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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Mesechet Chullin: Great Gift Giving

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on November 11, 2011)
Topics: Machshava/Jewish Thought, Middot, Talmud, Kodshim, Hullin

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The end of Chullin deals with many aspects of the non-sanctified gifts to the kohanim – certain cuts of meat from slaughtered animals, and the first shearing of sheep.   A major theme that the meaning and valance of a gift is shaped by the manner in which it is given and which it is received.  We may first note the difference between agricultural gifts to the poor and the above-mentioned gifts to the priests.  The Gemara (Chullin 134b) states that if there are no poor or no kohanim around, then in the case of the poor one does not have to search after them to find them, whereas in the case of the kohanim, one has to hold onto the gifts and ensure that it reaches the kohen.  Why the difference?  Because the Torah says regarding the gleanings of the poor from the field, “To the poor and to the stranger you shall leave them,” (Vayikra 19:10, 23:22).   The gleanings of the field are just left for the poor, the field-owner has no need to find them.   Regarding the gifts to the kohanim, in contrast, the Torah says: “You shall give to the kohen” (Devarim 18:3), so it is the owner’s responsibility to make sure that the kohen receives it.

Now, this difference works to the disadvantage of the poor, in this case.  However, there is a reason that the way of giving differs.  In the case of the kohen, the gift must be given in a way that reflects the status and importance of the kohen – it is being given to him not because he has no land and is poor (a theme that sometimes comes up in the case of the Leviim), but rather because “God has chosen him to stand and serve in the name of God” (Devarim 18:4).   Thus, there needs to be a face-to-face encounter, and be given in the context of respect for the office and role of the kohen.  The reverse is true in the case of the poor person.  To give directly is to emphasize the poor person’s neediness and dependence.  The best way of giving to the poor respects the receiver’s dignity, and is a giving that is – ideally – anonymous and, minimally, does not underscore the person’s need to ask and to receive.  Leaving the gleanings, and letting the poor come and take, not only saves the poor person from the face-to-face encounter, but also allows him or her to feel a certain degree of control and perhaps even quasi-ownership vis-à-vis the grain and the fields in which he or she is gleaning.   One gift needs to be given the other needs to be left for the taking.

The difference between these two gifts plays out in another case as well.  Does a kohen have to give the gifts – if he has slaughtered a cow or shorn a sheep – to another kohen?  Does the poor person – who happens to own a small field – have to leave the gleanings for another poor person?  The answer to the first is no, to the second is yes (Chullin 131a-b).  What is the difference?  The kohen does not need to acknowledge the importance of his office to another kohen.  It would seem redundant and, perhaps more to the point, the other kohen does not hold a more elevated office vis-à-vis this kohen.  However, in the case of the poor person, giving to another poor person is a very meaningful act.  No matter how poor a person is, how bad off, there is always someone else that is worse off and whom he can help.  Beyond the benefit to the recipient, there is also the statement that it makes to the giver.  A person who is poor and is dependent on others may feel like less than a full member of society.  To be able to give, and not only to receive, reinforces for this person their full membership as a functioning member of the community.

The giving to the kohen is a show of respect, but the giving to and by the poor no less so.  One shows respect for the office, the other for the dignity of the individual.  When we welcome guests and care for others, we should always remember that it is not just what or how much is given, but very critically how it is given, that can make all the difference.