A Kohen Becoming Right-Handed

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by R. Daniel Mann

Question: I am a left-handed kohen. In anticipation of the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash, realizing that a left-handed kohen cannot do avoda (service), I want to train myself to be right-handed. Is there anything I need to know?

Answer: Yours is a beautiful approach to our glorious national future and your kehuna, but I feel a need to flash a “yellow light” regarding your efforts to become right-handed (or ambidextrous).

A left-handed person may not do avoda (Bechorot 45b). The Rambam (Bi’at Hamikdash 8:11) categorizes him as a ba’al mum (blemished), by kohen standards. Rashi (Bechorot 45b) considers him lacking a “right hand,” which is needed for avoda (see Chazon Ish, Bechorot 26:13). We accept the opinion among Tannaim (Bechorot 45a) that an ambidextrous person is fit for avoda (Rambam ibid.). There is discussion of doing things to remove disqualifications (ibid.), and your idea might logically work. However, Eliyahu Hanavi or the like will make the decisions on if and how (e.g., which hand functions) training would help. I will not venture a guess on such a matter.

So “why not try?” My hesitation concerns your tefillin status. Presumably, you put your tefillin shel yad on your right arm (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 27:6), although some arguable lefties place tefillin on the left arm because they do many things with the left hand but some with the left. This depends on a machloket throughout millennia (see Menachot 37a; Shulchan Aruch ibid.; Be’ur Halacha ad loc.) on whether we follow strength, the ability to write, or some combination (see Living the Halachic Process, II:G-12).

Does learning how to use the other hand change the halacha? The Mordechai (Tefillin 969) brings a machloket about the arm upon which a righty who made his left hand dominant puts tefillin. The more accepted opinion is that he can switch his status (Mishna Berura 27:22). However, if he only changed to writing left-handed but continues to use his right hand for most activities, the Magen Avraham (27:10) rules that he remains a halachic righty because of two doubts – a. which function is more important?; b. does training change the halacha

You are asking about a lefty who trains himself to be a righty. Rav Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, OC III:2) did not distinguish between the direction of the right-left switch and based on the Magen Avraham, posited that if a born lefty switched only his writing, he would retain his old status due to double doubt. Ha’elef Lecha Shlomo (I:11) says that the doubt about changing is countered by the fact that the standard person (including the ambidextrous) is considered a righty, and he would place tefillin on his left arm. Rav Frank (Har Tzvi, OC I:26) agreed in principle with Ha’elef Lecha Shlomo but was unhappy with a boy putting himself into even a single doubt (if writing or strength is more important). He also argued that to qualify even as ambidextrous, one must write with his right as well as with his left, which is difficult to learn. Therefore, he instructed a twelve-year-old who was training to write with his right hand to restore his left-handed dominance to remove doubt. 

This background demonstrates that you will enter some doubt about your status after making the change. In fact, depending on what changes you make (writing’s critical importance is probably unique to tefillin (see Menachot 37a), not avoda), your status could be unclear. Furthermore, during the transition process, there will certainly be times when you won’t know which side of “the line” you are on. (There are rabbis who, in some cases, instruct to put on tefillin on both arms (at different times)). I would not recommend getting into such dilemmas without sufficient justification.

Whether we will build the Beit Hamikdash or it will descend intact from Above, people will need time to learn the intricacies of avoda. At that time, many may do a course on becoming a righty. We recommend funneling your beautiful dedication to improving right-hand usage, while remaining more proficient with your left hand temporarily.

לעילוי נשמת יואל אפרים בן אברהם עוזיאל זלצמן ז”ל

About Daniel Mann

This column is produced on behalf of Eretz Hemdah by Rabbi Daniel Mann. Rabbi Mann is a Dayan for Eretz Hemdah and a staff member of Yeshiva University's Gruss Kollel in Israel. He is a senior member of the Eretz Hemdah responder staff, editor of Hemdat Yamim and the author of Living the Halachic Process, volumes 1 and 2 and A Glimpse of Greatness.

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