Parashas Tetzaveh informs us of the special status of the priests—Kohanim.
As part of the instructions to construct the Mishkan, Moshe is told by Hashem to, “single out Aharon, your brother, and his sons, from within the Children of Israel, to officiate before Me” (Shemos 28:1). The parashah says to prepare special clothing, befitting the special status of the Kohanim: “You shall make sacred garments for Aharon your brother, for his honor and dignity” (Shemos 28:2).
On account of their status, we are instructed to give Kohanim special honor, as befitting the servants of Hashem. Kohanim themselves must guard their sanctity by refraining from a number of activities that are considered inappropriate for someone of their elevated spiritual level.
Thus, Kohanim are prohibited from coming into contact with the dead (which makes them ritually defiled). Marrying a divorcee is also forbidden. Kohanim have the privilege of serving in the Temple, and of blessing the nation – a blessing that continues even today. The rest of the nation is commanded to give the Kohen preference in all matters (deriving from the instruction vekidashto), and to give them a number of gifts as prescribed by the Torah.
In this article we wish to discuss the status of present-day Kohanim. In the time of the Temple, a Kohen’s lineage could be verified from his or his paternal ancestors having served in the Temple. This provided proof of the Kohen’s lineage (see Mishnah, Kiddushin 76a).
Since the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish nation has been in exile and many calamities have befallen us. Families were separated and their members were scattered across the four corners of the earth. Lineage has been forgotten, family trees lost. Most people today don’t know which tribe they belong to, and the questions, “Who is a Kohen?” and (given an element of doubt), “What is his halachic status?” have been discussed by leading halachic authorities over the generations.
Who, indeed, is a Kohen? How can a Kohen prove his lineage today? What are the halachos in cases of a safek (where lineage is unclear)?
Kohanim as Definite Kohanim
The verification of a Kohen in the absence of the Temple and Sanhedrin depends on the concept of chazakah, a halachic assumption. Although there is no proof of the purity of their lineage, Kohanim who show sufficient indications of priestly lineage have a limited chazakah to be true Kohanim. In the words of the Rambam (Issurei Biah 20:1): “All Kohanim in our days are bechazakah to be Kohanim.”
The wording of Rambam implies, though not entirely conclusively, that the Kohanim of our times are accepted as full-fledged Kohanim, meaning that they are “definite Kohanim.” In other areas of Torah law, we find that a chazakah is sufficient to establish definite knowledge. Therefore, if the Rambam affords Kohanim’s lineage the status of a chazakah, this indicates that their lineage has certain status.
Thus the Mabit, in his commentary on the Rambam, writes that “even in our times, anybody whose family has been assumed to be Kohanim without any objection having been raised, is a Kohen for all matters, and his chazakah is effective even for matters of Torah law.” Mabit cites proof for this position from the Torah mitzvah of redeeming a firstborn child (pidyon haben). For this mitzvah, we rely on “Kohanim by assumption.” This proves that such Kohanim are considered “definite Kohanim.”
Mabit notes a seeming difficulty in that the Rambam himself casts doubt over the lineage of today’s Kohanim, in ruling that they are barred from eating Torah-mandated terumah, apparently out of concern over their lineage. Mabit solves this problem by explaining that although they are considered “definite Kohanim,” the Sages nonetheless forbade Kohanim-by-assumption from eating Torah-mandated terumah, because of the particularly severe punishment attached to the consumption of terumah by a non-Kohen.
Shut Maharit (Mabit’s son, vol. 1, no. 85) concurs with his father’s opinion, mentioning an additional reason why Kohanim may not eat Torah-mandated terumah.
Kohanim as Doubtful Kohanim
On the other hand, a number of authorities define the status of Kohanim in our times as doubtful Kohanim (safek kohanim) rather than definite Kohanim.
One of the most prominent sources for this halachic stance is found in the laws of challah. In our times we are all assumed to be defiled (tamei), so that challah must be separated but may not be given to a Kohen for consumption (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 322:4). This is true, however, specifically in the Land of Israel, where the mitzvah of challah is a Torah obligation. Outside the Land of Israel, where the mitzvah of challah is rabbinic, challah may be eaten by Kohanim known to be pure of tumah caused by emission of fluids, such as minors (Shulchan Aruch 322:5).
The Rema adds that according to some opinions, since challah is not eaten in Israel, “even in other places one need only separate one [piece of] challah and burn it.” He adds that this is the prevalent custom – meaning that challah is not generally given to Kohanim for consumption. The Shach (9) explains the reason for this: “It is customary not to give the challah to a Kohen, because we do not assume Kohanim in our times to be definite Kohanim.”
Note that in Orach Chaim (457), the Rema’s principle ruling is that outside of Israel, challah can be given to a child who is a Kohen.
The Maharshal, who is quoted by the Shach, writes on the matter (Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kama chap. 5, no. 35): “Because, on account of our great sins, we do not know the proper lineage as it was known in the Temple… and over the long years of exile, decrees, and expulsions, it has been confounded…. For this reason, it is customary not to give challah even to a child Kohen… for we do not consider him a definite Kohen.”
How a Chazakah is Created
Often, the question of a person’s proper status as a Kohen or otherwise, arises with respect to somebody for whom the priestly status is unwanted. For example, when a person suspected of being a Kohen wishes to marry a divorcee, the Israeli Rabbinate will only agree to the union if the individual does not in fact have a valid chazakah of being a Kohen. The question of when a person has a valid chazakah of being a Kohen is therefore most common concerning individuals who wish not to be considered Kohanim.
A number of indicators are used for this purpose. The most common proof of Kehunah is when an individual or his father is (or was) well-known as a Kohen. Concerning observant families, this is fairly easy to establish: If a person regularly ascended the duchan to bless the congregants in shul, it is a clear indication he was a well-known Kohen.
For non-observant families, the matter is more complex since for non-observant Jews the issue of the priesthood seldom arises. One important indication is gravestones, which almost always note the lineage of a Kohen, either by explicit reference or by an inscription of hands alluding to the priestly blessing. These create an assumption of kehunah, and prohibit a male family member from marrying a divorcee.
An interesting question arises concerning a person about whom no kehunah-related background is known, yet who bears the family name Kohen (or Katz, or other family names associated with Kohanim). In discussing this question, which arises with frequency concerning immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau writes (Shut Yachel Yisrael, no. 30) that although a family name is an important indication, it is not conclusive in creating a chezkas kehunah.
The reason for this is that although the majority of people bearing the name Cohen are Kohanim, there are many exceptions, which might be more pronounced concerning immigrants from the former Soviet Union. It is possible that a person, for the sake of convenience, adopted his mother’s family name (Cohen) even though he is not a Kohen. Another possibility is that a (secular) family lost its kehunah status if a maternal ancestor previously had intimate relations with a non-Jew.
Although the name Cohen is grounds for suspicion, it is thus inconclusive and requires further research. For more information on this matter, see Rabbi Ze’ev Litke’s lengthy article on the subject, which is available on our site.
Giving Kohanim due Honor
In light of the current status of Kohanim, the mitzvah of “vekidashto” (the obligation to give a Kohen preference) also requires clarification.
The Gemara (Moed Katan 28b) teaches that a Kohen must precede other Jews for all matters of kedushah: “The first to make the blessing before eating, the first to bless after the meal and to distribute the bread [in a meal].” This precept is ruled by Tur and by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 201:2), provided that the others present are not talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars), who take precedence over an ignorant Kohen.
The Magen Avraham notes that the common practice is not to follow this halachah. Why is this? If the mitzvah of giving the Kohen honor is a Torah precept, shouldn’t we adhere to it? He answers: “It is possible that today we are not certain of the lineage of Kohanim.”
Thus, the Magen Avraham justifies (at least post factum) the prevalent practice of not following the Torah law of giving Kohanim precedence by the suggestion that their lineage is not certain (though honoring Kohanim seems to be a Torah mitzvah, which must be followed even in cases of doubt). Many are careful to give Kohanim precedence, following the simple ruling of Shulchan Aruch. The Mishnah Berurah (201:13) writes that lechatchilah one must be careful of this.
The Kohen‘s Marriage Restrictions
Another important ramification of the status of Kohanim is the special marital restrictions.
The Maharshdam (Even Hoezer 235) was presented with a case of a woman who had been taken captive. Another woman testified that she heard (from another captive) that the woman in question had not been defiled. Whether this testimony is sufficient to permit the woman in question to marry a Kohen, is doubtful. Yet, because the prohibition is only rabbinic in nature, and the additional doubt as to the lineage of today’s Kohanim, Maharsham permitted a Kohen to marry her.
In so doing, Maharshdam relied on a statement of Rivash (94), whereby, “Kohanim in our times are not definite Kohanim.” Based on the above ruling of Mahrashdam, the Shevus Yaakov (vol. 1, no. 93) writes that Beis Din should not use physical force to coerce a Kohen who married a chalutzah (a rabbinic prohibition) to divorce his wife. When confronted by a Kohen who refuses to divorce his wife, we can rely on the doubt that poskim cast over the lineage of today’s Kohanim.
He does add that one should nonetheless make efforts to persuade them to divorce, noting that the children of such a marriage will no longer be qualified Kohanim. He also fears to rely on his independent ruling without added rabbinic support.
Pidyon Haben in Current Times
We have already mentioned the mitzvah of pidyon haben, which is cited by Mabit as proof of the unquestioned status of present-day Kohanim. Were it not for this, how can we redeem our firstborn?
This problem is also raised by the Yaavatz (Rav Yaakov Emden, cited in Pischei Teshuvah 305:12), who writes that on account of the uncertainty of the priestly lineage, it is proper for a person to redeem his son using many different Kohanim, thereby augmenting his chances of finding at least one true Kohen. Additionally, he writes that it is proper for the Kohen to return the money of the pidyon to the father.
It must be noted that neither of these ideas has been adopted. Concerning the money given to the Kohen, Gilion Maharsha (on Shulchan Aruch 305) writes that even if the lineage of the Kohen is uncertain, the Kohen does not have to return the money, since the father handed over the money willingly, despite his awareness of lineage issues.
As to the question of ensuring that our children are redeemed, it seems that by means of today’s Kohanim we do our best, although it is true that we cannot know for certain if the mitzvah has been fulfilled or not. It is interesting to note that Shevet Halevi writes that the normative halachah follows the opinion that today’s Kohanim are definite Kohanim. He bases his conclusion on the halacha of pidyon haben, and writes that the ideas put forward by Yaavatz are very strained. He also points out that the Chasam Sofer (Yoreh De’ah, no. 291) seems to hold a similar stance.
The Priestly Blessing
A final question worth mentioning is the Priestly Blessing.
If today’s Kohanim are not considered definite Kohanim, how are they able to ascend to the duchan and bless the people with the priestly blessing? Doing so involves two possible transgressions: First, the Torah forbids a non-Kohen to give the priestly blessing (an issur asei, see Kesubos 24b). Second, the blessing made before giving the Priestly Blessing might be a berachah levatalah. If our Kohanim have the status of indefinite Kohanim, would it not be better for them to abstain from giving the Priestly Blessing and to thereby avoid these possible transgressions?
It is interesting to note that the Beis Efraim (60) writes that the doubt over the priestly lineage today is the reason why outside of Israel it is customary not to duchan daily. Nonetheless, in most of Eretz Israel it is customary for Kohanim to ascend the duchan every day and twice on Shabbos. Even outside of Israel, the Priestly Blessing is given a number of times a year, so that the question certainly demands an answer.
Shut Shevus Yaakov (1:93) notes, as a possibility, that the Rabbis allowed doubtful Kohanim to ascend to duchan. The reason for this is that while a non-Kohen may not give the Priestly Blessing, on the other hand a Kohen who does not bless, transgresses a positive commandment. Because of this dilemma, the Sages decreed that the Priestly Blessing should be given even by indefinite Kohanim. When fulfilling this Rabbinic obligation, a blessing (before giving the Priestly Blessing) may also be recited.
An alternative approach is given in Pishchei Teshuvah. He maintains that the ban against blessing the Priestly Blessing by a non-Kohen refers to blessing the nation with the Shem ha-Meforash. Since this is not done today, the main prohibition does not apply. This, of course, is an innovative idea that is not mentioned by other authorities, all of whom assume that the prohibition applies to the regular blessing.
We have seen that the status of today’s Kohanim is a subject of a broad debate among halachic authorities. According to some, including the Mabit, Maharit, and others, today’s Kohanim have the status of definite Kohanim, and must be treated as full-fledged Kohanim for all intents and purposes. According to others, including Shach, Maharshal, Magen Avraham, Maharashdam, and others, the Kohanim of today are only doubtful Kohanim.
As noted, there are several halachic ramifications, including giving a Kohen challah outside Israel, being careful to honor Kohanim in all matters, matters relating to marriage, and so on. The matter of clarifying the yichus of a Kohen is intricate, and of course practical questions must be taken to an expert authority.
We pray for the Mikdash to be speedily rebuilt, when we will once again see Kohanim at their appointed service.