Kohen or cohen (or kohain; Hebrew: כֹּהֵן, "priest", pl. כֹּהֲנִים kohanim) is the Hebrew word for priest used colloquially in reference to the Aaronic priesthood. Jewish kohanim are traditionally believed and halakhically required to be of direct patrilineal descent from the biblical Aaron. The term is colloquially used in Orthodox Judaism in reference to modern day descendants of Aharon, brother of Moses.
- Biblical origins
- Torah law
- High Priest
- Twenty four kohanic divisions
- Destruction of the Second Temple
- Qualifications and disqualifications
- Twenty four kohanic gifts
- Kohen and Torah instruction
- Modern application
- Synagogue aliyah
- Priestly blessing
- Pidyon Haben Redemption of the firstborn
- Effects on marital status
- Conservative Jewish view
- Bat kohen
- Modern times
- Kohen genetic testing
- Cohen and its variations as a surname
- Outside Judaism
- Kohen and the Holocaust
During the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, kohanim performed the daily and holiday (Yom Tov) duties of sacrificial offerings. Today, kohanim retain a lesser though distinct status within Rabbinic and Karaite Judaism, and are bound by additional restrictions according to Orthodox Judaism.
In the Samaritan community, the kohanim have remained the primary religious leaders. Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders are sometimes called kahen, a form of the same word, but the position is not hereditary and their duties are more like those of rabbis than kohanim in most Jewish communities.
The noun kohen is used in the Torah to refer to priests, both Jewish and non-Jewish, such as the Jewish nation as a whole, as well as the priests (Hebrew kohanim) of Baal (2 Kings 10:19).
The Hebrew noun kohen is most often translated as "priest", whether Jewish or pagan, such as the priests of Baal or Dagon, though Christian priests are referred to in Hebrew by the term komer (Hebrew כומר). The word derives from a Semitic root common, at minimum, to the Central Semitic languages; the cognate Arabic word كاهن kāhin means "soothsayer, augur, or priest".
Translations in the paraphrase of the Aramaic Targumic interpretations include "friend" in Targum Yonathan to 2 Kings 10:11, "master" in Targum to Amos 7:10, and "minister" in Mechilta to Parshah Jethro, Exodus 18:1–20:23 1:1. As a starkly different translation the title "worker", Rashi on Exodus 29:30 and "servant" Targum to Jeremiah 48:7, have been offered as a translation as well. Some have attempted to resolve this translation contradiction by suggesting that, although the priest does enjoy specific privileges, a primary component of priesthood in Judaism is servitude.
The status of priest kohen was conferred on Aaron, the brother of Moses, and his sons as an everlasting covenant or a covenant of salt. During the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and until the Holy Temple was built in Jerusalem, the priests performed their priestly service in the portable Tabernacle. (Numbers 1:47–54, Numbers 3:5–13, Numbers 3:44–51, Numbers 8:5–26) Their duties involved offering the daily and Jewish holiday sacrifices, and blessing the people in a Priestly Blessing, later also known as Nesiat Kapayim ("Raising of the hands"). In a broader sense, since Aaron was a descendant of the Tribe of Levi, priests are sometimes included in the term Levites, by direct patrilineal descent. However, not all Levites are priests.
When the Temple existed, most sacrifices and offerings could only be conducted by priests. Non-priest Levites (i.e. all those who descended from Levi, the son of Jacob, but not from Aaron) performed a variety of other Temple roles, including ritual slaughter of animals, song service by use of voice and musical instruments, and various tasks in assisting the priests in performing their service.
The Torah mentions Melchizedek king of Salem, identified by Rashi as being Shem the son of Noah, as a "priest" kohen to El Elyon (the supreme God) Genesis 14:18. The second is Potiphera, priest of Heliopolis, then Jethro, priest of Midian both pagan priests of their era.
When Esau sold the birthright of the first born to Jacob, Rashi explains that the priesthood was sold along with it, because by right the priesthood belongs to the first-born. Only when the first-born (along with the rest of Israel) sinned in the incident of the golden calf, the priesthood was given to the Tribe of Levi, which had not been tainted by this incident.
Moses was supposed to receive the priesthood along with the leadership of the Jewish people, but when he argued with God that he should not be the leader, God then chose Aaron as the recipient of the priesthood.
Aaron received the priesthood along with his children and any descendants that would be born subsequently. However, his grandson Phinehas had already been born, and did not receive the priesthood until he killed the prince of the Tribe of Simeon and the princess of the Midianites (Numbers 25:7–13). Thereafter, the priesthood has remained with the descendants of Aaron.
In every generation when the Temple was standing, one kohen would be singled out to perform the functions of the High Priest (Hebrew kohen gadol). His primary task was the Day of Atonement service. Another unique task of the high priest was the offering of a daily meal sacrifice; he also held the prerogative to supersede any priest and offer any offering he chose. Although the Torah retains a procedure to select a High Priest when needed, in the absence of the Temple in Jerusalem, there is no High Priest in Judaism today.
Twenty-four kohanic divisions
King David assigned each of the 24 priestly clans to a weekly watch (Heb. “mishmeret” = משמרת) during which its members were responsible for maintaining the schedule of offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem, in accordance with 1Chronicles 24:3–5. Prior to that time, the priestly courses numbered a mere eight. This newly instated a cycle of priestly courses, or priestly divisions, which repeated itself roughly twice each year.
When the First and Second Temples were built, the priests of Aaron’s lineage assumed these roles in the Temple in Jerusalem. Each of the 24 groups consisted of six priestly families, with each of the six serving one day of the week. On the Sabbath day, all six worked in tandem. According to later rabbinical interpretation, these 24 groups changed every Sabbath at the completion of the Mussaf service.. However, on the biblical festivals all 24 were present in the Temple for duty. The first of these wards, or divisions, was the priestly clan known as Jehoiariv (Yehoyariv). Members of this family are said to have gone to Yemen, and are now called by the name Maghori Kohen. According to Dr. Aviva Klein Franke, the name Jehoiariv (Yehoyariv) is derived from two words, Yeho – Yariv, meaning "to contend with God," or "to contend for God". Ya‘akov Sapir, who visited Yemen in 1859 CE, conducted a little research into the background of this family and concluded that the name Maghari, or Maghori, is an epithet given to the family, and that the name is a translation from Arabic having the same meaning as their original name, Yeho – Yariv, or "one who contends".
According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta‘anith 4:2 / 20a): “Four wards came up out of exile: Yedaiah, Harim, Pašḥūr and Immer. The prophets among them had made a stipulation with them, namely, that even if Jehoiariv should come up out of exile, the officiating ward that serves in the Temple at that time should not be rejected on his account, but rather, he is to become secondary unto them.”
Destruction of the Second Temple
Following the Temple's destruction at the end of the First Jewish Revolt and the displacement to the Galilee of the bulk of the remaining Jewish population in Judea at the end of the Bar Kochva Revolt, Jewish tradition in the Talmud and poems from the period records that the descendants of each priestly watch established a separate residential seat in towns and villages of the Galilee, and maintained this residential pattern for at least several centuries in anticipation of the reconstruction of the Temple and reinstitution of the cycle of priestly courses. Specifically, this kohanic settlement region stretched from the Beit Netofa Valley, through the Nazareth region to Arbel and the vicinity of Tiberias.
Professor Yosef Tobi, describing a stone inscription found in Yemen and which contains a partial list of the names (in Hebrew) of the twenty-four priestly courses and their places of residence, writes: “As for the probable strong spiritual attachment held by the Jews of Ḥimyar for the Land of Israel, this is also attested to by an inscription bearing the names of the miśmarōṯ (priestly wards), which was initially discovered in September 1970 by W. Müller and then, independently, by P. Grjaznevitch within a mosque in Bayt al-Ḥāḍir, a village situated near Tan‘im, east of Ṣanʻā’. This inscription has been published by several European scholars, but the seminal study was carried out by E.E. Urbach (1973), one of the most important scholars of rabbinic literature in the previous generation. It should be noted that the priestly wards were seen as one of the most distinctive elements in the collective memory of the Jewish people as a nation during the period of Roman and Byzantine rule in the Land of Israel following the destruction of the Second Temple, insofar as they came to symbolize Jewish worship within the Land.”
It is now uncertain when this stone inscription was first engraved, but certainly it dates back to a time near the Second Temple’s destruction, if not earlier. The complete list of sacerdotal names would normally have included twenty-four priestly wards. However, today, the stone inscription contains only a partial list of their names, with their former places of residence – beginning from the fourth ward, and ending with the fourteenth ward. This was because the stone had been partially broken away, as also part of which was hidden underground. This is the longest roster of names of this kind ever discovered unto this day:
Qualifications and disqualifications
Although kohanim may assume their duties once they reached physical maturity, the fraternity of kohanim generally would not allow young kohanim to begin service until they reached the age of twenty, and some opinions state that this age was thirty. There was no mandatory retirement age. Only when a kohen became physically infirm could he no longer serve. A kohen may become disqualified from performing his service for a host of reasons, including, but not limited to, Tumah, marital defilements, and physical blemishes. Of importance is that the kohen is never permanently disqualified from service but is permitted to return to his normal duties once the disqualification ceases.
Twenty-four kohanic gifts
The kohanim were compensated for their service to the nation and in the Temple through the twenty-four kohanic gifts. Of these 24 gifts, 10 are listed as to be given even outside the land of Israel. An example of the gifts given to the kohen in the Diaspora are most notably the five shekels of the Pidyon haben ceremony, and the giving of the foreleg, cheeks and abomasum from each Kosher-slaughtered animal.
Kohen and Torah instruction
Torah verses and rabbinical commentary to the Tanakh imply that the kohen has a unique leadership role amongst the nation of Israel. In addition to the well-known role of the kohen to officiate in the sacrificial activity in the Temple (the Korbanot), the kohen is presumed to have the responsibility of being knowledgeable in the laws and nuances of the Torah and to be able to give accurate instruction in those laws to the Jewish people.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains this responsibility as not being the exclusive Torah instructors, but working in tandem with the rabbinic leaders of the era, while other rabbinic greats – notably the Chasam Sofer and Maharitz Chayes – acknowledged the unique assignment of torah instruction to the descendents of Ahron.
After the destruction of the Second Temple and the suspension of sacrificial offerings, the formal role of priests in sacrificial services came to an end, either temporarily (until the rebuilding of the temple once more) or permanently (in the event of its never being rebuilt). Kohanim, however, retain a formal and public ceremonial role in synagogue prayer services. Kohanim also have a limited number of other special duties and privileges in Jewish religious practice. These special roles have been maintained in Orthodox Judaism, and sometimes in Conservative Judaism. Reform Judaism does not afford any special status or recognition to kohanim.
Every Monday, Thursday and Shabbat in Orthodox synagogues (and many Conservative ones as well), a portion from the Torah is read aloud in the original Hebrew in front of the congregation. On weekdays, this reading is divided into three; it is customary to call a kohen for the first reading (aliyah), a Levite for the second reading, and a member of any other Tribe of Israel to the third reading. On Shabbat, the reading is divided into seven portions; a kohen is called for the first aliyah and a levite to the second, and a member of another tribe for the rest.
If a kohen is not present, it is customary in many communities for a levite to take the first aliyah "bimkom kohen" (in the place of a kohen) and an Israelite the second and succeeding ones. This custom is not required by halakha (Jewish law), however, and Israelites may be called up for all aliyot.
The late 12th and early 13th century, rabbi Meir of Rothenburg ruled that, in a community consisting entirely of kohanim, the prohibition on calling kohanim for anything but the first two and maftir aliyot creates a deadlock situation which should be resolved by calling women to the Torah for all the intermediate aliyot.
The Conservative Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), consistent with the Conservative movement's general view of the role of kohanim, has ruled that the practice of calling a kohen to the first aliyah represents a custom rather than a law, and that accordingly, a Conservative rabbi is not obligated to follow it. As such, in some Conservative synagogues, this practice is not followed.
The kohanim participating in an Orthodox prayer service also deliver the priestly blessing, during the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei. They perform this service by standing and facing the crowd in the front of the congregation, with their arms held outwards and their hands and fingers in a specific formation, with a Jewish prayer shawl or Talit covering their heads and outstretched hands so that their fingers cannot be seen. Kohanim living in Israel and many Sephardic Jews living in areas outside of Israel deliver the priestly blessing daily; Ashkenazi Jews living outside of Israel deliver it only on Jewish holidays.
Pidyon Haben (Redemption of the firstborn)
Outside the synagogue, the kohen leads the Pidyon Haben ceremony. This symbolic Redemption of the first-born son is based on the Torah commandment, "and you shall redeem all the firstborn of man among your sons".
Effects on marital status
Orthodox Judaism recognizes the rules as being in full force, but in practice seeks leniency with respect to some of the rules' strictures, and tends to resolve at least some doubts in favor of permitting a questionable marriage. Areas where Orthodox approaches may create different results include situations where a woman has been raped, kidnapped or held hostage, descendants of converts whose Judaism status turned out to be subject to doubt, ambiguous prior dating histories, and other potentially ambiguous or difficult situations.
A priest of Aaron's lineage (i.e. Kohen) is forbidden by the Mosaic Law (Torah) to marry a divorced woman even if she were a native Israelite. Likewise, a male descendant from Aaron's line is prohibited to marry a Jewish woman who has had intercourse with a non-Jew, whether she had been raped or she had willfully done so. So, too, he cannot marry a Jewish woman whose birth was by a father who is a Kohen but who violated one of these prohibitions. If he went ahead and did one of these three things, his male issue born from such union is no longer a priest (i.e. Kohen), but rather becomes a Ḥallal (Lev. 21:7, 14) - a term designating one who is no longer a priest, but profaned. A priest must maintain an untainted lineage, and his mother must be of Jewish birth. If he married a non-Jewish woman from the gentile nations, his children are no longer priests, but gentiles. Had a priest of Aaron's lineage transgressed this prohibition and married a divorced woman, and they had children together, all of his female issue - whether his, or his sons, or his grandchildren - would be prohibited from marrying into the priestly stock for all generations.
Rape poses an especially poignant problem. The pain experienced by the families of kohanim who were required to divorce their wives as the result of the rapes accompanying the capture of Jerusalem is alluded to in this Mishnah:
If a woman were imprisoned by non-Jews concerning money affairs, she is permitted to her husband, but if for some capital offense, she is forbidden to her husband. If a town were overcome by besieging troops, all women of priestly stock found in it are ineligible [to be married to priests or to remain married to priests], but if they had witnesses, even a slave, or even a bondswoman, these may be believed. But no man may be believed for himself. Rabbi Zechariah ben Hakatsab said, "By this Temple, her hand did not stir from my hand from the time the non-Jews entered Jerusalem until they went out." They said to him: No man may give evidence of himself.
The Israeli rabbinate will not perform a marriage halakhically forbidden to a kohen. For example, a kohen cannot legally marry a divorced or converted woman in the State of Israel, although a foreign marriage would be recognized.
Conservative Jewish view
Conservative Judaism has issued an emergency takanah (rabbinical edict) temporarily suspending the application of the rules in their entirety, on the grounds that the high intermarriage rate threatens the survival of Judaism, and hence that any marriage between Jews is welcomed. The takanah declares that the offspring of such marriages are to be regarded as kohanim. The movement allows a kohen to marry a convert or divorcee for these reasons:
Kohen was a status that traditionally referred to men, passed from father to son, although there were situations where a bat kohen, daughter of a kohen, enjoyed some special status. For example, the first-born son of a bat kohen, or the first-born son of a bat levi (the daughter of any levite) did not require the ritual of Pidyon HaBen.
In addition, females, although they did not serve in the Tabernacle or the Temple, were permitted to eat or benefit from some of the 24 kohanic gifts. However, if a kohen's daughter married a man from outside the kohanic line, she was no longer permitted to benefit from the kohanic gifts. Conversely, the daughter of a non-kohen who married a kohen took on the same rights as an unmarried daughter of a kohen.
Today, Orthodox and many Conservative rabbis maintain the position that only a man can act as a kohen, and that a daughter of a kohen is recognized as a bat kohen only in those very limited ways that have been identified in the past. Other Conservative rabbis, along with some Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, are prepared to give equal kohen status to the daughter of a kohen.
Orthodox Judaism maintains that the privileges and status of kohanim stem primarily from their offerings and activities in the Temple. Accordingly, in Orthodox Judaism only men can perform the Priestly Blessing and receive the first aliyah during the public Torah reading, and women are generally not permitted to officiate in a Pidyon HaBen ceremony. However, the question of what acts (if any) a bat kohen can perform in an Orthodox context is a subject of current discussion and debate in some Orthodox circles.
Some women's prayer groups that practice under the halakhic guidance of non-Orthodox rabbis, and which conduct Torah readings for women only, have adapted a custom of calling a bat kohen for the first aliyah and a bat levi for the second.
Conservative Judaism, consistent with its view that sacrifices in the Temple will not be restored and in light of many congregations' commitment to gender (but not caste) egalitarianism, interprets the Talmudic relevant passages to permit elimination of most distinctions between male and female kohanim in congregations that retain traditional tribal roles while modifying traditional gender roles. The Conservative movement bases this leniency on the view that the privileges of the kohen come not from offering Temple offerings but solely from lineal sanctity, and that ceremonies like the Priestly Blessing should evolve from their Temple-based origins. (The argument for women's involvement in the Priestly Blessing acknowledges that only male kohanim could perform this ritual in the days of the Temple, but that the ceremony is no longer rooted in Temple practice; its association with the Temple was by rabbinic decree; and rabbis therefore have the authority to permit the practice to evolve from its Temple-based roots). As a result, some Conservative synagogues permit a bat kohen to perform the Priestly Blessing and the Pidyon HaBen ceremony, and to receive the first aliyah during the Torah reading.
The Conservative halakha committee in Israel has ruled that women do not receive such aliyot and cannot validly perform such functions (rabbi Robert Harris, 5748). Therefore, not all Conservative congregations or rabbis permit these roles for bnot kohanim (daughters of priests). Moreover, many egalitarian-oriented Conservative synagogues have abolished traditional tribal roles and do not perform ceremonies involving kohanim (such as the Priestly Blessing or calling a kohen to the first aliyah), and many traditionalist Conservative synagogues have retained traditional gender roles and do not permit women to perform these roles at all.
Because most Reform and Reconstructionist temples have abolished traditional tribal distinctions, roles, and identities on grounds of egalitarianism, a special status for a bat kohen has very little significance in these movements.
Kohen genetic testing
Recently, the tradition that many kohanim are descended from a common male ancestor has gained support from genetic testing. Since the Y chromosome is inherited only from one's father (women have no Y chromosome), all direct male lineages share a common haplotype. Therefore, testing was done across sectors of the Jewish and non-Jewish population to see if there was any commonality among their Y chromosomes. The initial research by Hammer, Skorecki, et al. was based on a limited study of 188 subjects, which identified a narrow set of genetic markers found in slightly more than 50% of Jews with a tradition of priestly descent and approximately 5% of Jews who did not believe themselves to be kohanim.
Over the succeeding decade, Hammer, Skorecki, and other researchers continued to collect genetic material from Jewish and non-Jewish populations around the world. This led to the classification of a broader set of genetic markers, now termed the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH). The most recent results suggest that 46% of those who have a family tradition of Priestly descent belong to the Y-DNA haplogroup identified as J-P58, and that at least two-thirds of that 46% have very similar Y-DNA sequences indicating comparatively recent common ancestry. A further 14% of kohanim were found to belong to another lineage, in haplogroup J2a-M410. In contrast, the original CMH is found in as much as 5% to 8% of Jews who have no family tradition of being kohanim, and only 1.5% were found to have the closest match to the most detailed sequence. Amongst non-Jews, the CMH can be found among non-Jewish Yemenites (>67.7%) and Jordanians (~7%), but none were found to most closely match the most detailed sequence. Thus, studies document certain distinctions among the Y chromosomes of kohanim, implying that a substantial proportion of kohanim share some common male ancestry.
Since the religious status of a kohen is contingent upon being the male biological descendant of Aaron in conjunction with numerous other variables that are not subject to genetic testing (the wife of a kohen cannot have had relations with a non-Jew, be a divorcee etc.) the possession of a common haplotype does not provide sufficient evidence to confer or maintain the religious status of a kohen, which depends on more than simple heredity. This loss of priestly status over time may account for the 1.5% of non-kohen Jews who very closely match the Y chromosome sequence that is most common amongst kohanim.
Cohen (and its variations) as a surname
The status of kohen in Judaism has no necessary relationship to a person's surname. Though it is true that descendants of kohanim often bear surnames that reflect their genealogy, there are many families with the surname Cohen (or any number of variations) who are not kohanim nor even Jewish. Conversely, there are many kohanim who do not have Cohen as a surname.
There are numerous variations to the spelling of the surname Cohen. These are often corrupted by translation or transliteration into or from other languages, as exemplified below (not a complete list).
However, by no means are all Jews with these surnames kohanim. Additionally, some "Cohen"-type surnames are considered stronger indications of the status than others. "Cohen" is one of the hardest to substantiate due to its sheer commonality.
In contemporary Israel, "Moshe Cohen" is the equivalent of "John Smith" in English-speaking countries – i.e., proverbially the most common of names.
One common interpretation of the practice of having three pieces of matzah on a Seder plate is that they represent "Kohen, Levi and Yisrael" (i.e., the priests, the tribe of Levi, and all other Jewish people).
According to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, either "literal descendants of Aaron", or worthy Melchizedek priesthood holders have the legal right to constitute the Presiding Bishopric under the authority of the First Presidency (Section 68:16-20). To date, all men who have served on the Presiding Bishopric have been Melchizedek priesthood holders, and none have been publicly identified as descendants of Aaron. See also Mormonism and Judaism.
Kohen and the Holocaust
In 1938, with the outbreak of violence that would come to be known as Kristallnacht, American Orthodox rabbi Mnachem HaKohen Risikoff wrote about the central role he saw for Priests and Levites in terms of Jewish and world responses, in worship, liturgy, and teshuva, repentance. In הכהנים והלוים HaKohanim vHaLeviim (1940) The Priests and the Levites, he stressed that members of these groups exist in the realm between history (below) and redemption (above), and must act in a unique way to help move others to prayer and action, and help bring an end to suffering. He wrote, "Today, we also are living through a time of flood, Not of water, but of blood, which burns and turns Jewish life into ruin. We are now drowning in a flood of blood...Through the Kohanim and Levi'im help will come to all Israel."