Zevahim 65a-b - Only a kohen can perform melikah

January 14, 2011

On yesterday's daf (=page) we learned that birds brought as sacrifices were not slaughtered in the ordinary manner, but were killed by means of melikah - a unique method where the kohen would hold the bird in his hand and kill it with his thumbnail.


The Gemara on today's daf quotes a baraita that derives these requirements from the passage in Sefer Vayikra (1:15) where the Torah emphasizes that this unique slaughtering must be done by a kohen and cannot be done with a knife as is the case with ordinary slaughtering.


The baraita suggests that were it not for the Torah's emphasis regarding these laws, we would have thought otherwise, based on a comparison with sacrifices brought from animals. In all other animal sacrifices, the slaughter need not be done by a kohen, since anyone can slaughter a sacrifice. Nevertheless, the slaughter must be done in a specific place in the Temple courtyard - the northern part of the courtyard. I might have thought that since sacrificial birds are not limited to the northern part of the courtyard, it might indicate that they can certainly be slaughtered by anyone, so it was essential that the Torah emphasize that melikah can only be performed by a kohen.


Similarly, other animal sacrifices are slaughtered with a knife, even though the slaughter can be done by anyone. I might have thought that sacrificial birds that must be killed by a kohen could certainly have a knife used in their slaughter, so it was essential that the Torah emphasize that melikah cannot be performed with a knife.


Rabbi Akiva objects to the method that the baraita uses to determine these halakhot. According to the Shittah Mekubetzet, Rabbi Akiva believes that it is obvious that someone who is not a kohen could not be permitted on the altar to slaughter the bird. The Torah's emphasis that the kohen do the melikah comes to teach us that the slaughter of sacrificial birds can only be done be-atzmo shel kohen - with the very essence of the kohen himself, that is, with his thumbnail and not with a separate implement, e.g. a knife.


This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud. To learn more about the Steinsaltz Daf Yomi initiative, click here.

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