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The Levitical Priests:
Their Function and Role in the Holy Temple

 

"And it shall be for them an appointment as priests forever, for all generations." (Ex. 40:15)

"For the Lord your God has chosen him out of all your tribes, to stand to serve in the name of the Lord, him and his sons forever." (Deut. 18:5)

Who are the Priests?

The first kohen, the founder of the priestly clan, was Aaron, brother of Moses, of the tribe of Levi. All of Israel are descended from the twelve sons of Jacob. Jacob's third son was Levi, and Aaron was a fourth generation descendant of Levi.

Aaron and his four sons were designated as the first priests; Aaron served as the first High Priest. All of his male descendants were chosen by God to be priests forever; it is an eternal covenant. Thus even today, a kohen amongst the Jewish people is genealogically a direct descendant of Aaron.

The Role of the Priests

The Holy One chose these men to be in a position of spiritual leadership. In the days of the Temple, they were responsible for the sacred service. The Hebrew word kohen actually means "to serve," and a deeper linguistic connection can be found in the word ken, meaning "yes," itself related to kivvun, "to direct." Thus a kohen is called upon to direct himself, and others, in the proper service of God: "And you, separate your brother Aaron and his sons from among the Israelites, and bring them close to you... so they can serve me." (Ex. 28:1)

A Conduit for the Reception of Divine Blessing

The reader is undoubtedly most familiar with the primary role which the priests perform in the Temple, that of officiating at the sacrifices and other parts of the service. But more importantly, by attending to the various aspects of the Divine service, the priests serve as a conduit to bring down God's radiant blessing and influence into this world. In fact, it is on this account that they are commanded to deliver God's blessing of peace and love to the people, as well: "Say to Aaron and his sons... Thus shall you bless the people of Israel: 'May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord shine His face upon you, and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up His face to you and may He grant you peace'." (Numbers 6:22 - 26)

The Priestly Blessing is Delivered Daily in the Temple

Every day in the Temple, at the conclusion of the morning service, this blessing was performed by the officiating priests, standing on the steps leading up to the sanctuary. Thus while it is only God who has the power to bestow blessing upon people, the function of the priests was to serve as a vehicle, a medium, through which the Divine influence may descend.

"... He stands behind our wall... "

This concept of the priests "directing" the flow of Divine blessing is alluded to by a verse in the Song of Songs (2:9 - 10): "Behold, He stands behind our wall, watching through the windows, glancing through the cracks."

The sages of the Midrash interpret these words to mean that it is God who stands behind the priests as they deliver His blessing. The illumination of His Presence shines through their hands, which are outstretched as they utter the priestly blessing.

The Priests Possess Special Qualities

The priests represent kindness, and the focusing of life's energies on sanctity and Divine purpose. It was the attribute of kindness, understanding and love for all which Aaron, the first High Priest, was best known for, and his descendants are entrusted to exemplify Hillel's famous dictum in the Chapters of the Fathers (Avot 1:12): "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow-creatures, and drawing them near to the Torah." This quality was highly visible and crucially instrumental following the rebellion of Korach, when it was Aaron who saved the people from the full extent of Divine wrath (see Numbers 17).

Because of their ability to invoke Heavenly influence, the sages even record that the priestly families possess distinctive character traits and qualities which are part of their special spiritual heritage: they are known to be joyful, giving, and driven by a loftier nature. In the era of the Temple, they were praised for their zeal and dedication to fulfill the commandments and give honor to the Creator.

Later, through the ensuing course of history, it was generally the tribe of Levi and the priestly family in particular that were exemplary in their zealousness for the honor of God. Thus it was the priestly family of the Hasmonaim - the famous "Maccabees" - who led the revolt against foreign idolatrous influence and rededicated the Holy Temple, events marked by the holiday of Chanukah.

The daily blessing of the priests in the Temple serves to open the Heavenly gates of mercy. Through it, the people of Israel merit not only material well-being - including offspring and longevity - but spiritual blessings as well; mercy, Divine protection and the greatest blessing of all... true peace. Since the priests themselves represent the attribute of kindness, their service brings the flow of God's blessing down to His people.

General Rules of Priestly Conduct

"The priest must be holy to his God. You must keep him holy, for he presents the offering to your God... He must be holy, for I am God - I am holy and I am making you holy" (Lev. 21).

God Has Sanctified The Priests Above All Men

The Holy One ordained special laws which effect the lives of the priests. The fundamental understanding behind these principles is that the status of the priest is different than that of other men. Their lot is one of dedication, of separation - for they are the servants of the Lord, and the custodians of His service. "... For he presents the offering to your God... "

Because of this, "... he must be holy, for I am God - I am holy and I am making you holy." The Creator has sanctified these men above the rest for all time, and drawn them to Himself through unique commandments.

Overview

These laws are recorded in the book of Leviticus, and by way of an introduction, let us examine the verse quoted above. The priests are expected and commanded to keep holy... but what is meant by "holiness?" What is the Bible's intention?

"He must be holy, for I, God, am holy." How are we to understand this state of holiness? How can we best explain such a concept? It seems intangible at best - for in the context of this verse, it seems that the priest is called upon to be holy in the same sense that God Himself is holy.

It would surely be instructive at this point for us to attempt a definition for the word "holy." For we can see that the Bible uses this word quite emphatically in the context of the priests: they are actually mandated to be holy, to lead holy lives, because God is holy. But how can a person be holy like God?

Many people seem to equate the concept of holiness with spirituality in general; anything ethereal or mystical is presumed to be holy. According to this mentality, one supposes that holiness is a matter of secret knowledge, or simply a question of allegiance to any proscribed ritual claimed by its adherents to bring the devotee closer to fulfillment.

To Be Spiritual Does Not Automatically Imply Holiness

This is a serious misconception, one which is completely out of tune with the Biblical idea of holiness as exemplified by the "holiness" which is expected and required of Aaron's descendants. For holy and spiritual are not the same things and they are certainly not equal.

Consulting Webster's Dictionary, we find that the word "spiritual" is derived from the Latin spiritualis, "of breathing; of wind; relating to or consisting of spirit." Thus: "INCORPOREAL," (fortunately, we are also given "of or relating to sacred matters,") and since the primary meaning of this word seems to be that which is non-physical, we end with "of or relating to ghosts or similar supernatural beings(!)"

Thus many people, disciplines, philosophies and the like may be considered spiritual in nature, they may concern themselves with the esoteric, they may even occupy themselves with the service of God - but this does not necessarily imply that they are holy in any way.

Forbidden Spiritual Pursuits

In fact, some spiritual paths can most definitely be the absolute epitome of unholiness:

The Bible is clear in its prohibition of spiritualism which has not been authorized by God. "Do not act on the basis of omens... do not act on the basis of auspicious times" (Lev. 19:26), we are warned. These forbidden practices include one who acts on the basis of a superstitious omen, and those who seek out auspicious times through astrology.

When the Children of Israel were preparing to end their desert wanderings and enter into the Promised Land, they were specifically warned by God to uproot the perverted spiritual practices of the former inhabitants from the land, and to be particularly cautious not to be tempted to experiment with mystical occult practices. "When the Lord your God excises the nations to which you are coming, and drives them away before you, you shall dispossess them and live in their land. Be very careful not to fall into a trap by following after them, after they have been wiped out from before you. Do not try to find out about their gods, saying, 'How did these nations worship their gods? I would also like to try this.' Do not worship the Lord your God with such practices. In worshipping their gods, these nations committed all manner of perversions hated by the Lord... " (Deut. 12:29 - 31).

Reaching levels of inspiration and revelation that are not rooted in holiness, as personified by the wicked heathen prophet Balaam, King Balak, and the elders of Moab and Midian, are all equally reprehensible (these practiced various forms of divination and occult arts in order to bring about prophetic revelation. See Numbers 22).

So, while other nations may have their own routes to connect with the "Divine," or their own conception thereof; or, perhaps they merely delude themselves and others into thinking that they are serving God, and the side of holiness - clearly, the Torah's prohibitions instruct Israel that these other ways are not for her. There may be other paths of spirituality, but they are not for Israel; she is to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6).

But we have not yet come any closer to an understanding of the priests' exhortation to live holy lives "because God is holy;" neither have we come any closer to a grasp on how an individual can be holy like God. If God is incorporeal, if God is spirit, is a man therefore commanded to be spirit? Spirituality is clearly a separate concept, and one that is not necessarily pure, at that.

Holiness Means Separation

By contrast to the concept of "spiritual" - which seems to be rather unstable for our liking, since it can actually apply to things quite far from all which we have considered sacred - we find that the primary definition of "holy" is "set apart to the service of God."

God Himself is called holy because He is completely separate; unique and unequaled in all of His creation. Nothing can be compared to Him because He is peerless; He is the Creator of the universe and all existence, and absolutely different from anything else that exists. It is in this light that Israel is collectively called upon to be a "holy nation" - that is, a nation set apart from all others, completely different from any other, whose Divinely-mandated lifestyle serves as living proof that an entire nation can walk with God in its midst... "it is a nation dwelling alone in peace; not counting itself among other nations" (Numbers 23:9).

This separation is the true Biblical view of holiness. This is why the opposite of something holy is said to be mundane or profane; ordinary. To be holy is to be removed from the realm of the ordinary. Israel lives separately, according to the Torah's commandments, precisely because God is separate... for the highest form of religious experience is to reflect, to imitate the Divine. Man must strive to be a reflection of his Creator.

So too, the priests in the Holy Temple "must be holy for I, God, am holy." If Jewish life is to be holy, then the priests must take care to be especially holy. They have been distinctively sanctified by the Creator Himself for all time and singled out for a life dedicated to Him. The vehicle that accomplishes this sanctification is the commandments, which obligate them to their Creator. These commandments reflect their unique status.

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