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What is a Kohen?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg


Library » Jewish Identity » Kohains and Levites » The Holy Tribe | Subscribe | What is RSS?


"Aaron was separated, to be sanctified as most holy, he and his sons forever, to burn incense before the Lord, to serve Him, and to bless in His name forever".1

Any Jew who is a direct descendant, son after son, from Aaron the Priest (Moses' brother), is a Kohen.

"Kohen" is a term of distinction which translates as "servant" or "nobleman." When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, and prior to that when the Tabernacle was in existence, the Kohen served as the representative of all the Jews, serving G-d by offering the sacrifices and performing all the Temple duties.

Originally all firstborn sons were eligible to be Kohanim and offer sacrifices. Yes, that's why Jacob willingly paid Esau the exorbitantly high price of a bowl of lentil soup for his birthright...

After the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d designated the tribe of Levi, the only tribe which remained faithful throughout the ordeal, to be His ministers as well as the teachers and mentors of the Israelites.

From amongst the Tribe of Levi G-d chose Aaron (Moses' brother) and his male paterilineal descendants to be the sole Kohanim. The rest of the Levites formed the Temple choir and orchestra, served as Temple watchmen and gatekeepers, and were the spiritual leaders of their Jewish brethren.

"You shall sanctify him, for he offers up the food offering of your God; he shall be holy to you."2  This verse instructs us to honor the Kohen whenever possible. For example, if a Kohen is present at a meal it is proper to serve him first and to honor him with leading the Grace After Meals. In the synagogue, if a Kohen is present he receives the first Aliyah to the Torah.


  • 1. I Chronicles 23:13.
  • 2. Leviticus 21:.


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History » The Holy Temples
History » The Holy Temples » Temple Personalities

Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Plural form of Kohain. Priests of G-d. This title belongs to the male descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses. The primary function of the Kohain was to serve in the Holy Temple. Today the Kohain is still revered and it is his function to recite the Priestly Blessings on certain occasions.
Grace After Meals
Biblically mandated prayer, consisting of four blessings, recited after eating more than an ounce of bread.
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Literally means to rise up. Has two popular meanings: 1. Being called up to the Torah scroll and recite the blessings when the Torah is being read. 2. To emigrate to the Holy Land.
Third of the three Patriarchs and father of the Twelve Tribes. Lived most his life in Canaan and died in Egypt in 1505 BCE. Also known by the name of "Israel."
Rogue son of Patriarch Isaac and Matriarch Rebecca. Elder twin of Patriarch Jacob.
Brother of Moses. First High Priest of Israel and progenitor of all Kohanim (priests) until this very day. Died in the year 1272 b.c.e.
Established by King David to be the eternal capital of Israel. Both Temples were built there, and the third Temple will be situated there when the Messiah comes.
Mobile sanctuary which traveled with the Jews in the desert, containing the Ark with the Tablets, and the sacrificial altars. When the Jews entered Israel, it was erected in the city of Shiloh where it remained for more than 300 years. It was buried when the permanent Holy Temple was erected in Jerusalem.
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.
1. Name of Patriarch Jacob's third son. 2. A Levite -- a Jew who is a patrilineal descendant of Levi. Levites had special duties in the Holy Temple, and are still accorded special respect.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.