Today’s daf (Nedarim 35b) raises the question of whether Kohanim are שלוחי דרחמנא (agents of God), or שלוחי דידן (agents of us, i.e. the Jewish people). If the former, then were we to make a vow to forbid us from benefitting from a Kohen the vow would then be invalid because the Kohen ultimately an agent of God. While if the latter, the vow would be valid.
However, as numerous commentaries point out (see Ran & Tosfot on Nedarim 35b & the Ramban, Rashba & Ritva on Kiddushin 23b), it would seem that there is no way for this to be an either-or question given what Rav Huna states in Kiddushin 23b that because Kohanim are the descendants of Aharon who was chosen by God to serve in the Mishkan, and since only they can perform the Temple services, it is clear that they are שלוחי דרחמנא (agents of God). Given this, the question raised by numerous commentaries is why – here in Massechet Nedarim – is this issue debated as if both options are a possibility?
Many answers have been suggested on this question. However, I would like to focus on just one, found in a small hebrew footnote at the end of Rabbi Hirsch’s monumental ‘Horeb’ (Ch. 118) which, it should be noted, he published when he was aged just 28*! But before getting to his specific solution, I’d like to quote some of what he says in his main text:
Rabbi Hirsch begins the chapter by stating that: ‘When a community wishes to express feeling or thought as communal feeling or communal thought, someone usually emerges as its spokesman… This person, the agent of the people, was the priest, the כהן; in reality, the servant of the community (probably from the root כון).’
Then, just one sentence later, Rabbi Hirsch writes that: ‘God appointed Aharon and his descendants to represent the community at the communal sacrifice’.
And then, a few paragraphs later, he writes: ‘Thus the kohen, like the Temple Sanctuary and its sacrifices, is a symbol representing an idea, but not the representative of God upon earth, for this is meaningless. He represents the entirety of the community bearing the Torah, taking its place for the expression of its thoughts and feelings and for the reception of the individual into the sphere of the community.’
On first glance, it may seem as if Rabbi Hirsch is contradicting himself because he refers to the Kohen as both a representative of God and the community. But then, in a footnote, he draws an important distinction between Kohanim offering a קרבן יחיד (an offering for an individual) and a קרבן ציבור (an offering for the community).
In terms of the latter (which is the main theme being discussed in Kiddushin 23b and in Yoma 19a), it is clear as stated by Rav Huna that Kohanim are שלוחי דרחמנא (agents of God). This is why, even when private altars (במות) were permitted – at which time individuals could offer up their own sacrifices – communal sacrifices (קרבן ציבור) could still only be offered up in a central location (i.e. the Mishkan) by a Kohen. However, our discussion (in Nedarim 35b) addresses individual offerings, and since we know that a non-Kohen could, in the past, technically offer an individual sacrifice (קרבן יחיד), this means that the question vis-à-vis individual offerings is undecided as to whether Kohanim are שלוחי דרחמנא (agents of God), or שלוחי דידן (agents of us, i.e. the Jewish people).
Admittedly, this may appear to be a technical distinction. However, not only does it help us resolve this apparent contradiction between sugyot (different discussions in the Talmud), but it also helps us make sense of other related discussions.
What we learn from here is that when we ask questions like whether Kohanim are שלוחי דרחמנא (agents of God), or שלוחי דידן (agents of us, i.e. the Jewish people), we should first ask – as Rav Hirsch did: “in what context?”. And once that answer is clear to us, we will then be better placed to make sense of the question itself.
* nb. this fact was pointed out by Rav Yaakov Perlow in his essay ‘Rav S. R. Hirsch – The Gaon in Talmud and Mikra’, found in ‘Tzvi Tif’arto: The World of Hirschian Teachings’, which makes direct reference to this insight of Rav Hirsch.