In this week’s haftorah, some of the many (and I do mean many) specifications of the rights and
responsibilities of the kohanim are iterated in painstaking detail from how they shall dress in the
Temple, to whom they may marry (sorry, no divorcees), to personal care rituals like when and how
much they must trim their hair.
So who exactly are these special class of priests to whom all of these particulars apply? The lexicon gets
tricky because the Hebrew word, represented as kohain or kohen, just means “priest” and is used in
reference to both Jewish and non-Jewish priests. The Koanim referenced in the haftorah, however, are
not just Jewish priests, but those believed to be directly decendant from Aaron (Moses’ brother) and
who have special roles in the Temple. So for extra priesty priests, we’ll use Kohanim (with a capital K)
and for just regular priests, kohanim, no capital. Clear as mud? Let’s continue.
King David assigned 24 priestly clans of 6 priestly families per each group—each group served Temple
watch one week, each family serving a day, and the whole group of six coming to the Temple on
Shabbat. During festivals, all 24 groups (144 families!) were on duty at the Temple.
Since Aaron hails from the Tribe of Levi, all priests are Levites, but not all Levites are priests. Even
though Jewish heritage is matrilineal (i.e. if your mother was Jewish, you’re Jewish) the Kohanim are
specifically patrilineal descendants from Aaron (and so you were excluded if your branch of the family
tree came from Levi, son of Jacob, but not from Aaron). The Levites served other roles around the
Temple, but certain rituals were specifically iterated for Kohanim only.
After the Second Temple is destroyed, the Talmud suggests descendants of each of the 24 clans
established a separate residential seat in each town of Galilee, and did so for centuries in anticipation
of the next Temple and the resuming of the weekly watch cycles. Now that we’re no longer doing
the sacrificial services which required their formal role, only some special roles are still maintained
in Orthodoxy (and some Conservative communities) though not, generally, in Reform Judaism. In
Orthodox customs, a Kohen is called for the first aliyah, a Levite the second, and any other Tribe the
last; or if you don’t happen to have a Kohen handy, a Levite takes the first as “aliyah bimkom Kohen” (in
place of a Kohen), but the whole Kohens-read-first rule is tradition and not part of the Jewish law.
Casey (Kefira) McCarty is a published author living in Ohio. She is the Assistant Director of the Columbus Idea Foundry, a community workshop space, and is an artisan who crafts jewelry, Judaica and fine art available online and in Central Ohio galleries and boutiques. You can find her online shop at www.sinemetudesigns.etsy.com