Honouring the cohen - even if he does not want the honour

The possuk says in this week’s sedrah:
וְקִדַּשְׁתּוֹ כִּי-אֶת-לֶחֶם אֱלֹקיךָ הוּא מַקְרִיב קָדֹשׁ יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.

The Rambam derives two halachos from this passuk:
1. Honouring the cohen: In Sefer haMitzvos (mitzva 32) the Rambam explains that וְקִדַּשְׁתּוֹ means that you should honour the cohen:
מצוה ל"ב היא שצונו לכבד זרע אהרן לפארם ולנשאם ושׁנשׂים מדרגתם מדרגה קודמת וראשונה ואפילו ימאנו לא נשמע להם וזה כולו הגדלה לקל יתעלה אחר שהוא לקחם ובחרם לעבודתו ולהקריב קרבנותיו והוא אמרו יתעלה יתברך שמו וקדשתו כי את לחם אלקיך היא מקריב

“Mitzva ל"ב is that Hashem commanded us to honour the decendants of Aharon to glorify them and to respect them and to always ensure that they come first.  Even if they refuse we should not listen to them. This is respect for Hashem who chose them to do the avodah and to bring His korbanos as He said - וְקִדַּשְׁתּוֹ כִּי-אֶת-לֶחֶם אֱלֹקיךָ הוּא מַקְרִיב – you should sanctify him because he brings the bread of Hashem.”

2.      Making the cohen available for the avoda: In  הלכות כלי המקדש והעובדין בו פרק ד' the Rambam says:
הכהנים הובדלו מכלל הלוים לעבודת הקרבנות... ומצות עשה היא להבדיל הכהנים ולקדשם ולהכינם לקרבן שנאמר וקדשתו כי את לחם אלהיך הוא מקריב
“The cohanim were seperated from the leviim for the avoda of the korbanos… It is a mitzva to separate the cohanim, to sanctify them and to prepare them to bring the korbanos as it says “וקדשתו כי את לחם אלהיך הוא מקריב”.

Does the cohen need to be honoured against his will?
The Rambam in Sefer haMitzovs says that even if the Cohen refuses to accept the honour, we need to honour him against his will. However in הלכות כלי המקדש והעובדין בו פרק ה' הלכה ג'  the Rambam contradicts this. The Rambam says concerning the cohen gadol:
וחייב כהן גדול לנהוג כבוד בעצמו ולא יקל בעצמו עם שאר העם ולא יראו אותו ערום לא בבית המרחץ ולא בבית הכסא ולא כשמסתפר שנאמר הכהן הגדול מאחיו מלמד שנוהגין בו גדולה יתירה רצה הוא שירחצו אחרים עמו הרשות בידו

“The cohen gadol has to conduct himself with self-respect and he should not cheapen himself to go with the other people. They should not see him naked in the bath-house or in the lavatory and also not when he is having a haircut (in which case his head would be uncovered) as it says  הכהן הגדול מאחיו – this teaches you that they have to give him extreme importance. However if he wants to let others bathe with him he is allowed.”

The Hadras Melech (Sefer haMitzvos) asks; How can the Rambam say that a Cohen Gadol is allowed to relinquish his honour when he says in the sefer hamitzvos that cohanim have to be honoured even against their will?

The Hadras Melech explains that there is a difference between a cohen and the cohen gadol, as follows:

Whose honour?
The gemara says in kiddushin:
אפילו הרב שמחל על כבודו כבודו מחול ...הכא תורה דיליה היא? הדר אמר רבא אין תורה דיליה היא דכתיב  (תהלים א, ב) ובתורתו יהגה יומם ולילה
Even a talmid chacham is allowed to forgo his honour.

The gemara asks – how can he forgo his honour? The Torah does not belong to him?

[This means – if someone is due honour because of their own status – such as a parent – then they can forgo the honour because it ‘belongs’ to them. However – if someone is honoured as an act of honour to someone else then they cannot forgo this honour because it is not theirs. A Talmid Chacham is honoured because he has learnt Hashem’s Torah, so he cannot prevent people from honouring Hashem by honouring him. This would be similar to a guard in the kings palace saying that he does not mind if people do not respect him – this is wrong, because it is not his honour – it is the king’s honour.]

The gemara answers that the Torah does belong to him, Rashi explains:
The possuk says in Tehillim (1,2):
  כִּי אִם בְּתוֹרַת ה' חֶפְצוֹ וּבְתוֹרָתוֹ יֶהְגֶּה יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה
“Happy is the person whose desire is in the Torah of Hashem and in his Torah he contemplates day and night.”

First the passuk calls the Torah – “the Torah of Hashem”. Subsequently the passuk calls the Torah – “his Torah”, it belongs to the person who studies it? The answer is that in the beginning it is called Hashem’s torah, but after he learns and remembers it is called his Torah.

The gemara says that the reason that a talmid chacham can forgo his honour is because the Torah for which he is honoured is called his own.

The Hadras Melech explains that the same principal applies to a cohen and to the cohen gadol.
  • A cohen is honoured because he brings the korbanos and does the avoda. This is not his honour – as the Rambam says:
ואפילו ימאנו לא נשמע להם וזה כולו הגדלה לקל יתעלה
“Even if they refuse we will not listen to them. And this is all respect to Hashem…”
The Rambam means that the reason that we honour them even against their will is because this is not their honour, but rather Hashem’s honour.

  • However, with the cohen gadol, the Rambam says:

הלכה א') כהן גדול צריך שיהיה גדול מכל אחיו הכהנים בנוי בכח בעושר בחכמה ובמראה ...

הלכה ג') וחייב כהן גדול לנהוג כבוד בעצמו ולא יקל בעצמו עם שאר העם...
The Cohen Gadol has to be greater than all his brothers the cohanim with beauty, with strength, with wealth, with wisdom and with appereance…The Cohen Gadol must conduct himself with self respect…

The respect that the other cohanim have for the cohen gadol is because he has personally acquired traits that differentiate him from his brothers the cohanim. Therefore, just as a talmid chacham can forgo his honour because the Torah is called his, so too the Cohen Gadol can forgo honour from the other cohanim because it is his stature that obligates the honour.

The Rambam means that a cohen gadol can forgo his honour, but he agrees that a cohen cannot.

That is why when the Rambam talks about cohanim in הלכות כלי המקדש והעובדין בו פרק ד' he does not say that cohanim can forgo their respect, he simply says:
הלכה ב') וצריך כל אדם מישראל לנהוג בהן כבוד הרבה ולהקדים אותם לכל דבר שבקדושה לפתוח בתורה ראשון ולברך ראשון וליטול מנה יפה ראשון:
Regarding the cohanim, the Rambam relies on his statement in Sefer haMitzvos that a cohen cannot agree to give away his honour. Only regarding the Cohen Gadol does the Rambam specify that he can give up his honour – because it is his to give away.


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