19-5767: Mitzvah 50: Honoring a Kohen

Talmidav Shel Aharon
19-5767: Mitzvah 50
March 26, 2007

Mitzvah 50 – It is a positive commandment to accord honor to a Kohen (A direct male descendant of Aaron).
Hafetz Hayim: As Scripture says: “You shall hallow him” (Lev. 21:8) which means to make him holy and prepare him, that he should be fit and ready to offer up sacrifices at the Sanctuary, and also to treat him with honor, making him first in every matter of holiness; to begin as the first at the reading of the Torah, to be the first to say the benediction at a meal, and to take a fine portion at the start. We are duty bound to hallow him thus even against his will if he does not wish it since Scripture states, “You shall hallow him” even against his will. Even if a Kohen has a disfiguring defect, and thus is not fit for service, we are obligated to honor him. It is in effect everywhere and every time for men and for women.

The Conservative/Masorti movement has addressed most of the issues in this Mitzvah but I am going to save those comments and opinions for the next lesson. (Which, believe it or not, is harder than this one). Let us address the sacred honor that the Hafetz Hayyim is asking for in this Mitzvah so that we can understand why it is so difficult today.

The force of this Mitzvah comes from the fact that it is spoken by G-d to Moses. It is not a matter of debate or human decision. G-d chose Aaron, the brother of Moses and the descendants of Aaron to the priesthood as an everlasting covenant. There is nothing a descendant of Aaron can do to end this sacred relationship. It is as much a part of their life as their DNA. In fact, much has been made of the fact that there is a genetic marker that seems to indeed identify the descendants of Aaron. It is so reliable, it seems, that there is a tribe in East Africa that also seems to have the marker and an old tradition that speaks of them migrating from somewhere else. Perhaps they are ancient Kohanim who migrated south thousands of years ago. It is intriguing but really not relevant to our lesson.
In order to officiate in the Sanctuary, the Kohanim had to be between the ages of 20 and 50 and unblemished. There is a list of physical defects that invalidate a Kohen for service. Blind, lame, missing limbs, etc. They did not have to be handsome, but they needed to be whole. If a defective animal was not permitted to be a sacrifice, a blemished Kohen was not permitted to officiate. In the period of the second Temple, a Kohen could be called to service perhaps once or twice in a lifetime. They served that one day and then went back to whatever it was that they were doing. There were only a set staff of Kohanim that worked in the Temple, the High Priest and his staff. The rest were brought in on a rotating basis.
When the Temple was destroyed, the issue of a physical defect became moot and all Kohanim were given a variety of privileges as a way of remembering the holiness that they once enjoyed. A Kohen was to receive the first Aliyah to the Torah whenever the Torah was read. If there were two Kohanim, only one was given the honor, the other could not go second or third or later since that would imply that one Kohan was greater than the other. The honor of leading the Birkat Hamazon was a similar honor, if a Kohen was present, he would always be the first to be asked to lead. If he could not lead than another could be asked. Kohanim were also designated to recite the benediction that is found in the Book of Numbers which we call the “Priestly Benediction”. To this day, in Israel and on the pilgrimage festivals in traditional congregations, they will, take off their shoes and wash their hands, stand before the congregation on a raised platform, put a Tallit over their heads and hands, lift up their hands and intone the blessings. It is a ritual that is not only old but still holds an element of the sacred in it.
There has been a movement in recent years to include women in the rituals of the Kohanim. A woman who marries a Kohen does not become one, but is entitled to enjoy whatever honors he is given. The status is passed down to both boys and girls but only the boys can pass it on to their children. A woman Kohenet is the daughter of a Kohen. In some congregations, she is given all the same honors as her brothers. In addition, her first born son, even if his father is not a Kohen, does not have the ritual of Pidyon Ha Ben performed. We will explain this further in a future lesson. When the first Temple was destroyed, our people went into exile in Babylonia. According to the book of Ezra, when they returned, only the Kohanim who could prove their pedigree (Ezra himself was a Kohen) were allowed to officiate in the second Temple when it was completed. Today, when we have moved far beyond animal sacrifices and we no longer long for a rebuilt Temple, there are those who ask why we are still honoring the Kohanim. It is a good questions and one that we will look into in the next lesson.

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5 thoughts on “19-5767: Mitzvah 50: Honoring a Kohen

  1. You mention that “we no longer long for a rebuilt Temple”, and I don’t disagree. But in preparing for the Passover seder, I couldn’t help but notice the song Adir Hu, in which we ask for G-d to rebuild His house (the Temple) speedily in our lifetime. And this is not the only place that this message occurs in our liturgy. Could you comment on why we keep the references if we don’t agree with the message?

  2. Rabbi K. replies: In the Conservative/Masorti movement, we do indeed change the references. In the Musaf service we only note that the sacrifices were what we “used to do” in ancient times, not what we “hope to do” in the future. While there is a long tradition of speaking about when the Temple will be rebuilt, it refers to the Messianic times and then, who knows what the customs will be. The references all remind us how close to G-d we once were and how we hope that our words will again bring us as close today as we were then. As I have said many times, even the Rambam did not belive that a return to animal sacrifice would ever occur, we have just grown beyond that form of worship.

  3. I find that the value of honoring Cohanim stands in stark contrast to the values of egalitarianism. Thus, it is very surprising to me when an egalitarian congregation still uses this hierarchical structure. It is almost as if the word egalitarian has come to mean only equality between the sexes and nothing more. But perhaps this is the topic of your next entry…

  4. I do not hold that there are no differences between Jews. We are divided by our beliefs (i.e. the source(s) of the Torah etc.) and by our commitment to the Mitzvot. Awarding a person an honor for some past merit in his/her family is hardly unequal or unfair. It just is a way of showing honor. If the reason for the honor is gone, that is one issue. If we choose to maintain that honor (similar to how we “honor” Israel by doing some things different in the Galut) as long as we don’t use it to leave out or disinfrancise others, than what is the harm? We get to act in a traditional manner and someone gets to carry the title. We do this in many ways, even outside of Judaism. We call a person “Congressman” or “Judge” even when they retire.

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