The Prohibition on a Non-Kohen Serving in the Temple

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Korach

Many Temple services may be performed only by kohanim (but not all, as we will see). Rather than codify this rule with an aseh, a commandment, Rambam in Prohibition 70 points out the Torah tells us a zar, a non-kohen, who performs a service special to the kohanim, becomes liable for mitta bidei shamayim, death at the hands of Heaven. Sifrei cites 18;4 and 18;7 to show that the verses establish both a prohibition and a warning of death.

[I find the idea surprising, that ein onshin ela im kein mazhirin, the Torah does not set a punishment without first warning of the prohibition and then providing another verse for punishment, applies to death at the hands of Heaven as well. I would have thought the two verses idea was necessary to allow a human court to punish; with God, I’d have thought just knowing Hashem has told us this is prohibited and death-worthy would have been enough. Sifrei clearly didn’t see it that way.]

What Services Count

Based on Yoma 24a, Rambam lists four acts of service only a kohen may do, rendering the non-kohen liable should he do them: sprinkling the blood, offering items on the altar (Minchat Chinukh adds that they may be unfit, actually, as long as the halakha is that once they have been offered, we need not remove them, an idea known as alu lo yerdu, having gone up, they need not be taken down), libating the wine or water. [He counts the two separately, meaning they differ enough in some way—perhaps only in the liquid being poured–to be considered distinct.]

Those four incur the death penalty, but Sefer HaChinukh 390 notes the prohibition covers many others, such as pouring out oil for a flour offering (yetzika), mixing the oil in with the flour (belila), waving sacrifices in four directions (tenufa). All these may only be performed by a kohen and are included in the prohibition. Minchat Chinukh adds that only an avoda tama, a complete act of service, can violate the prohibition fully, the reason receiving the blood in a container (kabbala) or conveying it from the slaughtered animal to the altar (holakha) would be plain prohibitions, not death penalty ones.

On the other hand, Minchat Chinukh thinks sprinkling oil on a recovered metzora is included in hazaya, would make the sinner liable for death. He is less sure about the sprinkling of the para aduma blood, since the ceremony occurs outside of the Temple, suspects it is covered by the issur aseh, prohibition set up through an obligation, to have only kohanim perform sacrificial services, in or out of the Mikdash.

As opposed to shechita, slaughtering a sacrifice, bringing wood to the altar for fuel for the fire, lighting the candles of the Menora (if a kohen prepared them first, then brought the Menora out to the Azara, the courtyard where sacrifices are offered), since non-kohanim may do any of these.

To constitute a full violation, the non-kohen would have to offer the minimum amount of that service, Minchat Chinukh points out. For one example, water is libated only on Sukkot, and that is three lugin (about a liter); when wine accompanies a sacrifice, it too comes in larger measures, but one can volunteer any amount of wine, so that the zar could be liable for libating any amount as well. For ketoret on Yom Kippur, though, it would a handful, since that is what the kohen gives.

In Force All the Time

A matter of the sacrifices, we might have thought it only relevant when we have a standing Temple. Instead of writing that most directly—the mitzvah applies to men and women in all times, Sefer HaChinukh writes that it bans us when the Temple is standing and even in our times, when the Temple is desolate, due to our sins.

Should a non-kohen man or woman perform some kind of service in the place where the Mikdash stood, s/he will have violated a plain prohibition or rendered him/herself liable for death. [It could be I made too much of the phrasing, Sefer HaChinukh wishing only to help us realize the service matters even when the Temple itself no longer stands, so he moves from the obvious to the less so.]

Minchat Chinukh reminds us of the opinion of Ra’avad, who thought the Temple’s sanctity had been lost/suspended with its destruction, meaning even a kohen could not perform services there, making the zar no different, and therefore not currently subject to our prohibition. (To me, another point getting at the essence of our mitzvah, that it is about a zar serving where a kohen could have, not just about a zar serving.)

Women KohanotZar or Not?

On the idea a non-kohen man or woman counts as a zarMinchat Chinukh draws our attention to a divergence of phrasing between Rambam and Sefer HaChinukh. Rambam writes the Torah prohibits any zar, any person who is not a male kohen, where Sefer HaChinukh is less clear, with the status of women of the kehuna clan the issue. The Gemara does emphasize the sons of Aharon, excluding women from the service, but once excluded, do they become zarim (as Rambam implies) or excluded on different grounds than the rest of us?

Minchat Chinukh seems to think Sefer HaChinukh understood women to be excluded due to an issur aseh, a prohibition inferred from a command statement, but would not count as zarim. Pushing the point, a chalal, the son of a kohen who impregnated a woman prohibited to him because of his kehuna  (such as a zona, a woman who previously engaged in karet/death penalty prohibited sexual relations), would be a zar, too, since he in no way has privileges of the priesthood, and that despite him having one advantage over other Jews, that if he did perform a sacrificial service, it would not be disqualified by his having done it.

A woman in his same situation would similarly clearly be a zara, but a woman can be a challala also by virtue of her own conduct. Were a kohenet, a woman born to a priestly family, to have become a challala by marrying a kohen when she was not allowed to (such as she had been divorced), Minchat Chinukh isn’t sure that acquired status also renders her a zara.

He is even less sure about a case Parshat Derakhim raised [a remarkable work I have never managed to learn in total, by the author of Mishneh Le-Melekh, tussling with many status issues of Jews], a kohenet who married a non-kohen. For the duration of the marriage, she may not eat teruma, and Parshat Derakhim wondered whether it tells us she counts as a zara, even if a regular kohenet does not. Open questions.

A Reason for the Mitzvah

Sefer HaChinukh 390 considers the setup of a dedicated cadre of servants a way to foster respect for God and God’s House, as it were. Kings have a regular honor guard rather than random people standing watch; so, too, the King of Kings. He actually makes the point in Mitzvah 394, and here refers us there, where the subject was the Levi’im, who also play a regular role in the Temple setup. A consistent group creates more honor for the king than a rotating one.

[He leaves points to clarify on both sides of his claim. First, the kohanim and Levi’im were not quite so regularly in attendance, since there were twenty-four mishmarot, each divided into family groups, a kohen or Levi would really only serve two or three days a year. He could volunteer for the role, but that does not fit the Chinukh’s framework. On the other hand, Sefer HaChinukh does not consider the possibility of a greater value to the kohanim’s work. Set aside for God’s service, there might have been something in their overall role that made them the best candidates for this one as well. Points to ponder.]

God willing, we will soon again have a Mikdash, can see kohanim ba-avodatam u-Levi’im be-shiram ve-zimramkohanim performing their services, Levi’im serenading the service vocally and instrumentally, and can each know our proper place in declaring the Glory of God.

About Gidon Rothstein

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