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Thursday, 27 March 2014

Is your cohen status tying you down?

Sukkah 51

“Rabbi, my son Harry is going to call you.  He’s been seeing a young lady and they’re talking about marriage.  I told him he needs to speak to you.”
By the tone of Hayley’s voice, it was obvious something was amiss.  Off the bat, I assumed that Harry’s girlfriend wasn’t Jewish.  Hayley hadn’t asked me to try to stop Harry, so I figured the discussion would be about conversion.

Harry called the next day, sounding agitated.  “Rabbi, Charlotte and I want to get married, but she’s not Jewish.” 
Aha, I knew it.  “So you’re calling me because you want to talk about conversion?” I asked, almost rhetorically.
“No, it’s not that,” replied Harry, “I’m a cohen and my mom says that I can’t marry Charlie even if she converts.  Is that right?”
“Yes, your mom’s right,” I responded, a little taken aback by the unexpected direction the conversation had taken.
“But isn’t there something I could do to undo my cohen status?  I heard that sometimes the rabbi can annul it or something.  Shouldn’t we just be happy that Charlie is ready to do whatever it takes to be Jewish?”

The members of the tribe of Levi were the cantors and choir in the Holy Temple.  Who played the instruments?  Rabbi Chanina ben Antignos maintains that the musicians were also Levites.  

Rabbi Yossi, however, has a tradition that the instrumentalists were Israelites from the Beis Hapegarim and Beis Tzipriya families from the town of Emaum.  These special Israelites were chosen because they could trace their lineage all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, and their daughters were fit to marry kohanim (members of the priestly cohen family).   When the kohanim would see these musicians on the platform playing, they would automatically know that they could marry their daughters, without needing to investigate their lineage.

A cohen may not marry a convert.  He may not marry a divorcee.  And he may not marry someone who has had a prior relationship with a non-Jew.  Many people feel that this is way too demanding.  Isn’t it hard enough to find someone Jewish to marry, without having to pile on all these additional burdensome antiquated restrictions?

Listen to the description offered by Rabbi Yossi!  The Beis Hapegarim and Beis Tzipriya families prided themselves on their ability to intermarry with the families of kohanim.  They were famous for how well they maintained their family records and instilled values of chastity into their daughters.  And the kohanim in turn would watch to see who was called up to the honour of playing the Temple instruments, knowing that these individuals were worthy of marrying into the priestly family.

If you’re a cohen, it’s not a liability; on the contrary, it’s an incredible honour!  It’s not about ‘how do I fix this annoying extra thing that G-d has burdened me with?’ like it’s some rare disease you have to deal with!   

So why does the average cohen feel burdened by his status?

In an effort to combat racism and intolerance, as a nation we have unceasingly preached our belief in the equality of all human beings.  But then we don’t understand why seventy percent of our children have no issue with intermarriage.  ‘If everyone is equal in the eyes of G-d, then what difference does it make who I marry?’

Our belief that we are G-d’s chosen people does not stand in contradiction to our ideal of tolerance for all peoples.  We must instill both of these values in our children.  We can and must be tolerant and loving of all humankind – all children of Adam and Eve who were created in the image of G-d.  And yet at the same time, we believe and must imbue our children with the pride of knowing that G-d chose Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah and their offspring, the nation of Israel, for a higher calling.

Likewise, within our nation, there is a subset of people who were summoned by the Almighty to an even higher calling.  Aaron’s family was singled out to serve in the Tabernacle, and later the Holy Temple, as kohanim (priests).   This Divine calling is an awesome honour, but at the same time, an awesome responsibility. 

Rabbi Yossi is teaching us what an incredible honour it is, to marry off one’s daughter to a cohen!  Likewise, our Sages teach that a cohen should only marry off his daughter to a Torah scholar.  Intermarrying with the priestly family must not be taken lightly. 

What’s more, it’s not only about marriage; it’s about the reverence and esteem in which we hold our kohanim generally.  As we all know, they are offered the first Torah reading, they must be honoured with the leading of the Grace After Meals and similarly we must look for any other opportunity to accord them with the honour they deserve. 

Many of us eagerly await Yom Tov to receive the priestly blessing, as the kohanim ascend the duchan. But you don’t have to wait for the festival – you can approach a cohen anytime and request a blessing for yourself and your children!  The kohanim were chosen by G-d as conduits for His blessing!

Sadly, that’s not the attitude most of us have.  We treat kohanim just like anybody else.  We’ve forgotten what respect even means.  And so it’s no wonder that most kohanim don’t feel it’s an honour to be a cohen.  Instead they just feel it’s a pain in the neck.  What a tragedy!

If you are a cohen, you are the recipient of an unbelievable Divine blessing!  It’s not a burden, it’s a calling!  You were chosen by G-d to serve Him and fortunate is the young lady who merits your hand in marriage! 


And if you are not a cohen, ask yourself, ‘Am I treating the kohanim in my life with the respect they deserve?  And am I instilling in my children the value of marrying into the family of Aaron?  Am I doing my part to ensure that kohanim feel that G-d has blessed them with His choice?’