Agents of Holiness

by Chanan Morrison

The Talmud in Nedarim 32b describes the kohanim as sheluchei didan. The kohanim act as our agents or emissaries as they perform the Temple service.

Yet this idea — that the kohanim act as agents for the Jewish people – appears to violate the legal definition of the powers of a shaliach. An agent acts on behalf of the one sending him (the principal), executing his wishes. The agent cannot do that which the principal himself is incapable of doing. So how can the kohanim perform the Temple service on our behalf, when non-kohanim are not permitted to serve in the Beit HaMikdash?

Potential vs. Actual

The parashah opens with special directives for kohanim: “God spoke to Moses: Tell the kohanim, the sons of Aaron…” (Lev. 21:1). Yet the text appears repetitive — “the kohanim, the sons of Aaron.” Do we not know that the kohanim are descended from Aaron?

These two terms — ‘kohanim’ and ‘sons of Aaron’ — indicate two different aspects of the special sanctity of kohanim. The first is an intrinsic holiness, passed down from father to son. The phrase “sons of Aaron” refers to this inherent sanctity.

The second aspect is an additional layer of holiness, one’s actual functioning as a kohen. This aspect is designated by the term ‘kohanim.’ (The verb lechahein means ‘to serve,’ so the word ‘kohanim’ indicates their actual service.) Thus the term “sons of Aaron” refers to their inherited potential, while ‘kohanim’ refers to their realized state of priestly service.

The Chalal

Usually a kohen will have both potential and actual kohanic-holiness. Yet there are certain situations that allow us to distinguish between the two.

A kohen is forbidden to marry a divorced woman. Should he nonetheless marry a divorcee, his son falls under a special category. He is called a chalal, from the word chilul, ‘to defile holiness.’ Despite his lineage, a chalal may not serve in the Temple.

Yet if a chalal went ahead and offered a korban, his offerings are accepted after the fact (Maimonides, Hilchot Bi’at Mikdash 6:10). This is quite surprising. In general, a chalal has the legal status of a non-kohen. If a non-kohen brought an offering, his service would be disqualified. Yet the offerings of a chalal are accepted after the fact. Why is this?

The distinction between potential and actual kohanic status, between “sons of Aaron” and ‘kohanim,’ allows us to understand the unusual status of a chalal. Due to the fact that he is the son of a divorcee, he has lost the realized sanctity of a functioning kohen. But he still retains the inherited sanctity of “sons of Aaron.” This intrinsic sanctity cannot be revoked. Therefore, while a chalal is not allowed to serve in the Temple, after the fact his offerings are accepted.

The Sages derived this ruling from Moses’ blessing of the tribe of Levi: “May God bless his strength (‘cheilo’), and favor the works of his hands” (Deut. 33:11). Even the works of those who are chulin, who have lost part of their kohanic-sanctity, are still acceptable to God (Kiddushin 66b).

(That a chalal falls under the category of “the sons of Aaron” but not ‘kohanim’ is seen in the Midrash Halachah quoted by Rashi. “One might think that chalalim are included? Therefore it says, ‘the kohanim'” – excluding chalalim from the special laws of kohanim.)

Our Agents

We may now understand the description of kohanim as sheluchei didan, ‘our agents.’ How can they be our emissaries in their Temple service when we ourselves are forbidden to perform this service?

In fact, the Torah speaks of the entire Jewish people as “a kingdom of kohanim” (Ex. 19:6). And Isaiah foresaw a future time in which

“You will be called God’s kohanim; they will speak of you as the ministers of our God” (Isaiah 61:6).

Non-kohanim may not serve in the Beit HaMikdash, for they lack the holiness of actual priesthood. Yet every Jew has a quality of potential kohanic-holiness. Because this inner holiness will be revealed in the future, the entire people of Israel are called ‘God’s kohanim.’ And it is due to this potential holiness that the kohanim are able to serve as our agents in the Temple service.

Israel’s Future Holiness

This understanding of the role of kohanim sheds a new light on the ceremony of birkat kohanim. The significance of their daily blessing is to awaken the latent kohanic-holiness that resides within the entire Jewish people. As the kohanim extend their arms to bless the people, they reach out to Israel’s future state of holiness. Their outstretched arms — their zero’a netuyah — point to a future era, whose seeds (“zera”) are planted in the present.

“Via the fixed sanctity of kohanim in the nation, the entire nation will come to be a complete ‘kingdom of kohanim and a holy people'” (Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 61)

(Adapted from Shemuot HaRe’iyah, Emor (1930))

Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison

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