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A kohen (or cohen, Hebrew כּהן, 'priest', pl. כוהנים, kohanim or cohanim) is a Jew who is in direct patrilineal descent from the Biblical Aaron, older brother of Moses, with an honored status in Judaism. Another term for the descendants of Aaron are the Aaronites or Aaronids.

For hundreds of years since the period of the Tabernacle, kohanim performed many duties as commanded in Torah. During the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, kohanim performed specific duties with the daily blessings and festival sacrificial offerings, as example. The Kohen Gadol (High Priest) played a special role during the service of Yom Kippur.

Today, kohanim have a distinct, honored status and remain bound by Torah laws in Orthodox and, to a lesser extent, in Conservative Jewish communities.

Biblical origins

The status of kohen was conferred on Aaron, the brother of Moses, and his sons.[1] During the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and until the Holy Temple was built in Jerusalem, kohanim performed their priestly service in the portable Tabernacle.[2][3][4][5] Their duties involved offering the daily and Jewish holiday sacrifices, collectively known as the korbanot in Hebrew, and blessing the people in a ceremony known as nesiat kapayim ("raising of the hands"), the ceremony of the Priestly Blessing.

When the First and Second Temples were built, the kohanim assumed these same roles in these permanent structures on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. They were divided into 24 work groups of seven to nine priests each. Those who served changed every Shabbat, but on the biblical festivals all 24 were present in the Temple.

Because Aaron was a member of the Tribe of Levi, all kohanim today are Levites, by direct patrilineal descent. However, not all Levites are kohanim.

When the Temple existed, most services (i.e. the korbanot) could only be conducted by kohanim. Non-kohen Levites (i.e. all those who descended from Levi, the son of Jacob, but not from Aaron) performed a variety of other Temple roles, including washing the hands and feet of the kohanim before services.

Qualifications and disqualifications

In biblical and Temple times, kohanim could assume their duties once they reached physical maturity (usually age 13). However, the fraternity of kohanim generally would not allow young kohanim to begin service until they reached the age of 20.[6] There was no mandatory retirement age. Only when a kohen became physically infirm could he no longer serve.[7]

Certain imperfections could disqualify a kohen from serving in the Temple. Since the Temple was a place of beauty and the services that were held in it were designed to inspire visitors to thoughts of repentance and closeness to God, a less than physically perfect kohen would mar the atmosphere.

These blemishes include:

  1. blindness
  2. lameness
  3. an excessively low nasal bridge (such that a straight brush could apply ointment to both eyes simultaneously)
  4. disproportionate limbs
  5. a crippled foot or hand
  6. cataracts
  7. a white streak that transverses the junction between sclera (white part of the eyeball) and iris
  8. certain types of boils
  9. crushed testicles[8]

A kohen who was afflicted with one of these imperfections was held unfit for service. However, should it be a correctable imperfection, the kohen would become eligible for service should the defect be corrected. At any time, he was permitted to eat of the holy food (same source as above, including adjacent verses and commentaries). Kohanim with these blemishes would be assigned to secondary roles in the Temple outside of performing the service itself.

The kohanim were rewarded for their role in the Temple through 24 special "priestly gifts." These were:[9]

  • Gifts given in the Temple area were portions of:
  1. an animal brought as a sin-offering
  2. a bird brought as a sin-offering
  3. a burnt-offering
  4. an offering for uncertain guilt
  5. a peace offering
  6. the olive oil offering of a metzora
  7. the two loaves of bread brought on Shavuot
  8. the Showbread
  9. the Mincha offerings
  10. the Omer offering
  • Gifts given within the walls of Jerusalem were:
  1. the firstborn of any domestic kosher animal
  2. the Bikkurim (first fruits)
  3. the inner organs of certain offerings
  4. the skins of certain offerings
  • Gifts which could be given inside or outside Jerusalem were:
  1. Terumah (a portion of the harvest)
  2. Terumat Ma'aser (a tithe of the Levite's tithe)
  3. Challah (a portion of dough)
  4. the first shearing of the sheep
  5. the right front leg, the jaw, and the stomach of all non-sanctified, ritually slaughtered domestic animals
  6. Pidyon haben (five silver shekels for the redemption of a firstborn Israelite son)
  7. a sheep or goat redeemed for a firstborn donkey
  8. a property or possession dedicated to the Temple without specifying to which use it is to be given
  9. inherited fields that were dedicated to the Temple and not reclaimed
  10. the theft repayment to a convert who has died, leaving no heirs.

Females, never allowed to serve in the Tabernacle or the Temple, were permitted to consume or derive benefit from some of the 24 priestly gifts. But if a kohen's daughter married a man from outside the kohanic line, she was no longer permitted to consume these priestly gifts. Conversely, the daughter of a non-priest who married a kohen took on the same rights as an unmarried daughter of a kohen.

Kohen Gadol

In every generation when the Temple was standing, one kohen would be singled out to perform the functions of Kohen Gadol (High Priest). His main job was the Yom Kippur service, but he did offer a daily meal sacrifice, and he had the prerogative to supersede any kohen and offer any offering he chose.

Although Orthodox Judaism retains a procedure to select a Kohen Gadol when needed, there is no Kohen Gadol today, in the absence of a Temple.

Ritual defilement

The kohanim formed a holy order. For the purpose of protecting them against ritual defilement, the Torah imposed on them the following rules for ritual purity, which are still maintained to a certain degree in Orthodox Judaism.

  • Kohanim are forbidden to come in contact with dead bodies, nor are they permitted to perform the customary mourning rites. They are commanded, however, to become defiled for their closest relatives: father, mother, brother, unmarried sister, child or wife.
  • A kohen is forbidden to enter any house or enclosure, or approach any spot, in which a dead body, or part of a dead body, may be found.[10][11][12][13] Practical examples of these prohibitions include: not entering a cemetery or attending a funeral; not being under the same roof (i.e. in a home or hospital) as a dismembered organ. The exact rules and regulations of defilement are quite complex, but a cursory rule of thumb is that they may not enter a room with a dead person or come within a few feet of the body. Proximity to the corpse of a non-Jew is less serious and may only be an issue if actual contact is established.
  • A male kohen may not marry a divorcee, a prostitute, a convert, or a dishonored woman.[14] Any kohen who enters into such a marriage loses the entitlements of his priestly status while in that marriage. The kohen is not allowed to "choose to forego his status" and marry a woman prohibited to him.[15]
  • According to the Talmud, if a kohen marries in disregard of the above prohibitions, his marriage is still effective. Any children born of the union are legitimate and not mamzer. However, these children are termed chalal ("disqualified") and lose their kohen status permanently.
  • The Kohen Gadol must marry a virgin.
  • During the period of the Holy Temple, kohanim were required to abstain from wine and all strong drink while performing their priestly duties.[16][17]

Exceptions to rules of defilement

The Talmud prescribes that if any kohen—even the Kohen Gadol—finds a corpse by the wayside, and there is no one else in the area who can be called upon to bury it, then the kohen himself must perform the burial (meis mitzvah).

The Talmud also orders the kohen to defile himself in the case of the death of a nasi (rabbinic leader of a religious academy). The Talmud relates that when Judah haNasi died, the priestly laws concerning defilement through contact with the dead were suspended for the day of his death.

Current status of rules of defilement

While all branches of Judaism which accept halakha recognize the rules in principle, they differ considerably in their practical application.

  • Orthodox Judaism, with the exception of Haredi Judaism, recognizes the rules as being in full force, but in practice seeks leniency with respect to some of the rules' strictures, and tends to resolve at least some doubts in favor of permitting a marriage. Non-Haredi Orthodox Rabbis will often perform a prohibited marriage and essentially never will they invalidate a prohibited marriage post facto. This is done by establishing either a doubt (known as a "safek") with regards to the authenticity of the kohen or by establishing a doubt with regards to the invalidity of the prohibited woman. This is most commonly done by making an inquiry into the validity of the mother or paternal grandmother of a kohen. This is beneficial because if the kohen is the product of a kohen and a woman prohibited to a kohen, him and his decedents are eternally rendered non-kohanim (known as a "chalal"). For instance, Rabbis will often say that since the mother of the kohen or the paternal grandmother of the kohen lived on a college campus, there is a high probability that she had at relations with a non-Jew at one point. If this were true, the kohen would be rendered a doubted kohen or a non-kohen. Rabbis will also make an inquiry into the status of the prohibited woman. If the woman reported to experience no pain during intercourse with the non-Jew, the intercourse is rendered as "a figment of her imagination" and being that she never truly had such relations, is permitted to a kohen in consequence. The aforementioned however, is a source of considerable controversy and many Haredi Rabbis would consider the offspring of such a union as non-kohanim (see below).
  • Haredi Judaism tends to interpret the rules strictly, and tends to resolve doubts in favor of preserving the purity of the priesthood. Haredi rabbis will often refuse to perform a prohibited marriage. The Israeli Rabbinate will also not perform such a marriage and hence a kohen cannot legally marry a divorced or converted woman (for example) in the State of Israel, although a foreign marriage would be recognized.
  • Conservative Judaism has issued an emergency takanah (rabbinical edict) temporarily suspending the application of the rules in their entirety, on the grounds that the high intermarriage rate in its community threatens the survival of Judaism, and hence that any marriage between Jews is welcomed. The takanah declares that the offspring of such marriages are to be regarded as kohanim in good standing. Thus, their kohanim are not necessarily accepted by Orthodox Judaism.

Areas where Haredi and Modern Orthodox approaches might create different results include situations where a woman has been raped, kidnapped or held hostage, descendants of converts whose Judaism status turned out to be subject to doubt, ambiguous prior dating histories, and other potentially ambiguous or difficult situations.

Rape poses an especially poignant problem. The pain experienced by the families of kohanim who were required to divorce their wives as the result of the rapes accompanying the capture of Jerusalem is alluded to in this Mishnah:

If a woman were imprisoned by non-Jews concerning money affairs, she is permitted to her husband, but if for some capital offense, she is forbidden to her husband. If a town were overcome by besieging troops, all women of priestly stock found in it are ineligible [to be married to priests or to remain married to priests], but if they had witnesses, even a slave, or even a bondswoman, these may be believed. But no man may be believed for himself. Rabbi Zechariah ben Hakatsab said, "By this Temple, her hand did not stir from my hand from the time the non-Jews entered Jerusalem until they went out." They said to him: No man may give evidence of himself.[18]

One solution to this crisis that has been found is for the kohen to halachically "not see" the rape. This solution has its roots in the fact that a crime must have two kosher (Sabbath observing) witnesses in order for anyone to even be brought to trial. Hence, the near-absolute guarantee of an absence of such witnesses gives the kohen the opportunity to stay married to his wife.The aforementioned however, is a source of considerable controversy and many Haredi Rabbis would consider the offspring of such a union as non-kohanim.

Kohanim today

Reverse of Emil Cohn's (1855-1909) gravestone in Berlin

Today, for ashkenazim, the official status of kohen is assumed by anyone who claims to be a kohen, no proof is necessary.[19] For Sefardim, sufficient proof consists of a kosher witnesses or a tomb stone.[20]

In Orthodox Judaism and to some extent in Conservative Judaism, kohanim maintain their separate status in some areas of modern life. However, most of these distinctions derive from custom apposed to technical Jewish law.

Synagogue aliyah

After the destruction of the Second Temple and the suspension of sacrificial offerings, the formal role of priests in sacrificial services came to an end. However, kohanim retain a formal and public ceremonial role in synagogue prayer services, which were established as a substitute for or reminder of the sacrifices themselves ("Take with you words, and return unto the LORD; say unto Him: "Forgive all iniquity, and accept that which is good; so will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips...."[21]

Every Monday, Thursday and Shabbat in Orthodox synagogues (and many Conservative ones as well), a portion from the Torah is read aloud in the original Hebrew in front of the congregation. On weekdays, this reading is divided into three; it is customary to call a kohen for the first reading (aliyah), a Levite for the second reading, and a member of any other tribe of Israel to the third reading. On Shabbat, the reading is divided into seven portions; a kohen is called for the first aliyah and a Levite to the second, and a yisroel for the rest.

The Conservative Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has ruled that the practice of calling a kohen to the first aliyah represents a custom rather than a law, and that accordingly, a Conservative rabbi is not obligated to follow it.

Blessing gesture depicted on the gravestone of Rabbi Meschullam Kohn (1739-1819), who was a kohen.

Priestly blessing

All of the kohanim participating in an Orthodox prayer service must also deliver the Priestly Blessing, called nesiat kapayim, during the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei. The text of this blessing is found in Numbers 6:23-27. They perform this rite by standing in the front of the synagogue, facing the congregation, with their arms held outwards and their hands and fingers in a specific formation. Jews living in Israel and Sephardic Jews living outside of Israel deliver the Priestly Blessing daily; Ashkenazi Jews living outside of Israel deliver it only on Jewish holidays of biblical origin.

Orthodox Judaism does not permit a bat kohen (daughter of a kohen) or bat levi (daughter of a Levite) to participate in nesiat kapayim because the practice is a direct continuation of the Temple ritual, and should be performed by those who would authentically be eligible to do so in the Temple.

The Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has approved two opposing positions: One view holds that a bat kohen may deliver the blessing; another view holds that a bat kohen is not permitted to participate in the Priestly Blessing because it is a continuation of a Temple ritual which women were not eligible to perform.[22]

The majority of Reform Jews and Reconstructionist Jews consider all rules and ceremonies regarding the priesthood to be outdated. Many consider it to be anti-egalitarian, and thus discriminatory against Jews who are not kohanim. Therefore, the honors given to the kohen during the Torah reading and in the performance of the Priestly Blessing are not observed in those communities.

Pidyon Haben

Outside the synagogue, kohanim lead the Pidyon Haben, the symbolic Redemption of the ceremony for first-born sons, based on the Torah commandment, "and you shall redeem all the firstborn of man among your sons."[23]

In Orthodox and Conservative circles, this ceremony is conducted as part of a festive meal. The kohen first washes his hands and breaks bread, then calls for the father and the baby. The baby is typically brought in dressed in white and bedecked with gold jewelry, which the women in attendance contribute to beautify this mitzvah. The kohen then engages the father in a formal dialogue, asking him whether he prefers to keep his money or his son. At the end of this exchange, the father hands over five silver coins (There is a debate about how much this should be in contemporary money. According to some calculations, this would be equal to approximately 101 grams of silver. It is a general custom to give a value more than what this would be worth, to enhance the mitzvah), and the kohen blesses him and his son. Though this ceremony should be conducted when the child is 30 days old, a first-born male who was never redeemed by his father may redeem himself later in life through a similar interaction with a kohen.

The son of a kohen or levi and the son of the daughter of a kohen or levi need not be redeemed by the Pidyon HaBen rite. See Pidyon_HaBen (Exemptions)

Orthodox Judaism requires that the ritual be performed by male kohanim (following the view of the Rambam).

According to the Conservative Jewish view, there are some rabbinic sources that allow women to perform this ritual, and thus a bat kohen (daughter of a kohen) may perform the ceremony for a newborn son. However, it is forbidden to perform this ceremony on a first-born daughter.

Reform and Reconstructionist Jews generally do not perform this ceremony.

Personal Status

Orthodox Jewish view

The Rambam (Maimonides), the leading figure of Jewish law, does say however in The Guide for the Perplexed that the entire concept of the priestly caste (i.e. kohanim and Levites) was intended to limit animal sacrifices to one group of people in order to slowly wean the populace off primal customs. According to Orthodox Jewish practice, modern-day kohanim are obligated to guard against ritual defilement as prescribed by the Talmud. In order to protect them from coming into contact with or proximity to the dead, Orthodox cemeteries traditionally designate a burial ground for kohanim which is at a distance from the general burial ground, so that the sons of deceased kohanim can visit their fathers' graves without entering the cemetery. They are also careful not to be in a hospital, airplane, or any enclosed space where dead bodies are also present.

Modern-day kohanim are also prohibited from marrying a divorcee (even their own divorced wife); a woman who has committed adultery, had been involved in incest, or had relations with a non-Jew; a convert; or the child of two converts. A born-Jewish woman who has had premarital relations may marry a kohen only if all of her partners were Jewish.

The daughter of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, while halakhically Jewish, is prohibited from marrying a kohen according to the Shulchan Aruch, reiterated by Rav Moshe Feinstein. Due to a small doubt about this in the Talmud (Yevamos 45A-B), if such a marriage is performed the couple would not have to get divorced, see Shulchan Aruch 4:19. The sons of such a union do remain kohanim but there is a doubt as to whether they would be allowed to serve in the 3rd Temple. The London Beth Din will not perform such a marriage but allegedly U.S. and Israeli modern orthodox synagogues will.

In addition to the numerous restriction placed on kohanim, Jews who are not kohanim exemplify this designated role of the kohen by granting him certain honorary roles within the community. Examples of such roles include the following:

The kohen is given the option to recite blessings after the meal before the yisrael if the yisrael has lesser or equal knowledge of Jewish law compared to the kohen.

It is a common misconception that the kohen receives the finer portion of food at a meal or is called first to the Torah in order to give him honor. The kohen is not entitled to the finer portion of a meal (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch), and is called first to the Torah in order to prevent arguments between kohanim, Levites and yisraels. A yisrael cannot be called to the Torah for the spot of a kohen so long as one is present nor can a kohen be called for the spot of a yisrael so long as one is present.

Nearly all rabbinic authorities maintain that in the next world (which is eternal), as opposed to this world where people are born inherently unequal, a person's status is determined by his effort alone.[24]

So too, the honor due to a person who studies the Torah and the Talmud exceeds that due to a kohen by far greater amounts.[25]

In addition, according to the vast majority of Rabbinic authorities, the honor given to a kohen and Torah scholar is intended solely for the benefit of the person who is giving the honor; as opposed to the one who is receiving it.

"Better off a man be strangled by his placenta at birth than study Torah for the sake of honor" - Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers)

Regarding kohanim it is said - "You think I am giving you authority? I am giving you servitude!" - Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Just); Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato) )

Conservative Jewish view

Conservative Judaism believes in a rebuilt Temple, but does not believe in restoring the system of korbanot that the kohanim used to perform in days past, and hence does not believe in a need for kohanim to perform their traditional roles. Accordingly, Conservative Judaism holds that while, in general, Jewish law is still binding, the restrictions against whom a kohen can marry are no longer applicable today. The movement allows a kohen to marry a convert or divorcee for these reasons:

  • Since the Temple in Jerusalem is no longer extant and korbanot should not be restored, kohanim are no longer able to perform Temple services in a state of ritual purity.
  • Because the intermarriage crisis among American Jewry is an extreme situation, the Conservative movement feels it must support the decision of two Jews to marry.[26][27]

Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish views

Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism consider halakhah no longer binding, and believe the entire ancient sacrificial system to be incompatible with modern sensibilities. They also acknowledge that caste or gender-based distinctions such as having a priestly caste with distinct roles and obligations derived from heredity is morally incompatible with the principle of egalitarianism.

Lineage of priests in the Torah

King Melchizedek of Salem, identified by Rashi as being Shem the son of Noah by another name, is the first person in the Torah to be called a kohen (Genesis 14:18).

When Esau sold the birthright of the first born to Jacob, Rashi explains that the priesthood was sold along with it, because by right the priesthood belongs to the first-born. Only when the first-born (along with the rest of Israel) sinned at the Golden calf, the priesthood was given to the Tribe of Levi, which had not been tainted by this incident.

Moses was supposed to receive the priesthood along with the leadership of the Jewish people, but when he argued with God that he should not be the leader, it was given to Aaron.

Aaron received the priesthood along with his children and any descendants that would be born subsequently. However, his grandson Pinchas had already been born, and did not receive the priesthood until he killed the prince of the Tribe of Simeon and the princess of the Midianites (Numbers 25:7-13). Thereafter, the priesthood has remained with the descendants of Aaron. However, when the Messiah comes, there is a tradition that it will revert to the first born.

King David assigned each of the 24 Cohanic clans to a weekly watch (משמרת) during which its members were responsible for maintaining the schedule of offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem (1Chronicles 24:3-5). This instated a cycle of 'priestly courses' or 'priestly divisions' which repeated itself roughly twice each year. Following the Temple's destruction at the end of the First Jewish Revolt and the displacement to the Galilee of the bulk of the remaining Jewish population in Judea at the end of the Bar Kochva Revolt, Jewish tradition in the Talmud and poems from the period records that the descendants of each priestly watch established a separate residential seat in towns and villages of the Galilee, and maintained this residential pattern for at least several centuries in anticipation of the reconstruction of the Temple and reinstitution of the cycle of priestly courses. Specifically, this kohanic settlement region stretched from the Bet Netofa valley, through the Nazareth region to Arbel and the vicinity of Tiberias.

Female kohen

Orthodox Judaism retains the view that the privileges and status of kohanim stem primarily from their offerings and activities in the Temple. Accordingly, in Orthodox Judaism only men can perform the Priestly Blessing and receive the first aliyah during the public Torah reading, and women are generally not permitted to officiate in a Pidyon HaBen ceremony. However, the question of what acts (if any) a bat kohen can perform in an Orthodox context is a subject of current discussion and debate in some Orthodox circles.[28]

Some women's prayer groups which practice under the halakhic guidance of Modern Orthodox rabbis, and which conduct Torah readings for women only, have adapted a custom of calling a bat kohen for the first aliyah and a bat levi for the second.[29]

Conservative Judaism, consistent with its view that sacrifices in the Temple will not be restored and in light of many congregations' commitment to gender (but not tribal) egalitarianism, interprets the Talmudic passages involved to permit elimination of most distinctions between male and female kohanim in congregations that retain traditional tribal roles while modifying traditional gender roles. The Conservative movement bases this leniency on the view that the privileges of kohen-hood come not from offering Temple offerings but solely from lineal sanctity, and that ceremonies like the Priestly Blessing should evolve from their Temple-based origins. (The argument for women's involvement in the Priestly Blessing acknowledges that only male kohanim could perform this ritual in the days of the Temple, but that the ceremony is no longer rooted in Temple practice; its association with the Temple was by rabbinic decree; and rabbis therefore have the authority to permit the practice to evolve from its Temple-based roots).[30] As a result, some Conservative synagogues permit a bat kohen to perform the Priestly Blessing and the Pidyon HaBen ceremony, and to receive the first aliyah during the Torah reading.

The law committee of the Masorti movement (the equivalent of Conservative Judaism) in Israel has ruled that women do not receive such aliyot and cannot perform such functions as a valid position (Rabbi Robert Harris, 5748). Therefore, not all Conservative congregations or rabbis permit these roles for bnot kohanim (daughters of priests). Moreover, many egalitarian-oriented Conservative synagogues have abolished traditional tribal roles and do not perform ceremonies involving kohanim (such as the Priestly Blessing or calling a kohen to the first aliyah), and many traditionalist-oriented Conservative synagogues have retained traditional gender roles and do not permit women to perform these roles at all.[31]

Because Reform and Reconstructionist temples have abolished traditional tribal distinctions, roles, and identities on grounds of egalitarianism, a special status for a bat kohen has no significance in these movements.

Kohen genetic testing

Recently the tradition that many kohanim are descended from a common ancestor has gained some support from genetic testing.[32] Since all direct male lineages share a common haplotype, testing was done across sectors of the Jewish population to see if there was any commonality among their Y chromosomes. There were proven to be certain distinctions among the Y chromosomes of kohanim, although these distinctions were found in slightly over half of the kohanim tested; implying that slightly over half of kohanim share some common male ancestry. The Cohen Model Haplotype results from this study of kohanim were used to establish that many male members of the Lemba (a sub-Saharan tribe) were descendants of kohanim, and thus substantiating their claims to be Jewish. Note: The genetic markers cannot be passed to or through a female. Since the religious status of a kohen is contingent upon being the male biological descendants of Aaron in conjunction with numerous other variables that are not subject to genetic testing (the wife of a kohen cannot have had relations with a non-Jew, be a divorcee etc.) the possession of a common haplotype does not provide sufficient evidence required to render or maintain the status of a kohen.

Cohen as a surname

The status of kohen in Judaism has no necessary relationship to a person's surname. Though it is true that descendants of kohanim often bear surnames that reflect their genealogy, there are many families with the surname Cohen (or any number of variations) who are not kohanim nor even Jewish. Conversely, there are many kohanim who do not have Cohen as a surname.

There are numerous variations to the spelling of the surname Cohen. These are often corrupted by translation or transliteration into or from other languages, as exemplified below (not a complete list).

  • English: Cohen, Cahn, Carne, Cohn, Conn, Conway, Cohan, Chaplan (Cohan is also an Irish surname and Conway is also a surname of Welsh origin)
  • German: Kohn, Kogen, Kuhn, Kahn, Cön/Coen, Katz (name) (a Hebrew abbreviation for Kohen Zedek (כהן צדק) i.e. "righteous priest")
  • Dutch: Cohen, Conklin, Kon, Katten (translated as "Kohen"), Käin/Kaein
  • French: Cahen, Cohen, Caen
  • Italian: Coen, Cohen, Sacerdote (Italian for "priest"), Sacerdoti
  • Spanish: Coen, Cohen, Koen, Cannoh, Canno, Canoh, Cano
  • Russian: Kogan, Brevda, Kagedan/Kagidan (in Hebrew, this name is spelled "kaf-shin-daled-nun" and is an acronym for "Kohanei Shluchei DeShmaya Ninhu," which is Aramaic for "priests are the messengers of heaven"). Kazhdan/Kazdan/Kasdan/Kasdin/Kasden are also possible variations of this name.
  • Serbian: Koen, Kon, Kojen
  • Polish: Kon
  • Portuguese: Cunha
  • Turkish: Kohen
  • Arabic: al-Kohen
  • Japanese: Kinkaku
  • Ancient/Modern Hebrew: Kohen, HaKohen, ben-Kohen, bar-Kohen
  • Others: Maze (acronym of mi zerat Aharon, i.e. "from the seed of Aaron"), Azoulai (acronym from ishah zonah ve'challelah lo yikachu, meaning "a foreign or divorced woman he shall not take;" prohibition binding on Kohanim), Rappaport, Shapiro, Kahane, Quinn (Gaelic or English), Kohanchi (Persian).

However, by no means are all Jews with these surnames kohanim. Additionally, some "Cohen"-type surnames are considered stronger indications of the status than others. "Cohen" is one of the hardest to substantiate due to its sheer commonality.

In contemporary Israel, "Moshe Cohen" is the equivalent of "John Smith" in English-speaking countries - i.e., proverbially the most common of names.


One common interpretation of the practice of having three pieces of matzah on a Seder plate is that they represent "Kohen, Levi and Yisrael" (i.e., the priests, the tribe of Levi, and all other Jewish people).[33]

Outside Judaism

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gives legal right of kohen to constitute the Presiding Bishopric under the authority of the First Presidency (Doctrine and Covenants 68:16-20). When and where Church kohanim are not available, Melchizedek Priesthood holders substitute. To date, all men who have served as the Presiding Bishop have been Melchizedek Priesthood holders, and none have been publicly identified as kohanim. See also Mormonism and Judaism.

References in popular culture

The positioning of the kohen's hands during the Priestly Blessing was Leonard Nimoy's inspiration for Mr. Spock's Vulcan salute in the original Star Trek television series. Nimoy, raised an Orthodox Jew (but not a kohen), used the salute when saying "Live long and prosper."

Furthermore, the Star Trek Symbol is the same shape as the negative (air) space created between the kohen's thumbs and forefingers, which some kohanim touch while reciting the Priestly Blessing. There is some dispute as to whether or not to touch thumb to thumb and forefinger to forefinger while doing the blessing.

Robin Williams's characterization of the extraterrestrial Mork in the American sitcom Mork & Mindy included a salutation with a similar positioning of his hands (along with the words: "Na-Nu, Na-Nu").

See also

  • Cohen (disambiguation) (Kohen)
Kohn(Cohn), Kuhn(Cuhn), Kahn(Cahn), Kogan(Kohan, Kogan), Kagan(Cahan, Kahan), Brevda, Sacerdote, and Schiff
  • Jewish view of marriage
  • Giving of the Foreleg, Cheeks, and Abomasum (as an outside-of-Israel Kohanic gift)
  • Family history
  • Israelites
  • Wicked Priest (ha-kōhēn hā-rāšhā')


  1. Exodus 28:1-4
  2. Numeri 1:47-54
  3. Numeri 3:5-13
  4. Numeri 3:44-51
  5. Numeri 8:5–26)
  6. Talmud Bavli Hullin 24b, and Maimonides' Yad, Hilchoth Klei HaMiqdash 5:15
  7. T.B. ibid., and Maimonides' Yad, Hilchoth Biath HaMiqdash 7:12, and Hilchoth Klei HaMiqdash 3:8
  8. Taylor Marshall, The Crucified Rabbi: Judaism and the Origins of the Catholic Christianity, Saint John Press, 2009 ISBN 9780578038346 page 84-85.
  9. [1]
  10. Leviticus 10:6
  11. Leviticus 21:1–5
  12. Ezekiel 44:20
  13. Ezekiel 44:25
  14. Leviticus 21:7
  15. Leviticus 21:6-7
  16. Leviticus 10:9
  17. Ezekiel 44:21
  18. Mishnah Ketubot 2:9
  19. Shulchan Aruch; Rema
  20. Shulchan Aruch
  21. Hosea 14:3
  22. Rabbis Stanley Bramnick and Judah Kagen, 1994; and a responsa by the Va'ad Halakha of the Masorti movement, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, 5748
  23. Exodus 13:13
  24. Derech Hashem; Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato
  25. Hilchot Dei'ot; Rambam
  26. Arnold Goodman, "Solemnizing the Marriage between a Kohen and a Convert"
  27. Goodman, "Solemnizing the Marriage between a Kohen and a Divorcee"
  28. Bnot Kohanim: Our Holy Daughters. Midreshet Lindembaum
  29. Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Women's Tefillah
  30. Rabbi Meyer Rabbinowitz, "Women Raise Your Hands"
  31. Roth, Rabbi Joel. The Status of Daughters of Kohanim and Leviyim for Aliyot
  32. Skorecki et al., 1997
  33. "Preparing for Passover and the Seder," the Jewish Virtual Library


  • Isaac Klein A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, p.387-388. (Conservative view prior to takkanah on Kohen marriages.)
  • Isaac Klein Responsa and Halakhic Studies, p.22-26. (Conservative view prior to takkanah on Kohen marriages.)
  • K. Skorecki, S. Selig, S. Blazer, R. Bradman, N. Bradman, P. J. Waburton, M. Ismajlowicz, M. F. Hammer (1997). Y Chromosomes of Jewish Priests. Nature 385, 32. (Available online: DOI | Full text (HTML) | Full text (PDF))
  • Proceedings of the CJLS: 1927-1970, volume III, United Synagogue Book Service. (Conservative)
  • Mishnayoth:Seder Nashim. Translated and Annotated by Philip Blackman. Judaica Press Ltd., 2000. pp. 134–135

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Kohen. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.