Priests and Priesthood

views updated


Definition of Priesthood

The priests are the principal functionaries in divine services, their special task being to engage in cultic ceremonies which they conducted mainly in the Temple. In general the priests' post is authorized by hereditary right and they constitute a distinct class separate from the rest of the people. In extrabiblical sources the title Kohen ("priest") is found in Phoenician inscriptions, in Aramaic documents including Nabataean, and Ugaritic documents. The Ethiopian kahen is found in the sense of seer or soothsayer, and on the basis of this term various scholars attempted to explain the primal nature of the priest-hood in Israel (see below). It seems, however, that the Arabic term was borrowed from the Canaanite, and that by way of the Aramaic. The etymology of the title is not sufficiently clear.

The institution of priesthood in its typical crystallization as a social class is encountered in many different religions, both primitive and advanced, in the Ancient Near East and elsewhere – but not in all religions. Thus, priesthood, at least in its cultic manifestations, did not exist among the early Arabs or among other nomadic-tribal religions. At the same time, any given priesthood with its procedures and customs tends to be shaped by the specific style and religious attitudes characterizing the particular culture. Even the Canaanite priesthood differed from that of the Israelites, although the Canaanite term for priest is identical with the biblical one. For example, among the Canaanites one finds a priestess and even a female "high priestess" (rb khnt) paralleling the male "high priest" (rb khnm). In Israel, in contrast, the priesthood is restricted to males; there are no priestesses in their own right (i.e., other than the female members of a priest's family, such as his wife or daughter).

The priests' involvement in the cult was conceived of essentially as service of the deity. This concept is rooted in the primary nature of the temple, which was regarded literally as a "house of the god," i.e., the special abode of the deity-king, his dwelling place. In this abode there are servants who attend on him and fulfill his wants, the whole cult being designed essentially to provide for the needs of the deity. This conception of the nature of the priesthood was accepted throughout the ancient world and found its expression in images and even in technical terms connected with the priesthood. For example, the Egyptian name designating priest, hom-neter, literally means "servant of the god." In Israel this conception, though opposed by some, never completely lost its actual, concrete meaning. The priests are called ministrants of God (Isa. 61:6; Jer. 33:21–22; Joel 1:9, 13; 2:17, et al.) and their function in the temple is called service – holy service (Ex. 28:43; 29:30, et al.); they stand before God to minister to Him (Deut. 10:8; cf. 17:12; 18:5, 7, et al.), they approach Him to minister to Him (Ezek. 40:46; 43:19; 44:15), draw near to His table to serve Him (Ezek. 44:16), and the like.

Right to Serve in the Priesthood

The question of who is entitled to serve in the priesthood – whether the whole levite tribe, only part of it, or every male Israelite – is one of the basic questions necessary for a comprehension of the character of the Israelite priesthood. On this point the biblical laws appear contradictory, and this too seems to be the case with testimony provided by the historical books.

the conceptions of p and d

According to P, the right to priesthood is maintained exclusively for one family of the levite tribe, the family of Aaron. Aaron and his sons are dressed in special garments (Ex. 28:1ff.) and are also anointed with the anointing oil, in exactly the same manner as are the holy vessels (Ex. 30:26–30; 40:9–15). The ceremony of their consecration for the priesthood follows the construction of the Tabernacle (Ex. 29: Lev. 8). The other members of the levitical tribe have other functions connected with the service in the Tabernacle (Num. 3–4; cf. below), but they play no role in the cultic ceremonies themselves. Moreover, they are forbidden to approach the altar and the other holy vessels.

According to the point of view of Deuteronomy (10:8–9), also formulated in the blessing of Moses (Deut. 33:8–10), the entire levitical tribe is appointed to serve in the priesthood. To put it more precisely, those levites serve in the priesthood who reside in the chosen city, which is the only place where cultic service is permitted. Hence the characteristic terminology of this book – "priests, sons of Levi," and levitical priests" (17:18; 18:1; 21:5; 31:9, et al.). Levites who reside in provincial towns do not participate in the cult. However, it maintains that every levite has the right to come to the chosen city and to serve before God there (18:6–7). This means that at least de jure each member of the levitical tribe may join the priest-hood if he so desires.

the alleged conception of je

The conception of je is a little more obscure. At first glance it appears that these sources permit every man in Israel to offer sacrifices on the altar himself (see Ex. 20:24 [21]), and indeed they relate that the Patriarchs not only used to build altars but also used to offer sacrifices on them (e.g., Gen. 22:9; 31:54; 46:1). In the same way, Moses erects altars in Rephidim and at the foot of Mt. Sinai and offers sacrifices with the aid of the "young men of the Israelites" and together with Jethro and the elders (Ex. 17:15; 18:12; 24:4). This same attitude is characteristic of the authors of the narratives in the Former Prophets. Moreover, it appears that this was indeed the historical reality. *Gideon, for example, offers sacrifices himself on the altar at Ophrah (Judg. 6:20–28), as does Manoah at Mahaneh-Dan (13:15–23), the people of Beth-Shemesh on the large stone in the field (i Sam. 6:14–15), *Adonijah on the stone of Zoheleth near Jerusalem (i Kings 1:9), and many other biblical personalities who have no connection with the priesthood. Thus Elijah the prophet rebuilds the ruined altar on the Carmel and makes an offering on it (i Kings 18:30–38).

These facts served as the decisive starting point for the description advanced by many scholars of the evolution of the priesthood in Israel. According to this description – which was formulated in a crystallized form by J. Wellhausen and W. Robertson-Smith – in the early stages of Israelite history there was no difference between priests and laymen. Every citizen was entitled to participate in cultic ceremonies, and there was no special priestly class in existence. Eli at the temple of Shiloh or Ahimelech at the temple of Nob are viewed merely as gate-keepers, like similar functionaries among the ancient Arabs, called ḥājib or sādin, whose function, which was hereditary, was limited to guarding the temple. The temple guards in the early period of Israel also used to engage in soothsaying, as did the ancient Arab kāhin, but they did not as yet constitute a true priesthood since they had no special cultic functions. Only after the establishment of the monarchy, with the growth of ceremony in public life, were special people appointed to serve in the priesthood. These people were assigned to serve in the royal temples and were regarded as officials of the monarchy, which had granted them their positions. Their tribal origin was not necessarily levitical. Thus the Bible attests that the sons of David were priests (ii Sam. 8:18) and that Ira the Jairite was a priest of David (20:26). Zadok, whose descendants continued to officiate in the Temple of Jerusalem, also did not belong to the levite tribe, according to this theory. A member of Solomon's entourage who served as priest was Zabud son of Nathan, the king's friend (i Kings 4:5), while Jeroboam also appointed priests from among all the people (12:31; 13:33). In the course of time the appointed royal priests and their descendants became a consolidated and closed class. This theory generally regards the ancient levite tribe as an ordinary secular tribe. The conception of Deuteronomy and particularly of P according to which Levi is a sacred tribe having a special connection with the priesthood, in fact, refers, according to this theory, only to a late class of rejected priests, a class which was created as a result of the cultic innovations of Josiah and was fictitiously attached to the levitical tribe which by that time had already disappeared.

Various scholars, both before and after Wellhausen, tended to acknowledge the antiquity of the Israelite priesthood and its actual existence as early as the time of the Judges (thus H. Ewald, F. Delitzsch, A. Dillmann, and esp. W.W. Baudissin; more recently, Y. Kaufmann). However, in relation to the right to perform cultic ceremonies and to offer sacrifices on the altar, most of these scholars too adhered to the theory that originally this right was not reserved necessarily for the priests. As for the tribal descent, most of these scholars were inclined to admit at times that the first priests were not necessarily from the levite tribe, though several dynasties of priests did descend from this tribe. This is, then, the reality underlying the narratives of the Former Prophets and reflected in je, which explicitly mention the offering of sacrifices by laymen, without considering this objectionable. Among those who rejected the antiquity of the Israelite priesthood there were some who went so far as to say that in j, or in the early strata of je, there is no mention of priests. To the extent that Aaron is mentioned there by name, he is not regarded as a priest but as one of the elders of Israel.


Both the above-mentioned conceptions, that which denies the antiquity of the Israelite priesthood and that which acknowledges it, overlook the difference between altar and temple, and, therefore, are incapable of explaining with adequate precision the early history of the Israelite priesthood and even the conceptions of je themselves. Altars consisted of any type of structure, even merely large stones, and were placed outside. In contrast, temples were primarily closed structures, i.e., "houses of God." Every temple had an altar in an adjoining courtyard, but not every altar was necessarily joined to a temple. Many altars stood by themselves in inhabited places or far from them. The difference between these two institutions is also reflected in the scope and nature of cultic activity. Furthermore, the altars were extremely numerous and were found in every corner of the land, which was not the case with the temples whose number was fairly limited. It should be emphasized that the high place (bamah) was of the category of an altar; it seems to have been a specific type of large altar (not a "house of God"). Now, the place of the priests, whether in Israel or elsewhere, was only in the temples. While every man of Israel was entitled to offer sacrifices on individual altars without the intermediation of authorized personnel, the cultic service associated with the altars attached to the temples, like the service in the temples themselves (in Israel and everywhere in the Ancient Near East), was always reserved for regular priestly families.

Moreover, it can be seen that the families which officiated regularly in the priesthood of the Israelite temples, as far as is known, were related to the levitical tribe. The family of Eli which served in the temples of Shiloh and Nob (i Sam. 14:3; 21:1–10; 22:9, 12) is presented as being of ancient lineage going back to the period of bondage in Egypt and as being chosen from among all the tribes of Israel (2:27–28). There should be no doubt that these statements are based on the assumption that the family belonged to a chosen tribe and it may be even deduced that this family was considered to be what is called in P Aaronide. The priestly dynasty which served in the temple of Dan (Judg. 18:30) originated with the young levite. Zadok, who was the founder of the dynasty of Jerusalem's priests, was apparently also of the levite stock. When the ark is being carried from the city of David, he appears within a group of levites (ii Sam. 15:24; there is no justification for assuming the words "and all the levites with him" to be a later addition). In any case, Ezekiel refers to the Zadokites (following the style of Deuteronomy) as "priests, sons of Levi," or "levitical priests" (Ezek. 40:46; 43:19; 44:15). It may be assumed that the priests of the Beth-El temple, too, were related to a fixed dynasty, of which Amaziah, a contemporary of Amos (Amos 7:10–17), was a member. In a small and provincial temple such as that of Micah, the son of the owner could serve in the capacity of priest, but even here it was preferred that a levite fulfill that function (Judg. 17:13). There is no information extant regarding the priests of other Israelite temples in the biblical period, but there is no justification for assuming that those who officiated in those temples undertook their functions only by chance and that their origin was precisely from the other tribes of Israel.

It thus cannot be proven that in the houses of God (as distinguished from the high places) the priesthood was likely to be granted to people from any family in Israel. The bearers of the ark for David were Abiathar and Zadok, the legitimate priests, while David's sons (ii Sam. 8:18) and Ira the Jairite (20:26) apparently served as priests only in connection with the sacrifices of the king which took place in the high places and at private altars, not in the temples of God. It should not be forgotten that David did not yet have his own temple. Similarly, Zabud son of Nathan (i Kings 4:5) was probably engaged by Solomon in high-place sacrifices, and he is included in a list of officials of the time preceding the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jeroboam appointed priests from among all the people, but the text explicitly states that these were priests of high places (i Kings 12:31–32; 13:33), i.e., their cultic function was outside the framework of the temples. The altars at Beth-El were numerous (cf. Amos 3:14; Hos. 10:8), and not all were attached to the temple of that town, in which Jeroboam even built a special "house of high places" (i Kings 12:31). The Deuteronomistic editor naturally regards even these actions as sinful.

Thus, the historical reality was that at individual altars every man of Israel was entitled to perform cultic activities, whereas in the temples the right to officiate as priests was reserved for specific families which generally traced their lineage to the tribe of Levi. Now, this same reality is reflected in je. The narrative content of these sources often concerns altars of the popular type, i.e., altars which are not attached to any temple and which can be found even outside settled areas. However, houses of God are also mentioned in these sources both in the legal sections (Ex. 23:19; 34:26) and as projections of the future (Gen. 28:22; see also Ex. 22:7–8; Josh. 6:19, 24; 9:23). The dearth of references to the temples in these sources stems not only from their specifically popular nature but also from their assumption that temples emerged in Israel only after the settlement of the land (in contrast, according to p a temple was built immediately after the theophany at Sinai, which is the *Tabernacle described in it). Anachronistically, priests are mentioned incidentally in je's accounts (Ex. 19:6 (paralleling a "holy people"), 22–24 (it is difficult to consider this an addition); see also Josh. 6:4–16, et al.). It is clear that their natural place is only in a house of God. Aaron is mentioned in these sources and there should be no doubt that he is considered a priest, in fact, the head of the priests, although this facet of his figure cannot be actualized in Egypt or against the wanderings in the wilderness, when the Israelites do not yet have temples. In Exodus 4:14, Aaron is called "the levite," on the assumption that Levi is the tribe that usually serves as priests, so that membership in it turns into a synonym of priesthood. Moreover, it is explicitly stated in a je account that after the levites had proven their loyalty to the God of Israel when the people sinned with the golden calf, Moses said to them: "Fill your hands today for God" (Ex. 32:29). This is the usual phraseology designating an ordination for the priesthood.


To summarize, all parts of the Pentateuch indicate that in the temple cult only families of priests officiated. According to p, this was only one family from the levite tribe, the family of Aaron. According to d, every levite family is entitled to serve in the priesthood in the temple. According to ancient historical reality (which conforms to the conceptions of je), various families from the tribe of Levi regularly officiated as priests in various temples (e.g., the various branches of the family of Eli in the temples of Shiloh and Nob, the family of Jonathan son of Gershom in the temple of Dan, the family of Zadok in the Temple of Jerusalem). There are thus no great divergences among the conceptions, since all the sources indicate at least that the priesthood was not granted to common Israelites but only to the tribe of Levi, and, in fact, was limited to special families within this tribe. If it is assumed that in historical reality several levitical families were descended from Aaron (according to Josh. 21:8–19, the descendants of Aaron received 13 towns), the actual divergence between the conceptions is still further reduced.

To put it differently, the disagreements among the sources concern only the altars which were distant from the temples. je permits every Israelite to sacrifice at such altars at will (this indeed corresponds to the ancient historical reality, hence the impression that common Israelites served in the priesthood). d demands the demolition of such altars, while p assumes a priori that they did not exist. (For this question, which is connected with the centralization of the cult, see *Deuteronomy and *Pentateuch.)

Levels Within the Priesthood

Cultic service in the temple, being generally multifaceted and complex, tended to be crystallized in a complex and graded organizational framework. Thus the priesthood was not composed of a single group but rather several groups can be discerned within it which were of various levels, according to the various functions devolving upon them and their degree of importance. This was the case with all the priesthoods of the Ancient Near East as well as with the biblical priesthood.

the gradation of priesthood according to p

In the P sections the classification of the priests is a fairly simple one into just two levels: the high priest and the ordinary priests. The epithet "high priest" (ha-Kohen ha-gadol) occurs only once in the Pentateuch (Num. 35:25, 28, hence also in Josh. 20:6; cf. Lev. 21:10 "the priest who is exalted above his fellows"). In several places he is called the anointed priest (Lev. 4:3, 5, 16; 6:15). To be sure, all the priests were anointed with the holy oil (Ex. 28:41; 30:30; 40:13–15; Lev. 7:36) and even the ordinary priests were called anointed priests (Num. 3:3), but there are differences in the method of anointing at the consecration ceremony: all the priests, including Aaron, are anointed with oil sprinkled on their vestments (Ex. 29:21; Lev. 8:30), whereas in Aaron's case it is also poured on his head before the bringing of sacrifices for that ceremony (Ex. 29:7; Lev. 8:12; 21:10). Thus the anointing with holy oil refers primarily to him (Ex. 29:29; Lev. 6:13; 16:32; Num. 35:25).

According to P, the high priest was granted several special privileges, especially in the area of the cult, insofar as his degree of holiness also exceeded that of the ordinary priests. He alone is allowed to go behind the veil on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:2ff.) and he deals with the sin offerings whose blood is brought into the sanctuary (4:3–21). In general, all the cultic activities which take place inside the Temple are performed solely by him (see below). The cultic activity of the ordinary priests is actually limited to offering regular sacrifices on the outer altar. The high priest must take more care than the ordinary priests with the restrictions concerning impurity and marriage (see below). His eldest son serves as the head chieftain of the levites (Num. 3:32). The high priest's death terminates the sojourn of manslayers in *cities of refuge (Num. 35:25–28; Josh. 20:6). Moreover, the high priest bears certain signs of royalty. In addition to his anointment, which is performed in the manner of that of a king, i.e., with the pouring of oil on his head (cf. i Sam. 10:1; ii Kings 9:6), his garments contain gold and purple. He wears a miter (miẓnefet) on which is placed the plate (ẓiẓ, Ex. 28:36–39), which is also called nezer (Ex. 29:6; 39:30; Lev. 8:9). The miter is considered a sign of distinction being a form of headdress worn by kings, and in poetic parallelism is synonymous with aṭarah (Ezek. 21:31; cf. Isa. 62:3). The plate (ẓiẓ, perhaps "rosette") is also mentioned in relation to the aṭarah (Isa. 28:1, 3–4), while the neẓer is considered the distinguishing mark of kings (ii Sam. 1:10; ii Kings 11:12; Ps. 89:40; 132:18). According to P, only the line of eldest sons of the descendants of Aaron can serve as high priests (cf. Lev. 21:10). An ordinary priest cannot become a high priest, in the same way that a levite cannot be made a priest. A man's position in the hierarchy of holiness and cult is determined from the time of his birth, and he is not free to liberate himself from his position. In Numbers 25:10–13 the descendants of Phinehas are promised a "covenant of eternal priesthood," and apparently this refers particularly to the right to the high priesthood.

Most scholars who hold that p was committed to writing at the beginning of the Second Temple period assume that this type of high priesthood existed in Israel only during that period. The high priests of the First Temple, according to this view, were only the first among equals, and their degree of cultic holiness was no greater than that of ordinary priests. Other scholars, especially those who recognize the antiquity of Israelite priesthood in general (see above), also acknowledge the existence of this type of high priesthood in Israel as early as the time of the Judges. According to this view, Eli in the temple of Shiloh might already have been a type of high priest, as that described in P.W.F. Albright, in particular, points to the fact that among all the peoples of the Ancient Near East there was a head of the priestly hierarchy. In Ugarit too (and in Phoenician inscriptions) such a person is mentioned and is called rb khnm. However, it turns out that the antiquity of the Israelite priesthood can be proven not necessarily by analogy with the nations of the Ancient Near East, but especially by an analysis of its cultic and mantic functions (for this matter see below). In the code of Ezekiel 40–48 there is no mention of the high priest. It is possible that the reason for this is not that the high priest did not yet exist, as is maintained by those who reject the antiquity of the high priesthood but, on the contrary, because by this time this type of high priest-hood had already vanished; and during the Second Temple attempts were made to reinstate it following the canonization of the Torah (which now included the Priestly Code). A high priest is not mentioned in Deuteronomy either, but this may be because it does not deal with priestly matters and has no need to describe them. Deuteronomy 20:2 mentions a priest who encourages the people before the battle, and it is possible that the high priest is intended here. But the rabbis interpreted this as a priest anointed for war who was appointed specifically for that purpose (Sot. 42a).

priestly gradation in the first temple

During the First Temple period there was actually a slightly more complex group of priests than that described in the Pentateuch. High priests are mentioned, some of them even by name, and possibly they are all descendants of Zadok. Some of these high priests of First Temple times are explicitly called high priest, (Kohen gadol), while others are called the head priest (kohen ha-rosh), and sometimes one of them might be called simply priest. The following are specified by name: *Jehoiada, a contemporary of Joash (ii Kings 11:4–12:11; cf. Jer. 29:26); Urijah (Uriah), a contemporary of Ahaz (ii Kings 16:10–16; Isa. 8:2); *Hilkiah, a contemporary of Josiah (ii Kings 22:4–14; 23:4, 24); Seraiah, a contemporary of Zedekiah (25:18). Chronicles also mentions Amariah, a contemporary of Jehoshaphat (ii Chron. 19:11); Azariah, a contemporary of Uzziah (26:17–20); and another Azariah, a contemporary of Hezekiah (31:10). It is difficult to determine to what extent these conform to the image of the high priest as it is described in p, since there is no real information regarding their character and functions. Several other functionaries should be added to these. The nature of the secondary priests (kohen mishneh) is unclear, and apparently there could be several secondary priests simultaneously (ii Kings 23:4). At the time of the Destruction, however, there was only one, named Zephaniah (ii Kings 25:18). Perhaps the deputy (segan) priest of the Second Temple was merely a continuation of the secondary priest of the First. In the First Temple there were also several priests who served as gatekeepers (ii Kings 12:10; 22:4; 23:4), and there were three of these during the Destruction (25:18). From the time of Jehoiakim, one is known by name, Maaseiah son of Shallum, who had a special chamber in the Temple court (Jer. 35:4). Jehoiada the priest commanded watchmen in the Temple (ii Kings 11:18), i.e., small groups of priests whose function it was to supervise the decorum at the gates and in the courts of the Temple (cf. Ezek. 44:11). The members of these groups were called pekidim (officers) and they were authorized to apprehend those who appeared to them to be riotous and to put them in prison and in stocks (Jer. 29:26). One of these pekidim was Pashhur son of Immer the priest who was a "chief officer" in the sanctuary, i.e., one of the overseers of the officers, and it was he who struck Jeremiah and put him in prison (Jer. 20:1–3). It is possible that Irijah son of Shelemiah, an officer who while on guard at one of the gates apprehended Jeremiah and brought him to the ministers, also belonged to these groups (37:13–14). The senior priests (lit. "elders of the priests") are also mentioned (ii Kings 19:2; Isa. 37:2; Jer. 19:1), and it is not known whether they had some kind of definite function. Perhaps the function of keeper of the wardrobe (ii Kings 22:14) was also given to one of the priests.

the priests' servants

Together with the priests there is mention of another group which, while its place is outside the cult, is nevertheless related to it; this is the group of priests' servants. They are mentioned in the Temple of Shiloh (i Sam. 2:13–17), and Samuel was one of them (2:11, 18; 3:1). Possibly some of those included among the priests of Nob (22:11) were in fact nothing more than "priests' servants." Their function was to help the priests in their work, but they had no contact with the cultic ceremonies proper. The priest himself would burn the fats on the altar, sprinkle the blood, light the candles, and so on, and the servant would only help him by bringing the portion of meat belonging to the priest, lying down within the house of God (i Sam. 3:3), opening the doors of the house (3:15), and engaging in other similar activities. Thus, these were mere servants, like the servants that every citizen of Israel used to have. Some of them, being close to the sphere of holiness, were permitted to put on a linen ephod (i Sam. 2:18; 22:18). They were members of all the tribes of Israel, like Samuel who was brought from the tribe of Ephraim.

Functions of the Priests

The functions of the priests, although mainly concerned with the cult, were not solely limited to it. In general four types can be distinguished among them: specifically cultic functions; mantic functions, i.e., functions concerned with the solution of mysteries of the future or the past and the making of decisions in uncertain cases through the revelation of divine will; treatment of impurities and diseases, with the special ceremonies involved; and judging and teaching the people.

cultic functions

The primary and outstanding cultic function of the priests was the offering of the sacrifices on the altar which stood in the Temple court. The priests' activities in this ceremony are described in detail at the beginning of Leviticus, and they can be classified into two major roles: sprinkling the blood and burning portions of *sacrifices. This function was generally performed by the ordinary priests. Aaron did not engage in this function except when the sacrifice was brought by all the priests (such as the sacrifices of the eighth day, Lev. 9; the daily offering sacrificed from the day of consecration on, 6:12–15). However, public sacrifices are not necessarily performed by the high priest. Aaron is not mentioned in connection with the daily offerings and the additional offerings of Sabbaths and festivals (Num. 28–29). Similarly, in the description of the Temple of Shiloh, it was the sons of Eli who dealt with sacrifices (i Sam. 1:3; 2:12–17). However, those sacrifices (sin offerings) whose blood is brought into the inner temple are offered by Aaron himself (Lev. 4:3–21; 16:3–25; the burnt offering that accompanies the sin offerings of the Day of Atonement is also made by Aaron).

The priests blessed the people in the name of God (Deut. 10:8; 21:5). Numbers 6:22–26 includes a version of the *priestly blessing that comprises three verses in each of which the name of God is mentioned. Later it is stated (6:27) "Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them." The blessing priest would raise his hands and would sometimes proclaim his blessing to the people from above the altar (Lev. 9:22); Melchizedek king of Salem, who was a priest, blessed Abraham (Gen. 14:18–20); the priests also proclaimed blessings and curses to the people in a special ceremony held between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal (Deut. 27:12–26; Josh. 8:33–34).

On various occasions the ordinary priests sounded trumpets, e,g., on festivals and New Moons, when the offerings and sacrifices for these days were brought, and this served as a reminder of the sacrifices of Israel before God (Num. 10:10). On the Day of Atonement in a *Jubilee year it was obligatory to blow a shofar (ram's horn) throughout the land (Lev. 25:9) and on the first day of the seventh month it was obligatory to carry out a "memorial blowing" (Lev. 23:24; Num. 29:1) probably of the shofar, but it cannot be known if this was a function of the priests.

A distinct function of the priests was to carry the ark. Deuteronomy mentions this as one of the distinguishing features of priesthood (10:8; 31:9, 25), and in all the transportations of the ark during the period of the Conquest it is told that the "priests, sons of Levi," were its bearers (Josh. 3:3–17; 4:3, 9–10, 16–18; 8:33). This is also the view of the sources marked by the characteristics of je (Josh. 6:6, 12), and this was actually the case in historical reality whenever the ark was carried out to the battlefield. When it was brought to the camp near Eben-Ezer, *Hophni and Phinehas sons of Eli accompanied it (i Sam. 4:4, 11). When it was returned from the field of the Philistines to Beth-Shemesh it was carried by the levites (who according to the point of view of these sources are the ones who serve in the priesthood; cf. Ex. 33:29; and see above) from the cart to the large stone (i Sam. 6:15). When the ark was in the war camp of Saul, *Ahijah the priest is mentioned near it (14:18; according to mt). When an attempt was made to remove it from the City of David, during Absalom's rebellion, it was carried by Zadok and all the levites (i.e., insofar as they are considered priests, as above; ii Sam. 15:24). Solomon testified regarding Abiathar the priest that he was among the bearers of the ark (i Kings 2:26; there is no reason to emend the text here). Again, when it was brought to the temple which Solomon had built and into the Holy of Holies, this was done by the priests (8:3, 6, 10). Where it is not explicitly stated who the bearers of the ark were (such as when it was brought up from the house of *Obed-Edom to the City of David, ii Sam. 6:13; as distinct from the way from the house of *Abinadab to the house of Obed-Edom, where it was transported on a cart; 6:3–7), there is no need to assume that they were not priests.

p contains a complete description of several cultic activities inside the Temple, all performed daily at fixed times, in the morning and at sunset, and according to the plain sense of the text these are all done by the high priests alone (but the talmudic sages permitted them to be done by an ordinary priest). These activities included the burning of frank-incense on the inner altar (Ex. 30:7–9), the care of the lamps (Ex. 27:20–21 = Lev. 24:1–4; Num. 8:1–3), and setting out the shewbread on the table (Lev. 24:5–9). Some trace has been preserved of a libation which was put in some of the vessels on the table (Ex. 25:29; 37:16; Num. 4:7), but possibly in biblical times this special libation had already been abolished. In addition to these four activities there are three others which stem from the cultic functions of the high priests' vestments: the stones of the ephod and breastplate serve as reminders of the names of the Israelite tribes before God (Ex. 28:12, 29): the bells at the hem of the ephod coat resound at the times of the daily offerings, i.e., in the morning and at sunset, when Aaron enters and leaves the sanctuary (28:35); and the plate on Aaron's head bears "any guilt incurred in the holy offerings" of Israel so that they will be accepted favorably by God (28:38). These activities, simultaneously performed by the high priest inside the temple, complement one another and constitute a uniform and comprehensive system. They provide, as it were, food (bread), drink (the libation on the table), aroma (frankincense), light (candles), sound (bells), and arouse the memory (the stones of the ephod and breastplate), and the will (plate). Thus they encompass all the human senses and should be discussed as a single and self-contained cultic phenomenon. This inner system of ceremonies is rooted in the primal conception of the Temple as God's dwelling place, in which He, as it were, "lives" His life, and in which all His needs are to be satisfied (cf. above). The Israelite religion inherited the system of ceremonies as a fixed and crystallized pattern of divine worship.

mantic functions

According to the viewpoint of p, the high priest consults the *Urim and Thummim (Num. 27:21), which are located on the breastpiece attached to the ephod (Ex. 28:30; Lev. 8:8). In order to obtain a reply, the high priest must enter with the Urim and Thummim "before God," i.e., into the sanctum. The use of Urim and Thummim was common in the ancient Israelite priesthood. However, it may be deduced from Ezra 2:63 (= Neh. 7:65) that by the Second Temple the Urim and Thummim had been entirely forgotten and the returnees to Zion did not know how to reinstate them despite the fact that they had found them mentioned in the Torah (see *Urim and Thummim). The Urim and Thummim were consulted when it was necessary to decide between two contradictory possibilities, and a yes or no answer was received. Solution by lots was needed in more complex situations, such as the division of allocated areas. The Bible mentions two kinds of lots. The one was a popular lot used by the masses in daily life, to which the Prophets (Isa. 34:17; Ezek. 24:6; Micah 2:5, et al.) and the Hagiographia (Ps. 22:19; Prov. 1:14; 16:33) frequently refer and which was also common among foreign peoples (Joel 4:3; Obad. 11; Jonah 1:7; Neh. 3:10, et al.). The other was a formal priestly lot which took place in the temple court, "before God," and was used for decisions of public, national significance, such as the following cases related by biblical tradition: the division of the land west of the Jordan (Num. 26:55–56; Josh. 14:21; Judg. 1:3), the separation from the rest of the people of a man who has taken from the ḥerem (Josh. 7:13–18), choosing the fighters with Benjamin (Judg. 20:9–10), Saul's election as king (i Sam. 10:17–21), and others. In all these cases it is written that the lot was cast "be-fore God," i.e., in the temple court. The lots for the scapegoats of the Day of Atonement are cast by Aaron (Lev. 16:7–10). In connection with the division of the land it is stated that next to *Joshua stood Eleazer the priest (Num. 34:17; Josh. 14:1–2; although later (Josh. 18:6–10) it is stated that it is as if Joshua alone casts the lot before God). It is possible, therefore, that while this action was attributed to the national leader it was actually performed by the high priest.

Priests would conduct ordeals to resolve doubtful cases. Such a ceremony, held by the priest in the court of the sanctuary, was conducted in the case of a suspected adulteress (Num. 5:11–31) and it appears that this was not the only ceremony of its kind.

treatment of impurity; purification and apotropaic rites

Disease and plague were not viewed in the Ancient Near East simply as an organic-physiological phenomenon, but as an external-tangible embodiment of an impure spirit which came to rest within the body of the afflicted person or object. Healing was thus performed by waiting until the impurity left the body or by purification activities aimed at hastening its exit. These attitudes prevalent in the Ancient Near East also found expression in the actions of the Israelite priesthood, although they were stamped with the special mark of biblical religion.

It is generally agreed in the Bible that it is the function of the priests to deal with impurities or diseases. True, the prophet too could heal leprosy, but this was performed by the prophet as a miraculous action (Num. 12:13; ii Kings 5:1–15; cf. Ex. 4:6–8), while the regular and systematic care was in the hands of the priests. Deuteronomy admonishes the people to follow carefully the instructions of the priests pertaining to these matters (Deut. 24:8; cf. 21:5). According to the code of Ezekiel, too, the priests must guide the people in matters of impurity and purity (Ezek. 44:23).

This aspect of priestly activity is described especially in p in the sections dealing with impurities of animals and carcasses (Lev. 11), leprosy (Lev. 13–14), emissions (Lev. 15), and laws concerning impurity of the dead (Num. 19). The ceremonies described in these sections are aimed at expelling impurity from the body undergoing purification. A special role is played in these ceremonies by, among other things, blood – blood of the slaughtered bird (Lev. 14:5–6), or the blood of the red heifer (Num. 19:4). In other circumstances the priests could use the blood of sacrifices for purification, especially for the purification of the altar or temple. The essence of the sin offering is the purifying action of the victim's blood, some of the blood being applied to the corners of the altar (Lev. 4:25, et al.). The great sin offerings whose blood was brought into the sanctuary would purify not only the altar but the temple as well (Lev. 4:3–21). The decisive ceremony of temple purification was conducted on the *Day of Atonement. The temple purification ceremony described in the code of Ezekiel is already much more general and diluted, and contains no mention of the scapegoat (Ezek. 45:18–20). Another ceremony of purification, performed by Aaron on the levites during their consecration rites, was accompanied by the sprinkling of "sin waters," the shaving of all the hair, and the washing of clothes (Num. 8:7). Purification by means of sprinkling "pure waters" is also mentioned in Ezekiel 36:25 (cf. Zech. 13:1).

The process of purification is not completely ended until the priests offer the sacrifices for the person who is being purified, usually sin and burnt offerings. However, a leper who is being purified also brings a guilt offering and a log of oil. Some of the blood of the guilt offering and the oil is used by the priest, in this case, for various ceremonial activities (Lev. 14:11–18), which apparently had an apotropaic significance, i.e., were intended to place a barrier before the forces of impurity so that they could not return to the purified body. A similar ceremony was also held during the consecration of priests (Ex. 29:20–21; Lev. 8:23–24, 30). Frankincense could also serve as a defense against impurity (Num. 17:11–13), and parallels to this are found in the customs of the Ancient Near East.

judging and instructing the people

The priests also participated in judging. Although this was generally a function of the elders and heads of families, in temple towns where there were priests, they would participate in judging together with the elders. This is made sufficiently clear in Deuteronomy. In a difficult case requiring fuller investigation Deuteronomy enjoins the litigants to go up to the chosen city and be judged there (17:8–13), although the assumption is that judging there is not only in the hands of the priests since they are mentioned in the Bible together with judges (Deut. 17:9; cf. 19:17). Deuteronomy requires that "every law suit" be decided by the priests (21:5), but this seems to be a somewhat generalized mode of speech, referring as it does to "every" lawsuit. Apparently the description contained in Deuteronomy, if the point of the centralization of the cult is removed from it, essentially reflects actual historical reality according to which the priests participated in judicial authority. In p there is no mention of this priestly function; and indeed this source which views the priests as detached from the people and endowed with supreme holiness – would not be likely to attribute the function of judging to the priests, since this would generally have necessitated direct contact with the public in judging. However, in historical reality Eli the priest could have achieved the status of a great judge of Israel (i Sam. 4:18). Ezekiel as well says of the priests that "in controversy they shall act as judges" (Ezek. 44:24).

The priests also served as teachers of "torah" to the people. This function is mentioned as early as the blessing of Moses (Deut. 33:10). The priests' instruction of the people did not exist as a special institution but was generally a by-product of their other activities. Thus torah followed from the legal discussions held before the priests (Deut. 17:11; 33:10). Torah was also taught by way of guidance given by the priests to the people in matters of impurities and diseases (Deut. 24:8; Haggai 2:11ff.). Indeed, the various types of laws of impurity were called torah (Lev. 11:46; 13:59, et al.) and were to be learned by the public (Lev. 10:10–1). The various cultic customs were also called torah (Lev. 6:2, 7, et al.), and many of the sections dealing with laws and rebukes interspersed throughout the Pentateuch actually constitute scrolls of torah. Books of law were preserved mainly by the priests (see *Pentateuch).

Holiness of the Priesthood

The priests, being essentially servants of God, enjoy greater holiness than the rest of the people. This is a basic notion common to every culture of the Ancient Near East, although there were differences in its actual formulation from place to place. The priests did not function as emissaries of the public, since the right to priesthood itself is not in the hands of the public. This right is seen in the Bible basically as divine grace extended to a chosen tribe, or part of it. The holiness of the priests is agreed upon in all biblical sources, and is expressed in various ways. The servants of Saul, for example, refuse to harm the priests of God, despite the king's explicit command (i Sam. 22:17). Solomon refrains from killing Abiathar since he has the merit of being a priest and bearer of God's ark, though as a traitor to the monarchy he is subject to death (i Kings 2:26). In Exodus 19:6 a kingdom of priests and a holy nation are mentioned as synonymous terms. However, the holiness of the priesthood is most explicitly pronounced in p, as well as in its extension, that is, the code of Ezekiel 40–48.

According to the conceptions of p (and the code of Ezekiel 40–48), the holiness of the priests equals the holiness of the house of God itself. Both are on the same level of holiness which is the level also of the sacrifices of the highest rank of sanctity. This is the most extreme holiness, the most palpable, which can be transferred by contact from one body to another. In the Former Prophets this type of holiness is attributed to the ark alone, while p and the code of Ezekiel 40–48 extend it to include the temple with all its appurtenances. Several external signs affirm the identification of the priests with the holiness of the house of God.

In order to maintain this holiness, especially during their cultic service, the priests are subject to special obligations and restrictions. A blemished priest cannot approach the altar or enter the temple in order to serve there (Lev. 21:17–23), in the same way that a sacrifice has to be "whole," i.e., without taint (Lev. 22:18–25; cf. 1:3; 3:1; 4:3, et al.). Before the priests approach the altar or enter the temple in order to serve, they must wash their hands and feet in the laver in the court (Ex. 30:18–21). Though not required to abstain from wine at all times, they are forbidden to drink wine and other intoxicants during the performance of their cultic or didactic duties (Lev. 10:9; Ezek. 44:21).

They were even forbidden to defile themselves for the dead, except in cases of the closest family blood ties (Lev. 21:1–14; Ezek. 44:25). The priest's wife is not included in the list of such relatives (Lev. 21:2b–3; Ezek. 25b), and Leviticus 21:4 apparently specifically excludes her. In the latter verse, however, baʿal is to be omitted as a mutilated dittography (or an abbreviation?) of be-ʿamaw le-heḥallo. The rabbis permitted the priest to defile himself for his legal wife (Yev. 22b and parallels). In no case were priests permitted to perform certain mourning rites such as shaving the head smooth, shaving the corners of the beard, and making gashes in the flesh (Lev. 21:5). These mourning rites were introduced into Israel from foreign sources, and in the pentateuchal law were also forbidden to the people (Lev. 19:27–28; Deut. 14:1–2), but in the case of priests the text found it necessary to add a special admonition for them. Mourning rites which would normally be practiced both by the priest Ezekiel and by Israelite laymen are mentioned in Ezekiel 24:15–23, and it may be inferred from these verses that priests in general normally observed them no less than Ezekiel.

The rigors of priestly purity become even more severe during the seven days of consecration. The high priest is admonished that while he is being consecrated and the anointing oil is poured on his head, he is forbidden to bare his head, rend his clothes, be defiled even for the limited circle of his relatives, or even go out of the temple (Lev. 21:10–12; according to the plain sense the text is speaking here only of the days of consecration; cf. Ibn Ezra). Actually the ordinary priests were subject to the same restrictions. During the entire seven days of consecration Moses forbade Aaron and his sons to go out of the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (8:33–35), and when Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's sons, died before the days of consecration were over, Moses forbade the others to bare their heads, rend their clothes, or go out of the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (10:6–7). Those defiled for Nadab and Abihu were levites, relatives of Aaron (10:4–5). Thus the admonitions in Leviticus 21:10–12 are merely an added warning to the high priest and not intended to separate him in this matter from the ordinary priests. On the other hand, the restrictions mentioned in Ezekiel 44:20 refer not to the days of consecration or to mourning rites but to the priests' custom throughout the year. Ezekiel enjoins the priests to cut their hair elegantly (Heb. kasom yikhsemu, on the basis of the Akkadian kasāmu; the Heb. root gzm is close to it). That is, in their daily lives the priests were commanded to care for their hair – neither to shave it entirely nor to neglect it entirely, but to comb it decoratively, The rabbis for their part said that a high priest cuts his hair once a week and an ordinary priest once every 30 days (Sanh. 22b).

The holiness of the priesthood is also expressed in restrictions concerning marriage. The priests were forbidden to marry a woman degraded by harlotry or a divorced woman (Lev. 21:7). The high priest is also forbidden a widow, and the text admonishes him to marry only a virgin "from among his people," i.e., of Israel (21:13–15). Aaron married Elisheba daughter of Amminadab from the tribe of Judah (Ex. 6:23). Ezekiel warns the priests to marry virgins of Israelite origin, but permits them a priest's widow (Ezek. 44:22). At the same time, it is difficult to attribute legal precision to these distinctions. They are aimed primarily at removing any suspicion of prostitution from the priestly families, for otherwise the holiness of the priestly seed is profaned (Lev. 21:1–9). Divorcees and widows are subject to a certain suspicion of prostitution, since they are removed from any familial framework and are independent. In contrast, a priest's daughter who was widowed or divorced returns to her father's house and eats of the holy meat (22:13), and it does not stand to reason that she could be forbidden to marry a priest a second time. Indeed, care was exercised in priestly families to allow no deviation from modesty. Every Israelite citizen was admonished not to profane his daughter through prostitution (19:29), but such a sin perpetrated by a priest's daughter was extremely grave and she was sentenced to be put to the fire (21:9).

Outlines of the History of the Israelite Priesthood

from the patriarchal period until after the settle ment

During the patriarchal period, the Hebrew tribes had no temples, as was commonly the case in nomadic communities, and thus there was also no priestly class. The locus of cultic service was the open altar and the priestly functions could be performed by every head of a household. A trace of this situation has been preserved in the expression "a father and a priest," which was fossilized in linguistic usage (Judg. 17:10; 18:19). The period of temples in Israel began after the conquest of Canaan. Thus the main crystallization of the Israelite priesthood began with the settlement, although to a certain extent it already had existed in the period which preceded the settlement. Its real activity began with the message of Moses, which brought Yahwism to the world and laid the foundations for the history of Israel. From that time the priesthood became one of the faithful bearers of this religion and the preserver of its cultic rites. The rites themselves were generally taken over from the pagan culture which preceded Moses, but the Israelite priesthood used them as raw material to actualize by their means the new message and to give it an expression by way of symbolic concretization.

From earliest times the priesthood was exclusively in the hands of the levite tribe. In the period which preceded the religious innovation it was a secular tribe, and something of its secular character probably remained for a long time afterward, but in the context of Yahwistic religion it appears in all the sources as a sanctified tribe, all, or at least part, of which was destined to serve in the priesthood. This tribe, from which Moses himself originated, was the first to be attracted by his religious announcement and when necessary even made conquests by force for the new faith. In the episode of the golden calf it is related that the levites supported the prophet and gained control of the unruly camp by means of the sword, as a reward for which they were authorized for the priesthood (Ex. 32:26–29; cf. Deut. 10:8–9). Such upheavals apparently occurred more than once. The blessing of Moses, in which Levi is described as a tribe of priests, mentions the tribe's "foes and enemies" and prays for their discomfiture (Deut. 33:11). The distribution of the levites among the other Israelite tribes is already mentioned in the blessing of Jacob, where it is stated as a curse (Gen. 49:7). Possibly this distribution preceded their sanctification and stemmed from other motives. However, in any case, the fact that they remained without allotted land increased their connections with cultic activities and made them dependent on the holy gifts.

At the same time, the sources contain vague echoes of tension between the house of Aaron and the tribe of Levi. In the sin of the golden calf, Aaron is mentioned as the head of rioters whose behavior compelled Moses and the levites to take warlike steps. According to p, on the other hand, the levites are not permitted to serve in the priesthood, although the source admits that they have a certain measure of holiness and that they were given to God in place of the firstborn (Num. 3:40–45). In the polemic of *Korah it is related that some of the levites rebelled against Moses and Aaron seeking the priest-hood for themselves, but they paid with their lives (Num. 16). Likewise, there are several allusions here to opposition to the priesthood of Aaron on the part of all the tribes. Korah's rebellious group also contained Israelites, or at least gained the support of the public (Num. 16:2–3, 19). After Korah and his group were burned in the ordeal of the frankincense, all the people gathered to complain that Moses and Aaron had killed "the people of God," as a result of which a great plague broke out (17:6–15). Later another ordeal was conducted, this time involving the staffs of the tribal heads, in order to confirm that it was indeed Aaron who had been chosen for the priesthood of all the people (17:16–26).

It appears that the family of Aaron was the first to join the new religion, preceding the whole of the levite tribe. It is told of Aaron that he was the first to meet Moses when the latter returned from Mt. Horeb and believed in him (Ex. 4:14–16, 27–30). He serves as a "mouth" for Moses (4:16), or a kind of "prophet" for him to others (7:1–2), and Moses and Aaron participated together in most of the signs and miracles in Pharaoh's court. Of the family of Eli, which was probably considered to be descended from Aaron, it is also said that even in Egypt and in the house of Pharaoh it had been chosen "from all the tribes of Israel" to serve in the priesthood (i Sam. 2:27–28). Many scholars have assumed that originally Aaron's family was not even included in the tribe of Levi. The names bearing an Egyptian coloring that appear in it (Phinehas, Putiel father-in-law of Eleazar (Ex. 6:25), Hophni, Hananiel, a relative of Jeremiah (Jer. 32:7ff.); some say Aaron's own name as well) indicate its alien origin and genealogical distinctness. However, it is clear that in the course of time it became assimilated into the levite tribe. In all the biblical sources Aaron is already considered a member of the tribe and a brother of Moses, despite the fact that his name bears Egyptian characteristics.

The history of the Israelite priesthood from the Conquest on is connected with the history of the temples. These were erected in the course of time throughout the area of settlement, from Dan to Beer-Sheba, and various families from the levite tribe served as priests in them. At the beginning, the family of Aaron apparently officiated near the ark (see also Judg. 20:27–28), and when the ark was established at Shiloh this family held the priesthood of that temple. According to the tradition of p, Shiloh was the last location of the Tabernacle (Josh. 18:1). There is no doubt that in the period preceding the monarchy, the Temple of Shiloh was elevated above most of the other temples and became a kind of national-religious center for the Israelite tribes. Eli, the high priest at Shiloh, reached the status of one of the judges of Israel, and the figure of Samuel also evolved within the walls of this temple.

during the period of the monarchy

The connection between the monarchy and the priesthood in the Ancient Near East was expressed in two ways: in several places the kings themselves are considered high priests, and this identification appears also in the case of Melchizedek, king of the town of Salem and priest of ʾEl ʿElyon, who blesses Abraham and takes a tithe from him (Gen. 14:18–20). In other places the priesthood was separate from the monarchy and entrusted to special dynasties. This arrangement was the custom in Israel; however, even when this was the case the monarch could still perform several typical priestly functions. The monarchs were permitted to ascend the altar in the court of the house of God, to sprinkle blood upon it, and to offer sacrifices (i Sam. 13:9; i Kings 12:33; 13:4; ii Kings 16:12–13). David allowed himself to wear a linen ephod (ii Sam. 6:14; yet this is not a regular priest's ephod). David also blesses the people, apparently from the altar (6:18), and Solomon does likewise (i Kings 8:14–21, 54–61).

On the other hand, during the period of the monarchy several families of priests who served in the royal temples attained economic and social advancement. These priests were henceforth considered as royal ministers and were included in the lists of bearers of high positions.

A notable change in the important priestly houses occurred at the beginning of the monarchical period. The family of Eli lost its importance and its place was taken by the family of Zadok, which from then on served in the priesthood of the central Temple in Jerusalem. This family, too, like that of Eli, originated from the levites who were scattered in the towns of Judah and Benjamin; according to Joshua 21:9–19, they lived in 13 towns and all were descended from Aaron. (For the division of functions among the priests of the temple in Jerusalem, see above.) The great influence of the Jerusalem priesthood was revealed in the time of Jehoiada, who rebelled against Athaliah and in her place crowned Joash in the house of God, and served as the young king's teacher throughout his life (ii Kings 11:3–12:3). He himself was related by marriage to the royal household (ii Chron. 22:11).

A notable change in the situation of the priesthood took place in the time of Josiah, following the cultic reforms introduced by this king. His reforms, too, were made doubtless under the influence of the Jerusalem priesthood and the final impetus for their implementation was the book found in the Temple. In addition to purging idolatry, these reforms included the destroying of the high places and the altars outside the temple, even those that were in Jerusalem itself. All the priests in the towns of Judah were brought to Jerusalem (ii Kings 23:8). Most biblical scholars (since W.M.L. de Wette) assert that these reforms were made in accordance with the conceptions of Deuteronomy, which was the book found at the time in the Temple. Several scholars, however, maintain that there are a number of contradictions between the requirements of Deuteronomy and the reforms instituted in the time of Josiah. One of their main arguments (held by K. Budde, G. Hoelscher, and others) is that the priests of the high places who were gathered together in Jerusalem were not permitted to ascend the altar (ii Kings 23:9), while Deuteronomy permits every levite to come and serve as a priest in the chosen place (Deut. 18:6–8). This, however, is a seeming contradiction since the text speaks of "priests of high places," i.e., priests who served in the altars distant from the houses of God, and these priests were never considered as belonging to the levite tribe (cf. above). It is not surprising, therefore, that after they had been transferred to Jerusalem they were not permitted to serve in the priesthood. The reforms of Josiah necessarily involved also the abolishment of the temples outside Jerusalem (as distinct from the high places), and possibly their priests were added to the Jerusalem priesthood. However, the temples in Judah outside Jerusalem were few, and the one to which there are allusions, the temple at Hebron, may already have declined by the beginning of the monarchy. The temples of Israel probably stood desolate after the destruction of Samaria. Thus, the number of priests eligible to serve in the priesthood who were brought to Jerusalem was not significant.

after the babylonian exile

In the Babylonian Exile the prophet-priest Ezekiel rose, and in his visions of redemption demanded that basic changes in the organization and order of service of the priesthood be introduced. His visionary code (Ezek. 40–48) is merely a later and diluted extension of that earlier school that finds expression in p. They share basic conceptions of cultic holiness and nature of priesthood as well as a common technical style. And yet, they differ in concrete details. Many priestly customs described in p are restricted in *Ezekiel to simple and schematic activities, like vague shadows of distant models, or are entirely absent. There is no proof that the demands of this prophet were implemented in his time or wrought any change in the priesthood.

The decisive change took place with *Ezra, who brought with him from Babylon those old scrolls which constitute the Priestly source, and these were integrated into the Book of the Torah, which then became a determining force in the life of all Israel. Henceforth, the ancient priestly concepts and customs of p were revived and attempts were made to realize them in life. It was a kind of rebirth of the semi-utopian world of the Israelite priesthood, but even now it was not fully realized. True, during the Second Temple only those who were considered descendants of Aaron served in priesthood, and levites served beside them as a lower clergy. However, several basic elements from the priestly contents of p were not realized even now. The ark as well as the cherubs of the holy of holies were missing. Also missing were the anointing oil (and with it the concept of tangible holiness, transferrable by contact from one body to another), the Urim and Thummim, various customs connected with matters of impurity, and other things. Several of the demands and principles of p were not actualized in reality because of objective obstacles. On the other hand, much of the content of this source was given a secondary significance through the interpretation of the Torah and by comparison and coordination with the other parts of the Torah.

The economic and social position of the priests in this period also changed. Their number reached several thousand, about a tenth of the total population of Judah. Most of them lived in the towns outside Jerusalem, like all the inhabitants of the country (Ezra 2:70 [= Neh. 7:72]; 11:3, 20), and they made their living from the soil. The priestly gifts were not sufficient for their livelihood, and besides the people were not punctilious about bringing them. While the obligation to bring the gifts was included in the covenant (aʾmanah), and was accepted by all the signatories (Neh. 10:33–40), apparently the declaration itself did not have sufficient coercive power and Nehemiah had to prod the people periodically to fulfill their obligation (Neh. 12:4447; 13:10–13; and see 13:31). It is told of the levites and singers that when they did not receive their portions they fled "every man to his field" and the house of God was deserted (Neh. 13:10–11), and there is no doubt that this alternative was also sometimes available to the priests. Many of them became economically independent of the temple service, and in Nehemiah's time many of them volunteered to build the wall, together with other well-to-do citizens, and some of them participated in bringing the wood sacrifice to the Temple (10:35).

These new conditions of total cultic centralization, the increased number of priests, and their decreased dependence on the priestly gifts led to a regulation of the temple service among all the priests (and the levites), which took on the form of a system of divisions, or courses, mishmarot. Every mishmar would work during its assigned week until the round was completed and was then begun anew. The sources mention 24 divisions, and every priestly division was allotted a period of only two weeks per year. The service for these limited periods of time was regarded partly as a privilege, with the enjoyment of the material benefit entailed, partly as a duty, that the house of God should not be emptied of its servants. The divisions are mentioned in sources from the Second Temple on, but apparently this system is rooted in the reality of the end of the First Temple period, after the cultic reforms of Josiah. The Chronicler dates the establishment of the divisions earlier, to the time of David (i Chron. 24:3–19), but in this he is merely adhering to his method of attributing all the arrangements of the temple to King David. Josephus states that the 24 divisions persisted in his time (Ant. 7:366; Life 1–2; cf. Luke 1:5). The rabbis stated that every priestly division was composed of several households each of which had a fixed day of the week for its work (Tosef., Ta'an. 2:2, et al.). According to one tradition, the rabbis ruled that each division should be divided into six households, one for each weekday, and the entire division would officiate on the Sabbath (cf. Men. 107b). During the pilgrim festivals all the divisions served together (Suk. 55b–56a). The splitting of the divisions into daily households apparently reflects the reality of the end of the Second Temple period, when the number of priests became still larger.

For the income of the priests see *Tithe.

[Menahem Haran]

From the Beginning of the Hellenistic Era Until the Destruction of the Temple

During the whole of the Hellenistic era the priesthood was the class with the highest status among the people. From it came the administrators of Judea. In practice the high priest was head of independent Judea, and most of the other responsible people in politics and in administration were also priests. It appears that until the time of the Hasmoneans the outstanding spiritual leaders, such as *Yose b. Joezer and others, were also from their midst. The temple overshadowed all other institutions and even foreign writers like *Hecataeus regarded the Jews as a nation of priests, and at all events designated them as a nation dominated by priests. When Antiochus iii granted rights to Jerusalem he freed the priests from a series of taxes. Hecataeus estimated their number in his time at 1,500 but it is possible that he was only referring to Jerusalem, since many of them were settled in the country towns and villages of Judea and southern Samaria and only went up to Jerusalem in accordance with their duty in the system of priestly watches.

The high priests belonged to the family of Zadok and to the watch of Jedaiah, and were descendants of Joshua b. Jehozadak. The office passed from father to son, and if this was not possible, a member of the family was appointed. The high priest served until his death, but Antiochus Epiphanes brought about the cessation of this custom. The high priest, together with the elders, represented the nation to the monarchy. He supervised the temple service, cared for the security of the capital and the water supply, and was responsible for the collection of taxes. Spiritual cultural activities were also placed upon him. A high priest with personality, such as Simeon son of Onias ii – who was apparently Simeon the *Just – exercised great influence upon the religious and spiritual development of the nation. The high priests had close connections with institutions outside of the country; the sister of *Onias ii was married to the *Tobiad family in Transjordan. Foreigners, too, regarded the high priest as the head of the Jewish people and the Spartans turned to him in negotiations they conducted with Judea (i Macc. 12). The high priestly house was not uniform and unequivocal in its national religious view. Simeon ii and *Onias iii continued in practice the activity of Ezra and Nehemiah, while *Jason was one of the leaders of the Hellenists and it was he who turned Jerusalem into a polis. Besides the dynasty of the high priest the dynasties of other priests were conspicuous like those of the sons of Hakkoz who already played an important role in financial administration in the Persian era. One of them, Johanan, obtained its privileges for Jerusalem from Antiochus iii. His son Eupolemus headed on behalf of Judah the Maccabee the delegation which made the first pact with Rome. Although this family was influenced by Hellenism, its members placed themselves at the service of the Hasmonean dynasty who were themselves priests of the watches of Jehoiarib. The members of another priestly house, of the watch of Bilgah, were converted – in partnership with the sons of Tobiah – into the mainstay of the Hellenistic movement; Simeon fought against Onias ii and *Menelaus was appointed high priest by Antiochus iv after he had removed Jason. A Hellenistic high priest from another house was *Alcimus. The connections of some of the priests with the policy of Antiochus brought about a diminution in the prestige of the class, but when the government passed to the Hasmoneans the priesthood seemed to reach its highest peak among the Jewish people. For the Hasmonean high priest became also the leader, and the king, of an independent nation. At that time, however, began the rise of the *Pharisee scholars, the students of the Torah, and these began to supplant the priests as spiritual leaders. This fact is particularly important in view of the fact that the priests stood out in general as the leaders of the *Sadducee sect whose central sector was composed of the upper grades among the priests, and these were an important element in the Sanhedrin. Among the separatist sects (the Essenes, the sect of the Damascus covenant, the Judean desert sect), too, the priests retained an honorable status as is evident in their writings. With the ascent of Herod to the monarchy, the political leadership of Judah passed – for the first time in the Second Temple era – to a non-priestly element. After the extermination of the Hasmonean dynasty, Herod appointed the high priest at his will from among the priests. He loosened the linking of the high priesthood with a particular family and also abolished finally the custom for the high priest to serve the whole of his life. His status remained exalted and hallowed but his role was chiefly limited to the service of the Day of Atonement, which could be performed by him alone. After the death of Herod and the removal of Archelaus, the appointment of the high priest passed to the Roman governors. In the final generation of the temple this authority was restored to the dynasty of Herod (*Agrippa i, Herod of Chalcis, and *Agrippa ii). During that period a group of wellborn wealthy priestly families became established from among whom most of the high priests were appointed; such were the Boethus family, the Phiabi family, and the family of Anan. According to the Talmud (Yoma 18a; Yev. 61a), these high priests bought the office from the government, and they were changed each year. Since an ex-high priest kept his additional rights as to dignity and status, there came into being a kind of oligarchy of high priests and of their families, some of whom were related by family ties; some of these were inordinately wealthy. This aristocracy of distinguished and wealthy noble families tyrannized the people, though at times there were struggles between the high priests and fisticuffs between their followers, from which the dwellers of Jerusalem and the villages suffered. The attitude of most of the people of the Pharisee leadership to this Sadducean oligarchy was given pungent expression (Pes. 57a; Tosef. Men. 13:21): "Woe is me because of the house of Boethus! Woe is me because of their staves! Woe is me because of the house of Hanim! Woe is me because of their whispering! Woe is me because of the house of Kathros! Woe is me because of their pens! Woe is me because of the house of Ishmael son of Phiabi! Woe is me because of their fists!; for they are high priests, their sons treasurers, their sons-in-law trustees, and their slaves beat the people with staves." These aristocrats were also regarded as loyalists and protected persons of the Roman government. However, there were individual priests whom the sages mention with praise because of their piety and good deeds, among them being *Joshua b. Gamala to whom is attributed the important regulation to erect a school for children in every town. There was a great contrast, ideological and material, between the upper class high priesthood and the mass of ordinary priests, many of whom did not live in Jerusalem but in the towns and villages of Judea, and also in Galilee, in Transjordan and in the lands of the dispersion. Many of them could not exist on the priestly perquisites, and some of them engaged in work and in commerce. The whole of the priestly class did not belong to the Sadducees. Among the Pharisees, too, were many priests and also among the leaders of the Jerusalem zealots (*Eleazar b. Hananiah, *Eleazar b. Simeon, *Zechariah b. Avkilus). In the defense of the Temple Mount in the time of Pompey, and at the time of the destruction of the Temple, the priests of the Temple displayed wonderful self-sacrifice.

The hatred of the people for the aristocratic high priest-hood found expression at the time of the great revolt. When the zealots dominated Jerusalem they expelled all of them, slew a number of them, and chose a high priest from the ordinary priests, viz. *Phinehas b. Samuel a stonemason by profession, a relative by marriage of the family of Hillel. He was the last Jewish high priest.

[Menahem Stern]

In the Halakhah

The main function of the priests during the Second Temple period was the offering of sacrifices in the Temple, while the levites served as choristers, musicians, and gatekeepers. Their biblical role as teachers and judges was preserved in the expectation that the Sanhedrin contain priests and levites (Sif. Deut. 153), but the destruction of the Temple completed the process by which they were replaced by the sages and their students. The sacrificial service, from the receiving of the victim's blood on, must be performed by a priest (Zev. 2:1, 3:1). He must wear four sacred vestments (tunic, drawers, turban, and girdle; the high priest wore eight sacred vestments) and be free of physical blemish or defect. The rabbis further declared that a priest who contracts an improper marriage (see below) is declared unfit to perform the Temple service until he severs all connection with his wife (Bek. 7:7). A priest must himself be of proven pedigree to serve in the Temple (Mid. 5:4; Kid. 4:5). Those currently designated "priests" are "presumed priests," inasmuch as there is no legally sufficient proof testifying to their descent from ancient priestly families (see Maim., Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 20:1–2; Magen Avraham to oḤ 457:2).

Priests received "twenty-four priestly donations" (bk 10b). Twelve of these referred to parts of the animal- and meal-offerings in the Temple. The others were: firstlings of animals; firstfruits; a share of the agricultural produce (terumah), often given at the rate of 2%; a share of the tithe given to the levites; a share of baked products (ḥallah); the redemption price – five shekels – for firstborn male children; the sheep given as redemption for the firstlings of asses; the first fleece sheared; the shoulder, two cheeks, and maw of slaughtered animals; fields donated to the Temple and sold revert to the priests at the Jubilee year; fields declared ḥerem by their owners; and property stolen from a proselyte who dies leaving no issue. With the destruction of the Temple, the tendering of some of those "gifts" became impossible, while the bestowal of others fell into a gradual decline. Currently, the redemption of the firstborn (pidyon bekhor) is widely practiced, though the law continues to require that – in Ereẓ Israel at least – firstlings be given to a priest as well as the first fleece and the shoulder, cheeks, and maw of slaughtered animals (Sh. Ar., yd 61:21, 333:1, 305, 360:1).

The priest may not marry a divorced woman or a harlot (Lev. 21:7) – the latter being defined as a woman who has had sexual relations with a man forbidden to her in marriage, or with a profaned priest (see below), or with a convert to Judaism (Sh. Ar., eh 6:8) – and the rabbis added the woman who had been rejected by her levir (Yev. 2:4). In addition to these, the high priest may not marry a widow. The child born of most of these unions is "profaned" (ḥalal) and, if female, may not be married to a priest. Finally, the priest ought not to marry a woman both of whose parents were proselytes, but he need not divorce her if he does so (Sh. Ar., eh 7:21). The motive for these restrictions is that the holiness of the priest demands that he marry an unblemished wife.

The priest is forbidden any direct contact with the dead; he may not enter into or step above an enclosure in which a dead body, or its constituents, is lying, nor may he touch anyone or anything that is impure through contact with the dead. He must, however, defile himself for his mother, father, son, daughter, brother, and unmarried sister (Lev. 21:2–3), and for his wife (Yev. 22b; see Sifra to Lev. 21:2). He must also bury the abandoned dead (met mitzvah). The priest is assigned priority as an expression of his sanctity: he speaks first, makes the first benediction, and receives first choice; he is also called to the Torah first (Git. 59b). Furthermore, one is not to be served by a priest unless he has waived his prerogatives (Isserles to Sh. Ar., oḤ 128:45).

The tithe (one-tenth of agricultural produce) was assigned by the Torah to the levite. His main distinction in modern times is to be called up to the Torah immediately after the priest, whose hands he washes for the priestly *blessing.

[Gerald Y. Blidstein]

In Modern Times

Although, as stated above, the prevailing halakhic opinion is that the claim to be an Aaronide, of priestly descent, is mainlya presumptive one, which, in the absence of pedigree registers, cannot be proved, all the rights and privileges of the kohen, as well as the prohibitions, apply among Orthodox Jews today in full force where they are applicable. These privileges are, the right to be called up first to the reading of the Law (see "Reading of the *Torah"), invoking the Priestly Blessing in the Synagogue, and the redemption of the first born, both of humans and of animals. The only reservation is that in view of the fact that Aaronide descent is mainly presumptive, some authorities suggest that the redemption money should be returned after the ceremony to the father of the child or the owner of the animal (Sh. Ar., yd, 305:8 and 306).

The provision that the kohen has the privilege of reading the Grace after Meals (Sh. Ar., oḤ 201:2) is largely disregarded at the present time, though in some places the custom exists, where a kohen is present, for the person leading the grace to say bi-reshut Kohen ("with the permission of the kohen").

The laws prohibiting contact with the dead are in full force. As a result, it is the custom to bury kohanim at the end of a row and arrange for the paths to be at least eight cubits wide, so that his priestly relations may visit the grave and be able to stand four cubits from the grave. The fact that a kohen is forbidden to be under the same roof with a corpse, unless there is a permanent partition between the place in which he is standing and the location of the corpse would render it impossible for a kohen to visit a hospital if the mortuary is under the same roof as the hospital proper. Special arrangements have been made in the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem: double doors, one of which is always closed, or swinging doors which always "seal" the entrance are used to enable kohanim to visit the sick.

Similarly, the fact that the main highway from Jerusalem to Jericho was built by the Jordanians over a portion of the Mt. of Olives cemetery has resulted in a halakhic prohibition against kohanim using that road, and signposts have been erected in Jerusalem and its outskirts indicating an alternative possible route for kohanim.

Similarly the question whether a kohen may practice medicine, since he must come into contact with the dead, is discussed in the halakhah.

The laws of the marriages prohibited to the kohen, an unchaste woman, a proselyte, a divorcee, a widow who has received *ḥaliẓah are still operative. In view of the fact that, unlike other prohibited marriages, such a marriage, if it is celebrated is valid, and the children are legitimate except that they are ḥalalim (non-kohanim) considerable pressure is being exercised in Israel today to permit such a marriage, though the rabbinical authorities remain adamant in their refusal. Some Conservative rabbis agree to marry a kohen and a divorcee.

There is a difference of opinion as to whether a kohen may marry the daughter of proselytes (Sh. Ar., eh 7:21). It is referred to as a "blemish" and not a prohibition and though the tendency is toward stringency, it is permitted by some.

Since a kohen is forbidden to remarry even his own divorced wife, it is the custom to delay the execution of his get as long as possible.

Reform Judaism disregards all the laws applying to a kohen.


E. Ewald; Die Alterthuemer des Volkes Israel (18663), 345ff.; S.I. Curtiss, The Levitical Priests (1877); H. Oort, in: Theologisch Tijdschrift, 18 (1884), 289–335; H. Vogelstein, Der Kampf zwischen Priestern und Leviten seit den Tagen Ezechiels (1889); A. Kuenen, Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur biblischen Wissenschaft (1894), 465–500; Wellhausen, Proleg, 115–53; idem, Reste arabischen Heidentums (1927), 130–40, 143; W.W. Baudissin, Die Geschichte des alttestamentlichen Priesterthums (1889); E. Sellin, Beitraege zur israelitischen und juedischen Religionsgeschicte, 2 (1887), 109–21; D. Hoffmann, Die wichtigsten Instanzen gegen die Graf-Wellhausensche Hypothese, 1 (1904), 112–48; V.T. Budde, in: zaw, 22 (1904), 42–50, 160; R.H. Kennett, in: Journal of Theological Studies, 6 (1905), 161–86; G. Westphal, in: zaw, 26 (1908), 201ff.; E. Meyer, Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstaemme (1906), passim; Kittel, Gesch, passim; H. Gressman, Mose und seine Zeit (1913), passim; Pedersen, Israel, 3–4 (1940), 150–97; G.R. Berry, in: jbl, 42 (1923), 227–38; T.J. Meek, in: ajsll, 45 (1929), 149–66; idem, Hebrew Origins (1950), 119–47; A. Bentzen, in: zaw, 51 (1933), 173–6; K. Moehlenbrink, ibid., 52 (1934), 187ff.; G. von Rad, Die Priesterschrift im Hexateuch (1934), passim; J. Begrich, in: bzaw, 66 (1936), 63–88; S.H. Hooke, Prophets and Priests (1938); J. Morgenstern, in: ajsll, 55 (1938), 1–24, 183–97, 360–77; O. Eissfeldt, in: zaw, 57 (1939), 6; H.H. Rowley, in: jbl, 58 (1939), 113–14; idem, in: jnes, 3 (1944), 73ff.; L. Waterman, in: ajsll, 58 (1941), 50ff.; R. Brinker, The Influence of Sanctuaries in Early Israel (1948), 65–88; Albright, Stone, 18–19; Albright, Arch Rel, 107–10; O. Ploeger, in: zaw, 63 (1951), 157–92; I.W. Bailey, in: jbl, 70 (1951), 217–25; A.C. Welch, Prophet and Priest in Old Israel (1953); E.O. James, The Nature and Function of Priesthood (1955); M. Noth, Geschichte Israels (1950), passim; A. Cody, A History of the Old Testament Priesthood (1969). add. bibliography: C. Meyers, in: ba, 41 (1978), 91–103; W. Barrick, in: maarav, 7 (1991), 67–89; D. Fleming, The Installation of Baal's High Priestess at Emar (1992); B. Schwartz, in: ajs Review, 18 (1993), 288–91; B. Nakhai, in: bar, 20 (1994), 18–29, 77–78; R. Henshaw, Female and Male.The Cultic Personnel: The Bible and the Rest of the Ancient Near East (1994); M. Haran, Temples and Temple – Service in Ancient Israel: An Inquiry into the Character of Cult Phenomena and the Historical Setting of the Priestly Code (1995); J. Hoftijzer and K. Jongeling, Dictionary of the North-West Semitic Inscriptions Part One (HdO; 1995), 490–92; M. Moore, in: vt, 46 (good bibliography; 1996), 316–29; G. Beckman, in: D. Snell (ed.), A Companion to the Ancient Near East (Hittite material with extensive bibliographical references to ancient Near Eastern cults; 2005), 343–53. See also bibliography in *Kaufmann, *Leviticus. from the beginning of the hellenistic era until the destruction of the temple: A Buechler, Die Priester und der Cultus im letzten Jahrzehnt des Jerusalemischen Tempels (= ii. Jahresbericht der Israelitisch-Theologischen Lehranstalt in Wien fuer das Schuljahr 1894/95) (1895); Schuerer Gesch, 2 (19074), 277ff.; S. Klein, Meḥkarim Arẓiyisre'eliyyim, 1 no. 2 (1924), 2, 1–29; idem, Ereẓ ha-Galil (1946), 64–70, 187–202; A.C. Welch, The Work of the Chronicler (1939), 81–96; G. Hoelscher, Die Hohenpriesterliste bei Josephus und die evangelische Chronologie (1940); Kaufmann, Toledot, 4 (1956), 358ff.; E. Bammel, in: zdpv, 70 (1954), 147–53; W. Rudolph, Chronikbücher (1955), 152–79; S. Talmon, in: Iyyunim bi-Meggilot Midbar Yehudah (1957), 24–39; idem, in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 4 (1958), 162–99; Allon, Meḥkarim, 1 (1957), 48–76; M.J. Gevaryahu, in: Sefer Tur Sinai (1960); E.M. Smallwood, in: jts, 13 (1962), 14–34; J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (1969), 147–221; E.E. Urbach, in: Ma'amad ve-Hanhagah be-Olamam shel Hakhmei Ereẓ Yisrael (Divrei ha-Akademyah ha-Le'ummit ha-Yisre'elit le-Madda'im 2/4) (1965); M. Stern, in: Tarbiz, 35 (1966), 235–53; J. Lives, Perakim be-Toledot ha-Kehunnah ve-ha Leviyyah (1969) in modern times: Eisenstein, Dinim, s.v.Kohen; je, s.v.Priest, Blemish (d); jl, s.v.Priester.