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About the High Priests from Aharon Hakohen to Eily Hakohen
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The Torah portion of Tetzaveh describes the clothes of the Kohanim Gedolim (High Priests) and those of the regular Kohanim as well as the inauguration process by which they took their positions. This article will focus on the Kohanim Gedolim in our early history and on some of their accomplishments.
Choosing a Kohen Gadol
The Rambam writes, “A High Priest is appointed to serve as the head of all the priests. He is anointed with the anointing oil and clothed in the garments of the High Priest, as the verse states: ‘And the priest who was elevated over his brethren, over whose head was poured the anointment oil.’ If there is no anointment oil (this oil was hidden in the time of King Yoshiyahu), he is initiated into this office merely by wearing the garments of the High Priest, as the above verse states: ‘Over whose head was poured the anointment oil and who was initiated to wear the garments.’ The implication is that just as he is initiated with the anointment oil, so too, he is initiated with the garments of the High Priesthood.”
“The High Priest must surpass all of his priestly brethren in beauty, power, wealth, wisdom, and appearance. If he does not have wealth of his own, all of his priestly brethren should give him according to their financial capacity until he is wealthier than all of them.” In addition, the High Priest had to also surpass his brethren in the fear of God.
The first Kohen Gadol was Moshe Rabeinu’s brother, Aharon HaKohen. Moshe Rabeinu himself was also considered a Kohen Gadol, at least temporarily.
Before Aharon passed away, he removed his priestly garments and placed them on his son Elazar. Thus Aharon saw his son assume his position during his lifetime. The Midrash adds that while Aharon was alive, he became impure, and his son Elazar served as the Kohen Gadol. During that time, Elazar, too, became impure, and Itamar (Aharon’s youngest son) served as the Kohen Gadol. This explains the verse “Elazar and Itamar, however, served as kohanim in the presence of Aharon, their father.”
Elazar, son of Aharon HaKohen served as the Kohen Gadol for the final few months of the Jewish people’s stay in the desert as well as for several decades after the Jewish people entered the land of Israel. Prior to his father’s passing, Elazar sacrificed the Red Heifer (Parah Aduma) in the desert. During the time that they were conquering and dividing the land (which took 14 years), the Mishkan was erected in Gilgal. After that it was erected in a more permanent manner in Shiloh. (The walls were made of stone though the roof was still made of tapestry.) presided over the division of the land using the Urim Vetumim, the priestly breastplate, as described in the Book of Joshua. According to the Talmud, he wrote part of the last chapter of the Book of Joshua. His passing is described there, “And Elazar, the son of Aharon, died; and they buried him in the hill of Pinchas, his son, which was given to him in Mount Ephraim.”
Pinchas, the son of Elazar, became the Kohen Gadol after his father passed away. He had been granted priesthood when he killed Zimri and Kozbi during the plague in the plains of Moav. Some say he was blessed at that time to eventually become a Kohen, but that he did not actually receive that status until he made peace between the tribe of Reuven and the other tribes. While in the desert, he was already appointed to be the Kohen in charge of warfare. He was one of the spies sent by Yehoshua to spy on the city of Jericho.He was sent by G-d to reprimand the Jewish people on several occasions. He was the Kohen Gadol with whom the tribes consulted before going to war with the tribe of Binyamin. The verse refers to him as an angel because, when the Divine inspiration rested on him, his face resembled a flaming torch. He wrote the final verse of the Book of Yehoshua, describing the passing of his father.
The sages say that Pinchas was partially responsible for the tragedy that occurred with the daughter of Yiftach. The Book of Judges describes how her father Yiftach had made a vow while in battle that if he was successful, he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house. Yiftach was expecting that it would be an animal. In fact, upon his return from his victory, it was his daughter, his only child, who came out to greet him “with timbrels and dancing.” The verse recounts that, with his daughter’s permission, Yiftach fulfilled his vow. The commentaries say that he did not, G-d forbid, actually sacrifice her, but rather he dedicated her to G-d, forbidding her to marry and secluding her from people so that she could serve G-d in solitude for the rest of her life. The Midrash says that Yiftach could have annulled this vow by going to Pinchas, the Kohen Gadol, but that he did not do so as he felt that Pinchas should come to him since he was the leader. Pinchas, on the other hand, did not go to Yiftach to annul the vow as he felt that Yiftach should come to him since he was the Kohen Gadol. Between the two of them, the girl was lost. As a result of this, Pinchas’ Divine Inspiration left him. For two hundred years, he did not have Divine Inspiration.
The Line of Elazar
The verses in Chronicles list the descendants of Elazar until the final Kohen Gadol of the first Temple was taken into captivity to Babylonia. However, not all of these men were Kohanim Gedolim, as for several generations the position was removed from the family and given to the descendants of Itamar as explained below. Here is the above-mentioned list.
“Eleazar begot Pinchas: Pinchas begot Avishua. And Avishua begot Bukki, and Bukki begot Uzzi. And Uzzi begot Zerachiah, and Zerachiah begot Meraiot. Meraiot begot Amariah, and Amariah begot Achituv. And Achituv begot Tzadok, and Tzadok begot Achima’atz. And Achima’atz begot Azariah, and Azariah begot Yochanan. And Yochanan begot Azariah; he is the one who served in the Temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem. And Azariah begot Amariah, and Amariah begot Achituv. And Achituv begot Tzadok, and Tzadok begot Shallum. And Shallum begot Chilkiah, and Chilkiah begot Azariah. And Azariah begot Seriah, and Seriah begot Yehotzadak. And Yehotzadak went when the L-rd exiled Judah and Jerusalem by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar.”
The historian Josephus Flavius, in his book Antiquities of the Jews (book 5, 11:5), writes that Avishua, Bukki and Uzzi served as Kohanim Gedolim, at which point that position went to the Eily, the High Priest (see below), who was a descendant of Itamar. It stayed in his family until Shlomo HaMelech built the first Bait HaMikdash at which point it went back to the descendants of Elazar (to the family of Tzadok).
Our sages say that when the Kehunah Gedolah was given to the family of Elazar, G-d had intended it to remain in his family eternally. But during the tragic saga of Pilegesh Begivah (see Book of Judges 19 and 20 for the story of the rape and murder of a woman which led to civil war between Binyamin and the other 11 tribes), a majority of the Jewish people ceased observing the mitzvot. This was considered the fault of Pinchas, the Kohen Gadol, and the other leaders who should have gone around from city to city to reprove them. G-d therefore took the position from their family and gave it to Itamar’s descendants. This too was supposed to remain in that family eternally. But, as a result of the sins of Eily’s sons (see below), the position was removed from his family and restored to the descendants of Elazar.
Eily the Kohen
Eily HaKohen was the last Kohen Gadol in Shilo as on the day of his death the Mishkan in Shilo was destroyed. According to Josephus, Eily became the leader on the day the mighty Shimshon passed away. The Midrash says that on his first day as Kohen Gadol, Chana came to Shilo to pray for a child. This may have been one and the same day. Alternatively, he may have become the spiritual leader (shofet) on the day Shimshon passed away and the Kohen Gadol on the day Chana prayed, since according to our sages, Eily was a both a leader, the Kohen Gadol, and the head of the Sanhedrin. (Many of the laws of prayer are derived from the conversation that Eily had with Chana after she prayed for a child.) Chana brought her son Shmuel to Eily at the tender age of two at which point Eily became his mentor and teacher. Unfortunately, Eily’s sons were not as righteous as he was. (Their sins are described in the second chapter of the Book of Shmuel I.) Eily was considered responsible for their sins as he did not sufficiently rebuke them. A man of G-d (identified by the sages as Elkanah) therefore prophesized dire punishments for his family. Indeed, the Talmud records that the male descendants of Eily would all die by the age of 18 unless they studied Torah and/or practiced acts of kindness, in which case they would live longer.
May we soon merit to the reestablishment of the Kehunah Gedolah, speedily in our times!
 I prepared this article with the help of a book called Toldot HaKohanim HaGedolim (published in New York, 1933), by Rav Yekutiel Yehudah Greenwald, who was a Rabbi in Columbus, Ohio from 1925 to 1955
 Hilchot Klei HaMikdash, 4:12
 This oil was prepared by Moshe Rabeinu and Betzalel in the desert as described in Exodus, 30;22 – 33. It was used to anoint the Davidic kings, the Kohanim Gedolim, and all the holy artifacts in the Mishkan (see Hilchot Klei HaMikdash, chapter 1).
 Leviticus 21:10
 Rambam, Hilchot Bait HeBechirah, 4:1
 Hilchot Klei HaMikdash, 5:1
 Rambam in his Commentary on the Mishnah, Yoma, 1:3
 See Zevachim, 101b and 102a. See also Talmud Yerushalmi, Yoma 1:1 (2b) that Moshe Rabeinu wore a white cloak (rather than the eight clothes of the Kohen Gadol) while serving in the seven days leading up to the dedication of the Mishkan.
 Numbers 20:28. See also Yalkut Shimoni, Tzav 514, that the verse “He who walks innocently is righteous; fortunate are his sons after him” (Mishlei 20:7) is referring to Aharon who saw his son(s) assume his position while he was still alive.
 Numbers, 3:4
 Seder Olam Rabbah, 7
 Rambam, Hilchot Bi’at HaMikdash, 1:2
 Chapters 14 – 20. See Bava Batra 122a for a description of this event.
 Bava Batra, 15a
 Joshua, 24:33
 See Judges, 20:28
 Numbers, 25:13
 Rav Ashi, Zevachim, 101b
 See Joshua chapter 23 (10 – 34) for a description of this near tragedy and how Pinchas helped avert it.
 See Numbers, 31:6 and Rashi based on Sotah, 43a
 See Joshua, 2:1 as explained in Rashi on verse 4, based on the Midrash Tanchumah. See also Bamidbar Rabbah, 16:1 that he became invisible when the king of Jericho was looking for him.
 Judges, 2:1 as explained in Rashi on the verse, based on Seder Olam and Judges 6:8 as explained in Rashi on the verse, based on Seder Olam Rabbah, 20.
 Judges, 20:28
 Vayikrah Rabbah, 1:1
 Bava Batra, 15a
 Judges, 11:34
 Metzudat David and Radak. But see the Targum who seems to understand that she was actually sacrificed.
 Bereishit Rabbah, 60:3
 Kohelet Rabbah, 10:15 (10:17 in the newer editions)
 Chronicles I, 5:30 – 41
 Although his books are not considered to be part of the Torah, our sages lent them credence. For example, see Shulchan Aruch HaRav, O.C. 307:30 who writes that reading the book of Josephus can add to one’s ethical behavior and yirat Shamayim and that one may even read them on Shabbat. Nevertheless, he adds, in parenthesis, that one should not read them excessively.
 Rashi on Shmuel I, 2:30
 Zevachim 118b
 Antiquities, Book 5, 11:1
 Yalkut Shimoni on Shmuel I, Remez 78
 Yalkut HaMechiri, Tehillim, 75:4
 Shabbat, 31a and b
 See Shmuel I, chapters 1 and 2
 See chapter 2, verses 23 – 25 that he did rebuke them but this was, apparently, too little, too late.
 Rosh HaShana, 18a
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Purim!