The Cohen, Levi Service Groups - Mishmarot
The life's purpose of a Kohen and Levi is to serve in the Holy Temple, the Beit HaMikdash in Yerushalayim. In the time of the Temple, the Kohanim were organized into twenty-four mishmerot, watches or service groups, which insured every one an opportunity to serve.
On the festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot, all Kohanim served and shared equally in the public offerings. The Torah commands (Devarim 18:7) the establishment of a system that allocates the obligations and benefits of the Temple service equitably among all Kohanim. therefore, throughout the year, each mishmar served one week of a 24-week rotation. Each mishmar was subdivided into family units, known as a Beit Av, which served one day of the mishmar's week.
The members of the mishmar would gather in Yerushalayim for the week of their service. On Shabbat afternoon, the previous week's mishmar would depart and the new mishmar would assume its duties. Both would share in the eating of the 'Lechem HaPonim", the showbread. The departing mishmar would bless the incoming mishmar with the following blessing (Tamid 5:1, Brochot 12:A): "May He who causes His Presence to dwell in this House place among you love, brotherhood, peace and friendship."
The first mishmerot were established by Moses for the mishkan. Eight service groups were established from the descendants of Aaron HaKohen, four from Elazar and four from Itamar. In preparation for the Temple, King David and Shmuel HaNavi expanded the number to 24: sixteen from the descendants of Elazar and eight from Itamar. After the destruction of the First Temple and exile to Babylon, only four of the original mishmerot returned to Eretz Yisrael. From these four, Ezra HaSofer (HaKohen) regenerated the 24 mishmerot for service in the Second Temple.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, most Kohanim relocated north to the Galilee, mostly living together with their particular mishmar. For centuries after the destruction, the name of the mishmar of each week was announced in the synagogue, keeping alive the hope for the restoration of the Temple service. Kohanim who knew the time of their service refrained from drinking wine that day as a sign of belief that the Temple would be rebuilt and they would be called to service. Hopefully in the near future, the mishmerot will be re-established, perhaps by Eliayhu HaNavi (HaKohen) who will sort out geneology and resolve difficulties.
Meanwhile, in anticipation of the restoration of the Temple service and to demonstrate our longing for it, we Kohanim can begin to organize by establishing 24 groups of Kohanim in communities throughout Israel and the Jewish world, symbolic of the 24 mishmerot. Kohanim involved in learning and spiritual preparation for the Temple services can surely support its return.
If you are interested in participating in a "mishmar" of Kohanim in your area, the Center for Kohanim will happily assist with ideas and materials.