Profaning priestly emoluments

Profaning priestly emoluments

THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

evanhoffman@gmail.com

Parshat Korach – פרשת קרח

June 12, 2021 – ב תמוז תשפא

This essay is dedicated in memory of Zoltan Lefkovits Z”L.

Profaning priestly emoluments

The final verse of Parshat Korach reads: “You will incur no guilt through it, once you have removed the best part from it; but you must not profane the sacred donations of the Israelites, lest you die (Numbers 18:32).” Scripture here speaks of the tenth-of-the-tithe that Levites must remit to priests from the supply of first-tithe produce they have earlier received from Israelites. While failure to remit the priestly perquisite is a grievous sin, once the emolument has been paid there is no risk to a Levite of perishing for eating consecrated first-tithe produce.   The sages cited Numbers 18:32 in condemning a certain agricultural labor practice that ran afoul of the spirit of Mosaic legislation. Levites were entitled to their emoluments “in return for the services they perform, the services of the Tent of Meeting (18:21).” Lest anyone question why the Levites were so amply rewarded, several verses later Scripture repeats its justification for these emoluments: “It is your recompense for services in the Tent of Meeting (18:31).”   The Israelite farmer had absolute discretion concerning upon which particular priests and Levites he could bestow his Biblically-mandated gifts. Impoverished priests and Levites, desperate for either remunerative employment or emoluments but unable to secure either, might be inclined to work for their emoluments. Instead of paying his farmhands a legitimate wage from mundane funds, the landowner could save a tidy sum by paying priests and Levites from the consecrated foodstuffs already owed (pursuant to the Scriptural command) to those ecclesiastics. But the sages regarded such a scheme as unseemly and as a profanation of the sacred (Tosefta Demai 5:20). They cited the prophetic condemnation: “You have corrupted the covenant of the Levites (Malachi 2:8).”  The sages contemplated requiring such a cunning farmer to tithe his crops a second time (but held off doing so only for technical reasons). Such a ruling would of course have completely removed the financial incentive, through such a scheme, to skirt the Biblical intention. The Talmud heaped scorn on those who did so (Yerushalmi Demai 25b), citing: “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price (Micah 3:11).”   Israelites are obligated to remit to the priests the firstlings of their herd and flock. In Temple days, the animal was offered as a sacrifice and most of the meat was consumed by the priests. In the post-Temple era, the animal is still remitted to an Aaronide priest, but he must wait until it develops a permanent blemish before he is permitted to consume its meat in a mundane setting. The animal’s owner is bidden to take care of the young firstling, bearing the expense of raising and feeding it until such time as it can be presented to the priest as a dignified gift. The Mishnah sets this period at thirty days for sheep and goats, and fifty days for cattle (Mishnah Bekhorot 4:1). The Talmud addresses a case in which a priest offers to take the firstling during the thirty-day waiting-period. The owner is happy to rid himself of the burden of feeding the animal, while the priest is willing to assume that responsibility in return for obtaining an animal that might otherwise have been given to a different priest. The Talmud condemns this arrangement, considering it akin to the situations where a priest toils in the threshing fields in exchange for terumah, the Levite does so in exchange for ma’aser, the indigent man does so for the poor-man’s tithe, or a priest helps in the abattoir in exchange for receiving the priestly gifts of the foreleg, jaws, and abomasum (Bekhorot 26b).   Any scheme whereby a priest or Levite helps an Israelite farmer evade the financial burden of remitting the Biblically-mandated emoluments is labeled by the Talmud as akin to a “priest who assists at the threshing floor” (see Arakhin 28b and Temurah 8b). A notable example is a farmer who offers to give the priest terumah on condition that the priest return the terumah to the farmer (Kiddushin 6b). Although the farmer cannot personally eat the sanctified foodstuffs, he can sell the food to another priest. (The first priest might participate in this black-market venture in return for a percentage of the profits.)   The Talmud records that Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Hanina, both priests, were in the habit of returning to new fathers the five-shekel payments made in connection with the redemption of their firstborn sons (Bekhorot 51b). Tosafot questioned the legitimacy of the practice, noting that it would seem to be a corruption of the priestly covenant and to undermine the ability of other priests – themselves not known generously to return the coins -- to collect payment. Tosafot answered (fairly unconvincingly, in my view) that Rabbis Tarfon and Hanina did not always return the money and that, because they varied their actions, no corruption of the covenant occurred. Alternatively, Tosafot asserted, Rabbis Tarfon and Hanina returned the money only to poor fathers.   Torah Temimah could not understand how Tosafot could even raise the issue whether or not Rabbi Tarfon’s behavior was arguably objectionable. The great sage was not attempting to derive illicit benefit from the perquisites of the priesthood. In fact, he eschewed all benefit and performed the redemption rite solely for the sake of the mitzvah itself. Torah Temimah cited the Talmudic passage which explains that the hot springs of Tiberias and the luscious fruits of Gennesaret are not located in Jerusalem just so that pilgrims will not say they came to the holy city for those earthly amenities. Instead, pilgrims are to come to Jerusalem for the spiritual uplift they experience when visiting the House of God (Pesahim 8b). In this spirit, Tarfon’s practice of returning redemption money seems entirely estimable.   In reviewing the writings of the rabbis on the subject of priestly emoluments, we can discern two diverging lines of thought about mitzvoth. According to one approach, the mitzvoth are abstractions independent of the way Israelite society actually functions. We are bidden to achieve technical compliance with our obligations -- even if, in that process, the spirit of the law may be frustrated -- solely for the sake of doing our Creator’s bidding. According to the other approach, the mitzvoth do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they are social rules designed to achieve specific ends; to use stratagems and contrivances to thwart those ends is to sin.   The ancient Biblical system of priestly emoluments was promulgated for a society in which the ecclesiastics owned no land and had to be materially supported by the laymen who appreciated the religious work done by those functionaries of the cultus. In that kind of society, for a priest or Levite to labor in the field, orchard, grove, granary, or slaughterhouse and to be paid only with Levitical perquisites would be injurious to the system and cause human suffering. By contrast, Talmudic Judaism flowered at a time when the differences between priests and laymen had all but collapsed (because the Temple no longer stood and therefore essentially none of the Temple cultic practices was any longer effectuated by either Levites or Kohanim). All Jews, regardless of tribal background, were equally likely to be landowners and men of means. In that context, the limited number of priestly functions that did not fall into desuetude could be viewed simply as religious ceremonies and not mechanisms by which to feed an ecclesiastical underclass.   At a contemporary pidyon ha-ben, our attention is on the child and on the father’s legal obligation to redeem the child; nobody is thinking that the remitted silver coins will feed a hungry family of Kohanim. We have observed that historical changes in the circumstances of Jews – and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was a key such change -- foster changes in our understanding of aspects of Judaism.