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High Priest of Israel

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High Priest in the Holy Place.

In Judaism, the High Priest of Israel (Hebrew: כהן גדול, romanizedKohen Gadol, lit.'great priest'; AramaicKahana Rabba)[1] was the head of the Israelite priesthood. He played a unique role in the worship conducted in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as in some non-ritual matters. Like all priests, he was required to be descended from Aaron (the first biblical priest). But unlike other priests, the high priest followed more restrictive laws, wore unique priestly garments, and was the only priest allowed to perform certain ceremonies.



The high priest is referred to by a number of titles in the Hebrew Bible; the title kohen gadol did not become dominant until well into the Second Temple period.[1]

In addition to the title of "great priest" (kohen gadol)[2] which later became the standard Hebrew title, the term "head priest" (kohen harosh) was used,[3] as was "anointed priest" (kohen mashiach).[4]

The Torah sometimes uses longer descriptions: "the great priest, who was anointed with the holy oil",[5] "the priest who was anointed and invested to serve in place of his father"[6] "the priest who is greater than his brothers, whom oil was poured on his head and who was invested to wear the garments",[7] and "the priest in place of him [=Aaron] from his sons, who will come to the Tent of Meeting for the holy service".[8]

Some verses refer by name to a specific individual who is understood to be "the" priest, i.e. the high priest at that moment.[9]

Hebrew Bible



A traditional list of the Jewish high priests.
Jewish high priest and Levite in ancient Judah (the depictions of the Menorah, Table of Showbread and trumpets are inspired by the Arch of Titus).

The first high priest was Aaron himself, the ancestor of all priests; he was appointed to this role by God.[10]

Other notable high priests in the Bible include Aaron's son Eleazar, Eleazar's son Phinehas, Eli, and Zadok.

After the Babylonian Exile, the first high priest was Joshua the High Priest, who is mentioned as a prominent leader alongside the political ruler Zerubavel.[11] Joshua was a son of Zadok,[12] in accordance with Ezekiel's prophecy.[13]

It was presumed that the high priest's son would succeed him,[6] but this did not always happen. The role eventually passed from Phinehas (or his descendants) to Eli, who was descended from Ithamar (brother of Eleazar). However, Eli's family eventually lost rights to the high priesthood due to their sins,[14] a prophecy fulfilled when King Solomon appointed Zadok (a descendant of Eleazar) in place of Abiathar (a descendant of Eli).[15]

Rabbinic tradition supports the positions that Ezra was an ordinary member of the priesthood, and that he actually served as a Kohen Gadol.[16]



The distinguished rank of the high priest is apparent from the fact that his sins are regarded as belonging also to the people.[17] He was entrusted with the Urim and Thummim,[18] which were worn in his garments.[19]

On Yom Kippur he alone performed the Yom Kippur Temple service, entering the Holy of Holies to atone for himself and for the people.[20] Only he could offer the sacrifices for the sins of the entire people.[21] He also offered a meal-offering twice daily, on behalf of himself and the whole priesthood.[22]

An unintentional killer was required to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, at which point the killer could return home.[23]



The high priest alone was anointed with holy anointing oil upon his consecration,[24] hence the title of the "anointed priest"[4] (though in the initial consecration of Aaron and his sons, all of them were anointed[25]). The consecration also required wearing the special high priestly vestments for seven days.[26]

He was permitted to marry only an Israelite virgin.[27]

He was required to strictly avoid ritual defilement. He was forbidden to come in contact with the bodies of the dead, not even those of his parents[28] (unlike regular priests, who may become ritually impure for the death of an immediate relative[29]). He was also forbidden to leave his hair dishevelled or exposed, or to rend his garments, as signs of mourning.[30]



The Torah provides for specific vestments to be worn by the priests when they are ministering in the Tabernacle.[31] The high priest wore eight holy garments (bigdei kodesh). Of these, four were of the same type worn by all priests and four were unique to the high priest.

Those vestments which were common to all priests were the tunic (Hebrew ketonet), sash (avnet), turban (Hebrew mitznefet), and undergarments (michnasayim).

The vestments that were unique to the high priest were the robe (me'il), ephod (vest or apron), breastplate (hoshen), and headplate (Hebrew tzitz).

In addition to the above "golden garments", he also had a set of white "linen garments" (bigdei ha-bad) which he wore only on Yom Kippur for the Yom Kippur Temple service.[32]

In rabbinic literature


Even though Aaron was the first high priest mentioned in the Book of Exodus, Louis Ginzberg in Legends of the Jews noted that in legends the first man that assumed the title of high priest of God is Enoch, who was succeeded by Methuselah, Lamech, Noah, Shem, Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac and Levi.[33]

The high priest is the chief of all the priests; he should be anointed and invested with the priestly garments; but if the sacred oil were not obtainable,[34] investiture with the additional four garments is regarded as sufficient.[35] A high priest so invested is known as merubbeh begadim. This investiture consists of arraying him in the eight pieces of dress and in removing them again on eight successive days, though (the anointing and) the investiture on the first day suffices to qualify him for the functions of the office.[36] The only distinction between the "anointed" and the "invested" high priest is that the former offers the bull for an unintentional transgression.[37]

The age of eligibility for the office is not fixed in the Torah; but according to rabbinical tradition it was twenty.[38] (For comparison, Levites began working at age 30.[39]) Aristobulus, however, was only seventeen when appointed by Herod the Great;[40] but the son of Onias III was too young (νηπιος) to succeed his father.[41]

Legitimacy of birth and lineage was essential, hence the care in keeping genealogical records[42] and distrust of one whose mother had been captured in war.[43] According to Josephus, birth on foreign soil was no disqualification.[44]

The high priest, like all priests, would minister barefoot when he was serving in the Temple. Like all priests, he had to immerse himself in the mikvah before vesting, and wash his hands and his feet before performing any sacred act. Neither common nor high priests could serve unless they wore their priestly vestments.[45] It is further taught that just as the sacrifices facilitate an atonement for sin, so do the priestly garments.[46]

Though other priests would serve only when it was their week on rotation and on festivals (and even then their function was decided by lot), the high priest could choose to perform any priestly rite at any time. Josephus contends that the high priest almost invariably participated in the ceremonies on Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and the three festivals.[47] This may also be inferred from the glowing description given in the Wisdom of Sirach 1 of the high priest's appearance at the altar.



The Great Sanhedrin alone had the right to appoint, or confirm the appointment of, the high priest. His consecration could take place only in the daytime. Two high priests could not be appointed together. Every high priest had a deputy—called the segan (deputy), mishneh (second), or "memunneh" (appointed)—to stand at his right; another assistant was called the "Catholicos".[48]

For offenses which entailed flagellation, the high priest could be sentenced by a court of three; after submitting to the penalty, he could resume his office.[49] The high priest was expected to be superior to all other priests in physique, in wisdom, in dignity, and in material wealth; if he was poor, his brother priests contributed to make him rich;[50] but none of these conditions was indispensable.

The high priest was required to be mindful of his honor. He was not allowed to mingle with the common people, nor permit himself to be seen disrobed, or in a public bath, etc.; but he could invite others to bathe with him.[51] He was not allowed to participate in a public banquet, but he could pay a visit of consolation to mourners, though even then, his dignity was guarded by prescribed etiquette.[52]



The high priest was not allowed to follow the bier of one in his own family who had died, nor leave the Temple or his house during the time of mourning. The people visited him to offer consolation; in receiving them, the Segan was at his right, the next in rank and the people at his left. The people said: "We are thy atonement." He answered: "Be ye blessed from heaven".[53] During the offering of consolation he sat on a stool, the people on the floor; he rent his garments, not from above, but from below, near the feet, the penalty for rending them from above being flagellation.[54] He could not permit his hair to be disheveled, nor could he cut it.[55] He had one house attached to the Temple,[56] and another in the city of Jerusalem. His honor required that he should spend most of his time in the Sanctuary,[57] The high priest was subject to the jurisdiction of the courts, but if accused of a crime entailing capital punishment he was tried by the Great Sanhedrin; he could, however, refuse to give testimony.[58]

The high priest needed to be married, and "should only marry a virgin"; to guard against contingencies, it was proposed to hold a second wife in readiness immediately before Yom Kippur;[59] but he was to have only one wife at a time.[60] He could perform halizah, and it could be given to his widow, as she also was subject to the Levirate; his divorced wife could marry again.[61] When entering the Temple, he was supported to the curtain by three men.[62] He could take part in the service whenever he desired.[63] On Yom Kippur, he wore white garments, while on other occasions he wore his golden vestments.[64] The seven days preceding Yom Kippur were devoted to preparing for his high function, precautions being taken to prevent any accident that might render him Levitically impure.[65] The ceremonial for that day is described in detail in Mishnah Yoma.[66]



The succession was to be through one of his sons, and was to remain in his own family.[67] If he had no son, the office devolved upon the brother next of age: such appears to have been the practice in the Hasmonean period.

Late Second Temple


In this period, the high priests belonged to priestly families from the sons of Zadok. This tradition came to an end in the 2nd century BCE during the rule of the Hasmoneans, when the position was occupied by other priestly families unrelated to Zadok.[68]

After the Exile, the succession seems to have been, at first, in a direct line from father to son; but later the civil authorities arrogated to themselves the right of appointment. Antiochus IV Epiphanes for instance, deposed Onias III in favor of Jason, who was followed by Menelaus.[69]

Beginning with the death of Zerubbabel, there was a tendency to combine political and priestly leadership in a single office; the final link in this development was the assumption of monarchy by the Hasmonean high priests after their successful revolt. But after Hasmonean national independence came to an end, the high-priesthood changed again in character, ceasing to be a hereditary and a life office. High priests were appointed and removed with great frequency. This may account for the references to multiple contemporaneous "high priests" (ἀρχιερεῖς) in Josephus.[70] The deposed high priests seem to have retained the title, and to have continued to exercise certain functions.[71] Even in the latest periods, the office was apparently restricted to a few families of great distinction (probably the benei kohanim gedolim, "[members of] high-priestly families").[72]

Herod the Great nominated no less than six high priests; Archelaus, two. The Roman legate Quirinius and his successors exercised the right of appointment, as did Agrippa I, Herod of Chalcis, and Agrippa II. Even the people occasionally elected candidates to the office. The high priests before the Exile were apparently appointed for life;[73] in fact, from Aaron to the exile fewer high priests served than in the 60 years preceding the fall of the Second Temple.

Josephus enumerates only 52 high priests under the Second Temple, omitting the second appointments of Hyrcanus II, Hananeel, and Joazar.

Connection with Sanhedrin


The high priest was the presiding officer of the Sanhedrin. This view conflicts with the later Jewish tradition according to which the Pharisee tannaim (the Zugot) at the head of the yeshivot presided over the great Sanhedrin also (Ḥag. ii. 2). However, a careful reading of the sources ("Ant." xx. 10; "Contra Ap." ii., § 22; comp. "Ant." iv. 8, § 14; xiv. 9, §§ 3–5 [Hyrcanus II. as president]; xx. 9, § 1 [Ananus]), as well as the fact that in the post-Maccabean period the high priest was looked upon as exercising in all things, political, legal, and sacerdotal, the supreme authority, shows it to be almost certain that the presidency of the Sanhedrin was vested in the high priest (see Isidore Loeb in "R. E. J." 1889, xix. 188–201; Jelski, "Die Innere Einrichtung des Grossen Synhedrions", pp. 22–28, according to whom the Nasi was the high priest, while the Av Beth Din was a Pharisaic tanna).

See also



  1. ^ a b Morgenstern, Julian (October 1938). "A Chapter in the History of the High-Priesthood (Concluded)". The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures. 55 (4). The University of Chicago Press: 360–377. doi:10.1086/amerjsemilanglit.55.4.3088118. JSTOR 3088118. S2CID 147434998.
  2. ^ Numbers 35:28,32, Zechariah 3:1, Nehemiah 3:20
  3. ^ Jeremiah 52:24; 2 Chronicles 19:11; 24:6
  4. ^ a b Leviticus 4:3,5, Leviticus 4:16, 6:15
  5. ^ Numbers 35:25
  6. ^ a b Leviticus 16:32
  7. ^ Leviticus 21:10
  8. ^ Exodus 29:30
  9. ^ Exodus 29:5, Numbers 34:17, 1 Samuel 22:11
  10. ^ Exodus 28:1–2; 29:4–5
  11. ^ Haggai 2:2–4; Zechariah 3
  12. ^ 1 Chronicles 5:38–40; Haggai 2:2
  13. ^ Ezekiel 44:15
  14. ^ 1 Samuel 2:27–35
  15. ^ 1 Kings 2:35; 1 Chronicles 24:2–3
  16. ^ Klein, Reuven Chaim (2013). "Was Ezra a High Priest?" (PDF). Jewish Bible Quarterly. 41 (3): 181–187. doi:10.17613/M6BJ95.
  17. ^ Leviticus 4:3
  18. ^ Numbers 27:21
  19. ^ Exodus 28:30
  20. ^ Leviticus 16
  21. ^ Leviticus 4:16
  22. ^ Leviticus 6:13–15, though the wording of the law is not altogether definite
  23. ^ Numbers 35:25,28,32
  24. ^ Leviticus 16:32, 21:10, Numbers 35:25, Psalms 133:2
  25. ^ Exodus 28:41, 30:30; Leviticus 7:36, 10:7; Numbers 3:3
  26. ^ Exodus 29:29–30
  27. ^ Leviticus 21:13–14
  28. ^ Leviticus 21:11
  29. ^ Leviticus 21:1–3
  30. ^ Leviticus 21:10
  31. ^ Exodus 28, Exodus 39 and Leviticus 8
  32. ^ Leviticus 16:4
  33. ^ Ginzberg, Louis (1909). The Legends of the Jews Volume I - II (Translated by Henrietta Szold) Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
  34. ^ see Horayot 13a; "Semag", 173, end
  35. ^ Mishneh Torah, Kelei haMikdash 4:12
  36. ^ Mishneh Torah, Kelei haMikdash 4:13
  37. ^ Horayot 11b
  38. ^ Mishneh Torah, Kelei haMikdash 5:15; Chullin 24b; Arakhin 13b
  39. ^ Numbers 4:3,30
  40. ^ "Antiquities" 15:3 § 3
  41. ^ "Antiquities" 12:5, § 1.
  42. ^ Josephus, Contra Apion 1, § 7.
  43. ^ "Antiquities" 13:10 § 5; Adolf Jellinek, "B. H." i. 133-137; Kiddushin 66a; see John Hyrcanus
  44. ^ Josephus. Antiquities 15:3, § 1.
  45. ^ Talmud Bavli, Zevachim 17b
  46. ^ Zevachim 88b
  47. ^ Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews 5:5 § 7
  48. ^ Mishneh Torah, Kelei haMikdash 4:16–17
  49. ^ Mishneh Torah, Kelei haMikdash, 4:22
  50. ^ Yoma 18a; Mishneh Torah, Kelei haMikdash 5:1
  51. ^ Tosefta, Sanhedrin 4; Mishneh Torah, Kelei haMikdash 5:3
  52. ^ Sanhedrin 18–19; Mishneh Torah, Kelei haMikdash 5:4
  53. ^ Mishneh Torah, Kelei haMikdash 5:5; and Mishneh Kesef, ad loc.
  54. ^ Semag, Lawin, 61-62
  55. ^ Mishneh Torah, Kelei haMikdash 5:6
  56. ^ Middot 71b
  57. ^ Mishneh Torah, Kelei haMikdash 5:7
  58. ^ Sanhedrin 18
  59. ^ Yoma 1:1
  60. ^ Yoma 13a; Mishneh Torah, Kelei haMikdash 5:10
  61. ^ l.c.; Sanhedrin 18
  62. ^ Tamid 67a; this may perhaps have reference to his entering the Holy of Holies; but see Mishneh Torah, Kelei haMikdash 5:11, and the Mishneh Kesef ad loc.
  63. ^ Mishneh Torah, Kelei haMikdash 5:12; Yoma 1:2; Tamid 67b; see Rashi ad loc.
  64. ^ Yoma 60a; compare Yoma 68b
  65. ^ Yoma 1:1-5
  66. ^ see also Haneberg, "Die Religiösen Alterthümer der Bibel", pp. 659–671, Munich, 1869
  67. ^ Mishneh Torah, Kelei haMikdash 4:20; Ketubot 103b; Sifra, Kedoshim; see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20:10 § 1; Leviticus 6:15
  68. ^ "Zadok". www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org.
  69. ^ Josephus, Antiquities 12:5 § 1; II Maccabees 3:4, 4:23
  70. ^ The Life of Flavius Josephus §38; Jewish Wars 2:12§6; 4:3§§7,9; 4:4§3
  71. ^ Mishnah Horayot 3:1–4; compare Megillah 1:9; Maccabees 2:6
  72. ^ Ketubot 13:1-2; Ohalot 17:5; compare Josephus, Jewish War 6:2§2; see Schürer, "Gesch." 3d ed., 2:222
  73. ^ cf. Numbers 35:25,28; Joshua 20:6

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHirsch, Emil G. (1901–1906). "High Priest". In Singer, Isidore; et al. (eds.). The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.


  • Schulz, Sarah (2023). Joschua und Melchisedek. Berlin: De Gruyter. ISBN 9783110793413.