by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Say to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, say to them: For the death of someone among his people he shall not become ritually impure; only for the blood-relations closest to him… (Leviticus/Vayikra 21:1-2)
kohanim (כֹּהֲנִים) = priests. (Singular: kohein, כֹּהֵן)
Thus this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), opens with instructions from God to the priests on avoiding ritual impurity as much as possible in their personal lives, including who they mourn for and who they marry. The haftarah (the weekly reading from the prophets) comes from the book of Ezekiel, and also warns that a priest must not marry a divorced women, enter a house where there is a corpse, or engage in mourning practices for anyone except his immediate blood relatives.
The details of the two warnings differ, but the general themes are the same, and support the idea that a priest must devote himself completely, body and soul, to the ritual service for God. (All priests were male.) According to both the book of Leviticus/Vayikra and the book of Ezekiel (Yechezkeil), that includes avoiding certain negative conditions as much as possible—physical conditions such as contact with a corpse, and psychological conditions such as the states of mind that arise in mourning, or in dealing with a wife who was divorced by her previous husband.
In the entire Hebrew Bible, priesthood is hereditary. And even today, men whose last name is “Cohen” share a genetic marker. The right genealogy was enough to qualify a man for service as a priest in both the portable sanctuary of Leviticus and the temple of Ezekiel. But both books insist that the priests must also observe certain rules of behavior in order to be “holy” and serve God properly.
The book of Ezekiel was written either by, or about, a man named Ezekiel who was exiled to Babylon, along with other Judahite officials, priests, and craftsmen, after the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and destroyed the first temple in 586 B.C.E. Ezekiel lived in a community of exiles on the Kedar Canal outside the city of Babylon, where he had a series of visions and became a prophet. The haftarah begins in the middle of one of Ezekiel’s visions, shortly after a divine guide has given Ezekiel the measurements for rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem.
And the priests of the Levites [who are] the children of Tzadok, who kept custody of My sanctuary while the children of Israel were straying away from Me, only they shall come close to Me to minister to Me, and they shall stand before Me to offer Me fat and blood—declares my lord, God. Only they shall come into My sanctuary, and only they shall come close to My table to minister to Me, and they shall keep My custody. (Ezekiel 44:15-16)
Tzadok (צָדוֹק) = Righteous one. From the same root as tzedek (צֶדֶק) = what is morally right or just.
In the book of Leviticus, all the descendants of Aaron (a man from the tribe of Levi who was the brother of Moses and the first high priest) qualify as priests who can perform the rituals involving incense and animal and grain offerings. Men in the tribe of Levi who are not descended from Aaron are classified as Levites, who assist the priests by transporting the (carefully wrapped) holy objects, and by guarding the portable sanctuary while it is erected. (Singing Levites are not mentioned until the first book of Chronicles.)
Ezekiel says that only the descendants of Tzadok will be priests when the temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt. Tzadok is a tenth or eleventh-generation descendant of Aaron through Aaron’s son Eleazar. He first appears in the second book of Samuel, where King David appoints him as one of two priests in Jerusalem, along with Evyatar. In the first book of Kings, after many adventures, King Solomon fires Evyatar and makes Tzadok the only high priest.
And the king placed Benayahu son of Yehoyada over the army instead of him [Yoav], and Tzadok ha-kohein the king placed instead of Evyatar. (I Kings 2:35)
ha-kohein (הַכֹּהֵן) = the priest; the high priest.
Aaron has numerous descendants; two of his four sons die childless in Leviticus, but the survivors, Eleazar and Itamar, father large dynasties. Why should the priesthood be limited to Tzadok’s branch of the family tree?
A later chapter in the book of Ezekiel explains:
…the holy contribution [of land] for the kohanim: on the north 25,000 [cubits] and on the west 10,000 and on the east 10,000 and on the south 25,000, and the holy place of God will be in its center. The holy place will be for the kohanim [descended] from Tzadok, who kept My custody, who did not stray continually [like] the Children of Israel or like the Levites. (Ezekiel 48:10-11)
Ezekiel implies that during the last years of the first temple in Jerusalem, there were two factions of priests. The Tzadokites stuck to the rules for serving God, but the other priests, as well as the Levites and the non-clergy, kept straying. A vision in chapter 8 of Ezekiel shows some priests as well as some Israelites worshipping other gods right on the temple grounds.
Scholars speculate that Ezekiel himself was a descendant of Tzadok, because his visions and prophecies focus on rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem and reinstating the traditional priestly rituals. Nothing else is important to him; the presence of God must once again have a home in Jerusalem.
In order to make God’s contact point on earth secure, the Tzadokites must be the only legitimate priests—not because of their lineage, but because they remained true to God and continued the ritual service of the God of Israel. And part of that service, in both the haftarah in Ezekiel and the Torah portion Emor, is maintaining a state of mind compatible with ritual purity.
Despite Ezekiel’s prophecy, non-Tzadokite priests were allowed to serve in the second temple once it was built in 538 B.C.E. But Tzadokites were the high priests of the second temple from the founding priest Ezra until 153 B.C.E., when the Romans appointed Jonathan Maccabaeus as both king and high priest of Judah.
During the past two millennia, since the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., almost all Jews have abandoned the idea of reinstating temple worship. Unlike Ezekiel, we do not believe that God needs one particular spot to bring the divine presence to earth.
We have also abandoned the idea of hereditary priesthood, except for a few minor customs. (Cohens get to do special blessings at services, and are supposed to stay out of cemeteries.) Instead of ritually pure technical experts who make temple offerings, we now want spiritual leaders such as rabbis to help us improve our inner selves and our prayers. Many Jews retain some practices having to do with ritual purity, such as keeping kosher. But holiness is now about divine inspiration and ethical behavior.
We can still aspire to be “a kingdom of priests” and priestesses, as Moses predicts in Exodus/Shemot 19:6. We can even aspire to be Tzadok the priest. But today, that means being tzaddikim, people who are righteous and ethical, like Tzadok—“Righteous One”.