Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

I received a question about my position that only local residents should choose their rabbi.

Last week I wrote that the members of a community should choose their rabbi, consequently, the law that gives the Minister of Religion influence over the choice of a rabbi is contrary to the guidance of the Torah. As a source for my words, I cited the mitzvah of terumot and ma’asrot (tithes), and wrote that the Kohanim (priests) and Levites are similar to rabbis and educators, and the Torah commanded that each person choose which Kohen he would give his terumot, and to which Levite he would give his ma’asrot, as written (Numbers 5:10):

“And each shall retain his sacred donations: each priest shall keep what is given to him.”

The right to choose to who to give their terumot and ma’asrot created a personal connection between the Israelites and the Kohanim and the Levites, and compelled them to devote themselves to their sacred work among their communities, so that the members of the community would want to give them their gifts. Thus, a Kohen or Levite who went out of his way to teach Torah to children and adults, and the members of his community benefited from his good advice and resourcefulness, was given preference in receiving their gifts. On the other hand, a Kohen or Levite who alienated himself from the community, condescended them, or were lazy and did not teach Torah, received similar treatment during the distribution of gifts.

Some readers wondered about the connection between the terumot and ma’asrot to the role of teaching and education, since the very fact that they are Kohanim and Levites and serve in the Temple, obliges the public to give them terumot and ma’asrot, and my words are a kind of ‘tama de’kra’ (an explanation of a biblical commandment whose meaning does not appear in the Bible), and cannot be ruled by halakha.

However, one who examines the halakha will see that the intent of terumot and ma’asrot is to assist the Kohanim and Levites in their spiritual role of instructing halakha and teaching Torah, as explained in the Gemara:

“Rav Shmuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: From where is it derived that one does not give a gift of the priesthood to a priest who is an am ha’aretz? It is derived from a verse, as it is stated: “And he commanded the people who dwelled in Jerusalem to give the portion of the priests and of the Levites, so that they may firmly adhere to the Torah of the Lord” (II Chronicles 31:4). This indicates that anyone who firmly adheres to the Torah of the Lord has a portion, and one who does not firmly adhere to the Torah of the Lord does not have a portion” (Chullin 130b).

We see clearly that the mitzvah is to give the terumot and ma’asrot specifically to Kohanim and Levites who are talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars), who study, and teach Torah.

Is it Permissible to Give Terumot and Ma’asrot to Those Who Do Not Teach Torah?

Not only that, but in the opinion of two eminent poskim (Rash and Rosh), it is forbidden to give matanot kehuna (priesthood gifts) to Kohanim and Levites who are amei ha’aretz (unlearned rural masses), in other words, even when there are no Kohanim and Levites who are talmidei chachamim, they are not given to amei ha’aretz.

On the other hand, according to Rambam it is permitted to give gifts to Kohanim and Levites who are amei ha’aretz, though it is proper to give to talmidei chachamim.

The halakha follows the opinion of the majority of the Rishonim, who take the middle path, according to which it is a mitzvah is to give matanot kehuna to a Kohen or Levi who is a talmid chacham specifically, and only if there are no talmidei chachamim there, is it given to an am ha’aretz, and one does not have to go out of his way to bring them to talmidei chachamim (thus wrote, Tosefot, Ramban, Rashba, Ran, Ritva, and Meiri on Chullin 130b. And so it was ruled in SA, YD 61: 7; Peninei Halakha:Kashrut 7:3, 1).

Apparently, the reason for giving gifts to Kohanim and Levites who are amei ha’aretz when there are no talmidei chachamim, is that in general, the entire tribe is intended for Torah and education, and even if for a certain time they do not fulfill their duties, we must continue to give them terumot and ma’asrot so as not to become accustomed to neglecting the mitzvot. Thus, as soon as it becomes possible to give the terumot and ma’asrot to talmidei chachamim, they should be given to them, as is appropriate.

Rabbi of a Synagogue

Since chances are the Ministry of Religious Affairs will not ensure the selection of worthy rabbis who are acceptable to the public, I proposed to correct this distortion from bottom up – namely, that each synagogue choose its own rabbi. The disadvantage in the fact that the rabbi is not an official appointee and does not receive a salary, could in retrospect turn into an advantage.

The main role of a rabbi is to teach Torah, and the main thing in studying Torah is to emphasize the general rules from which the details derive and the foundations on which the building stands since most people are able to learn traditional study by themselves, and the main benefit of learning from a rabbi is in the distinction between ikar and tafel (the more important, and secondary). For this purpose, it is unnecessary for the rabbi to deal with matters of the running of the synagogue and disputes – the main thing is that he teach the basics of Torah in his classes, from the general rules, to the details.

From the foundations of emunah (faith) that are revealed on the Sabbaths and holidays, to all the mitzvot that sanctify the Jewish people, such as prayer and blessings, and all laws of kashrut. Out of sanctity of the family, to education for all good character traits. From mitzvah ‘and love for your neighbor as yourself’ and ‘what is hateful to you, do not do to your friend’, to all the mitzvot and laws between man and his fellow neighbor. From the mitzvot of yishuv ha’aretz (settling the Land of Israel), to the mitzvot of serving in the army and engaging in developing the world, including the values of science and work, honesty, and diligence. From studying the purpose of the people of Israel – to bring blessing to all families of the earth, to the special purpose of each individual to contribute to Tikkun Olam according to his ability, and from this, to educate the youth to develop their talents, in Torah, and in science and art, with morals and good deeds, and to choose the profession in which they can contribute to the world.

When he participates in Bar Mitzvah parties, Shabbatot Chatan, Sheva Barachot, the rabbi should talk about these foundations, and know how to praise each member of the community for his or her good work in education, science, volunteering, and empower them as much as possible.

In general, his role will be more fundamental – to express the Torah, and not to manage the synagogue. In doing so, they will remove from the rabbi most of the problems that may complicate him, and at the same time, will strengthen his honor, and the honor of Torah, and as a result, they will merit receiving encouragement from him for all the great deeds that the members of the community do in their work, and volunteering.

The Question of Making a Living

Indeed, the question of making a living is difficult. Since terumot and ma’asrot were abolished, there is no organized framework for compensating rabbis, and this painful issue has not subsided from the agenda of the communities. Since the need to receive a salary degraded the status of a rabbi, the Rambam was of the opinion that it was forbidden for Torah scholars to impose themselves on the public. Nonetheless, it was impossible to maintain the rabbinate without a salary, and thus, rabbis and congregations conducted themselves with difficulty.

But as for synagogue rabbis, today the problem has greatly diminished, because in the past, the rabbis were responsible for all religious matters in the community – slaughtering, treifot, sofrei stam, eruvin, marriages, divorces, and all types of trials and arbitrations. Today, on the other hand, most of these occupations are assigned to specific rabbis who are professionals in their areas, such as marriage, divorce and arbitration, which are done by dayanim (religious judges). Therefore, by the grace of God, the rabbi’s role has been reduced to the most important and noble thing, learning and teaching Torah, which is the root of all good.

And just as there are teachers all over the country who manage to make a living, so too, rabbis of synagogues and communities can serve as teachers of Torah, halakha, and emunah in surrounding schools, and in the evening hours, be able to volunteer as rabbis. And if one rabbi is not enough to teach all the requested lessons, as is expected to happen after having succeeded in increasing Torah in his community, one or two more rabbis could be appointed with the communities’ help, who will also be considered rabbis in the community. Thus, the status of the rabbinate in the community will rise, and most importantly, there will not be disputants, rather, focus on increasing and glorifying the Torah.

If the members of the community want the rabbi to devote himself more to his community, then it would be very good if they could find a way to compensate him, provided this is done by way of volunteering, and not as an obligation that would keep even one worshiper away from the synagogue. And if they cannot find a way to pay him in an honorable way, he should fulfill his role to the best of his ability within the free time he has.

The main thing is he should sit in the front of the synagogue, and give sermons from time to time on Torah and mitzvot, the love of Israel, on yishuv ha’aretz, the mitzvah of service in the army, and on developing and bringing blessing to all the families of the world. This is how they will raise the honor of the Torah, for the glory of the community.

More on the Question of Livelihood

It is worth adding that in practice, in the central cities of Israel, even when the synagogues take care of the salary of the synagogue rabbi, it is usually a payment of a few thousand shekels, far from a salary that can sustain a family. In most cases, this amount is not enough for rent or mortgage in the central and large cities. Usually, they live there thanks to inheriting the apartment and help from their parents, and perhaps also thanks to the particularly successful work of the Rabbanit. There is nothing new about this, since for generations, rich families married their daughters off to rabbis, and provided for them. Incidentally, even rabbis of established neighborhoods do not earn more than teachers, and if instead of supervising the kashrut of restaurants or taking care of the eruv the rabbi of the synagogue teaches halakha in a primary or high school, in practice, his Torah level will be higher than that of the neighborhood rabbi, and his salary will also be higher.

The Concern of Appointing a Synagogue Rabbi

Indeed, many members of the Dati-Leumi (Religious-Nationalist) public are apprehensive about appointing a synagogue rabbi, lest he become arrogant, and pass harsh decrees on them. And when a rabbi is appointed, they try not to sit him in the front of the synagogue, lest he stir up disputes. And even when it comes to a rabbi who is a tzaddik and there is no concern he will stir up disputes, out of fear that the rabbi who comes after him will stir up disputes, they prefer he sit in the middle of the synagogue, and not the front.

In order to overcome the problem, it is necessary to define in advance that the rabbi’s role is to teach Torah, and answer questions. And in everything related to public affairs, the gabbi’s will decide, in consultation with the public. For example, will the ezrat nashim (women’s section) be in the back, or on the side? Will charity-seekers be allowed to speak in front of the worshippers? Can a woman give a sermon at a Bar Mitzvah, or not? Should we send an army to help Ukraine, or other countries in Africa? Will politicians from liberal streams be allowed to speak before the community? And how will the customs of different ethnic groups be intermixed?

In all of these matters, the public and the gabbai’s will decide according to what suits the community. Additionally, the rabbi of the synagogue should not intervene in debates about opening Talmud Torahs or more liberal schools. Every nuance has value, and the rabbi should see the good in all nuances.

Concern exists that there will be rabbis who will say: if I don’t have the power to act to establish a Talmud Torah, to send the army to Ukraine, to promote feminism, or to warn about the neo-reformers – then, what use do I have in the rabbinate?! Indeed, such people are not suitable for the position of the rabbinate. Their place of activity is in the public, or political arena.

Rabbis who teach Torah, and strengthen the truth and goodness – to honor them, it is appropriate to seat them in the front of the synagogue, and this will give them the strength to add goodness and blessings. And the more such rabbis are respected, even without a salary, the status of the Torah will rise, and in the end, the official rabbis will also have to follow their path.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.