If you studied today’s daf (Ketubot 107a) with care, you will have noticed that on four separate occasions reference is made to the בני כהנים גדולים – literally, ‘the sons of the High Priests’, who engage in various rabbinic disputes relating to the financial support given to a wife when her husband is overseas or when he has died. But who were the בני כהנים גדולים?
As I previously explained in my commentary to Yoma 9a (see https://rabbijohnnysolomon.com/yoma-9/), with just a few exceptions ‘the spiritual leadership for much of the second Temple era was bitterly disappointing and none of the Kohanim Gedolim held the position of Kohen Gadol for a year’. However, it was particularly towards the end of the Second Temple Period under the rule of Herod when the situation was at its lowest point – at which time the High Priesthood was sold for money. So what happened to those Kohanim who should have become the Kohanim Gedolim but who were displaced by those less worthy?
The answer, as given by Rav Avraham Ornstein in his ‘Encyclopedia of Honourary Titles in Israel’ (אנציקלופדיה לתארי כבוד בישראל), is that these Kohanim were given the honourary title of בני כהנים גדולים both by Jews in Israel and those living overseas (see Mishna Ohalot 17:5), and rather than serving in the Temple, they pivoted and joined other scholars in the study hall to discuss and resolve matters of Jewish law.
Parenthetically, something worthwhile considering is why these בני כהנים גדולים were so interested in the topic of the financial support given to a wife when her husband is overseas or when he has died, and I suspect that their feeling of being displaced and overlooked may have contributed to their engagement with this topic.
However, the key point that I wish to emphasize here is that, notwithstanding the many injustices that occurred during this period, there is something remarkable about the way in which these בני כהנים גדולים pivoted, and instead of looking back and mourning what their life could have been had their situation been different, they created a new life in the Beit Midrash.
Over the past few years, as we have responded to the challenges of COVID as well as other challenges that life may have thrown us, many of us have had to pivot in various personal and professional capacities. Yet the lesson we can draw from our daf concerning how these בני כהנים גדולים were able to start a new life offers each of us much chizuk – that if what we once hoped to do did not work out, we can find our place elsewhere and make valuable contributions.