Always a Kohen

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Always a Kohen

Summarized by Ari Mermelstein


This week's parasha opens by delineating the laws of ritual impurity regarding kohanim. The placement of this parasha at this point in Sefer Vayikra is problematic: roughly the first half of the sefer, through parashat Metzora, dealt with the kohanim and the mishkan in which they work, at which point the Torah proceeded to discuss laws with a more general application. Why, then, did the Torah opt to include the opening section of Emor in the latter half of Vayikra rather than in the first half, which relates solely to kohanim?

We can suggest two different answers to this question, although they relate to each other. The first answer distinguishes between the kohanim referred to in earlier parshiyot, and those discussed in Emor. Although both are referred to as "benei Aharon," perhaps we should identify the former with Aharon's literal sons, and the latter with his later descendants. Why? Upon the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu following their entrance into the mishkan with a strange fire (Vayikra 10:1-4), Moshe instructs Mishael and Eltzafan to remove the dead. This sequence requires explanation: why did Moshe prefer to employ cousins of the dead to take care of them rather than the brothers of the deceased, Elazar and Itamar?

The Ramban there explains that during the seven days of consecration of the mishkan, Elazar and Itamar enjoyed a status similar to that of the kohen gadol, whom the Torah prohibits from coming in contact with the dead, and Elazar and Itamar were therefore restricted from exposure to their brothers. The Ramban proceeds to suggest that they retained their status as quasi-kohanim gedolim even after the seven days of consecration. This last suggestion of the Ramban has implications for our discussion.

If we adopt the Ramban's assertion that Elazar and Itamar remained quasi-kohanim gedolim and therefore could never come in contact with the dead, to whom was the Torah in this week's parasha addressing its words of "None shall be defiled for the dead among his people?" We must conclude that when the Torah stated in our parasha, "Say to the priests, the sons of Aharon," it referred not to the literal sons of Aharon, about whom we already knew that contact with the dead is prohibited, but rather to the general class of kohanim. Thus, because the earlier parshiyot in Vayikra dealt exclusively with the sons of Aharon, the Torah placed this parasha, which refers to kohanim in general, elsewhere in the sefer.

We can offer an additional reason why the Torah placed our parasha dealing with impurity of kohanim apart from earlier parshiyot relating to kohanim. The gemara (Zevachim 17b) assumes that the identity of a kohen is largely based on active duty in the Temple, and therefore stresses that a kohen working in the Temple without the proper garb is not considered a kohen. Earlier parshiyot in Sefer Vayikra developed this motif of the kohen in the Temple. In contrast, our parasha begins to broaden the application of kedushat kehuna (the sanctity of priesthood) beyond the confines of the Temple, and informs us that a kohen remains a kohen even when he resides far from the Temple. The laws of ritual impurity are not exclusive to the kohen performing his duties in the Temple; the kohen would rarely encounter such situations there. Thus, when the Torah begins to relate to a class of kohanim rather than just the sons of Aharon, it is forced to acknowledge the reality of the kohen who lives in Dimona or in Tel Aviv. Rather than limiting his kedushat kehuna to his work in the Temple, the Torah provides for a kedushat kehuna which is an organic component of Knesset Yisrael. Unlike earlier parshiyot where the kohanim were a distinct entity from the rest of Benei Yisrael, designated only for the Temple, the kehuna now retains its sanctity and takes its place in the midst of Klal Yisrael. Therefore, to illustrate that the kedushat kehuna also functions away from the Temple, the Torah places the laws pertaining to kehuna in a section devoted primarily to Benei Yisrael in general.

We can demonstrate from other sources that the identity of a kohen consists of two components. The gemara (Yoma 66a) asks why the kohen gadol on Yom Kippur would mention "The sons of Aharon, your holy nation" in his first two viduyim (confessions), but in his third vidui, he referred solely to "Your nation, the House of Israel," and omitted reference to the sons of Aharon. The gemara responds that the kohanim are part of the House of Israel as well. kohanim are not just a distinct entity due to their duties in the Temple, but they exist as an organic component of Knesset Yisrael as well.

An additional difficulty in the beginning of this week's parasha also implies this dichotomy. After delineating the laws of ritual impurity for kohanim, the Torah proceeds to say: "They shall not make baldness on their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh," all of which are prohibitions which the Torah applies elsewhere to all of Benei Yisrael. Why, then, was it necessary to repeat these laws here? Aware of this problem, Rashi quotes a gemara (Kiddushin 36) which explains that by repeating these laws, the Torah was able to expose aspects of these laws that we would not otherwise have known. Nonetheless, why could the Torah not have outlined these nuances explicitly the first time? Apparently, by repeating these laws in the parasha dealing with kehuna, the Torah was demonstrating the relationship between kehuna and the rest of Benei Yisrael. Not only does kehuna exist as a distinct entity in the Temple, but it also thrives as a part of Klal Yisrael.

What is true for the functioning kohen is equally true for the spiritual kohen in all of us. The ben Torah, too, has a dual identity, akin to that of the kohen. We are defined by our presence within the four walls of the beit midrash, and even when we are not there, we have an obligation always to cling to and identify with a makom Torah (place of Torah). The beit midrash is our Temple, and we toil in it as the kohen does in his. However, when we leave the walls of the beit midrash behind us, our identity as a ben Torah remains unchanged. Much like the kohen in Tel Aviv, we remain a ben Torah, with all the responsibility that that implies.

(Originally delivered at Seuda Shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Emor 5757.)



To receive the sicha every week, write to:


[email protected]

With the message:


Subscribe yhe-sichot

This shiur is provided courtesy of the Virtual Beit Midrash, the premier source of online courses on Torah and Judaism - 14 different courses on all levels, for all backgrounds.

Make Jewish learning part of your week on a regular basis - enroll in the
Virtual Beit Midrash

(c) Yeshivat Har Etzion 1999. All rights reserved to Yeshivat Har Etzion.

Yeshivat Har Etzion
Alon Shvut, Israel, 90433
[email protected]