Cohen-Levi: The Tribe, the Family Heritage

Temple Studies

Order of the Temple Service

Temple Functions and the Kohanim

A. The Kohen Gadol (High Priest)

1. From the time of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) through the time of the Second Temple, one Kohen was appointed by the Sanhedrin, the High Court, to be the Kohen Gadol - the Chief of the Kohanim. The Torah refers to the Kohen Gadol as “the Kohen who is great (gadol) from among his brothers” (Vayikra 21:10). From this we learn that the qualifications for this most honoured position included his being stronger, wealthier, wiser, and more handsome than his brother Kohanim. If an otherwise qualified candidate lacked wealth, the other Kohanim gave from their wealth to make him the wealthiest.

2. At the death of the Kohen Gadol, his son or next of kin was appointed in his place provided the relative was himself a worthy replacement.

3. A new Kohen Gadol would be initiated in a seven-day ceremony. Each day of the ceremony, he would be dressed in the eight garments of the Kohen Gadol and, when it was available, anointed with a specially prepared oil. When the oil was not available, wearing the garments would be sufficient to consecrate him. The new Kohen Gadol was required to bring a special Inauguration Mincha Offering upon entering his new position.

4. The Kohen Gadol acquired an extra level of holiness as was reflected in the additional mitzvot associated with his office. For example, he was required to be married and, if he married while in office, he could only marry a virgin. He was not allowed to become spiritually impure through contact with death even for his closest relatives.

Another expression of his added holiness was that the Kohen Gadol was given quarters in the Temple complex and generally remained in the Mikdash all day.

5. The Kohen Gadol had the option of performing any or all of the duties in the Mikdash. He could choose, for example, to offer the Incense or Light the Menorah, to process any Korban , or take for himself any of the sacrificial portions eaten by the Kohanim.

6. The Kohen Gadol was responsible for the spiritual level of the Jewish People. He needed to pray for Divine mercy for his generation that no evil or misfortune befell. He bore the moral weight of the people on his shoulders and chest -- symbolized by the gemstones he wore displaying the names of the tribes of Israel.

7. On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol alone performed all the essentials of the Service. He personally processed all of the sixteen animal offerings of the day. On this holiest of days, the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies to offer the Incense before the place of the Holy Ark. The Service of Yom Kippur through the efforts of the Kohen Gadol brought atonement and spiritual cleansing for the people.

B. The Temple Administration

The Mikdash was a very busy place which required a thorough and efficient organization. The Kohanim families were organized in mishmarot - service groups, and batei avot - family houses, each with its particular chief executive officer. The Temple administration was a hierarchical one descending in authority from the Kohen Gadol. The assistance to the Kohen Gadol was the Segan. Under the Segan was his assistant under whom were seven supervisors who held the keys to the inner courtyard. Three treasurers oversaw the donations and financial obligations of the Temple. Various essential operations of the Temple required full time officials and their staff. In the Second Temple, the following officiated:

1. The official time manager. He announced the times of the offerings for the Kohanim, Levi’im, and Yisraelites to be prepared for their particular duties.

2. The official gatekeeper. Only upon his order were the gates of the Temple opened and closed accompanied by three trumpet blasts.

3. Chief of the watchmen. The Temple was guarded in three inner areas by Kohanim and in twenty-one outer areas by Levi’im. Each night he would check on the guards. If he found anyone asleep on the watch, he could strike them or even set fire to their cloaks.

4. The choral master. He chose the Levi’im who were to stand on the platform in the Inner Courtyard to recite Psalms accompanied by music while certain Communal Offerings were brought. At his signal, the music began.

5. The orchestra conductor. He appointed the players of musical instruments to accompany the Levi’im singers.

6. Administrator of the draws. The Kohanim were appointed to their particular services through the use of a system of draws or lotteries. He was responsible for the four draws which took place each day.

7. The manager of bird offerings. He provided the doves and pigeons purchased by people wishing to bring a bird offering. He was regularly reimbursed by the Temple treasurer.

8. The director of the voucher system. When someone wished to bring an offering of either an animal or Mincha - flour and oil or wine - he would pay for the required items and receive a voucher. He would then present this voucher to have his particular offering processed by the Kohanim.

9. Gastrointestinal specialist. A stomach doctor and staff were required to treat the Kohanim who became ill due to the large quantities of meat they ate and the chill they contacted by going barefoot and wearing only relatively lightweight Kohen garments.

10. A water expert. His job was to provide sufficient clean water for the Temple use as well as for the residents and millions of visitors to Jerusalem each year.

11. The supervisor of the Showbread preparation. He oversaw the preparation and baking of the twelve loaves of Showbread which were placed on the Golden Table in the Sanctuary.

12. The supervisor of the Incense preparation. He was the keeper of the secret formula for the mixing and preparation of the ketoret which was offered daily on the Inner Golden Altar.

13. The chief of tapestry weavers. There were thirteen very large woven curtains hanging at the various doorways in the Second Temple. Two of these, those above the entrance to the Holy of Holies, were replaced with new ones each year. The weaving of these enormous tapestries required great skill.

14. The supervisor of the Kohanim’s garments. He oversaw the weaving of the special clothing for the Kohanim as well as its distribution and storage.

C. The well-dressed Kohen - the Clothing of the Kohanim

1. The garments of the Kohanim were to be “for honour and beauty” (Shemot 28:2). They were to be physically beautiful and honourable to those who wore them. In particular, they were to give honour to God in Whose house and in Whose service they were worn.

2. There were three types of Kohanim’s garments:
  a. the four garments of the regular Kohen
  b. the eight garments of the Kohen Gadol
  c. the four white garments worn by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur.

3. The very making of the Kohen’s garments is itself a Mitzvah. They were made with materials purchased with public funds and woven to the particular measurements of each Kohen. The garments were woven completely on a loom rather than being sewn together, except for the sleeves of the tunic. Each thread of the weave was spun from six separate strands.

The following are the materials which were used in the making of the garments:
  a. bod - natural white linen derived from the soaked and beaten stalk of the flax plant.
  b. techelet - wool dyed dark sky-blue using a dye obtained from a Hilazon, a sea mollusk.
  c. argamon - wool dyed scarlet red
  d. tolat sheni - wool dyed dark red using a dye obtained from a type of worm.

4. The following are the garments of the regular Kohen:
  a. ktonet - tunic. The tunic was a long pullover garment which reached to the Kohen’s ankle. The sleeves reached to the palm of his hand. It was made from linen in a textured weave.
  b. michnasayim - pants. Linen knee-length pants were worn under the tunic. They fastened at the waist by means of a drawstring.
  c. magbat - turban. The head covering was formed from a strip of white linen which was approximately 8 yards long and 2 inches wide. This strip was wrapped to form a cone-shaped hat.

  d. avnet - belt. The belt was a strip of material about 16 yards long and 2 inches wide wrapped outside the tunic just below the level. The belt was made from pure linen or was an admixture of linen and wool.

5. The eight garments of the Kohen Gadol were known as the Golden Garments. Four of these were basically the same as the four garments of the regular Kohen. Those garments specific to the Kohen Gadol were as follows:
  a. me’il - this garment was similar to a long version of the talit katan which is worn today. It reached down to a few inches above the bottom of the tunic. It was woven from twelve-stranded threads of pure sky-blue wool. At its bottom edge was an alternating series of small golden bells and woven pomegranates.
  b. ephod - this was a long vest or apron-like garment. It was worn above the me’il. At each shoulder was attached a gemstone. Inscribed on each gemstone were the names of six of the tribes of Israel. The ephod was woven from seven-stranded threads of each of the four materials interwoven with a strand of gold to create a tapestry-like effect.
  c. hoshen - breastplate. This remarkable garment was woven in the same manner as the ephod. The breastplate was rectangular in shape, about 18 inches long and nine wide. On its upper half were four rows of gold settings in which were mounted 12 gemstones. On each of the gemstones, was engraved the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. The bottom half was folded under to form a pocket into which were placed the urim and tumim. These were written names of God which gave the gemstones the energy to light up in response to questions posed to the Kohen Gadol who was wearing it. The breastplate was attached by gold chains to the ephod and was attached at the waist by two strands of sky-blue wool.

  d. tzitz - golden headband. This was a narrow string of gold which was worn on the forehead. It extended above one ear to the other. The phrase “Holy to God” was written on it in elevated letters. The headband was tied to the Kohen Gadol’s forehead by means of sky-blue ribbons which were attached to the ends and at the middle of the headband passing over the Kohen’s turban.

6. For the Yom Kippur Service, the Kohen Gadol wore a set of four white linen garments. These were of the same types as the garments of the regular Kohen, but made of a specially prepared pure white linen.

7. The Kohen was only allowed to wear precisely these garments during his service. If he wore any other garment or lacked one of the required garments, his service was invalid. The garments also had to be worn with no extraneous object interfering between them and the Kohen’s body. While serving, Kohanim were allowed to wear head tefillin, but not arm tefillin.

8. The Kohen was required to don his garments in a specific order. The Regular Kohen first put on the pants while still wearing his non-sanctified clothing. He then put on the tunic and wrapped his belt around it. Lastly, he put on his turban.

The Kohen Gadol would dress in his pants, tunic and belt. Afterwards, he placed the me’il over these. He then dressed in the ephod tying it at the waist. He would then attach the breastplate to the ephod and tie its waistband. He would then place his turban on his head. Finally, he would place the headband on his forehead.

9. Not only were the Kohen’s garments manufactured and worn according to exacting standards, but they were to be maintained to high standards as well. This was true to such an extent that if the garments were ill fitting, torn or soiled, the service performed while they were worn was rendered invalid. The garments of a regular Kohen, which became unsuitable for the service, were made into wicks. The pants and belts were used for the large oil lamps of the Outer Courtyard and the tunics for the Golden Menorah. The used garments of the Kohen Gadol were put away, never to be used again.

10. There was no footwear in the Temple. The Kohen’s feet had to be in direct contact with the floor of the sanctified areas. As with Moshe at the burning bush and Joshua in God’s presence, wherever the Shechina, the Divine Presence is manifest, it is necessary to go without shoes.

11. The Kohen’s garments had spiritual qualities in themselves. Each garment was in itself an atonement for the sins of the people. The tunic atones for wrongful shedding of blood. The pants atones for immodest behaviour. The turban atones for arrogance. The belt atones for improper thoughts. The wearing of these unique garments was a necessary requirement for the Temple Service.

Only when a Kohen was dressed in his proper uniform was he permitted to serve in the Temple and any service performed by an improperly dressed Kohen was invalid.

D. Requirements for Kohanim to do service in the Temple.

1. The Sanhedrin HaGadol, the Supreme Court of the Jewish People, was located in the Temple complex. Among their main activities were to rule on topics connected with the Temple Service and to determine the genealogical suitability and fitness for service of the Kohanim. If the Sanhedrin, upon concluding its investigation, did not disqualify a Kohen, "he would dress in white and wrap himself in white (garments of a Kohen) and enter the Sanctuary to serve with his brother Kohanim."

"A celebration would be made on a day that the Sanhedrin found no disqualifications among the Kohanim. thus they would say 'Bless be God, blessed be He, that no disqualification has been found in the sons of Aharon. Blessed be He who chose Aharon and his sons to stand and serve before Him in His most Holy Temple’” (Mishna Midot, 5:4).

2. Disqualifying Physical Blemishes
  a. a Kohen, as a representative of God before the People and of the People before God, needed to be physically whole and without blemish to serve in the Temple. The Temple was a place of perfection, of raising physical life to the spiritual plane. Therefore, the Kohanim, as agents of this process, needed to be free of physical imperfections as well. Just as the service vessels had to be whole and undamaged, so too the Kohen.
  b. source - “He who has a blemish shall not approach to make offerings to God” (Vayikra 21:17).
  c. both permanent and temporary blemishes disqualified the Kohen from serving. If a blemished Kohen did serve inside the holy area of the Temple, his service was disqualified and he was liable to be lashed.
  d. If a Kohen who, although genealogically sound, was found to possess a physical blemish, he was assigned the task of checking wood outside the Inner Temple area. He was nonetheless entitled to a full share in eating the Kohens’ portions of the Offerings.
  e. The list of disqualifying blemishes was a extensive one. According to Maimonides, based on the Mishna and Talmud, there was a total of 140 disqualifying blemishes: 90 unique to man and 50 which also disqualified sacrificial animals.
The general principle was that any abnormality of any bodily feature, even one involving a part of the body which is usually covered, would disqualify a Kohen. Only external blemishes would disqualify a Kohen, but not an abnormality in an internal organ.
  f. In addition to such obvious conditions as a missing or deformed limb, bodily disqualifications include, for example, a completely bald head, a complete lack of facial hair, mismatched features, and a nose which is too long or too short. Generally, the right sized nose is equal to the length of the person’s little finger.
  g. Also a defect in some physical features, such as missing teeth, may disqualify a Kohen due to the problematic appearance it creates. It is told of Rabbi Kahaneman, a Kohen and the founder of the Ponevitch Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, that even at the age of eighty, he refused to have a painful tooth removed, not wanting to create a possible disqualifying blemish, in the hope that the Temple Service would be restored in his lifetime.

3. The list of factors which invalidate the Temple Service is not limited to the genealogy and the physical condition of the Kohen. According to Maimonides, the Temple Service is invalid if it is performed by:
  a. one who is not genealogically a Kohen
  b. one who has practiced idolatry
  c. one who has one of the 140 specific physical blemishes
  d. one who not circumcised
  e. one who is spiritually impure
  f. one who, having purified himself, must still wait until sunset before serving
  g. one who, having purified himself, must still bring his required sacrifice
  h. one who is involved with the burial of a close relative
  i. one who is intoxicated
  j. one who is lacking one of the required garments
  k. one who is wearing more than the required garments
  l. one whose garments are unkempt or disarrayed
  m. one in need of a haircut
  n. one who has not properly washed his hands and feet
  o. one who performs the Service while sitting
  p. one who has any object between his bare hands and Service vessels
  q. one who has any object between his bare feet and the Temple’s floor
r. one who performs the Service with his left hand.

E. Gifts to the Kohen

1. Source - Devorim 18:3,4. “And this shall be the Kohanim’s due from the People: (portions) from the slaughtered animals..., the first of your grains, wine and oil; the first fleece from your flock - give to him”.

2. The Torah requires the Jewish people to give the Kohanim twenty-four classes of gifts. Most of these were connected with the Temple and the service of the Kohanim at the Temple. Others were given to any kosher and mitzvah-observant Kohen.

3. The descendants of Levi, unlike the other tribes of Israel, have no inherited portion in the Land. The cities of the Levi’im, which served as refuge areas, were scattered throughout the tribes. Therefore, to allow the Kohen and the Levi to be free to perform their Holy Service in the Temple and to serve as teachers and leaders, it was necessary to provide them with a source of sustenance.

4. Support of the Kohanim by the people created a direct bond between the people and the Temple through the Kohanim.

5. The giving of these gifts gave the people an opportunity to elevate the fruits of their labour by returning a portion of their bounty to the service of God. Thus, they were encouraged to focus on God’s involvement in their daily lives.

6. Each Kohen had an equal right to receive the gifts, though the giver could choose the Kohen to whom he would give them.

7. A Kohen also removed the gift portions from his produce after which he could take the gifts for himself.

8. The following is a list of the twenty-four gifts given to the Kohanim.
  a. The gifts which must be given in the Temple area were certain portions of the following:
    i. an animal brought as a sin-offering
    ii.a bird brought as a sin-offering
    iii. a burnt-offering
    iv. an offering for uncertain guilt
    v. a peace offering
    vi.the olive oil offering of a metzora
    vii. the two loaves of bread brought on Shavuot
    viii. the showbread
    ix. the mincha offerings
    x. the Omer
b. The gifts which must be given within the walls of Jerusalem were:
the firstborn of any domestic kosher animal
    xii. the bikurim - first fruits
    xiii. the inner organs of certain offerings
    xiv. the skins of certain offerings
  c. The gifts given also outside Jerusalem were:
    xv. tru’ma - a portion of the Harvest
    xvi. tru’ma ma’aser - a tithe of the Levi’s tithe
    xvii. challah - a portion of bread dough
    xviii. the first shearing of the sheep
    xix. the right front leg, the jaw, and the stomach of all non-sanctified ritually slaughtered domestic animals
    xx. pidyon HaBen - five silver sheqels for the redemption of a firstborn Israelite son
    xxi. a sheep or goat given for the redemption of a firstborn donkey
    xxii. a property or possession dedicated to the Temple without specifying to which use it is to be given
    xxiii. inherited fields which were dedicated to the Temple and not reclaimed
    xiv. theft repayment to a convert who has died leaving no heirs.

F. A life of Purity

The life of the Jewish nation, and particularly that of the Kohanim, Levi’m and their families, was and will be considerably different with the Temple standing. All Jews are required to come to the Temple at least three times a year, Pesach, Shavuot and Succot, to bring holiday offerings and to rejoice with all of Israel in God’s presence. Kohanim and Levi’im served in the Temple at least twice a year besides on the holidays. The City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were filled with people making the pilgrimage and bringing their Offerings. Throughout the year, Jews needing to bring a Sin or Guilt-Offering or wishing to offer a Peace or Elevation-Offering would travel to the Temple.

In order to enter the Temple, and particularly to bring an offering, a person had to be in a state of spiritual purity. As one came closer to the holy areas of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the Temple Courtyard and the Inner Courtyard, increasingly stricter requirements of spiritual purity were in force.

The Torah outlines the particular situations which cause tumah, spiritual impurity. These can be broadly classified as resulting from:
a. contact with death, human or animal
b. bodily discharges and skin conditions
c. ritual actions which cause impurity

The entire subject of tahara and tumah, ritual purity and impurity, is one of Divine decree beyond full comprehension on the mundane level. Generally, impurity is related to the loss of life-giving potential, causing a seeming void of spiritual presence, a seeming negation of Divinity. Therefore, a person needs to rectify his condition before he can approach the Temple or other sanctified objects.

Some conditions of tumah are strong enough to spread a secondary or tertiary level of impurity. This contamination can be passed either by touching, carrying, being under the same roof, walking over, swallowing, or through sexual relations, depending on the source of the tumah. People, vessels, clothing, food and dwellings are all liable to tumah, again depending on the source of the impurity.

Each of these tumah conditions has its specific remedy. For many tumah conditions, the required remedy is immersion in a mikveh, a body of water from a natural source. At the time of the following sunset, a tahor state was regained. A person or object which became impure through contact with a dead body, the most severe level of tumah, was required to undergo a seven-day procedure which required the application of the ‘waters-of-purity’, a special purifying solution containing the ashes of a red heifer. He then immersed in a mikveh and with the sunset of the seventh day, became tahor once again.

Another function of the Kohen related to the problem of tumah is that of determining the existence of tsarat, a spiritually caused condition which affected people’s skin or hair as well as clothing and dwellings. It was only a Kohen who could declare the condition of tsarat. He also performed the purification procedure and it was he who could declare the condition as passed, restoring a status of ritual purity.

The life of the Kohen at the time of the Mikdash was greatly affected by the laws of taharah. A Kohen could not serve in the Mikdash if he was in a state of tumah. The Truma, offerings of food from the people which were given to the Kohanim, had to be kept ritually pure and could only be consumed by a Kohen or members of his household who were in a tahor state. This applied also to kodshim, the meat of animals sanctified as offerings.

To live a life of ritual purity, it is necessary to have available the waters-of-purity, to have a mikveh available, and to avoid places and people which might cause impurity.

Temple Studies