By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
The Mordechai (Gittin 461) relates that Rabbeinu Tam once allowed a kohen to pour water over his (Rabbeinu Tam’s) hands. This caused one of his students to inquire as to how he could allow a kohen to serve him, being that the Yerushalmi states that whoever uses a kohen for his own needs is in violation of the prohibition of me’ilah (since the kohen is sacred). Rabbeinu Tam’s response was that the kohen who served him (in 12th-century France) was not adorned with special priestly garments and therefore the prohibition did not apply. The student persisted, saying that, if so, we shouldn’t give a kohen the first aliyah nowadays. Rabbeinu Tam remained quiet.
Rabbeinu Peter (some suggest his name should be vocalized as “Pater,” meaning father), who was also present, opined that a kohen can voluntarily forfeit the respect due to him as a kohen and, therefore, there was no problem with Rabbeinu Tam’s allowing him to be subservient. The Taz suggests that Rabbeinu Tam was of the opinion that the kohen was only allowed to serve him because he was a great scholar, and Rabbeinu Tam chose to remain silent rather than point this out.
The Rema concurs with the opinion of Rabbeinu Peter and writes, “It is forbidden to make use of a kohen even nowadays, because it is tantamount to using consecrated property, unless the kohen is mochel.”
However, there are those Acharonim who disagree and say that one should not allow a kohen to attend to his personal needs even if the kohen is mochel. If so, the SHu’T Zera Chaim (27) wonders whether one would be allowed to see a doctor who is a kohen. The patient would be considered to be using the kohen for his own personal health needs.
The Zera Chaim proves from a Gemara in Yoma that it must be permitted. The Gemara in Yoma (49a) references Rebbe Chanina, who was an expert in medicine. He declared, “No one ever asked me about a wound caused by a white mule and lived.” (The Gemara explains which injury he was referring to.) It is apparent that he was commonly asked medical questions. Rashi in Chulin specifically states that he was a doctor. Yet the Gemara in Bechoros states that he accepted money for pidyon ha’ben. Apparently, he was a Dr. Cohen! The Zera Chaim concludes, therefore, that all must agree that a kohen can serve as a doctor, just as Rebbe Chanina did.
For those who are of the opinion that a kohen cannot be mochel on his honor in this regard, what is the basis for the permit to serve as a doctor? A typical doctor does not offer his services for free. Likewise, we can assume that Rebbe Chanina was paid for his services. Since a kohen-doctor is being paid for his services, he is not acting only on behalf of the patient; he is acting on his own behalf as well. Since the kohen derives personal benefit from offering the treatment, this would not be considered an act of disrespect. Indeed, the Mishnah Berurah (128:175) writes that initially we should be stringent and not make use of a kohen even if he is mochel, unless the kohen derives personal benefit, such as being paid for his services.
However, there are Acharonim who are of the opinion that even when the kohen is being paid, one still should not make use of his services. How would they explain how Rebbe Chanina was allowed to be a doctor? The Zera Chaim says that the answer possibly lies in the Rambam’s commentary to the Mishnah (Nedarim 4:4). The Rambam writes that it is a mitzvah to heal someone; it is included in the mitzvah of returning a lost object. Just as there is a mitzvah to return one’s monetary possessions to him, there is a mitzvah to return one’s health. Perhaps it can be argued that one is allowed to receive medical treatment from a kohen because the kohen is performing a mitzvah while performing his duties. It does not suffice that the kohen receives some type of finite monetary or physical benefit; he must be performing a mitzvah as well, according to these authorities.
However, this last point raises another problem: If a doctor is performing a mitzvah while restoring one’s health, is he allowed to charge for his services? Is a finder of a lost object allowed to charge the owner for his services? Since the finder may not charge, the doctor should also not be allowed to charge, since the Rambam says that both are really part of one mitzvah.
However, there are times that a finder of a lost object can charge the owner. If he took time off from a paid job, he may charge the owner for his time. Likewise, Rabbi Bleich writes that since a doctor takes away time from seeing patients that he is allowed to charge for, he may charge even the patients for whom he is fulfilling a mitzvah (Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Volume 2). v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.