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Parsha Halacha – Parshat Shemini

Shabbat Mevarchim Iyar

The Kohanim Gedolim of the Second Bait HaMikdash

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In the Torah portion of Shemini, we read about the sin and subsequent deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the two oldest sons of Aharon, as the verse says, “And Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in it, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the L-rd foreign fire, which He had not commanded them.  And fire went forth from before the L-rd and consumed them, and they died before the L-rd.”[1]
There are many opinions as to what sin they actually committed. Here are some of them:
  • They did not consult with their teacher Moshe (or even with each other[2]) before entering the Holy of Holies.[3]
  • They had spoken disrespectfully about Moshe and Aharon. They were walking behind them and one said to the other “When will these old men die so that we can lead the generation?”[4]
  • They entered the Holy of Holies without permission[5] and sacrificed incense which they had not been commanded to do.[6]
  • They used an ordinary fire from an oven for this service rather than a fire from the outer altar.[7]
  • Both of them sacrificed the incense instead of just one of them.[8]
  • They entered while inebriated.[9]
  • They were not wearing all of the bigdei Kehuna (clothes of the kohanim).[10]
  • They had not washed their hands and feet before serving in the Mishkan that day.[11]
  • They had not gotten married and fathered children. This was done out of arrogance, as they considered themselves so special that no prospective bride was good enough for them.[12]
  • They had previously gazed improperly at the Shechina (Divine Presence).[13]
  • Some say they did not sin at all but rather that they died as a result of their intense yearning to cleave to G-d.[14]
The rest of this article will focus on the kohanim gedolim of the Second Bait Hamikdash, many of whom died because they were unworthy of entering the Holy of Holies.
Parhedrin – An Annual Apointee
The first Mishna in Tractate Yoma refers to the chamber of the Kohen Gadol as the room of the Parhedrin. The Talmud[15] explains that this name refers to the fact that during the era of the Second Bait HaMikdash, the position of the Kohen Gadol would frequently change hands because the Kohanim Gedolim were wicked people who would die shortly after taking the position. (Parhedrin was the name of a government position which would be switched every 12 months.) The Talmud goes on to explain that during the period of the second Bait Hamikdash there were more than 300 kohanim gedolim, only a handful of whom were righteous and served for many years and the rest of whom were wicked people who would pass away before completing one year in that office.
The Talmud enumerates the righteous Kohanim Gedolim:
  • Shimon HaTzadik who served for 40 years,
  • Yochanan Kohen Gadol who served for 80 years before becoming a Saducee[16](presumably, he died that year),
  • Rabbi Yishmael ben Phabi[17] who served for 10 years and,
  • Some say, Rabbi Eliezer ben Charsom who served for 11 years.
Since the second Bait HaMikdash stood for 420 years, there would have been about 300 kohanim gedolim for the remaining 290 (or 279) years. Clearly, on average, each of these lasted for less than a year.
It is noteworthy that, according to the Jerusalem Talmud,[18] there were between 80 and 85 kohanim gedolim in the second Bait HaMikdash which would mean that each one served for, on average, approximately three years. This is still a far cry from the first Bait HaMikdash, where each kohen gadol served for approximately 34 years.
There are other sources which indicate that, in addition to those listed above, there were several other righteous kohanim gedolim in the second Bait HaMikdash.[19]
  • Yehoshua, the first Kohen Gadol of the second Bait HaMikdash, his son Yehoyakim and grandson Elyashiv.
  • Shimi, son of Shimon HaTzadik.[20]
  • The seven sons of Kimchit.[21]
  • Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha.[22]
  • Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai.[23]
  • Rabbi Yochanan ben Garbai and his teacher Pinkai who would eat huge amounts of the sacrificial meat in order to ensure there be no leftover sacrificial meat.[24]
How Did they Die?
With one exception, we do not find that the Kohanim Gedolim would die inside the Holy of Holies. Rather, after entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, they would pass away at some point within the coming year. It was understood that this was a punishment for being unworthy of entering the Holy of Holies.
An Angel Stomp
The one exception to the above was a Kohen Gadol who was a Saducee. He the Ketoret service in accordance with the Saduceean interpretation of the verses. (They would put the incense on the coals while outside the Holy of Holies and only enter when the room was already filled with smoke.)  According to one opinion, as he was leaving the Holy of Holies, an angel stomped on him and killed him. They found him with a hoof print between his shoulder blades as this angel had feet like those of an ox.[25]
Positions for Hire
Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta[26] explained[27] that the position of kohen gadol was available for hire from the Greek, Hasmonean, and (later) the Roman authorities. Unscrupulous people would therefore buy the position but would therefore die within the year of assuming the position. As an example, he cites that Marta, the daughter of Baytus, paid King Yannai two Kav[28] of dinarin to have her husband, Yehoshua ben Gamla, installed as the Kohen Gadol.
The Jerusalem Talmud brings the following story regarding these bribes: A kohen once brought the king two heaping[29] measures of silver to buy the position of kohen gadol. Meanwhile, another kohen brought two of the same measures of gold. The king accepted the latter one’s bribe and gave him the position. He proclaimed that the young horse (the newer bribe of gold) had overturned the lamp (the earlier bribe of silver).[30]
Yehshuah Ben Gamla – Hero or Villian?
The Ritva[31] points out that elsewhere the Talmud[32] praises Yehoshua ben Gamla for establishing a school system to ensure that every Jewish child receive a Torah education, and, if not for him, the Torah, would have been forgotten from the Jewish people. In addition, the Mishna praises him for providing golden lots for the Yom Kippur service.[33] Yet, here he is considered wicked. He offers three explanations:
  • There were two kohanim gedolim named Yehoshua ben Gamla. One was righteous and the other wicked.
  • That although (the one and only) Yehoshua ben Gamla started out as unworthy, he became righteous while in office.
  • Yehoshua ben Gamla was indeed a righteous man all along. Yet, in his time, he was not the obvious choice for the Kohen Gadol position as there were others who were more learned and righteous people than he. Therefore, he was only able to get the position when his wife bought it for him.
The Tashbetz[34] accepts the last answer and takes it further. As explained, Yehoshua ben Gamla was generally a righteous man but was simply not the most appropriate candidate for the position. His wife therefore bribed his way into the position. For this sin alone he died, as only the most exemplary of tzadikkim are worthy to enter the Holy of Holies. Similarly, all of the other kohanim gedolim of that era were generally tzadikim who however were not the best person for the position and thus had to bribe their way in. In some cases they may have even been considered a worthy candidate, but they should have allowed the son of the previous Kohen Gadol to assume the position of his father. For this sin alone they perished since, as explained, to enter the Holy of Holies, one must be extremely holy.
The Yearning of the Wicked
The Lubavitcher Rebbe takes this one step further. He explains[35] that, even if we take the Talmud at face value, that these were unworthy men, they still had great merit. After all, they must have known that their unworthy predecessors died soon after assuming the position. Yet they bribed their way into the position, realizing that they too were placing themselves at great peril by going into the Holy of Holies as they were also unworthy. Nevertheless, they took their chances because they recognized that entering into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur would allow them to experience an intense revelation of the Shechinah. They were willing to lose their lives just so that they could experience this unique Divine revelation.
May we soon merit to experience the intense Divine revelation of the Messianic era!

[1] Levit. 10:1 and 2
[2] Vayikra Rabbah, 20, 8 – 10
[3] Torat Kohaim, Acharei Mot, Parsha 1
[4] Vayikra Rabbah, ibid, Sanhedrin, 52a
[5] This is the simple understanding of the event. See Rashi on Levit. 16:1
[6] Ibid and Vayikra Rabbah, ibid
[7] Ibid
[8] Abarbanel on Levit. 10:1
[9] Esther Rabbah, 5:1, Rashi on Levit.10:2
[10] Vayikra Rabbah, ibid
[11] Ibid
[12] Tanchuma, Acharei Mot, 6
[13] Vayikra Rabbah, ibid
[14] Ohr HaChaim on Levit. 10:1. See Likutei Sichot, vol. 32, page 98 and on.
[15] Yoma, 8b
[16] Brachot, 29a. See Torat Menachem, 5728, vol.1, page 219 that “he became a Tzedoki” can be interpreted to mean he came to actually believe that he was a tzadik. It was this arrogance that led him astray.
[17] But see Pesachim, 57a that there members of his household that would abuse their power.
[18] Yoma, 1:1 (page 4b)
[19] These are compiled in the response of the Tashbetz, vol. 3, number 37
[20] See Zevachim, 109b
[21] Yoma, 47a
[22] Brachot, 7a
[23] See Sifri on the beginning of Parshat Chukat and Rashi, Shabbat, 34a D.H. Turmesin. But see Tosfot on Menachot, 21b D.H. SheHaKohanim who has a different opinion.
[24] Pesachim, 57a
[25] Yoma, 19b. According to the Jerusalem Talmud (1:5 or page 7a) the hoofprint was on his forehead.
See also Pesachim, 57a and Keritut 28b for the horrific story of another wicked kohen gadol who insisted on wearing gloves while serving in the Bait HaMikdash.
[26] See the commentaries on the Ein Yaakov as to the meaning of this unusual name.
[27] His comment is found in the Ein Yaakov and in the emendation of the Bach
[28] A Kav is a volume measurement that is the equivalent of 24 eggs or 1.38 litres which is .36 of a gallon
[29] Actually, the container was not heaping as he did not want the silver to fall out. So, the amount of silver that would have made it heaping, was delivered separately.
[30] See Shabbat 116b (Babylonian Talmud) for a similar expression.
[31] On the Ein Yaakov
[32] Bava Batra, 21a
[33] Yoma, 37a
[34] Responsa,vol.3, 37
[35] Likutei Sichot, vol. 18,page 190 and in several other sources.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Chodesh Tov!

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