“All first born males of your cattle and of your flocks shall be sanctified to Hashem your G-d” (D’varim 15:19). This requirement obviously applies to every member of the Children of Israel, no matter which Tribe they are from. However, the very next verse (15:20) continues by saying “before Hashem your G-d shall you eat it, year by year, in the place that G-d chooses,” instructions that can only apply to Kohanim (see Rashi), since only Kohanim are allowed to eat the first born animal. This is evident from the explicit instructions given to the Kohanim (Bamidbar 18:8-19) about which foods must be given to them (by the rest of the nation) that only they can eat, a list that includes first born animals (18:15-18). How could the Torah use the same word (“you”) in consecutive verses if they do not refer to the exact same people? Why leave the impression that anyone can eat the first-born animals if only the Kohanim can?
This issue is not limited to these verses. Earlier (D’varim 12:17), we are told “you are not able to eat the tithes of your grain, wine or olive oil, and (or) the first born of your cattle and sheep, and (or) your voluntary offerings, and (or) that which is elevated by your hand, within your gates; rather, before Hashem your G-d shall you eat it, in the place that Hashem your G-d chooses.” Here, several categories are grouped together, with the same word (“you”) referring to those who can eat these things. But can the same people eat all the things listed?
Sorting out what each of the categories are is not straightforward. “The tithes of your grain, wine and oil” would seem to refer to “ma’aser sheini,” the “second tithe” (taken after the “first tithe” is set aside for the Levi’im) that, in the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the seven-year “sh’mita” cycle must either be brought to “the place G-d has chosen” (Jerusalem after the Temple was built; the Mishkan before that) to be eaten, or their sanctity transferred onto coins which are subsequently brought there and food bought with them to be consumed there. After all, the “first tithe” can be eaten anywhere (Bamidbar 18:30-31), and these verses are referring to foods that must be eaten “in the place where G-d chose.” [Ibn Ezra does say it refers to both the first and second tithe; I addressed this issue a couple of years ago, see https://rabbidmk.wordpress.com/2014/08/21/parashas-r-ay-5774/.] The “second tithe” can be eaten by anyone, not just Kohanim or Levi’im; “the first-born of your cattle and sheep,” on the other hand, as mentioned above, can only be eaten by Kohanim. “All of your voluntary offerings” is pretty straightforward, as one can commit to bringing an offering that was not required (see Vayikra 1:1-3:16), while “that which is elevated by your hand” refers specifically to Bikurim (the first fruits, see Rashi here and on 12:6), but could be expanded to other produce that must be given to Kohanim and Levi’im (see Ramban on 12:6). But the first born animal can only be eaten by Kohanim, so this part of the verse must be being addressed only to them, while the rest apply to everyone. How could Moshe include the same pronoun (“you”) to refer to two distinct segments of the population?
Chizkuni (on 12:17) suggests several possibilities to explain how the “second tithe” and first-born animals can be put in the same category even though the latter can only be eaten by Kohanim. (1) The first born isn’t a real first-born, but the second-born, which non-Kohanim treated as special (since it was the first one that they could eat), and, in order to give thanks to G-d for it, ate it in “the place that G-d chose” as if it was a real first-born (although he actually compares how it was treated to the “second tithe”). [This approach is difficult to fit into the verse, since one is not required to do so.] (2) It refers to when the first-born is a female, which doesn’t go to a Kohain, but was nevertheless eaten in “the place that G-d chose.” [Also not a requirement, so difficult to say is the verse’s intent.] (3) It does refer to a male first-born animal, which only Kohanim can eat, but since Moshe was addressing the entire nation, and the Kohanim are part of the nation, it is not problematic to include specifics that only apply to part of the nation. [This approach is based on Ibn Ezra, who provides other examples of the entire nation being addressed even though some specifics only apply to specific segments of the nation.] Chizkuni then brings a textual support for this approach; 15:20 (!), which only applies to Kohanim even though the entire nation is being addressed. However, it’s one thing to use a plural “you” when addressing everybody, with some aspects applying to some while other aspects apply to others, but quite another for the “you” in one verse (15:19) to refer to one group (those who must give their first-born animals to a Kohain) while in the very next verse of a continuing thought referring specifically and exclusively to others.
It can be suggested that after the list of things to be brought and/or eaten in “the place G-d chose” is given several times (D’varim 12:6, 12:11 and 12:17), with “you” referring to everyone even though the items on the list applies to different segments, the stage was set to allow for the dual-meaning of “you” in 15:19-20. Nevertheless, since it is several chapters later, and part of a separate thought/conversation with many unrelated paragraphs in-between them, it still seems out of place.
The Talmud (Makos 17-18, see also Sifre 72), expounding upon D’varim 12:17, applies the prohibition against eating a first-born animal outside “the place G-d has chosen” to non-Kohanim as well (so that they would be violating two prohibitions; one for eating the first-born, and the other for doing so outside of G-d’s “chosen place”). If the prohibition against eating the first-born animal outside the prescribed boundaries applies to non-Kohanim as well, it is not so strange for the word “you” to apply to them for everything, including the first-born animals. However, the verse the Talmud (and Sifre ) is expounding upon (12:17) is the prohibition against eating these things where they are not allowed to be eaten, whereas 15:20 is an exhortation that the first-born animals must be eaten “before G-d.” Since non-Kohanim are not allowed to eat them anywhere (not even “before G-d”), this verse cannot include non-Kohanim on any level.
Although this is not the issue he is trying to address, Netziv says that the commandment to “sanctify” the first-born animal (15:19) is actually being said to the Kohain, who must treat the first-born animals given to him with sanctity even before they are brought as an offering (including not putting it to work nor shearing it, which are mentioned explicitly). Even if “your cattle” and “your sheep” refer to (or at least applies to) the entire nation, since the focus of 5:19 is what the Kohain must do (and cannot do) with the first-born animals after they are given to him, continuing to speak to the Kohain (exclusively) in 15:20, telling him where to eat it, is not problematic (certainly not to the same extent as if 15:19 was said to non-Kohanim while 15:20 was said to Kohanim).
Non-verbal communication (email, texting, etc.), and even verbal communication that isn’t done face-to-face, can be easily misunderstood (even when accompanied by emoticons). Reading the text of Moshe’s address to the nation has a similar limitation, as all we see are the words he said. Just as there is no comparison between reading the transcript of a speech and seeing the speech live, there are non-verbal cues that Moshe likely used that cannot be easily ascertained by just reading the text of what he said. He was addressing the entire nation, but (as we have seen) there were certain details that applied only to specific segments of the nation. The issue we are trying to resolve is how he could have addressed two different segments (Kohanim and non-Kohanim) without any indication that he switched audiences mid-thought. But this issue only arises because we can’t see Moshe as he (still) speaks to us; we can only read the transcript of what he said. For all we know, when he addressed each specific group, he spoke to them directly, turning to face that segment, so that it was clear who he was speaking to (and not just from the context of the words).
For example (one provided by Ibn Ezra on 12:17), even though Moshe was recapping the conquest of Sichone and Og to the entire nation (2:31-3:17), including giving the land to R’uvein and Gad (said in third person, so it was obviously not said exclusively to them), when he told those Tribes (and only those Tribes, to the exclusion of the other ten, who would inherit the land on the other side of the Jordan River) that they were getting the land conquered from Sichone and Og, and that they would have to lead the war on the western side of the river while leaving their families on the eastern side (3:18-20), he likely turned to them, and faced them while addressing them directly.
Similarly, even though the requirement to sanctify every male first-born animal from “your cattle” and “your sheep” (15:19) was said to the entire nation, when Moshe was telling the Kohanim (and only the Kohanim) where to eat these animals, he turned to them and said it to them directly. Therefore, even though reading the text alone allows for some confusion between the “you” in 15:19 and the “you” in 15:20, when it was said “live” by Moshe, there was no confusion, as everyone could see that Moshe was only addressing the Kohanim when he said the words transcribed in 15:20. We can figure this out because of the context (as Rashi points out), but it still is harder to discern when reading the text than it was when seen live, when it was apparent who Moshe was facing (and therefore talking to) as he made each point.