Menachot 9 - 15
Kemitza: A Complete “Handful” or a Smaller “Fistful”?
Abayei asked Rava: “How is kemitza done?” Rava replied: “it is done in the same manner as when people take a handful of something (this implies taking with all of the fingers — Rashi).”
An essential part of the Temple service for a mincha offering (usually translated as meal-offering since its main component was fine flour) is for a kohen to perform an act called “kemitza” before bringing it to the altar in the Beit Hamikdash. Other components of the mincha offering are oil and levona (frankincense). There are four different types of menachot that are specified in the Torah.
Did you know that each of our fingers has a distinct name? Abayei asks a question on Rava’s definition from a beraita that speaks about the names of the five fingers of each hand, and the significance of each finger. Following is the beraita along with Rashi’s explanation for each finger: “This (pinky) is called zeret (it indicates the length for the Choshen); next is the kemitza finger (used for taking the kemitza portion from the mincha offering); next is the amah (the longest finger which served as a standard means of measure in the Beit Hamikdash); next is the etzba (which the kohen dips in blood when required); and finally is the bohen (thumb, as the thumbs play a role in the purification process of a metzora).”
Abayei’s question is that if the kemitza finger is used for taking the kemitza portion — and not the zeret finger at the end of the hand — this indicates that the kemitza portion of the mincha was not taken with all of the fingers as Rava had averred. (It would seem that according to Rava the kemitza offering should be called a zeret offering!)
The gemara presents an answer for Rava: “To even it out” — meaning that when Rava said that all the entire hand was used, i.e., all five fingers, this was in case the amount taken was protruding on the sides beyond the middle three fingers. In this case, Rava is saying that the zeret served to wipe away the excess from the kemitza finger on the bottom of the hand (and, likewise, the bohen wiped off the extra that protruded from the etzba finger on the top.) This explanation answers Abayei’s question, and, it would seem, Abayei and Rava both agree that a kemizta portion of the mincha was only within the three middle finger of the “fistful”, and not a “handful” within all five fingers of the hand.
This agreed-upon manner of doing kemitza also jibes with a statement in our sugya: “This act of kemitza is one of the most difficult acts of service in the Beit Hamikdash.” It wasn’t just merely taking a handful, but involved employing careful dexterity to ensure that the amount was within the middle three fingers in the fist and did not protrude at all — and all done with one hand!
This understanding of how to perform the kemitza for a mincha is also consistent with the commentary of Rashi in Chumash in Vayikra 2:2, explaining the phrase melo kumtzo: How does the kohen take out exactly a fistful and not more or less? He covers the palm of his hand with his three fingers and uses his little finger from below and his thumb from above to remove and level out any overflow from the mincha. This results in an exact measure of “kemitza”. (See Torat Kohanim 2:105)
However, the Rambam writes in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Ma’aseh Hakorbanot 13:13), and also states in his commentary on our mishna that the act of kemitza is done by taking a complete handful from the mincha offering, and not just a smaller fistful with the three middle fingers: “How is a handful taken from those meal-offerings from which it is taken? As any person would take a handful, meaning that he extends his fingers over the palm of his hand and closes them.”
In addition, the Rambam does not mention the teaching that “kemitza is one of the difficult acts of service in the Beit Hamikdash.” So we see that the ruling of the Rambam, defining kemitza as a complete handful, differs from the opinions of both Abayei and Rava in our gemara as explained by Rashi here, and also differs from Rashi’s explanation in his commentary on the Torah (Vayikra 2:2).
The various Torah commentaries offer explanations for the manner in which the Rambam learned our sugya, a manner which led him to arrive at his seemingly surprising ruling on the definition of kemitza. One such explanation is based on Rav Papa stating later in the gemara that kemitza is done by scooping with the entire hand, and not just with three fingers. This ruling by this later Sage shows that he knew, without a doubt, that this definition is the correct one according to halacha. The Rambam saw from Rav Papa’s ruling that the halacha is not like the beraita, and that kemitza as a handful was not one of the most difficult sacrificial acts. Therefore, the Rambam ruled as he did, in accordance with the teaching of Rav Papa. (Kesef Mishneh)
- Menachot 11a