To Be or Not to Be a Kohen

Rabbi walking through a tunnel in Jerusalem.
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By Rabbi David Ackerman

Parshat Emor

A man walks into the rabbi’s study, visibly distressed. “Sit down,” says the rabbi. “What troubles you?”

“Rabbi,” he begins, “I’d like to make a major contribution to the synagogue, and in exchange I’d like for you to make me a kohen.” The rabbi responds, “‘I’m delighted by and grateful for your generous gift. However, I’m unable to make you a kohen.”

Immediately, the man offers to double his gift. Again the rabbi shares that he’s unable to make the man a kohen. The man offers to double his gift again, and again the rabbi indicates that he cannot make him a kohen. Finally, the rabbi asks, “Why, my friend, is it so important to you to be a kohen?”

“Well, rabbi,” says the man, “my father was a kohen, and so was his father before him. I’d like to be a kohen as well!”

In its sly and gentle way, our old joke gets at an essential lesson and idea. The biblical priesthood, of course, is hereditary. The son of a priest is, by definition, a priest. We maintain that concept, at least in name, to this day. I am a kohen, simply and only because my father is a kohen as was his father (and his father, etc.) before him. The fancy term for it is “ascribed status.” I did nothing to earn my status as a kohen; it was assigned to me at birth.

The man in our story operates on a different assumption. He imagines that priestly status is achieved. To his mind, one earns the title kohen by virtue of one’s merit or one’s generosity. Hence his willingness to double and even quadruple his gift. My father and my grandfather both supported their synagogues in myriad ways and both were recognized and acknowledged by their communities for their contributions. And both were routinely called to the Torah for the first aliyah, reserved in many congregations for a kohen.

Parshat Emor’s unusually worded opening verse offers interpreters an opportunity to reflect on different kinds of status. The rabbinic tradition, no surprise, privileges achieved status, even as it acknowledges the ascribed status of kohanim ancient and contemporary.

Emor opens with these words: “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them…” The verb “to say/speak” appears twice in our opening phrase and the kohanim are identified twice in two different ways. Is there a distinction between a priest and a “son of Aaron?”

The Talmud (Bavli, Yoma 71b) shares a delicious story about Shemaiah and Avtalyon, two early rabbinic figures, both converts to Judaism, and together the heads of the Sanhedrin — ancient Israel’s high court.

At the end of Yom Kippur one year they accompanied the High Priest home from the Temple. On the way, they attracted more of a crowd than did the Kohen Gadol on his own. Out of jealousy, it seems, the High Priest insulted Shemaiah and Avtalyon by referring to them as “the descendants of gentiles.” Their answer is both cutting and groundbreaking. “Welcome are the descendants of gentiles, who act after the manner of Aaron; and unwelcome is the descendant of Aaron, who does not act after the manner of Aaron.”

The rabbinic definition of the true or proper priesthood is based on merit and achievement and not on ascribed status. The real priests are individuals d’avdin uvda d’Aharon — who act after the manner of Aaron, literally who do Aaron’s deeds. For the rabbis, a priest is as a priest does. It is no accident, then, the prime rabbinic statement of practical ethics, Pirkei Avot, spells out what it means to be a spiritual, if not biological, descendant of Aaron the Priest. “Hillel taught: Be a disciple of Aaron — loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and attracting them to the study of Torah.”

Want to become a kohen, Talmudic style? Here’s the recipe — love and pursue peace, love people, share Torah. Following that practice paves the way for all of us to count among the “kingdom of priests and holy people” that is the people of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi David Ackerman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


  1. As someone who could take things way too literally, I always wondered about that joke. Technically, a person could have a father and a grandfather who are Kohanim, and not be a kohen himself. If the man had been told, “If your grandfather was a Kohen and your father was a Kohen, then of course you are a Kohen too,” and to that he replied, “Well, my mother told me I wasn’t, because she wasn’t always Jewish, but we converted, so that makes it ok, right?” — then how will you explain it?


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