The Torah in Parashat Shoftim reiterates the various gifts that must be given to the kohanim, commanding that one give to a kohen “the first of your grain, your wine and your oil,” as well as “the first of your sheep’s shearing” (18:4).
Rav Avraham Saba (a scholar from the generation of the Spanish Inquisition), in his Tzeror Ha-mor, makes an intriguing comment to explain the purpose of these gifts. He writes that since the kohanim performed the service in the Beit Ha-mikdash outdoors, in the Temple courtyard, without shoes, they naturally felt very cold in the winter. Part of the intent of these gifts, Rav Saba suggests, were to address this need. Drinking wine warms a person’s body, and the wool received from the first shearing of sheep could be used as warm clothing. Additionally, in the previous verse, the Torah requires giving kohanim certain portions of any animal which one slaughters (zero’a, lechayayim and keiva), and Rav Saba writes that as the kohanim were also the nation’s scholars, and intensive engagement in Torah depletes one’s energy, the kohanim were given portions of meat to maintain their physical strength.
These comments of the Tzeror Ha-mor perhaps remind us to think carefully about other people’s conditions in order to identify what they are lacking. People might not intuitively realize that the kohanim suffered from the cold while performing the service in the Temple courtyard during the cold, rainy Jerusalem winter. We naturally focus our attention on meeting our own needs, and are not always attuned to the needs and concerns of other people, especially those whose lives are much different than ours. According to the Tzeror Ha-mor, the priestly gifts were intended to draw the people’s attention to the needs of the kohanim, who lived much different lives than they did. These requirements called upon the people to think about the conditions in which the kohanim lived, take note of the challenges these conditions posed, and to assume the responsibility to help the kohanim overcome these challenges. And these mitzvot remind us that we must try, as much as possible, to understand and take into consideration the situation of people whose lives are different from ours, so we can accurately identify their needs and do what we can to provide them.
(Based on a sicha by the Tolna Rebbe)