By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
“These are the contaminated ones among the teeming animals that teem upon the earth” (Vayikra 11:29). “All these instances of uncleanness are not to prohibit eating, but for actual uncleanness, (i.e.) to become unclean by touching them; and he is forbidden to eat terumah and holy sacrifices, and to enter into the sanctuary” (Rashi, ad loc.).
The Use of Terumah Today
Years ago, I was invited behind the scenes of the safari in Ramat Gan. There I saw crates of vegetables with a sign something along the following lines: “These vegetables are terumah. Do not eat! Eating is a punishable offense.” When I asked the head manager of the safari if what was written on the sign was serious, since the safari employees are not necessarily mitzvah observant, he confirmed that it was; just a few days prior, two Arab workers were fired because they ate from the vegetables earmarked as terumah.
Some of the gifts that we give from our produce even today, in the absence of the Beit HaMikdash, can only be eaten in a state of ritual purity by kohanim (this includes terumah gedolah, terumat ma’aser, and challah) or by all Jews (for ma’aser sheini and neta revay). Ma’aser rishon, in contrast, is not sacred; even though it should be given to a Levi, anyone can eat it, even when impure. The same holds true for ma’aser ani. Currently, we are all considered teme’ei meitim, impure due to contact with the dead. Since we cannot eat any of the gifts that may only be eaten in a state of purity, we set aside the minimum that is Biblically mandated and destroy or redeem it (as in the case of ma’aser sheini or neta revay), since the kohen or owner cannot otherwise use the gifts.
Destroying terumah is not always necessary, however; there are instances where kohanim may benefit from these gifts. In the case of impure olive oil, for example, kohanim may use terumah oil as lamp oil (Shabbat or Chanukah candles, etc.). Moreover, when necessary, kohanim may feed terumah fruits and vegetables to their livestock. Since the amounts of terumah gedolah and terumat ma’aser can be considerably large in the agricultural sector (a little more than 1% of the yield), we can “rescue” this food and feed it to the livestock of kohanim. Zoos can sell their animals to kohanim (similar to selling chametz to a non-Jew), and then we can feed terumah gedolah and terumat ma’aser to the animals in the zoo, which now belong to a kohen.
This creates a somewhat bizarre situation: the ones for whom the lofty nature of kehunah is most overtly manifest today — in terms of the priestly gifts, at least — are the kohen’s animals!
It seems that this technical halachic loophole conveys a deep message, which teaches us something about the verse “Man has no superiority over the beast” (Kohelet 3:19). Humans, created in G-d’s image with free will, can use this power of choice to ascend to the loftiest of heights; however, humans can also plunge to the deepest of spiritual chasms. The greater the person’s potential, the greater the distance between the highest and lowest point they are capable of achieving. For Jews, this range is greater than for gentiles (“you are called ‘man,’ and idol worshippers are not called ‘man,’” is stated in the context of contracting impurity from a dead man inside a sheltering [tumat ohel]; that is, only a Jewish corpse can impart spiritual contamination in an enclosed structure!); a talmid chacham more so than a regular Jew (“the greater one is, the greater one’s evil inclination;” [Sukkah 52a]; also, someone who studied Torah and left the fold is much worse than someone who didn’t learn at all) [Pesachim 49b]. In contrast, the animal cannot employ free will to ascend to lofty heights of spirituality, but at the same time it cannot plummet to depths of spiritual decadence. This is why during their lifetimes, animals do not transmit impurity and are also not receptacles of impurity (the impurity of a sheretz or neveilah only sets in after the animal’s death).
While an animal cannot uplift itself through its own free-will choices, humans’ free-will choices can elevate the animals around them. We see this with the donkey of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa on the one hand (Avot D’Rabi Natan 8), and the moral corruption of the animals in the generation of the flood, on the other hand. In this spirit, the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, 18th century, Italy) writes in Mesillas Yesharim (chapter one): “For all creatures are greatly uplifted when they serve the ‘whole man,’ who is sanctified with the holiness of the Blessed One” (Shraga Silverstein trans.).
Disadvantage as an Advantage
Paradoxically, today the animals in the possession of a kohen manifest the sanctity of kehunah, while the kohen himself may not eat terumah. This informs us of the spiritual descent of the Jewish People in general, kohanim included, which prevents them from eating terumat Hashem, the “offering of the L-rd.” Yet kehunah persists, and the mitzvot associated with kehunah (such as birkat kohanim and the ability to redeem firstborns), as well as the prohibitions linked with kehunah (the injunction against coming in contact with the dead and marrying certain women) still apply to kohanim even today. And their sacred status also applies to their possessions. It is precisely because a kohen’s possessions cannot become elevated, unlike the individual kohanim themselves, that they cannot descend spiritually like him — and thus can partake of the terumah, while their owner cannot.
May it be G-d’s will that He sprinkle upon us pure waters, and all of us — kohanim, Levi’im, and Yisraelim, will be able to eat in purity from what He will give us with an open and outstretched hand!
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.