The Torah instruction of the Kohanim

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The instructions of the priests (Hebrew: תורת כהניםtorat kohanim) are the rulings and teachings of the priests that are addressed to the Israelite people.[1][2] The term "instructions of the priests" (torat kohanim) is also a term used in the Talmudic period for the "Priestly Manual", Leviticus.[3][4]

In the actual verses of the Torah, the Torah instruction and rulings of the Kohen is defined as decisive and authoritative. Two examples: the verse "כאשר יערוך הכהן כן יקום" -end of Leviticus, and על פיהם יהיה כל ריב וכל נגע" -Deuteronomy 21:5 However, in the Mishna, the Torah instruction of the Kohanim is usually quoted as an alternative, or sometimes even as contrary, to the instruction of the tribes of Israel.

The authority of the Kohanim to function in Judicial aspects and to instruct Torah directives to the nation of Israel is rooted both in the written Torah and the Oral Torah. In Kabbalah it is expounded that the Kohen should function in Torah guidance, should also be unusually knowledgeable in Torah law, and should act humbly and kindly -even though being in an authoritative position.

The Torah commentators seem to agree that not every Kohen - just by way of birthright alone - is given authority to instruct Torah directives to the nation. But, only those Kohanim that endeavor to fully master the Torah's laws and nuances - and are successful in that - are considered adequate for Torah instruction and its Judicial law and therefore are granted priority to members of the twelve tribes of Israel who are equal in Torah Knowledge and application.

Levi and Aaron[edit]

Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah (Hebrew: מִשְׁנֶה תּוֹרָה, "Repetition of the Torah"), states that Jacob separated his son Levi from his brothers and ordered him to study, and teach, the ways of service to God of his forefather Abraham to his brothers, and that Jacob also instructed his sons to perpetuate this order of Levi for eternity (Maimonides on Avodah Zorah 1:15) In Midrash Tanhuma it is written that the sons of Levi where overly generous in their Torah instruction and succeeded at instruction their neighboring tribes to the point where they too became reliable Torah instructors (Tanhuma to Numbers 12).

During the Egyptian exile, it is recorded in midrash[where?] that Amram the son of Kehot son of Levi was the spiritual leader of the children of Jacob. After his death, this leadership role was assumed by his son Aaron. Aaron, as the spiritual leader of the Jews during their bondage in Egypt, and likewise after the arrival of Moses and their ultimate redemption, was known to the nation as its instructor, a man of kindness, and as a peacemaker amongst arguing parties.

At the time of the erection of the tabernacle, God instructed Moses to appoint Aaron and his sons to serve in it as priests, as a precondition to God revealing his glory amongst the nation of Israel (Exodus 29:44-46).

The Court of the Priests[edit]

Model of Second Temple Behind the tall structure (the "Hekhal") is the place where the Court of the Priests would function.
The Western Wall presumed to be the wall directly behind where the Hekhal stood

In addition to the commandment to the priests to oversee and guard the Temple in Jerusalem, the Torah[where?] also orders the priests to protect the holiness of the Mizbeach and the Ketoret service. This Mitzvah -and its included detail- gave birth to the creation of a committee -consisting of actual Kohanim- that oversaw the specifics of and enacted rules to protect those interests. This committee was known as either the "elders of the priesthood" (Hebrew זקני כהונה) or by the name "Court of the Priests" (בית הדין של הכהנים) (Misnah Yoma 1:5).[5][6][7][8][9] Other functions of the Court of the Priests included investigating the lineage of the status quo Kohen new to the holy service.

It is also recorded in the Mishna the Court of the Priests also engaged in other aspects of communal and marital life that was directly related to the priests and their families (Mishna Ketubot 1:5, Mishna Rosh HaShana 1:7, Mishna Ketubot 13:1-2).

The High Priest[edit]

The "Anointed Priest" is a rabbinical term afforded the High Priest.[10] According to Obadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro the instruction of the High Priest carried as much weight as that of the entire Sanhedrin.[11]

Written Torah sources[edit]

The first instance where the Hebrew Bible gives command to instruct the Israelites is found in Leviticus;

And the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying... and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them by Moses. Leviticus 10:8,11 ESV

Both the Sifra and Talmud Bavli exegesize this verse to include -not only the items listed but also directs- the Kohen to be involved with instruction in various other areas of Torah law; Arakhin: (ערכין, "Dedications"), priestly gifts, cleanliness, general Torah instruction, midrash, halacha, and proper reading of the Torah[12]

Abraham ibn Ezra in his Torah commentary notes the unique instructive abilities in which the priests engaged. He points out that the priest had the ability to differentiate between the standard seven-day unclean period of niddah and the longer unclean period of Zivah.[13] He also explained the brunt of the responsibility of the nation keeping (lit. watching) the Torah and the encompassing directive of its laws rests with the Kohanim.[14] Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno seems to echo this required responsibility of the priests in his commentary to the Torah.[15] Nahmanides states that the priest's work in the Temple as well as his general Torah directives would reveal a kind of supernatural aura that was clear to the viewer or directive recipient all the while being error-free.[16] The Sifre to Deuteronomy appears to hint at this idea by stating that during the while that Torah directives are being said from the mouth of the Kohen -he is compared to an administering angel.[citation needed]

The kohen in a judicial role[edit]

The Torah relates that the Kohen is to perform judicial duty to resolve conflict and to assist in purifying skin disease or mildew. Although the latter service is quite clear Deuteronomy 21:5, the former is more obscure, and there is no concrete Chazalistic that highlights the Kohen's role to monetary judicial duties. Some modern rabbis such as Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron have invoked a long-know talmudic hekesh between tzaraath and financial quarrels as quoted in the Torah to suggest that the Kohen persona should officiate as judge in financial quarrels.[17]

Sforno in his Torah commentary to issue of decapitated calf explains that the priests where experts at human behavioral habits, in criminology, and tapped into this skill of theirs to find and bring to justice the unknown murderer.[18]

In Neviim and Ketuvim[edit]

In the Prophets and Writings of the Hebrew Bible, the priest is assumed to be well versed and knowledgeable in Torah law and to be in a perpetual state of teaching those laws to the nation.(Malachi 2:7 and metzudot thereof). He is also involved in displaying ("proving") the qualities of the Torah and the value of living its lifestyle.[19] Based on the translation of Targum Jonathan of Ecclesiastes 4:17 the person who refuses to internalize the lessons taught by the priest is deemed as a fool.[20] Rashi, in his commentary to Books of Chronicles notes that while the priests and Levites where occupied with Torah instruction and teaching the ministers of the King where present to ascertain that the nation took their words with due respect and seriousness.[21]

In the prophecy of Jeremiah, God guarantees that his covenant with the Kohanim will not cease and even in the time of destruction of the Temple (Jeremiah 33)

The Yalkut Shimoni of Simeon of Frankfurt points out that Torah study of the priests, specifically his study of the Korbanot services, is important and qualified in the sense that it is as if genuine atonement is attained.[22]

In 2 Chronicles 15:3 a Kohen who is competent at instructing Torah is considered a "Blessing from Heaven", and -similar to all heavenly blessing which are withheld due to the sinning of the people- is withheld from a generation that is not in-line with, or not capable of achieving, the ideal state the Torah demands (2 Chronicles 15:3).

In Psalm 132:9 and Chronicles[where?] the priests are described as providing instruction with clean garments titled "garments of righteousness."[23] Zechariah 3 contains a vision of the (deceased) Joshua the High Priest wearing dirty clothes and accused by Satan, but who is given clean clothing. Ultimately, it is unclear from the Tanach if certain types of garments are required for the priest to wear as a prerequisite to instruction of the people and/or if these garments are the equivalent of the official priestly garments.

In the Talmud and Medrash[edit]

The Talmud entertains the notion that the Kohanim are "different" from the nation of Israel in the sense that they are called "Children of Knowledge" (Bnei Deah),[24] with the Kohen possessing an ability to instruct Torah even in his stage of youth.[25] The Talmud alludes that the Torah instruction of the Kohen was of general importance to the Jewish nation and of specific importance to topics relating to Kehuna.[26]

In the Midrash, the unusual knowledge of the Kohanim were attributed to their consumption of Terumah (and additional holy foods).[27] As to why this food consumption had this specific effect is a matter of Rabbinic debate; one opinion is that due to these foods being listed as part of the twenty-four kohanic gifts, the Kohanim did not need to engage in business and therefore had the mind to devote to Torah study and instruction.[28] Another opinion is that the actual food itself—being of Kodesh quality—brought increased spiritual capacity to its Kohen consumer.[29]

In the Zohar and Kabbalah[edit]

In the Zohar the ideal Kohen is described as the epitome of the knowledgeable man and as being reliable in activities involving Kedusha (holiness).[30] In the "Zohar Chadash" Rabbi Yochanan is quoted as saying that the Kehuna goes in tandem with Torah study and isolation.[31] By contrast, the Zohar Chadash later goes on to describe the Kohen's Torah knowledge as being involved with the Korban (sacrificial offering) and its respective owner -as a part of the greater nation of Israel- as a central role in the Korban service. Amongst the detail of note in terms of the Kohen's involvement is the requirement that he be experienced in having "Kavana" (mental intent) of the holy name of Yahweh during his servicial involvement.[32]

In the expunges of the Zohar it recorded that the placing of the blood from the first sacrifice (in Hebrew: ail ha"miluim") offered in the Mishkan as placed on Ahron and his son's right ear cartilage had an eternal effect that their ear be receptive in internalizing Torahic concepts, and to have the ability to intertwine the written and Oral Torah's into one entity.[33]

Superior knowledge of Torah[edit]

The Tanna Rabbi Yitzchok notes that it is the Kohen who accomplishes the "Nichoach" (the relaxing result of the sacrifice) -namely, the pleasure of God himself, it is therefore necessary that the Kohen be knowledgeable in Torah even more than the average Jew.[32]

Rabbi Yitzchok goes on to note that in the event that the Kohen is an Am ha-aretz, his service is invalid. Rabbi Shimon -in taking an extreme approach- quantifies the unknowledgeable Kohen as being the equivalent of an animal and beast.[34] Rabbi Yannai as well lists this distinction,[35]

The Kabbalistic work Raziel HaMalach describes the Kohen as teaching Torah to the people and due to participation of the masses a divine blessing for material sustenance is given. Alternatively, lack of participation leads to the opposite effect.[36]

In Chabad literature[edit]

Chabad literature delivers an in depth view of the unique divine character traits of the tribe of Levi in general and of the priests in particular. Beginning from Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the "Alter Rebbe," who at length described the unique kindness attribute of Aaron[37] and also the divine wisdom given to the priests (kohanim) in all generations inclusive of kohanim who are merely youth.[38]

Dovber Schneuri, "the Mitteler Rebbe," describes the instructive attributes of the priests and modern kohanim, even at greater length than his father and predecessor, in terms of all divine intellect of the Torah being drawn down by way of the Torah study and instruction of the kohanim.[39] He also explained the Temple menorah lighting and incense offering of the priests as symbolic of the ability of the priests to produce joy and pleasure in the "attribute of wisdom" ("מדת החכמה"), which brings the Jewish nation an increase in material sustenance[40] - even in times of exile when the Temple service is not being performed.[41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Reuven Hammer Entering Torah: Prefaces to the Weekly Torah Portion 2009 Page 143 "Yet although it contains instructions for the priests, it is not intended solely for them. Rather it should be understood as a book of "Instruction by the Priests," ie, the concepts that the kohanim want to impart to the people."
  2. ^ Nahum M. Sarna, Chaim Potok, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus Jewish Publication Society 1989 "But torat kohanim can also be translated as "instructions of (or by) the priests," that is, the rulings and teachings of the priests that are addressed to the Israelite people. As Jeremiah put it (18:18): "For instruction (torah) ..."
  3. ^ Sorel Goldberg Loeb, Barbara Binder Kadden Teaching Torah: a treasury of insights and activities 1997 Page 163 "This book has also been referred to as "Torat Kohanim" - the Priestly Manual, as it contains explicit directions for the priests, all of whom are members of the tribe of Levi and entrusted with carrying out the ritual of the sacrificial ..."
  4. ^ David J. Zucker The Torah: an introduction for Christians and Jews 2005 Page 115 "In the Talmudic period, the rabbis referred to Leviticus as the Priests Manual, Torat Kohanim, because it is devoted to the proper application of religious practices, the rituals of ancient Israelite society."
  5. ^ Mishnah Yoma ed. Isidore Epstein 1989 "(9) Between the Court of the Israelites and the Court of the Priests. (10) It is the platform of the Lévites, on which they stood, when singing or teaching, and from which the priests pronounced the benediction, V. Mid. II, 6."
  6. ^ Ze'ev W. Falk Introduction to Jewish Law of the Second Commonwealth 1972 page 57 "... and we hear of their concurrent activity designed to protect the lineage : "The court of the priests would collect for a virgin four ... "we are the agents of the court and you are our agent and the agent of the court" (Mishnah Yoma 1 5)."
  7. ^ Encyclopedia Talmudica Volume 4 - Page 158 Yad Ha-Rav Herzog Institute Staff - 1991 "Court of the Priests," n. 2. 30."
  8. ^ Francis Roubiliac Conder, Claude Reignier Conder A handbook to the Bible 1879 "The present plan places the Court of the Priests in such a situation that none of the numerous cisterns of the Haram area come within its boundaries. Above the Water Gate was a chamber called Aphtinas (Tal. Jer. Yoma 1)
  9. ^ Jacob Neusner Judaism Handbuch der Orientalistik: Der Nahe und Mittlere Osten. 1995 "From this vantage one could see into the Court of the Priests, in which stood the Altar and the House of Slaughter."
  10. ^ The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish ReligionAdele Berlin, Maxine Grossman 2011 -Page 54 "Rabbinic literature regularly calls the high priest “the anointed priest” and refers to the priest appointed to address the armed forces before ... Anointing played no role in Jewish ritual after the destruction of the Second Temple."
  11. ^ Obadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro on Horiyot 1:3
  12. ^ Tractate Kritut p. 13b, Sifra vol. 1 (HaTorah VeHamitzvah edition) page 387
  13. ^ Abraham ibn Ezra on Leviticus 15:1
  14. ^ Abraham ibn Ezra on Leviticus 21:1, also on Exodus 27:27 and Deuteronomy 31:9
  15. ^ Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno on Deuteronomy 24:9
  16. ^ Nahmanides on Deuteronomy 17:8
  17. ^ Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron (born 1941) "Beit Av" (Hebrew) p. 297
  18. ^ Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno on Deuteronomy 21:5
  19. ^ Abraham ibn Ezra on Hoshea 4:4
  20. ^ in Hebrew "טיפש" -Targum Yonathan to Ecclesiastes 4:17
  21. ^ Rashi to Chronicles 2, 17:8
  22. ^ Simeon of Frankfurt Yalkut Shimoni vol. 8 p. 545 (and in the commentary of Avraham Gombiner "Zayit Raanan")
  23. ^ Abraham ibn Ezra on Psalm 132:9
  24. ^ Avodah Zarah 54a
  25. ^ yoma 26a (with regard to the entire tribe of Levi)
  26. ^ see Bechorot 11a
  27. ^ rashi divrei hayamim 2 31:4 -as quoted from Mechilta
  28. ^ Ralbag to end of Divrei Hayamim 2
  29. ^ Shach to the Chumash vol. 2 p. 507
  30. ^ Raaya mehemna to the zohar vol.3 p. 33a | Zohar vol. 3 p. 23a
  31. ^ zohar chadash p. 42a
  32. ^ a b Zohar Chadash to Ruth p. 82a
  33. ^ Hashmatot to Zohar 46% into the text
  34. ^ Yalkut Shimoni to Bamidbar p. 311 quoted from Sifri vol. 2 p. 148
  35. ^ Midrash Tanchuma to parshas ch. 1
  36. ^ Sefer Raziel HaMalach p. 36-37
  37. ^ Likkutei Torah. discourse (מאמר) "Vayifrach Mattei Aharon" to Parshat Korach
  38. ^ Mamarei Admur HaZakein on the Torah and festivals vol. Beraishit-Shemot p. 210, 253 | Also in the discourse (מאמר) of his Rebbe the Maggid of Mezritch Rimzei Torah (second part of Maggid Devorov LeYaakov) P. 91b
  39. ^ Mamarei Admur HoEmtzoei vol. Beraishit | see also Kuntreisim P. 546
  40. ^ Mamarei admur hoemtzoi Drushei Chassuna vol. 1 p. 145 | see also Bamidbar vol. 3 p. 926
  41. ^ Mamarei admur hoemtzoi Bamidbar vol. 3 p. 972