The Kohanim, sons of Aaron
Since the destruction of the
Temple and beginning with
the period of the Sages, the priests – the Kohanim – have undergone a change of
status. Back in the days of the Temple they played a
central role in spiritual leadership and worship, but today they serve no
significant function in leading the people and they do not enjoy a monopoly in
any other important area of life.
It is interesting to note that the central prohibitions mentioned in the beginning of our parasha – the prohibition against becoming ritually impure from contact with a corpse, the prohibition against marrying a divorcee – remain in force today. The Kohanim also give the Priestly Blessing and play a crucial role in the pidyon haben, the ceremonial redemption of a first-born son. It is also customary to reserve the first aliyah of the Torah reading for Kohanim out of consideration for darkhei shalom, "ways of peace."
Despite all the above, when the Sages set about formulating the spiritual hierarchy that has clear halakhic implications in situations where lives must be saved, they said (Mishnah Horayot 3:8): "[When dealing with] a scholarly mamzer [man of illegitimate birth] and an ignorant High Priest; a scholarly mamzer comes before an ignorant High Priest." That is to say, those spiritual achievements which determine one's rank for society depends on one's personal efforts and not on one's family pedigree. The Talmud (Yoma 71b) relates an incident in which a group of people left the High Priest in order to accompany Shmaya and Avtalyon:
Our Rabbis taught: It happened with a high priest that as he came forth from the Sanctuary, all the people followed him, but when they saw Shemaya and Avtalyon, they forsook him and went after Shmaya and Avtalyon. Eventually Shmaya and Avtalyon visited him, to take their leave of the high priest. He said to them: May the descendants of the heathen come in peace! [Shmaya and Avtalyon descended from gentiles, according to tradition they descended from Sannacherib] — They answered him: May the descendants of the heathen, who do the work of Aaron, arrive in peace, but the descendant of Aaron, who does not do the work of Aaron, he shall not come in peace!
(based on Soncino translation)
This story gives clear expression to the revolution that had taken place in the Sages' notions of honor and social distinction. The sage, the Torah scholar, took pride of place over the Kohen, and the Sages further established (Bava Batra 12a) that, "A sage takes precedence over a prophet." The social hierarchy had changed.
The deterioration of the priestly status can already be found in Scripture when Eli's sons misused their position; similarly, the Kohanim were often puppets of the kings in the days of the monarchy. The Hasmonean kingdom also degenerated, a phenomenon that gives cause for concern not only about overly close links between government and finance, but also between the spiritual leadership and political power.
In any event, as Jews who are loyal to halakhic tradition we continue to observe the prohibitions mentioned in the parasha: we give a Kohen the first aliyah, we reserve the Kohen his place in pidyon haben, and we pray that God should "return the Kohanim to their worship."
I believe that this question goes beyond the relevance of the Kohanim's status or the relevance of a "born aristocracy" in a modern society which has adopted – at least in principle – the notion that all human beings are born equal and should be judged by their accomplishments. (Of course, it remains undeniable in our own times that a person's place of birth and ancestry can play an important role in determining his social status).
Are we to treat the preservation of the priesthood as a necessary remnant of earlier days which reflects the universal presence of some kind of "aristocracy" or another in every society? I don't think such explanations relate with sufficient seriousness to the biblical verses and rabbinic traditions which took pains – despite the radical revolution within Judaism – to preserve something of the priestly status.
As I mentioned above, this question is not restricted to the status of Kohanim; it also touches upon everything we say in our prayers longing for the
service and the sacrificial rite.
When three times each day we say, "and return the service to the Devir ['Holy of Holies'] of Your House," are we really looking forward to an early restoration of the sacrificial rites as the were practiced in the First and Second Temples?
Even HaRav Kook, who appears to have taken care to study Seder Kedoshim together with the Hafetz Hayyim in case the Temple were rebuilt, wrote in his commentary on the Siddur that in the future all the sacrifices will be of vegetable matter.
The Gemara (Ta'anit 17a) mentions the view of Rabbi, who prohibited the Kohanim of "our days" from ever drinking wine, just in case the
might be rebuilt and there will be an immediate need for fit Kohanim to perform
the services there.
Other rabbis, such as R. Haim Hirschenson, thought that the renewal of sacrifices was unimaginable, since that form of worship is not suited to our age.
In his Guide for the Perplexed, RaMBaM views the worship of God through sacrifices as a necessary but temporary developmental stage that took into account the people's early spiritual condition in which they were unable to think in terms of any other form of worship. He thought that prayer constituted a more highly developed mode of serving God than that of sacrifice.
I think that we should adopt the RaMBaM's attitude regarding the Messianic Age (Hilkhot Melakhim 12:2):
No one is in a position to know the details of this and similar things until the have come to pass. They are not explicitly stated by the prophets. Nor have the rabbis any tradition with regard to these matters. They are guided solely by what the Scriptural texts seem to imply. Hence there is a divergence of opinion on the subject.
We do not know how human society will develop. Any description we offer of the future expresses our current experience of the world. As a result, we are unable to have clear knowledge of the character of the worship of God in the Messianic Age and what role the Kohanim will play in it.
Nevertheless: I think that it was important to the Sages who shaped the halakhic tradition to preserve some of the symbols which tie us to earlier generations. The Kohen, who represents memory of those early days when he served a central role, is one such symbol. By way of the Kohen, who represents the
we connect to roots which can nourish us with inspiration to undertake further
spiritual development. I think that a
similar idea is expressed by the puzzling rule that Purim must be celebrated on
the 15th of Adar in cities which were walled specifically "from
the days of Joshua ben Nun." That rule honors the ,
which lay in ruins at the time of the rule's formulation. Land of Israel
The halakhic culture shaped by the Sages requires us, on the one hand, to connect with the memory of the past, but it also demands that we not become frozen in that past; it also insists that we be aware that we don't really know what the future will bring.
Pinchas Leiser, editor of Shabbat Shalom, is a psychologist