Respect and Honor: How to Treat a Kohen
Included in Hashem’s commandment to Moshe to appoint his brother Aharon and
his sons as kohanim is the Biblical command: You shall sanctify him... he
shall remain holy to you. The Torah commands us to acknowledge the
sanctity of kohanim by showing them respect and giving them preferential
treatment, since they are the ones who are entrusted to perform the sacred
Service in the Mishkan and Beis ha-Mikdash. This mitzvah is divided into two
parts: a) the mitzvah of honoring a kohen; b) the prohibition against using
the services of a kohen for one’s needs. Let us elaborate:
The Mitzvah of Honoring a Kohen
Question: How do we honor a kohen?
Discussion: Whenever a blessing is recited in public, a kohen should be the
one asked to recite it. Thus a kohen is the first one to be called up to the
Torah whenever it is read. At meal time, he is the one who is asked to
recite Kiddush, Birkas ha-Motzi and Birkas ha-Mazon. In addition, a kohen is
served first, he is asked to speak first and is generally given more respect
then a yisrael or a levi.
Some poskim mention that a levi is given priority over a yisrael in all of
the above honors, just as he is called to the Torah before a yisrael.
Other poskim hold that a levi does not take precedence at all.
Question: May a kohen forego his honor?
Discussion: A kohen may be mochel (lit.: release others from paying him) the
honor due him (except being called up first to the Torah). The reason
why a kohen may be mochel his honor is based on the Rabbinic dictum that
“one honors a man by doing his will.” Since the kohen wants to bestow upon
someone else the honor due him, that, in turn, becomes his honor.
If a yisrael recites Birkas ha-Mazon in the presence of a kohen, he must ask
for the kohen’s permission. It is not sufficient to merely say ‘bi-reshus
ha-kohen’, if there is a possibility that the kohen would object.
As stated above, the only exception to the rule that a kohen may forego his
honor is that he must be called up first to the Torah. This is a rabbinic
edict instituted by the Sages, who insisted that the kohen always accept his
aliyah lest he defer to some people and not to others, and thus cause
discord among members of the shul.
Question: Are there any exceptions to the requirement of honoring a kohen?
Discussion: The following situations are considered exceptions to the
mitzvah of honoring a kohen:
- The head of a household is not obligated to offer a kohen guest the
honor of reciting ha-motzi or Birkas ha-Mazon.
- If the kohen is a learned person but the yisrael is a greater talmid
chacham than he, the yisrael is not obligated to honor the kohen. It is,
nevertheless, proper for him to do so, and one who does so is rewarded with
- If the kohen is a bona fide am ha-aretz, a yisrael—who is a talmid
chacham—is not permitted to honor the kehunah of such a kohen, since he is
thereby degrading the honor of the Torah.
The Prohibition of Using the Services of a Kohen
The second half of the obligation to honor a kohen is the prohibition
against having him perform “services” for the benefit of a Yisrae. It
is forbidden to ask a kohen to serve a yisrael or to send him on an errand,
etc. Even if a kohen waives his status and allows a yisrael to use his
services, this should not be done l'chatchilah, and certainly, the yisrael
should never ask a kohen to perform a lowly task for him like emptying the
garbage, etc. For this reason, it is preferable that a kohen not enter
a profession which may require his yisrael employer to order him to engage
in degrading types of work.
Question: When is it permitted for a yisrael to benefit from the services of
- If a kohen receives payment or if he is serving a distinguished
person and derives pleasure from serving him, it is permitted to ask the
kohen to serve a yisrael. Similarly, if a kohen offers to serve a
yisrael without being told to do so, it is permitted to accept his offer.
- Some poskim allow a yisrael to use the services of a kohen am ha'aretz,
although not in a demeaning manner. A kohen who violates the sanctity
of the kehunah by marrying a divorcee or entering a cemetery when he is
forbidden to do so, etc., forfeits the privileges of the kehunah. It is not
a mitzvah to honor him, nor are there any restrictions on asking him to
perform services. Such a kohen is excluded from nesias kapayim as well.
- The poskim debate whether these halachos pertain to a kohen who is a
minor or who has a blemish which renders him unfit for Service in the
Question: Why are some people not careful to observe these halachos?
Discussion: The poskim offer two possible reasons for their behavior:
- Now that the Beis ha-Mikdash is destroyed, this mitzvah does not
apply—except for those who conduct themselves lifnim mi-shuras ha-din.
- With the passage of time, the lineage and yichus of the kohanim have
become blurred. Thus we are not positive who is a kohen.
- These objections notwithstanding, the majority of the poskim agree that
the mitzvah of honoring a kohen applies even nowadays and we should not
doubt the purity of lineage of our kohanim.
1. Vayikra 21:8. There is a dispute among the Rishonim if this is a
mitzvas assei min ha-Torah or mi-deRabbanan; See Magen Avraham 201:4 and
Korban Nesanel 300 (Rosh, Gittin 5:20).
2. Mishnah Berurah 201:13.
3. Mishnah Berurah 201:12; Kaf ha-Chayim 167:101.
4. Aruch ha-Shulchan 201:4. This is the prevailing custom; Ben Ish Chai
5. Rama 128:45; Mishnah Berurah 201:13.
6. Originally appearing in Sefer Chasidim 152.
7. Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 128:60; Eishel Avraham 128:45.
8. Mishnah Berurah 167:75. See Piskei Teshuvos 201:3.
9. Mishnah Berurah 135:9. The custom is that even a private minyan always
calls up the kohen first. See Sha'ar ha-Tziyun 12. See Igros Moshe, O.C.
2:34 and 3:20 for possible exceptions.
10. Mishnah Berurah 167:73.
11. See Sha'ar ha-Tziyun 167:65 and Beiur Halachah 201:1, s.v. v’im; Aruch
12. O.C. 167:14 and Mishnah Berurah 71; 201:12.
13. O.C. 201:2; Mishnah Berurah 167:70.
14. According to some poskim, a kohen cannot serve another kohen either.
Others allow this; see Kesav Sofer, O.C. 15; Beiur Halachah 128:45, s.v.
assur; Aruch ha-Shulchan 128:75; Kaf ha-Chayim 128:283.
15. Mishnah Berurah 128:175; Yabia Omer 6:22. See also the Chafetz
Chayim's opening remarks to Shemiras ha-Lashon where he rules that one who
speaks lashon ha-ra about a kohen (in the presence of the kohen)
transgresses the halachah of honoring a kohen.
16. Rav S.Z. Auerbach, quoted in Nishmas Avraham, O.C. 128:10.
17. Mishnah Berurah 128:175.
18. Eishel Avraham 128:45; Aruch ha-Shulchan 128:72; Kaf ha-Chayim 128:282.
19. Beiur Halachah 128:45, s.v. assur. Aruch ha-Shulchan 128:72 disagrees.
20. O.C. 128:40-41.
21. Mishnah Berurah 282:12 and Sha'ar ha-Tziyun 15 quotes a dispute
between Magen Avraham and Rav Akiva Eiger concerning this. See Emes l'Yaakov
al ha-Torah, Vayikra 21:8.
22. Most poskim maintain that a kohen who has a blemish is included in
this mitzvah. See, however, Minchas Chinuch 269, Aruch ha-Shulchan 128:72
and Teshuvos Avnei Cheifetz 71.
23. R. Tam (quoted by Taz 128:39); Mekor Chayim 128:45.
24. Magen Avraham 201:4. Many other poskim are also of the opinion that
the kohanim's yichus is questionable; see Y.D. 322 Taz 5 and Shach 9;
Sh'ealas Ya'avetz 155; Chazon Ish, Shevi’is 5:12. See also Rama, O.C. 457:2
and Mishnah Berurah 22.
25. Mishnah Berurah 128:174; Aruch ha-Shulchan 71. See Rivash 94.
26. Maharit 1:149; Be’er Heitev, O.C. 128:83; Aruch ha-Shulchan, O.C.
128:72; Y.D. 305:55.
Weekly-Halacha, Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Neustadt, Dr. Jeffrey Gross and Torah.org.
Rabbi Neustadt is the Yoshev Rosh of the Vaad Harabbonim of Detroit and the Av Beis Din of the Beis Din Tzedek of Detroit. He could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org