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A Kohen (or Cohen, Hebrew "priest," pl. Kohanim or Cohanim) is a direct male descendent of the biblical Aaron, brother of Moses, and has a distinct personal status in Judaism.

Table of contents
1 The priesthood in the Bible
2 Importance of Pedigree
3 Rules protecting against ritual defilement
4 Division into work groups
5 Post-Temple Theology and Practice
6 Women and the priesthood
7 Marriages involving Kohanim
8 Kohanim in contemporary times
9 Who is a Priest?
10 Recent genetic findings: The Kohen gene
11 Bibliography
12 External Links

The priesthood in the Bible

The Torah appoints Aaron, brother of Moses, and Aaron's descendants as Kohanim (Numbers 3:1-4). They were given duties associated with the Tabernacle (Numbers 1:47-54; 3:5-13,44-51; 8:5-26). Since Aaron was a Levite, this means that all Kohanim are Levites. Most of the service in the Temple could be conducted only by Kohanim. Non-Kohen Levites assisted in the services of the Temple.

Biblical Judaism saw in the Temple the manifestation of God's presence among His people, and in the Kohanim (priests) a vehicle of divine grace. According to the Talmud, "the priests were the emissaries, not of the people, but of God"; hence, a person who had sworn that he would not accept a service from a priest might nevertheless employ him to offer sacrifices and might make atonement for sin through him (Talmud, Yoma 19a; and Nedarim)

Importance of Pedigree

Later Judaism enforced rigidly the laws relating to the pedigrees of priests, and even established similar requirements for the women they married. Proof of a spotless pedigree was necessary for admission to priestly service. Anyone unable to establish their status as a Kohen was excluded from the priesthood.

Unless a woman's pedigree was known to be unimpeachable, a Kohen, before marrying her, was required to examine it for four generations on both sides, in case she was of priestly lineage; for five generations if she was not of priestly descent.

A Kohen may not marry a proselyte or a freedwoman. Regarding a daughter of such persons, opinion in the Mishnah is divided as to whether or not it was necessary that one of the parents should be of Jewish descent. The decision of later authorities was that, in case both of the woman's parents were proselytes or freed persons, a priest should not marry her, but if he had done so, then the marriage should be considered legitimate.

A Kohen not complying with these requirements is not allowed to give the priestly blessing.

Talmudic law prescribes that the honor of being first called upon for the reading of the Torah should belong to the priest.

According to the Talmud, the regulations demanding an unimpeachable pedigree continued to be binding, even after the Temple had been destroyed. The reason is that eventually the messiah will arivve, gather the Jews back to the land of Israel, rebuild the Temple, and resume the priestly service; at such a time Kohanim of unimpeachable status will be required for such service.

Rules protecting against ritual defilement

The Kohanim formed a holy order. For the purpose of protecting them against all ritual profanation and defilement they were to follow many rules.

Exceptions to rules for contact with the dead

In contradistinction to Lev. 21:2-4, the Talmudic includes a Kohen's wife and children among the persons of immediate relationship. Thus, it specifies that a Kohen must take care of and bury his dead wife and children, even though a strict reading of the Torah would mean that this renders the Kohen ritually impure.

The Talmud prescribes that if any Kohen, even the Kohen Gadol (high priest), finds a corpse by the wayside, and there is no one else in the area who can be called upon to inter it, then the Kohen himself must perform the burial.

The Talmud orders the Kohen to defile himself in the case of the death of a nasi (rabbinic leader of a religious academy). The Talmud relates that when Judah ha-Nasi died the priestly laws concerning defilement through contact with the dead were suspended for the day of his death.

Division into work groups

Not all Kohanim (priests) worked at the same time; they were divided into twenty-four groups. This is mentioned in Chronicles; this practice continued down to the destruction of the Second Temple, as statements to this effect by Josephus ("Ant." vii. 14, 7; "Vita," 1) and the Talmudic sources show.

These divisions of priests took turns in weekly service. Those who served changed every Shabbat (Sabbath), but on the Biblical festivals all twenty-four were present in the Temple.

These twenty-four divisions were subdivided into from five to nine smaller groups. Each of these smaller groups was assigned to service in turn. The main divisions were called "mishmarot," the subdivisions "batte abot" (terms which in Chronicles are used interchangeably). There was a chief at the head of each main division, and also one at the head of each subdivision.

Post-Temple Theology and Practice

After the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem the formal role of priests in sacrificial services came to an end, since in the absence of a temple in Jerusalem, sacrifices are not brought. Indeed, Jews no longer believe that they need to perform animal sacrifices to atone for sin and other methods have been substituted. (Arguably, they never did; rabbinic literature makes clear that sacrifices were only to be a part of the process of repenting for sin.)

This topic will be discussed here; attention will be paid to the historical view of sacrifices pioneered by Maimonides.

However, many of the traditional restrictions on Kohanim still remain in force in Orthodox Judaism. These include that the priests (Kohanim) are still required to remain ritually clean by refraining from contact with the dead. They are also still given tithes such as Terumah, and they still perform the blessing of Birchas Kohanim.

These views have been modified within Conservative Judaism. Reform Judaism holds that these laws are no longer binding.

Women and the priesthood

A Bat Kohen is the daughter of a Kohen. The Talmud states that she loses her status as a Kohen when she marries a non-Kohen. Some rulings in traditional Jewish law allow for the ruling that a Bat Kohen may perform the ritual of pidyon ha'ben, the ceremonial redemption of a first-born son. In practice Orthodox Judaism views this as forbidden. A Bat Kohen may not perform the ritual of Nesiat Kapayim, the priestly blessing sung aloud from the pulpit towards the congregation.

Marriages involving Kohanim

Such marriages are regulated by a number of special restrictions in addition to the general laws covering all Israelites. The Torah prohibits a Kohen from marrying women of certain specified categories: A divorcee, a "defiled" woman, or a "harlot." It ordains that any Kohen who makes such a marriage loses his priestly status [Lev. 21:6-7]. The Talmudic understanding of the word 'harlot' also encompasses the meaning "proselyte" (convert) and this suggests that maidens of that time, a gentile not born of Jewish parents, were barred from marrying priests because of the low standards of morality prevalent among the non-Jewish peoples of the period. According to the Talmud the act of marriage, although prohibited, was effective if a Kohen married in disregard of the prohibitions. Any children born of the union are legitimate.

Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, there have been no more sacrificial services, but the sanctified status of the Kohanim remains in force. Reform Judaism sees ritual halakha as no longer having any legal status, and this allows such marriages. Orthodox Judaism accepts that these laws are still normative, and thus usually forbids such marriages. Some Orthodox rabbis do have flexability on this subject. Conservative Judaism holds that, in general, Jewish law is still binding, but that these particular restrictions are no longer applicable. Thus the movement teaches that a Kohen may marry a convert or divorcee. Their reasoning is that:

See also the entry on the Jewish view of marriage

Kohanim in contemporary times

Orthodox Jewish views

Since the end of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Kohen has little formal rule in Jewish life. The one area in which the Kohen still has a formal and public ceremonial comes in the area of the aliyah, the ritual reading of the Torah during prayer services. Three times each week a portion from the Torah is read aloud in front of the congregation, in the original Hebrew, and this reading is split into a number of portions. It is customary to reserve the first reading of the Torah for a Kohen, and the second reading of the Torah for a Levite. In the Orthodox Jewish community this custom has the effective status of law.

As Orthodox Judaism does not allow women to read publicly from the Torah during formal prayer services, daughters of Kohanim and Leviyim have no role in this area.

In regards to the ritual of pidyon ha'ben, the symbolic redemption of a newborn son, Orthodox rabbis note that there are some rabbinic sources which allow women to perform this ritual. In practice, however, the custom is to use only men.

In regards to the ritual of the Priestly Blessing, a Bat Kohen (daughter of a Kohen) is not permitted to participate in Nesiat Kapayim because as a continuation of a Temple ritual, the Priestly Benediction should be performed by those who were authentically eligible to do so in the Temple.

Conservative and Masorti Jewish views

The aliyah is the ritual reading of the Torah during prayer services. It is customary to reserve the first reading of the Torah for a Kohen, and the second reading of the Torah for a Levite. In the Conservative Jewish community this custom is generally followed, but it does not have the status of law. The Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has ruled that a rabbi is not obligated to follow this custom. As such, in some Conservative and synagogues, this custom is not followed.

The following are the opinions of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international body of Conservative Jewish rabbis. Note that the Conservative movement teaches that where the law committee has validated more than one possible position, a congregation must follow the ruling of its rabbi, who as mara d'atra, local authority, has the sole responsibility in making such a p'sak, decision of Jewish law.

Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish views

The majority of Reform Jews and Reconstructionist Jews consider all rules and ceremonies regarding the priesthood to be outdated. Many consider it to be anti-egalitarian, and thus discriminatory against Jews who are not Kohanim. Thus the above laws and customs are no longer observed in Reform or Reconstructionist Jewish communities. Many Reform and Reconstructionist Temples effectively forbid the practice of these laws and customs. Both Orthodox and Conservative Jews strenuously disagree with this latter view.

Who is a Priest?

King Melchizedek of Salem, identified by Rashi as being Shem the son of Noah by another name, is the first person in the Torah to be called a Kohen (Genesis 14:18).

When Esau sold the birthright of the first born to Jacob, Rashi explains that the Priesthood was sold along with it, because by right the priesthood belongs to the first born. Only when the firstborn (along with the rest of Israel) sinned at the Golden calf, the priesthood was given to the tribe of Levi, which had not been tainted by this incident.

Moses was supposed to receive the priesthood along with the leadership of the Jewish people, but when he argued with God that he should not be the leader, it was given to Aaron.

Aaron received the priesthood along with his children and any descendents that would be born subsequently. However, his grandson Pinchas (Phineas) had already been born, and did not receive the priesthood until he killed the prince of the tribe of Simon and the princess of the Midianites (Numbers 31:11-12).

Thereafter, the priesthood has remained with the descendants of Aaron. However, when the Messiah comes, there is a tradition that it will revert back to the first born.

Recent genetic findings: The Kohen gene

Recently, the "myth" that Kohen are actually descended from Aaron, was supported by genetic testing. Since all direct male lineage shares a common Y chromosome, testing was done across sectors of the Jewish population to see if there was any commonality between their Y chromosomes. There was proven to be certain distinctions among the "Kohen" Y chromosomes, implying that the Kohen do share some common ancestry. This information was used to support the claim of the Lemba (a sub-Saharan tribe) that they were in fact, a tribe of Jews. See also Y-chromosomal Aaron.


External Links

http://shamash.org/lists/scj-faq/HTML/faq/09-01.html soc.culture.jewish newsgroups FAQ Question 9.1: How does a rabbi differ from a priest?]