Parashat Tetzaveh: The role and status of priesthood in Judaism

What are the roles of a Jewish Priest?

Birkat Kohanim at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Birkat Kohanim at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, deals with the status of priesthood in the Jewish nation. A large section of the portion focuses on the clothing worn by the kohanim, members of the priestly line, and describes it in great detail. Another section deals with the process of anointing Aaron and his sons to priesthood in the Temple.
The position of priesthood is not unique to the Jewish people. Every society in the ancient world had priests who performed rituals in various temples. But a look at the halachot (Jewish laws) pertaining to priesthood in the Torah reveals that the status of priesthood in Judaism was not only different from that in other religions, but was actually of an opposite orientation.
Furthermore, by looking at the halachot of priesthood, we can see that Judaism recognized that the status of priesthood could lead to arrogance, corruption and exploitation, and therefore it designed the lives and roles of the kohanim in a way that would enable them to avoid these pitfalls.
The status of priesthood in the ancient world was constructed by creating a mysterious halo around the priests. The widespread belief was that priests had superpowers connected to secret wisdom unavailable to the common man. This gave the priests in various societies tremendous social power. Occasionally, there were connections made between politics and religion when the king was also a priest, which made the power of the priesthood indisputable. Secret wisdom combined with political power gave the priests supreme power and reign in every stratum of society.
And what about in Judaism? Firstly, priesthood was completely and utterly separated from political rule. The monarchy was bequeathed to the tribe of Judah, and the priesthood to the tribe of Levi. In the Jerusalem Talmud (Horayot, chap. 3) we find a prohibition against anointing priests as kings. Taking away political power from kohanim was the first and important step in maintaining the priesthood’s moral integrity.
The second step was even more interesting. As opposed to the secret superpowers attributed to priests in ancient societies, in Judaism it was the opposite: Kohanim were given educational jobs to teach Torah to the entire nation.
In Moses’s blessing for the tribe of priesthood during his last days, he instructs them about their educational jobs: “They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob, and Your Torah to Israel” (Deuteronomy 33:10). In several places in the Bible, the role of kohanim is stated explicitly, as in the words of the prophet Malachi: “For a priest’s lips shall guard knowledge, and teaching should be sought from his mouth” (Malachi 2:7).
As for economic status, we also find the Torah placing serious limits on the kohanim. In most ancient societies, the priests accumulated great wealth by their control of temples. This wealth led to corruption. In Judaism, however when the Land of Israel was divided among the tribes, the only tribe that did not get a portion was Levi, the tribe of the priesthood, based on the explicit instruction in the Torah: “The Levitic kohanim, the entire tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel” (Deut. 18:1). In lieu of this, the tribe of Levi was given residences spread out around the land.
One cannot overstate the significance of this directive when speaking of an agricultural society. Simply put, in a society in which a person has no land, he is almost unable to sustain himself or his family and is subjected to a life of poverty. Judaism, of course, does not ask the kohanim to live in poverty, and the nation is commanded to sustain them through “gifts of priesthood” which include certain percentages of the crop yield. But it is important to note that these gifts were not earmarked for any specific kohen. If a certain city had a number of kohanim, they avoided a situation in which one kohen would get more gifts than another who would have to depend on the kindness of his neighbors. Materialistically, the status of kohanim was relatively inferior.
The Torah thus designed the priesthood such that it would not become rich or corrupt. It was not gifted with mysterious wisdom or other superpowers and was distanced from political rule. This social situation allowed the kohen to focus on his spiritual and educational role: working in the Temple during set times and being a spiritual leader for the entire nation.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.