Given that today’s daf (Ketubot 24a-b) discusses the reliability of someone who claims they are a Kohen in terms of whether they can receive priestly honours (eg. eat Terumah) and whether they can perform priestly duties (eg. recite the Birkat Kohanim), I decided to spend some of Shabbat reviewing this topic and other related issues from a very special book.
‘To Stand & Serve: On Being a Kohen’ (Maggid, 2015) contains essays, in both English and Hebrew, about the laws and responsibilities of being a Kohen. Yet what makes this book so special is that these essays were penned in memory of Marc Weinberg who died age just 35 after a long battle with leukemia and whose 12th yahrtzeit was recently commemorated (on the 19th of Tammuz).
Significantly Marc was a Kohen, and just as a kohen was a community leader and teacher, so too was Marc – both in the UK, and later on in Israel. Having now explained this, I would like to reference a number of essays from this volume relating to our daf and to the current period of the 9 days – and through doing so, share some insights which I hope provide some clarity and chizuk.
In terms of the question of whether someone is reliable when they claim that they are a Kohen, this question is addressed (in a Hebrew essay) by Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon. Of course, if there are witnesses, evidence, or Jewish legal documents attesting to an individual being Kohanim, then they are believed to be so. However, the specific case addressed by Rabbi Rimon is where there is no evidence, or testimony, other than a claim made by someone who thinks that they are Kohen whose few family members cannot verify whether this is so. In such a situation, Rabbi Rimon rules that we follow the majority – who are not Kohanim.
Within this same volume is an (English) essay by Rabbi David Brofsky which explores the relationship of Birkat Kohanim with the Temple service and its recitation in the synagogue. Of course, Birkat Kohanim was primarily fulfilled in the Mishkan and, later on, in the Beit HaMikdash, and even while it is nowadays recited in synagogues, it is said immediately after the prayer to restore the Temple service. Thus Birkat Kohanim is a powerful way that helps us connect with – and express our yearning for – the Temple service.
A further essay in this volume is by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and titled ‘Priest and Prophet’ who observes as follows: ‘In our lives, it is important that each person infuse his own personal mikdash, the sanctuary which is his own self, with these two elements [of priest and prophet]. It is very significant that a person have a routine rich in religious activity. Like a kohen, he must constantly take part in actions and rituals that will maintain his connection to Judaism and the world of halakha. He must make sure that all the actions that halakha requires of him are fulfilled. Beyond that, however, a person must supplement this rich routine, the “kohen” aspect, with the “prophet” aspect that is within him. He has to develop the deep connection to God that is to lie behind the fulfillment of the seemingly ritualistic acts he performs. He has to feel the spiritual connection that is supposed to come as a result of the fulfilment of the rituals.’
On first glance, the only common thread shared by these three essays that I have referenced relates to priesthood. Yet what they all teach us is that our history, our ancestry and our legacy matters. In terms of the first essay, where there is ambiguity, there can be confusion. But in terms of the second and third, they come to teach us that when we are able to connect to our past, it can change us and it can help us change the lives of others as well.
In conclusion, I’d like to quote from the eulogy of Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein to Marc, also found in this volume, which contains a deep message which we’d all do well to hear especially as we approach Tisha B’Av: ‘We all confront the world. Each of us meets the world, each of us engages the world in his own way. Marc was a man of action who confronted the world and dealt with it by improving society. Marc was not perplexed by the world, nor was he enchanted by it. He saw the world as something to be improved, a place that demands action, and a habitat that should be acted upon. He saw everything as a call to action, [and that we have] a mission and a challenge to make the world a better place.’
Overall, whether or not you are a kohen, this coming week is a fitting time to learn about the Temple and Temple service. It is an appropriate time to reflect on your personal routine of Jewish rituals and how you observe those rituals while also maintaining your spiritual connection. And it is an optimum time to consider how you relate to the world and what you can do to fulfil your mission to make the world a better place.