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The Sanctity of the Kohain

By Avi Lazerson

When the Jews left Egypt, after the first born of the Egyptians were slain by G-d, the first born of the Jews were destined to become the priestly class. The first born were to be dedicated to serve G-d in the Sanctuary in the Desert and in the Temples that were yet built. However, after the sin of the Golden Calf, in which most of the Jews turned to idolatry, G-d told Moses to separate the tribe of Levi from the rest of the Jewish people. It would be their destiny to serve in the Sanctuary and in the Temples.

The brother of Moses, Aaron, and his children were given the duties of being the priests to perform the ritual customs of sacrifices in the Sanctuary and in the Temple, and the rest of the tribe of Levi were become the assistants to the descendents of Aaron, to help them in there holy service.

The Torah commanded the Jews to sanctify Aaron and his sons, as it says in Leviticus 23:8, "…you shall sanctify him." This mitzvah applies even to this day. We sanctify the priests, (in Hebrew, the Kohanim or in singular, Kohain) by giving them the first aliyah to the Torah (they are called up first to bless in the reading of the Torah). They are given preference in leading the communal blessings after a meal. These are but two expressions of the commandment to sanctify them.

In the Jerusalem Talmud, a story is told about Rabba Bar-bar-Chonah and Rabbi Chonah who were eating a meal together. Serving them was Rabbi Zera, who was a Kohain. Rabbi Zera offered them wine and oil which he held out to them by holding them in one hand only. Rabba Bar-bar-Chanah said to Rabbi Zera, "Is your hand cut off that you offer the food in such a manner?"

The father of Rabba Bar-bar-Chanah became upset at Rabba Bar-bar-Chanah and said, "Is it not enough that you sit and he serves you and he is a Kohain? Samuel (one of the greatest Rabbis of that time) says that using a Kohain is like using the vessels in the Temple (which is forbidden). On top of this you must embarrass him? Therefore I decree that you stand and serve him, and he shall sit!" We see from this story that the use of a Kohain is forbidden!

There is in addition to the command to sanctify the Kohain, a requirement that a person not to utilize a Kohain for personal needs. We find, however, that a Kohain may hire himself out for his own personal benefit, such as for making money or for a non-tangible benefit, such as helping a Talmud Chacham, (a Torah scholar) so that he may learn from him, etc.

We can better understand the desires of the Torah in this manner: There is a mitzvah to sanctify the Kohain. This means that we must give him his due respect and honor as a descendent of Aaron, the first priest, whose job in life is really dedicated to serve G-d in the Holy Temple. We accomplish this during our time, as we exist with out the Temple, by giving him preference in all things that have to due with holiness. In addition honoring him, we are required to separate him from that which he, as a Kohain is forbidden, that we plain Jews are permitted, such as being in contact with a dead person or marrying a divorcee or a convert, etc.

Since his status is not dependent upon his actions or merits, but rather upon his lineage, it is therefore his obligation to behave with special sanctity, whether he desires it or not. He can not say that he is not interested in being a Kohain and would rather to marry a divorcee (as an example). He is not permitted this choice, just like we plain Jews are not permitted the choice to become gentiles. If a Jew decides to convert to be a gentile, he is considered by the Torah to be a Jew who is living in a sinful state. Similarly, a Kohain who marries a divorcee (or does any of the other forbidden acts to a Kohain) is living in a sinful state. It is the obligation of the community to separate him from such a sinful state.

Since even today, a Kohain retains his state of holiness and sanctity, it is forbidden for us to utilize him in a degrading manner. We are allowed to employ a Kohain to work since that is considered not degrading. We are also allowed to derive a benefit from a Kohain if he too derives a benefit by our use of him. But we are forbidden to use a Kohain in a purely servitude manner since that is considered degrading.

As an example, many people do not let a Kohain pour them a drink or pass them a dish; for fear that this is using a Kohain in a servant-like manner. On the other hand, if the Kohain desires to do a kindness for you, you are allowed to accept, since the Kohain benefits by enjoying the feeling of having done another person a kindness.

Soon the rightful Messiah will appear and the Holy Temple will be rebuilt. Then the Kohanim will take their rightful places in the Temple. We will then bring to them our sacrifices to be offered up on the Altar to G-d.

Let us pray that this be done very soon, that we, together with our friends, the Kohains, shall again renew the service in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.


from the June 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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