Menachot 9a – Eating of the Kohanim – Serving God or Satisfying Hunger

In an earlier post, we discussed the perspective of parashat Vayikra – that of the owner who is bringing the sacrifice, in contrast to that of parashat Tzav – that of the Kohanim.  There we suggested that the order of the korbanot in Tzav reflected the Kohanim’s concern of the portion that they are receiving from the sacrifices.

Now, it is possible to understand that the Tzav list is ordered in terms of sanctity: the olah, mincha, chatat, and shelamim are all kodesh kodashim, the highest order of sanctity, in that they never leave the Temple grounds.  Shelamim, on the other hand, is kodshim kalim, lesser sanctity, and can be eaten by non-Kohanim and outside of Temple grounds.  This order, then, would reflect the Koahnim’s perspective in terms of their concern with holiness, and not from a subjective or self-interested vantage point.

However, a closer examination of Tzav shows that the issue of what the Kohanim get to eat is a central concern here.  What the Kohanim get to eat and what they get to keep is a primary focus of the opening chapters of Tzav:

And its remainder shall Aaron and his sons eat; as unleavened bread shall it be eaten in the holy place; in the court of the Tent of Meeting they shall eat it… All the males among the sons of Aaron shall eat of it. It shall be a statute forever in your generations concerning the offerings of the Lord made by fire; every one who touches them shall be holy. (Vayikra 6:9, 11).

As the sin offering is, so is the guilt offering; there is one Torah for them; the priest who makes atonement with it shall have it.  And the priest who offers any man’s burnt offering, the priest shall have for himself the skin of the burnt offering which he has offered.   And all the meal offering that is baked in the oven, and all that is prepared in the frying pan, and in the pan, shall be the priest’s who offers it.  And every meal offering, mixed with oil, and dry, shall all the sons of Aaron have, one as much as another. (Vayikra 7:7-10).

From this perspective the order in Tzav makes complete sense.  The top of this list is the chatat and asham, where they get to eat the entire animal, and only finally the shelamim, where the owner eats the entire animal and they only get a small portion.

Now, the Torah does also mention in parashat Vayikra some of what the Kohanim are entitled to.  However, the Torah only does so there in the case of the mincha (cf. Vayirka 2:3, 10). It is worth reflecting on the significance of the eating of the Kohanim to understand why the case of mincha is singled out in Vayikra.  One significance of their eating is that it becomes an extension of the consumption of the altar.  In particular this is true when they eat kodesh kodashim sacrifices, as opposed to shelamim, bekhor, terumah, because they are eating the sacrifices on Temple grounds.  This is encapsulated by the Rabbinic statement: “Kohanim okhlim u’ba’alim mitkaprim” – “the Kohanim eat and the owner’s are atoned for” (Sifra, Shmini, ch. 1; Yoma 68b).

The other significance of the eating of the Kohanim is, simply, that it serves as compensation or a gift in exchange for their services in the Temple.  This is emphasized in particular in the second half of parashat Korach (Bamidbar 18:8-20), and emerges from the Gemara’s contrasting the act of doing an avodah – even slaughtering the animal – in the Heichal, to that of eating in the Heichal:

With regard to acts of service [kemitzah (taking the hand-breadth) and shechitah (slaughtering)] since a man would perform services in the presence of his master, we apply the principle ‘Surely the [courtyard, which is of] lesser [sanctity] cannot be more important than the principal [sanctity, the Heichal]’. But with regard to eating, since a man would not eat in the presence of his master, [this may not be allowed to be done in the Heichal.] (Menachot 9a)

The first significance, the extended “eating of the altar,” is what is indicated in parashat Vayirka, where the Torah states that “the remnant of the mincha is to Aharon and his sons, it is holy of holies from God’s fire [offerings]” (Vayikra 2:3, 10).  That is, its primary identity is a remnant that comes from the fire offerings, from what is offered on the altar.  This is in contrast to how the Kohanim’s portion is described in Tzav: ” And its remainder shall Aaron and his sons eat (Vayikra 6:9).” and “… the Kohen who makes atonement with it shall have it [the meat of the asham]…   the Kohen shall have for himself the skin of theolah which he has offered.  (Vayikra 7:7-8).”  That is, the question here is who gets to have the meat, who gets to take home the skin of the animal.   In this context, there is no emphasis of it being kodesh kodashim or being a remnant.  It is simply a question of who gets it.

As stated above, this reflects the difference between Tzav and Vayikra.  Tzav addresses itself to the Kohanim’s perspective and deals with the question of who gets what portion in the sacrifices.  Vayikra deals with the owner’s perspective and the only question is how it is being brought to God.  From this perspective, only the Kohanim’s eating qua the eating of the altar is what matters.

But why then is this stated only in the case of the mincha?  The simple answer is that themincha is the korban most like the olah.  It is given of free-will, as a full gift to God.  The Kohanim’s eating of the mincha is not like their eating of other kodshei kodoshim. i.e.,the chatat and asham. This is the only eating of kodshei kodshim which are free-will offerings and not sin-based. Thus, it makes sense to compare the mincha to the olah, another free-will kodesh kodashim sacrifice, and that is how it appears in parashat Vayikra – as a poor man’s olah. Now, an olah is fully burnt, whereas the remainder of the mincha is eaten by the Kohanim.   If these two are to be parallel, then the Kohanim’s eating of the mincha needs to primarily be understood as an eating of the altar.  This is why it appears in Vayikra – it is the description of the “burning” of the mincha sacrifice.

The question that remains is, if the mincha is a type of an olah, then why is there a difference between what is done with the meat of the olah and what is done to the remainder of the mincha?  Why not either burn them both or have the Kohanim eat them both?

The answer to this may be based on the different symbolism of the two.  While a mincha is a poor-man’s olah, it not only costs less, but also symbolizes something different.  An animal sacrifice symbolizes life – “For the soul of every flesh is in the blood.  Therefore I have given it to you to be placed on the altar to atone for your souls; for teh blood is that through which your souls will be atoned.” (Vayikra 17:11).   Thus, for many Rishonim, the symbolism of an animal sacrifice is that it represents our giving of our lives to God.  (See Ramban’s position, in the post “The Purpose of Sacrifices.”)  Not so the mincha.  Although very dear to the poor person, at most it can symbolize food and sustenance, not life itself.

We can thus understand why it is not possible for the Kohanim to eat the meat of the olah.  There, the sacrifice symbolizes giving one’s life fully to God.  In such a case, it is not appropriate for the Kohanim to be “standing in” for God, nor is it appropriate for them to be eating that which signifies  the very life of the owner.  In the case of the mincha, however, we are giving of our sustenance to God.  There, the Kohanim can stand in for God and receive such sustenance, for while we can give our lives to God, we never actually “feed” God.  They also can eat of the mincha, as it is appropriate for them to eat that which represents sustenance, which represents food.

We thus see that not only can there be different perspectives on the same sacrifice – that of the owners and that of the Kohanim – but that even one act – the Kohanim’s eating – can have multiple significances and symbolisms, and that this can vary depending on the sacrifice, whether a mincha or an animal-based sacrifice.   And, finally, we see that the mincha itself is both a type of an olah, but one with a slightly different resonance; it is an olah signifying sustenance, whereas an animal olah signifies life itself.


About Rabbi Dov Linzer

Rabbi Dov Linzer is the Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, a groundbreaking Orthodox smicha program. Rabbi Linzer spearheaded the development of YCT to create an innovative four year smicha program which provides its students with rigorous talmud Torah and halakhic study and sophisticated professional training in the context of a religious atmosphere which cultivates openness and inclusiveness. Rabbi Linzer has published Halakha and machshava articles in Torah journals and lectures widely at synagogues and conferences on topics relating to Halakha, Orthodoxy, and modernity. He is most recently the awardee of the prestigious Avi Chai Fellowship.
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