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Parashas Tetzaveh – The Halachic Status of Present-Day Kohanim

In this week’s parashah we read about the special position of the priests- Kohanim. As part of the instruction to construct the Tabernacle, 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 verse goes on to explain how Aharon and his family would achieve this special status: By means of the specially prepared anointing-oil, and by the bigdei kehunah (priesthood clothing).

Kohanim – Past and Present

Due to their uniquely holy status, Kohanim are commanded of several special mitzvahs. The rest of the nation is likewise obligated to afford them honor, as befitting the chosen servants of Hashem.

Thus, we find that Kohanim are prohibited from coming into contact with the dead (thus becoming ritually defiled). Marrying a divorcee or a woman known to be a prostitute is also forbidden. The rest of the nation is commanded “vekidashto“- to give the Kohein preference in all matters of rite, and giving him the various priestly gifts that the Torah prescribes.

In this article we wish to discuss is the status of present-day Kohanim. In the time of the Temple, a Kohein’s lineage of would be determined by his or his paternal forefather’s having served in the Temple or in the Sanhedrin (The great court of Jerusalem). Each of these duties would provide irrefutable proof as to the Kohein’s lineage (Mishnah, Kiddushin 76a). Rambam (Issurei Biah 20:2) thus rules that a Kohein is halachically classified as such, by bringing testimony that his father or paternal forefather had officiated in the Temple or Sanhedrin.

Since the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish nation has gone into exile and many calamities have befallen us. Families were separated, its members scattered across the four corners of the earth. Family origins were forgotten and lost. Most people today don’t know which tribe they belong to, and the questions of “who is a Kohein?” and “what is his halachic status?” has been much discussed by leading halachic authorities over the generations.

Kohanim as “definite Kohanim

The classification of a Kohein in the absence of the Temple and Sanhedrin depends on the concept of chazakah, a halachic assumption. Although there is no concrete proof to the purity of their lineage, Kohanim that show sufficient indications to a priestly lineage are assumed to be true Kohanim. In the words of Rambam: “All Kohanim or our days are assumed to be Kohanim.”[1]

The wording of Rambam implies, though not entirely conclusively, that the Kohanim of our times are accepted as Kohanim for all intents and purposes, meaning that they are “definite Kohanim.” As we find in other areas of Torah law, a chazakah is sufficient to establish definite knowledge. This, according to Rambam, is the case even for determining the lineage of Kohanim.

Thus Mabit, in his commentary on Rambam, writes that “even in our times, anybody whose family has been assumed to be Kohanim, without any objection having been raised, is a Kohein for all matters, and his chazakah is effective even for matters of Torah law.” Mabit cites proof to 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 Rambam himself appears to cast doubt over the lineage of today’s Kohanim, in ruling that they are barred from eating Torah-mandated terumah, apparently for 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-Kohein.

Maharit (Mabit’s son, vol. 1, no. 85) concurs with his father’s opinion, mentioning an additional reason to why Kohanim may not eat Torah-mandated terumah.

Kohanim as “Doubtful Kohanim

On the other hand, a number of authorities relegate the status of Kohanim in our times from “definite Kohanim” to “doubtful Kohanim.”

One of the most prominent sources for this halachic stance is found in the laws of challah. Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 322:1) rules that in our times we are all assumed to be spiritually defiled (tamei). Therefore, challah must be separated but may not be given to the Kohein for consumption. However, outside of the Land of Israel, where the mitzvah of challah is rabbinic in its basic nature, it is permitted to give the challah to those Kohanim who are pure of extra tumah (such as children).

Rema, however, adds that some opine that challah is never given to any Kohein to eat, even outside of the Land of Israel. He adds that this is the prevalent custom. Shach (9) explains the reason for this: “It is customary not to give the challah to a Kohein, because we do not assume Kohanim in our times to be ‘definite Kohanim.’[2]

Maharshal, who is quoted by Shach, writes at length 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, the decrees, and the 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.'”

Giving Kohanim due Honor

In light of the current status of Kohanim, the mitzvah of “vekidashto” (the obligation to give a Kohein preference) also requires clarification.

The Gemara (Moed Katan 28b) teaches that a Kohein must be preceded to other members of Israel 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 Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 201:2), provided that the others present are not talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars), who take precedence over an ignorant Kohein.

Magen Avraham notes that the common practice is not to follow the dictate of this halachah. Why is this? If the mitzvah of giving the Kohein due honor is a Torah precept, shouldn’t we meticulously adhere it? He answers: “It is possible that today we are not expert in the lineage of Kohanim.”

Thus, Magen Avraham validates (at least post factum) the prevalent practice of not following the Torah law of giving Kohanim precedence, by the fact that their lineage is not clarified. It should be noted, however, that many are careful to give Kohanim precedence in all matters of rite, following the simple ruling of Shulchan Aruch.[3]

The Kohein’s Marriage Restrictions

Another important ramification of the status of Kohanim is the special priestly marital restrictions.

On account of the doubtful lineage of present-day Kohanim, Maharashdam (Even Ha’ezer 235) writes that we are able to allow a Kohein to marry a former captive, in spite of the Talmud prohibition.

The case that was presented to the Maharshdam involved a woman who was taken captive. Another woman came and 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 Kohein, 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 Kohein to marry her.

In so doing, Maharshdam relies on a statement of Rivash (94), whereby “Kohanim in our times are not ‘definite Kohanim.'” Based on the above ruling of Mahrashdam, Shevus Yaakov (vol. 1, no. 93) writes that Beis Din would not force (physically) a Kohen who married a chalutzah (a rabbinic prohibition) to divorce his wife. Post factum, when confronted by a Kohein who refuses to divorce his wife, we could rely on the doubt that poskim cast over the lineage of today’s Kohanim.

Pidyon Haben in Current Times

We have already mentioned the mitzvah of pidyon haben, which is cited by Mabit as proof of the unquestionable status of present-day Kohanim. Were it not for this status, how would be able to redeem our firstborn?

This problem is brought up by Yaavatz (Rav Yaakov Emden, cited in Pischei Teshuvah 305:12). He writes that on account of the doubt on the priestly lineage, it is proper for a person to redeem his son using many different Kohanim, thus augmenting his chances of finding at least one true Kohein. Additionally, he writes that the Kohein should preferable return the money of the pidyon to the father, in case he is not a bona fide Kohein.

It must be noted that neither of these ideas are commonly practiced, and could even be described as outlandish. As to the money given to the Kohein, Gilion Maharsha (on Shulchan Aruch 305) writes that even if the lineage of the Kohein is uncertain, the Kohein would not have to return the money, since the father hands 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, though 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 principle halachah follows the opinion that today’s Kohanim are “definite Kohanim“. He bases his conclusion on the halacha of pidyon haben and continues writing 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 matter of 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? This would involve two possible transgressions: Firstly, the Torah forbids a non-Kohein to give the priestly blessing (as issur asei, see Kesubos 24b). Secondly, wouldn’t the blessing made in before giving the Priestly Blessing be a berachah levatalah? If our Kohanim have the status of “indefinte Kohanim,” would it not be better for them to abstain from giving the Priestly Blessing, and avoid these possible transgressions?

It is interesting to note that Beis Efraim (60) actually writes that the doubt over the priestly lineage today is the reason why outside of Israel it is customary not to duchan daily. Yet, the custom in Israel that Kohanim ascend to the duchan every day. Even outside of Israel, the Priestly Blessing is given a number of times a year, so that the question remains standing.

Shevus Yaakov addresses this difficulty and writes that in this case, it is proper for Kohanim to rely on their status as “doubtful Kohanim.”  Just as a non-Kohein may not give the Priestly Blessing, so too, a Kohein who fails to bless transgresses a positive commandment. Because of this catch-22 situation, the Rabbinic Sages enacted that the Priestly Blessing be given even by “indefinite Kohanim“. On account of the enactment, a blessing (before giving the Priestly Blessing) can also be recited.

An alternative approach is cited in Pishchei Teshuvah. He maintains that the ban against blessing the Priestly Blessing by a non-Kohein, refers to blessing the nation with the Shem ha-Meforash. Since this is not done today, the main prohibition does not apply.


We have seen that the status of today’s Kohanim is a subject of a broad debate among halachic authorities. According to some, including 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 assumed Kohanim of today are only “doubtful Kohanim.”

This dispute gives rise to several halachic ramifications:

  • Outside the Land of Israel, can challah be given to a Kohein (who is not otherwise tamei) to eat?
  • Must one be careful to give Kohanim precedence in all matters of kedushah, as prescribed by the Gemara and Shulchan Aruch?
  • Can doubt over a Kohein’s lineage be used as a possible source of leniency for marriages that are rabbinically prohibited to the priestly tribe?
  • Can one assume that the Kohein to whom one pays for the pidyon haben is a true Kohein?
  • If Kohanim are “doubtful Kohanim,” how are they permitted to ascend the duchan for the Priestly Blessing?

May the Mikdash be speedily rebuilt, so that we should once again see Kohanim at their appointed service.

[1] In this article, we will not discuss which indications are sufficient to establish a chazakah, and which are not. Rather, our focus is the halachic status of those Kohanim who have a valid chazakah.

[2] Note that in Orach Chaim (457), Rema’s principle ruling is that outside of Israel, challah can be given to a Kohen child.

[3] There would appear to be some difficulty in the explanation given by Magen Avraham.  In light of the fact that the mitzvah to honor a Kohen is a Torah mitzvah, there would seemingly be an obligation to honor them even if their lineage is in doubt. This point requires further scrutiny and clarification.

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