by R. Gidon Rothstein
A long, long time ago in a land far, far away, I was Associate Rabbi at a shul. One Shabbat morning, I floated the idea of a zero’a, lehayyayim party, a communal barbecue where we would give the kohanim in the community the parts of the animals the Torah tells us should be given them from every animal slaughtered for Jews to eat, to once in our lives fulfill the mitzvah in this week’s parsha (Aruch HaShulhan Yoreh De’ah 61;19 stresses it is the moment of slaughter that matters; an animal slaughtered on behalf of a non-Jew then sold to a Jew is still exempt).
More Kohanim Than We Think
Let me pause my story here, although Sefer Ha-Hinuch 506 leaves it for late in the mitzvah: kohen throughout our discussion includes kohenet, a woman born to a priestly family, one of the proofs kehunah is not a purely male matter. True, most of the public functions of the kehunah were restricted to men, but here we have a clear element of the priesthood in which women participate equally.
More, the inclusion of the kohenet is not a function of her being considered part of a priestly household, like with terumah, a right suspended should she marry into a non-kohen household. A Jew can fulfill the mitzvah of zero’a, lehayyayim, and kevah, by giving these parts of the animal to a kohenet even while she is married to a non-kohen; in fact, the Jew can give the gifts to her non-kohen husband on her behalf, and still have it count for the mitzvah.
Minhat Hinuch registers Peri Megadim’s limitation, if she says not to give it to her husband, it will not work (meaning, she controls this, because she is the kohenet). One kehunah function a kohenet fulfills even after she marries “out” of the clan.
Similarly, Minhat Hinuch is sure a ba’al mum, a kohen disqualified from sacrificial service for physical reasons would also be a valid recipient of zero’a, lehayayim. The gifts may not be given to a kohen married to a woman he should not have, although that is a rabbinic rule, according to Minhat Hinuch. For another post-Biblical rule, Aruch HaShulhan 61;28 recorded King Hizkiyahu’s ordinance to prioritize a Torah scholar kohen, with the Gemara later putting a poor kohen ahead of a rich Torah scholar one.
In paragraph 37, Aruch HaShulhan said a minor can receive the gifts, too. To surmount the technical problem of a child’s legal inability to make acquisitions, Aruch HaShulhan says the Torah already granted these to kohanim, no taking ownership is needed.
Suggesting It to a Modern Audience
Back to my story. As you might, people thought I was either not serious or crazy. In tribute to my former self, I share some halachic aspects of the mitzvah. I think it also calls us to consider the sociology of our choices around halachic observance: we today mostly find leniencies and workarounds to avoid fulfillment of the mitzvah, I assume because fulfilling it would raise the price of meat significantly. (There are plenty of legitimate leniencies, many laid out in this Hebrew article.)
While true, remember we happily spend significant sums of money to observe what are clearly stringencies, many of them to ensure we are performing rabbinic laws correctly, where zero’a lehayayim is Biblical. The choices we make about what we avoid and what we fulfill to every jot and tittle are worth a second thought.
The Basic Mitzvah
Rambam lays out the basic mitzvah in Obligations 143; we are to give a kohen the right front leg, cheeks, and stomach of every behemah, domesticated animal, we slaughter, laid out in Devarim 18;3, obligatory on regular Jews.
Sefer Ha-Hinuch defines the parts, the zero’a is the right foreleg, from the shoulder to the knee, the cheeks run from the joint of the cheekbone to the joint of the trachea, and the kevah stomach includes the fat on it, although Sefer Ha-Hinuch says the priests already have become accustomed to leaving the fat to the owners [Jews he knew were apparently still giving these gifts to kohanim].
[For the translations of these terms, I trusted the Sefaria translation of Sefer Ha-Hinuch, done by my friend and havruta, R. Francis Nataf.]
These gifts do not render the meat tevel, prohibited until they are taken, where grain is tevel until terumah is set aside. Sefer Ha-Hinuch credits the difference to the animal parts already being identifiably separate. Minhat Hinuch points out the animal could be slaughtered to feed to other animals and/or for medicinal purposes, yet still come under the rubric of this mitzvah. Unless it is a terefah, an animal whose wounds mean it could not have been rendered kosher.
The meat can be given to many kohanim —Aruch HaShulhan 61;22 says should be, like charity, where we are not supposed to support just one poor person–as long as each kohen/et receives a kedei matanah, a worthy present, defined as the zero’a or kevah or one of the two cheeks. Once given, the kohen/et (or his/her guests–the kohen/et can share it with whomever s/he wants, even a non-Jew or animal, says Minhat Hinuch) must eat the meat in a respectful/exalted way.
Minhat Hinuch speaks of tzeli, roasted, but I think that was how wealthy people and/or nobility ate their meat; Aruch HaShulhan 61;27 allows the kohen/et to eat however s/he finds most tasty, but if it’s all the same, doing as the Gemara said, as the nobility did, roasted with mustard, is best.
Rambam exempts Levi’im. Sefer Ha-Hinuch explains: the verse refers to a gift to the kohanim from the am, the nation. The kohanim themselves obviously need not, and there is continuing uncertainty about whether Levi’im are included in am. Were a kohen to expropriate the gifts from an animal belonging to a Levi, courts would not force him to return it, because it is a matter of doubt.
Aruch HaShulhan Yoreh De’ah 61;18 wonders why the am issue doesn’t exempt women, given Shabbat 62a’s referring to them as an am of their own. He assumes they can count as a separate am for some issues, are part of the am for others, such as this one.
What Kind and Parts of the Animal
The gifts must be from the am, and the animal must be hullin, not set aside for sacrifice. Were it for sacrifice, even if it later developed a disqualifying disfigurement, the gifts would not be given, Minhat Hinuch writes. [As is his wont, he then investigates permutations of the animal’s ancestry, where one of the parents was a disqualified sacrifice and the other hullin, but we can leave that for another venue.]
Above, I was careful to write domesticated animal because Hullin 132a inferred from the verse’s reference to im shor im seh, whether ox or sheep (and sheep includes goats, Sefer Ha-Hinuch adds), excluding hayyot, kosher non-domesticated animals such as deer. However, the im in the verse indicates a partial sheep meets the standards as well. Should a hayyah, like a gazelle, impregnate a sheep [a brief search told me people today dispute the feasibility of such a hybrid], the animal would necessitate half-gifts. Behemah/behemah hybrids, like a geep, would have the full gifts.
Were the male the behemah, the ox or sheep, another doubt would free the Jew from giving gifts. The Gemara leaves unresolved–throughout halachah– the question of zera ha-av, the male progenitor of animals, and its role in the bloodline. Were zera ha-av to count, this hybrid should necessitate zero’a lehayyayim, but the kohen has to prove it before he can collect, because here, as in most monetary questions, ha-motzi me-havero alav ha-re’ayah, the one seeking to extract money must prove his/her claim.
In this context, Minhat Hinuch also exempted an animal found to be a possible terefah, because it, too, is a doubtful debt.
Symbolism of the Mitzvah
Sefer Ha-Hinuch records the tradition of Hullin 134b, the kohanim “earned” these gifts through the actions of Pinhas, who endangered himself to stand up for God’s honor [the tribe of Shimon could easily have protected Zimri or avenged their leader after Pinhas killed him]. The gifts reflect his action, the right foreleg/arm because he took a spear in his hand (everyone important is right-handed, of course; says this left-hander), the cheeks because he prayed for the Jewish people’s troubles as he stood to kill Zimri and Kozbi (Tehillim 106;30 says va-yefalel, a word both Ibn Ezra and Radak read in the sense of judgment, but Hullin is reading more homiletically), and kevah because Bamidbar 25;8 tells us he impaled the fornicating couple through her stomach.
Sefer Ha-Hinuch says sanctifying God’s Name publicly earns a perpetual reward for the person and his/her descendants in this world, aside from whatever comes in the next.
[I struggle with the idea later generations live off their ancestors for free. I suggest the gifts are a reward as well as a reminder, kohanim are a clan who stand up for God’s honor, most of the time in gentle, welcoming ways, but who also know when more forceful, even violent, action, at personal risk, is called for and necessary.]
The Obligation Today
Sefer Ha-Hinuch sees a significant dispute about whether the obligation remains alive in post-Temple times and outside of Israel. He thinks the best reading of the Talmudic sources is the one agreed to by Rif and Ramban, the obligation is in full force, although we have no enforcement mechanism. (He throws in the Biblical phrase ve-koye Hashem yahalifu koah, those who trust in God shall renew their strength, I think to say this will eventually be restored to what should be.)
Sefer Ha-Hinuch also allows redeeming these gifts for money where no kohanim are found, because the meat will spoil if we wait to find a kohen.
Ways Around the Mitzvah
Minhat Hinuch offers one overall consideration towards leniency, virtually all kohanim today are kohanei hazakah, assumed to be kohanim but lack proof, leaving them unable to prove the Jew must give them the gifts. Owning an animal in partnership with a non-Jew exempts from the mitzvah more fully.
Too, enough rishonim thought the mitzvah did not apply outside of Israel to justify a lenient ruling.
What We Lose
We don’t keep it in Israel, we don’t keep it outside of Israel, and kosher meat stays cheaper because of it. [And, let’s remember, we make sure to observe other mitzvot, systemically lesser, we easily could have avoided in ways very similar to this one.]
Our incomplete review of its laws shows some of what we lose with this choice: our regular awareness of the roles of kohanim in the Jewish people, and of the kehunah as a whole tribe, not only the adult males who would have served in the Temple. We can hope the future will bring a time when we do observe this, experience more directly the role of the kohanim in the Jewish people, Temple or no Temple.