questioned, Rabbeinu Tam explained that kohanim nowadays lack the kedusha they had when they served in the Beit Hamikdash (see Zevachim 17b). It is left unanswered how he reconciled the clear fact that the halachot of a kohen still apply. Rabbeinu Peter (ibid.) answered that it was permitted because the kohen was mochel (relinquished his rights to) his kavod. Another proof of leeway is the gemara (Kiddushin 21b) that assumes a kohen can be an eved ivri (the Semag, Aseh 83, explains that the kohen is not restricted when he acts with a financial incentive).
The Sefer Hachinuch (mitzva 269) does not allow a kohen to be mochel on his kavod, because Hashem’s honor is at stake, as He chose the kohanim to serve Him in the Temple. The Taz (OC 128:39) argues that it is no different from other elements of the kohen’s sanctity (e.g., not marrying a divorcee) that he may not waive. The Levush (OC 128:45) sees it differently – honoring the kohen is the kohen’s counterparts’ responsibility, not the kohen’s, so nothing stops the kohen from waiving his honor, and when he decides to serve others, there is no problem for others to be beneficiaries.
Another factor that could have impacted the Rabbeinu Tam story is that since it is also a mitzva for someone to honor his rebbe (Avot 4:12) or a great rabbi who is revered by all, it is appropriate for the kohen to serve him (see Yabia Omer, VI, Orach Chayim 22). Similarly, the Taz (ibid.) says that it must have been “enjoyable” for the kohen to wash Rabbeinu Tam’s hands, in which case, no mechila was needed.
The Rama (OC 128:45) forbids “using” a kohen even in our days, but says that mechila solves the issue. The Mishna Berura (128:175) does cite the opinion that mechila does not help and concludes that it is good to be machmir if one can and that one certainly should not use a kohen for disgraceful matters.
Let us look at your situation. It is healthy for you to prefer normal treatment other than privileges regarding aliyot, zimun, etc. The fact that your mechila is sincere and complete bodes well for others. On the other hand, those who want to “spare you” are supported by some sources. Additionally, even when mechila works, if one gives the honor anyway, he receives a mitzva (compare to Ketubot 67b). While even if you prevail, he gets credit for trying to honor you (see Kiddushin 40a), he might get more if you refrained from serving him.
Many of us grew up with the good societal norm that all people are created equal. That is not precise in Judaism. Like it or not (Korach did not, but we should), Hashem selected kohanim to be special, and it is correct for us to give this expression. If I were a kohen, I would also be embarrassed if I were treated too specially and would be wary of negative reaction. However, when someone sincerely wants to respect your beloved “tribe” (likely, more than you, personally) it is positive to try to accommodate him in moderation.