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Parashat Tzav: The Chosenness of Kohanim

Parashat Tzav: The Chosenness of Kohanim

On the chosenness of Kohanim and Jews in general and how an inborn elevated status actually engenders humility. Plus: a visit to Ginosar, past and present. What are the sukkot of Ginosar and why did farmers there need these booths?

Yoel Yakoby

"This offering, with cakes of leavened bread added, he shall offer along with his thanksgiving sacrifice … of this he shall offer one of each kind as a gift (teruma) to the L-rd; it shall go to the priest …" (Vayikra 7:13-14)

"'As teruma to the Lord': but I know not how much it [must be] … it is written here 'teruma,' and it is written there in connection with the teruma of the tithe 'teruma;' there it is one part in ten, so here it is one part in ten" (Menachot 77b).

Selection of Kohanim

The Torah juxtaposes teruma given from the loaves of the korban toda, the thanksgiving offering, to teruma given to the Kohen from the ma'aser rishon of the Levi. This informs us of how many loaves we are supposed to give the Kohen from this offering. This connection, however, begs another question: how is it possible to refer to a gift given to flesh and blood, who then eats it, in a purely physical manner, "an offering to G-d"? If this were a saintly Kohen, who has lofty, kabbalistic intentions with every bite—this might be understandable. But no: even when we give a regular, simple Kohen loaves or first fruits, it is considered a teruma laHashem, "a gift to G-d!"

The answer to this lies in the concept of the chosenness of the Kohanim. The Kohen, by merit of being a kosher Kohen, has the ability to elevate certain types of food that he receives to the level of being a "gift to G-d." This is not tied to a lofty spiritual level attained as a result of intense personal growth (which obviously would add to this, but is not essential), but rather an inborn trait, akin to the chosenness of the Jewish People.

This knowledge can lead a Kohen to haughtiness.  He might say to himself, "Look, I'm already at a level that a regular Yisrael has to work to achieve for years; even then, the Yisrael can't do what I can!"

Chosenness: the key to humility

Of course, this is the wrong perspective. The contrary is true: the very fact that you didn't work to attain the level that you can rectify the mundane through physical actions means that it is nothing to be proud of. Precisely because you might be nothing on your own, but G-d, in His great mercy, bestowed you with these abilities, means there is no room for haughtiness.

Now, during the months of Adar and Nissan, this concept can also reframe the way we view our chosenness as G-d's nation. Any claims that we Jews view ourselves as superior to gentiles because we declare that we are G-d's chosen nation, can be dismissed by the argument above. Our spiritual distinction from the other nations is not due to our personal greatness, achieved by intense personal growth; rather, it is because G-d chose us. For this reason, there is no room to feel any superiority over the gentile nations. However, we can take pride in the fact that we are the nation of G-d—and then, we are just being proud of G-d, not of ourselves.

Ginosar of booths and fruit

"A Ginosar booth, even if it contains millstones and poultry, is exempt" (Mishna Ma'aserot 3:7). Produce is not subject to terumot and ma'aserot until it is determined as ready to eat (for a fixed meal, achilat keva). One "determining factor" is bringing the produce into the house. However, the house that "determines" the produce must be a permanent dwelling; a temporary dwelling does not suffice. While a typical Ginosar booth (sukkat Ginosar) might include various objects that can serve those living there (like a mill or poultry, commonplace in residential homes at the time), it is still not considered a permanent dwelling. The farmers of Ginosar would erect these booths so they could guard the produce growing in their orchards.

Ginosar = Kinneret

Ginosar was the name of the Kinneret in the days of the Sages and also the name of a settlement on its bank, which existed in Second Temple times and afterwards. It is interesting to note that the Sages identify Ginosar (Megillah 6a) with the biblical settlement Kinneret (surrounded by a wall in the times of Yehoshua), which was included in the portion of Naphtali. The location of this biblical settlement was apparently in Tel Kinneret, adjacent to the National Water Carrier Eshkol pumping station. The Gemara explains that this area was called Kinneret because its fruit was as sweet as the pleasant music of a lyre, kinnor. In other words, the name Kinneret is derived from the word kinnor, but not because it is shaped like an ancient lyre. Only today, thanks to satellites and aerial photographs, can we can see its shape. In ancient times, though, this was not apparent. The Hellenistic moniker "Ginosar" is explained by the Sages (who also explained names without a Jewish origin) as ganei sarim, the gardens of chieftains; in light of the verse "of Naphtali 1,000 chieftains" (I Divrei HaYamim 12:35).

A fertile valley with sweet fruit

Ginosar is situated on the northwestern bank of the Kinneret, between Tiberius and Kfar Nachum. Surrounding Ginosar is a large valley, called to this day Ginosar Valley. This area is especially fertile and boasts many orchards, which informs the explanation of its name as "ganei sarim." The valley's fertile nature is thanks to the plentiful water not only from the Kinneret, but also from the local springs. The fertile soil is also a result of basalt erosion, characteristic of the area. It is with good reason that our Sages consider Ginosar fruit especially sweet. Perhaps this is the reason that residents of Ginosar (and of the entire valley) needed to set up booths where they would reside for extended periods of time to guard their orchards—especially because the Ginosar Valley passed through an international road, the Coastal Road (derech hayam, a.k.a. Via Maris), which connected Mesopotamia and Egypt. These booths are named after their place of origin: sukkot Ginosar.

Ginosar today  

In 5097 (1937), Kibbutz Ginosar was founded in the Ginosar Valley. This Kibbutz is linked with Yigal Alon, Palmach commander and one of the IDF's first senior commanding officers and vice prime minster. Alon was one of the kibbutz founders and lived there until the end of his life. However, ancient Ginosar was also settled by famous personalities. A sage by the name of Yonatan ben Charsha of Ginosar appears in the Tosefta and Yerushalmi. This Yonatan is mentioned in the context of a halachic question he poses to Rabbi Gamliel and the Sages of Yavne regarding dates—a bumper crop that thrives in the sunny Ginosar Valley, rich with water resources.