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Herem (priestly gift)

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Herem (priestly gift)

In the Tanakh, the term herem (Hebrew חֵרֶם) is used, among other meanings, for an object or real property to be devoted to God, with God authorizing a kohen (Jewish priest) to be its receiving agent.[1]

Twenty-four kohanic gifts

In Torah law, the positive commandment of a devoted thing is applied to the "gifts of the priesthood" (Hebrew מתנות כהונה matnat kehuna) which entails giving "devoted estate" or "devoted properties" to a kohen. The gift of "devoted things" is listed as one of the twenty-four kohanic gifts and, of those twenty-four, as one of ten gifts given to the priest even outside the land of Israel (Tosefta Challah 2:8, Talmud Bavli Hullin).

The nuances and complex specifics of the "priestly gifts" (matnat kehuna) and law on "devoted things" (herem) are deemed by Chazal as one of eight pillars of Torah law that are "principles of Halakha". See Tosefta to Hagigah 1:11 for a list of all eight.


In Hebrew the adjective herem (Hebrew חֵרֶם) means "devoted thing" or "thing devoted to destruction". The term is used 29 times in the Masoretic Text of the Tanakh. An unrelated homonym, the noun herem meaning "fisherman's net" (also חֵרֶם), is used a further 9 times.[2] The adjective herem and the associate verb haram "devote" come from the Semitic root Ḥ-R-M with cognates in the Syriac and Arabic languages.

The word "devoted" (herem) is understood by Maimonides as a "complete and total transition" from one status to another.[3] The Targums define the word as a complete separation (Jerusalem Targum to Numbers 18:13, and Targum Yonathan to Isaiah 43:28). According to Samuel ben Meir this is the complete transition of an estate or object from hullin (mundane) status to that of kodesh (holy).[4]


The first of two sources of the commandment is stated in Leviticus:

Notwithstanding no devoted thing, that a man shall devote unto the LORD of all that he hath, both of man and beast, and of the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed: every devoted thing [is] most holy unto the LORD.
—Leviticus 27:28, KJV

The second source, unlike the first, explicitly instructs that the devoted thing be given to the priest;

Every thing devoted in Israel shall be thine.
—Numbers 18:14

In reconciling the two seemingly starkly differing instructions, Chazal explained the two verses as detailing two types of devoted things; the former being "hermei gavoah" (devoted things specifically consecrated by their owner to the Temple in Jerusalem) whilst the latter as "hermei kohanim", devoted things to be given the priest, as the estate or object was not designated by its owner to the Temple in Jerusalem.

"Devoted property" in the territory of Joseph

Torah commentaries to the verse "And Eleazar the son of Aaron died and they buried him in at Givath the hill of Phinehas his son that was given to him in the mountain of Ephraim {Joshua 24:33) describe that the tribe of Joseph desired the merit that Eleazar the high priest should be buried in their territory. Thus, at the time of his demise designated Gibeah Phinehas (modern Awarta) as a herem estate; that is to be given the priests currently in duty as per the priestly divisions) and calculated to publicize the herem designation during the division cycle when Phinehas was in service, thus increasing the likelihood of Phinehas burying his father in the herem property, which ultimately happened (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michal on Joshua 24:33).


The Sifre (Hebrew סִפְרֵי siphrēy, halakhic midrash to Numbers) attributes this particular priestly gift to the merit of Jochebed who deserved to be the mother of the priesthood, by mothering Aaron, for rescuing the infants of Israel from the pharaonic decree of infanticide of Israelite newborns;

"And Kotz gave birth to Onuv and to HaTzovevah and the families (of) Acharcheil the son of Harum (1 Chronicles 4:8); Ben (the son/child of) Herem[5] this is Jochebed as it is written "All herem in Israel to you will be (Numbers 18)"
—Sifri to Numbers 10:29


The Sifra (Aramaic: סִפְרָא siphra, the Halakic midrash to Leviticus) describes the commandment to devote things as enabling the Israelite to do perform a commandment with objects that otherwise do not have a commandment attached to them. For example a non-kosher animal other than the firstborn of a donkey, by way of the Israelite making his possession thereof "devoted" (herem), he elevates it to "holy" (kedushah) (Sifra 42b as quoted in Midrash HaGadol to Leviticus 8:25). Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, describes the act of creating a "devoted" estate a worthy act since it goes against the sin of miserhood. In addition, he also categorizes the initiation of devoted goods by an Israelite as an act of respect and honor to the God of Israel.[6]

Another quality of the devoted gift to the priest is described by the 14th Century Raya Mehemna, a conversation between Moses and Elijah found as an addition to the Zohar, as rectifying and healing the negative emotion of anger the initiator of a devotion of property may possess.[7]

Undesignated devoted things

Opinions differ as to the designation of undesignated devoted things (stam herem) in cases where the initiator of a devotion of property does not designate his property as consecrated to the temple in Jerusalem or the priests. Maimonides opines that this undesignated herem be given the priests by default. Maimonides further states that undesignated devoted property is considered mundane (hullin) and may be used by the priests for personal use. This is in contrast to the case where the person does designate his devoted property to be given the priests, where the said devoted property retains a holy (kodesh) state and cannot be itemized for personal use.[8]

Dispension to the mishmaroth

An additional detail of allocation of devoted property is dependent on the type of object devoted; whether it is real estate or goods. According to rav Sheshet, as cited in the Talmud, devotion of real estate is considered one of the four priestly gifts that is divided amongst the serving priestly division (mishmar kehuna), while tangible devoted goods are appropriated even to the individual priest not currently in active temple service (Y.Hallah 27b).

In modern times

The commandment to devote property, although practice infrequently today, still has halakhic implication in modern times:

In the diaspora

Considering that the gift of devoted property is listed as one of the ten priestly gifts that can be given to a priest outside of Jerusalem (similar to the Pidyon HaBen and the giving of the shoulder, cheeks and maw), some poskim have noted that both types of devoted things, both real estate and goods, are designated and given to the priest of the beth din's choice.[9]

Solomon Luria is of the opinion that the dedicator of devoted goods is required to specify that the property or items be given to a priest in order for a priest to be eligible as the recipient. In terms of the beth-din choosing an eligible kohen, Rabbi Luria opines that The status quo Kohen is sufficient to be the recipient of a devoted item and it to be "mundane" (hullin).[10]


  1. ^ Leviticus 27:28 et al.
  2. ^ Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew Lexicon
  3. ^ Rambam l'am, hilkhoth arakhin v'hromin chap. 6 note 2. Mossad Harav Kook, Jerusalem
  4. ^ Samuel ben Meir (c.1085–c.1158) Commentary on Numbers 21:2
  5. ^ Here the Mishna employs an exegesis on the name "Harum" by interchanging the Hebrew letter ה with a ח as they are both gutturally produced
  6. ^ Maimonides Mishneh Torah, hilkhot arakhin v-hromim 8:12.
  7. ^ Raya mehemna 3 p. 179a
  8. ^ Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot arakhin v-cheremin 6:1-4
  9. ^ Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot arakhin v-hromin 8:11 (as per Ulla, quoted in Arakhin 29a)
  10. ^ (Hebrew) Solomon Luria on Bava Kamma end of minor chapter 35
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