Aaronic Priesthood and Authority:October 5, 2007
Not Necessarily the same thing…
(Please Note: This started out as merely an introduction the the Jewish conception of priesthood as a precursor to a blog post explaining what goes on in a synagogue on Yom Kippur. It somewhat took on a life of it’s own and is well on the way to becoming a quasi-academic paper. It’s rough but, had I taken the time to work out all the kinks and document every source, I never would have posted it. Since the point of a blog is to have something of a running commentary, I decided to post what I have now and adjust over time, including emendations suggested by comments, so have at… Moshe)
One basic principal upon which Judaism and Mormonism agree upon is that Judaism subsumes the Aaronic priesthood and that this priesthood continues to be held within Judaism.
I’m going to use, more or less, Mormon terminology in this essay since it is addressed primarily to Mormons. However let me start my saying that we rarely refer to our priesthood as the “Aaronic priesthood.” Though that formulation appears occasionally in Jewish literature, we usually refer to “the priests” by their Hebrew name, the “Kohanim.” An individual priest is usually referred to as a “kohen.” Priests have “ha Kohain” added to their Hebrew names and their English last names are often “Cohen.” It is this naming convention that has preserved the identity of the priesthood from ancient times because, in Judaism, the transferal of priesthood is purely through lineal descent. That is to say, if your father was a kohen, then so are you. There is no “ordination” to the Aaronic priesthood in Judaism* (Except for the first ones, Aaron and his sons as recorded in the Bible.)**
Mormonism agrees with this formulation and accords the descendants of Aaron special privileges:
D&C 68:14-18 There remain hereafter, in the due time of the Lord, other bishops to be set apart unto the church, to minister even according to the first; 15 Wherefore they shall be high priests who are worthy, and they shall be appointed by the First Presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood, except they be literal descendants of Aaron. 16 And if they be literal descendants of Aaron they have a legal right to the bishopric, if they are the firstborn among the sons of Aaron; 17 For the firstborn holds the right of the presidency over this priesthood, and the keys or authority of the same. 18 No man has a legal right to this office, to hold the keys of this priesthood, except he be a literal descendant and the firstborn of Aaron.
D&C 107:13-16 The second priesthood is called the Priesthood of Aaron, because it was conferred upon Aaron and his seed, throughout all their generations. 14 Why it is called the lesser priesthood is because it is an appendage to the greater, or the Melchizedek Priesthood, and has power in administering outward ordinances. 15 The bishopric is the presidency of this priesthood, and holds the keys or authority of the same. 16 No man has a legal right to this office, to hold the keys of this priesthood, except he be a literal descendant of Aaron.
D&C 84:18 18 And the Lord confirmed a priesthood also upon Aaron and his seed, throughout all their generations, which priesthood also continueth and abideth forever with the priesthood which is after the holiest order of God.
JosephSmith seems to have confirmed this a number of times in his discourses. He said, for example:
“There was a priesthood conferred upon the sons of Levi throughout all the generations of the Jews. They are born heirs to this priesthood.” (Discourse of March 21st 1841, recorded by William McIntire)
“This priesthood was given to Aaron and his posterity throughout all generations.” (Discourse of July 23rd 1843, recorded by James Burgess)
“It is forever hereditary, fixed on the head of Aaron.” (Discourse of July 23rd 1843, recorded by Willard Richards)
The Specific notation that the office is held by the descendants of Aaron, throughout all their generations and that this priesthood continueth and abideth forever among the descendant of Aaron is, I believe, an important starting point for Mormon-Jewish dialogue. What this means is that Mormonism recognizes a level of priesthood authority outside the Mormon sphere and it is within Judaism.
One of the reasons that I decided to establish this blog was a chance encounter with Robert C. Millet on my television set. I happened to be channel surfing my digital cable channels one evening and happened to cross the BYU channel. There I heard Millet state, “Even though Jews control Jerusalem, they don’t have the priesthood. They don’t Even if they built a temple they couldn’t dedicate it. It will be a Latter-day Saint Temple.” I thought he was wrong on three counts from both the Mormon and Jewish perspective. I think it is clear that even from the perspective of the uniquely Mormon scriptures, the priesthood exists within Judaism. The question is, how is that priesthood exercised and how does authority function within Judaism?
These are good questions for Jews to ask, even in a purely Jewish context. They are essential in the context of Jewish-Mormon dialogue (particularly if the Mormons in question are orthodox. It’s probably more an “interesting” question to most Jews and Mormons of the Sunstone/Dialogue variety).
Some Mormons might object that no one can confirm today who really is a literal descendant of Aaron. That might have been true at one time. Even 20 years ago, one had to accept the unbroken chain of the Jewish naming conventions to accept individual priesthood holders. However today with DNA research, the familial relationship and common ancestry, traced to a single individual, of todays Aaronic priests can be confirmed.
For example, Prof. Karl Skorec using a set of six markers (DYS19, DYS388, DYS390, DYS391, DYS392, and DYS393), a single genetic haplotype, termed the “Cohen Modal Haplotype,” was found to be the most frequent, and to be shared among priests from all Jewish communities. In a 1998 study, the modal haplotype frequencies were found to be 0.449 and 0.561 for the Ashkenazi and Sephardi kohanim, respectively. Overall Jewish identity, since at least talmudic times (100 B.C.E.–500 C.E.) has traditionally been acquired either by descent from a Jewish woman, or alternatively by rabbinically authorized conversion, without the need to establish descent from a common male (or female) ancestor. In contrast, affiliation to the Jewish Aaronic priesthood was restricted along patrilineal descent. The use of one-step mutation haplotypes, termed the Cohen Modal Cluster, allowed the calculation of the most common recent ancestor by standard accepted mutation rates. This calculation gave an estimate of approximately 106 generations, which for a generation time of 25 years gives an estimated range which brackets a mean of 2,650 years before the present. These results establish the common origin of the Jewish priesthood caste in the Near East, coinciding with a timeframe beginning at approximately the biblically attributed date of the exodus from Egypt and extending to the Temple period.
In actual Jewish practice, however, the authority exercised by the Aaronic priesthood today is minimal. Except for a few holidays and a few very minor rituals, the Aaronic priesthood functions no differently than do regular members of a congregation. This is largely due to the absence of a temple in Judaism today since most of the functions of the priesthood were confined to the temple and the sacrificial process. Further, there was a continual problem in ancient Judaism that is common to all hereditary systems. That problem is, simply stated, not all people born to an office are particularly good at it not ethical in its administration. Thus, an entire class of ordained people, with direct authority, with the “laying on of hands” (Semikah), but without priesthood arose to prominence….ultimately, the Rabbis.
At this point, let me note that authority through divine revelation was, of course, foundational to Judaism. Though very early there was a separation between revelatory functions and the exercise of authority in making judgments or performing ritual actions (i.e. “ordinances”). Thus, Moses as the great prophet but also acting as the great judge does go directly to God for information on how to deal with issues of community discipline as in:
Numbers 15:32-36 32 And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the Sabbath day. 33 And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation. 34 And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him. 35 And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. 36 And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded Moses.
Yet by the end of the Deuteronomy, which, within the Torah’s internal chronology is relatively late and includes a retelling of the divine legal code (hence the name “Deuteronomy” or “Second law”), we are told that the Torah is no longer “in heaven” and is not “baffling.” It remains on earth and becomes the domain of earthly decisors.
Deuteronomy 30:11-14 11 Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it’?” 14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
It is on the basis of this statement that Sanhedrin and the Rabbis they ordained have felt free to judge on a variety of matters.
These decisors, the Sanhedrin and ultimately the Rabbis, were ordained by laying on of hands and had all the authority they needed but they did not consider themselves to hold the priesthood. The idea of authority without priesthood is, to Mormons, something like a perfectly round square. In the Mormon sense, priesthood means, “Authority to act in the name of God” thus all god given authority is priesthood. In Judaism however, the title “priest” only refers to the descendants of Aaron. They are not, in Judaism, “ordained” per se other than the original ordination described in the Bible. However, a conferral of divine authority apart from this priesthood did (and arguably still does, albeit in an “interrupted” form) exist and it was transferred in a fashion similar to the way Mormons transfer priesthood. That method was by “Semikah,” the “laying on of hands.”
All Jewish religious leaders who were not Aaronic priests (Kohanim) had to be ordained before they were permitted to perform certain judicial functions and to decide practical questions in Jewish law. The Bible relates that Moses ordained Joshua by placing his hands on him, thereby transferring a portion of his spirit to Joshua (Num. 27:22, 23; Deut. 34:9).
Numbers 27:22-23 22 Moses did as the LORD commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community. 23 He laid his hands upon him and commissioned him — as the LORD had spoken through Moses.
Deuteronomy 34:9 9 Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the Israelites heeded him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses.
“Laying on of hands” here is (Semikah) literally, Laying on hands
The term “Semikah” also appears in:
Deuteronomy 34:9 Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the Israelites heeded him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses
Moses also ordained the 70 elders who assisted him in governing the people (Num. 11:16–17, 24–25). This is, of course, the Jewish “first council of seventy,” or in other worse, the original prototype of the “Sanhedrin.” The elders ordained by Moses ordained their successors, who in turn ordained others, so that there existed an unbroken chain of ordination from Moses down through the time of the Second Temple and into the 400 c.e. period.
Numbers 11:16-17 16 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you. 17 I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.
Numbers 11:24-25 Moses went out and reported the words of the LORD to the people. He gathered seventy of the people’s elders and stationed them around the Tent. 25 Then the LORD came down in a cloud and spoke to him; He drew upon the spirit that was on him and put it upon the seventy elders. And when the spirit rested upon them, they spoke in ecstasy, but did not continue.
Jewish tradition states that when the spirit was “put upon them,” though it does not specifically say so, it was via the laying on of hand. (Semikah). See Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 42a and comment by Maimonides.
Ordination by lying on of hands was required both for membership in the Great Sanhedrin, and the smaller Sanhedrins and regular colleges of judges empowered to decide legal cases. Three rows of scholars always sat before the Sanhedrin, and whenever it became necessary to choose a new member, a scholar from the first row was chosen and ordained (Maim. Sanh. 4:4). ***
Only a transfer of the Divine Spirit which originally rested on Moses empowered the ordained person to make decisions in these crucial areas. Ordination could be limited to only one or some of these various functions. The complete formula of ordination was “Yoreh Yoreh Yaddin Yaddin. Yattir Yattir” (”May he decide? He may decide. May he judge? He may judge. May he permit? He may permit”).
The ordination itself, which required the presence of four elder rabbis, one of whom was himself ordained, was originally performed by every ordained teacher upon his pupils (Sanh. 1:3; TJ, Sanh. 1:3, 19a).
On the day of ordination, the candidate wore a special garment (Lev. R. 2:4). After the ceremony, the scholars present praised in rhythmic sentences the person ordained. At the ordination of R. Ze’ira it was sung: “No powder, no paint, no waving of the hair, and still a graceful gazelle”; at the ordinations of Ammi and Assi: “Such as these, such as these ordain unto us” (Ket. 17a). After the ceremony, it seems that the ordinand delivered a public discourse on a specific topic.
After the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–35 C.E.), the Roman emperor Hadrian attempted to end the spiritual authority still wielded by the Sanhedrin, which had been shorn of all government support, by forbidding the granting of semikhah to new scholars. It was declared that “whoever performed an ordination should be put to death, and whoever received ordination should be put to death, the city in which the ordination took place demolished, and the boundaries wherein it had been performed uprooted” (Sanh. 14a). R. Judah b. Bava was executed for ordaining several of his pupils in a no-man’s-land between Usha and Shefaram.
During 351-52 C.E., the few remaining Jewish communities in Israel including Sepphoris, Tiberias, Lydda were destroyed by the newly Christian Empire and new decrees were issued against the internal independent authority Dispora communities, and also limiting the observance of Judaism.
The Roman government aspired to erase the office of the nasi (Jewish prince) and the Sanhedrin. Because of the serious condition of the communities of Erez Israel and the deterioration of the Galilean center, Hillel II HaNasi, agreed in principle to limit his authority and his functions in connection with the proclamation of the new months on the basis of new moon sitings, the fixing of the festivals, and the general calculation of the festivals of the year (Thus, in practice, establishing our modern fixed Jewish calendar). The respected medival Rabbi Nahmanides in the Sefer ha-Zakkut (Git., ch. 4, Leghorn (1745), 43a) stated: “From the time of Hillel… in the year [358 C.E.], the Sanhedrin and Semikah ceased and it ceased to have experts in Israel.”
Thus, the theretofore unbroken chain of authority the Rabbis held had ended. Rabbis continued to function as experts in other areas of the Middle East and Europe (and later in America and modern Israel where they function in this capacity to this day) but their function as judges with authority derived from Moses to the Sanhedrin (the “first council of seventy”) had ended. Rabbis as sages and scholars have used the term “semikah” as a synonym for “graduation” or “ordination” off an on to the present. However they universally recognize that their semikah is not the authoritative semikah of the ancient rabbis.
Of course even if Mormons accepted the ancient authority of the Rabbis (they should, im my opinion — it’s well documented though not mentioned in Mormon scripture except obliquely. On the other hand, it is directly related to the introduction of the “seventy.”), all are agreed that it is lost. The only authority that Modern Rabbis have, even in Jewish theory, is the authority that their communities give them. Through the Middle Ages, some claimed to have an alternative authority, a “Mesorah,” that is to say, a complete knowledge of the entire Torah as delivered on Mt Sinai, transmitted intact without interruption from teacher to student. Even this has ended however since that last claim of this nature was in the 1500’s. Interestingly, violation of a modern Rabbinic dictum (modern meaning the last 1500 years or so), is considered to be, not a sin (chet) but violation of an “Issur d’rabbanan,” a “Prohibition of the Rabbis.” The only “sin” involved is disrespect for elders. This is both arguable and minor at worst.
So where does that leave the issue of authority in modern Judaism? Right back where we started… with the Aaronic Priesthood. This is the only extant form of divine authority left within Judaism. Lest anyone misunderstand me, let me make it clear that at a practical level, the priesthood barely functions. Though many Rabbis are also Kohanim, none that I am aware of claim any rabbinic authority from their priesthood. The ritual functions of the priesthood are very limited without a temple. Except for a few times a year (such as on Yom Kippur) no one much thinks about it. Yet, still, the Jewish Aaronic priesthood is the only continuous line of authority dating back to the time of Moses that we have.**** It’s interesting that it is a concept that we share with Mormonism.
So then, for Jews the issue becomes, “What of the Mormon Aaronic priesthood?” For Jews, it does present some oddities (as for Mormons). Firstly there is the whole idea of it being a “Restoration of the Aaronic priesthood.” This is odd since both Jews and the uniquely Mormon scriptures agree that it was never really lost. Clearly Joseph Smith recognized the lineal nature of the Aaronic priesthood as well. Perhaps by “restoration” what was meant is that it was being “opened” to non-Levites/Aaronites? Then there is the issue of John the Baptist though he was priest through the lineage of both his parents (Luke 1:1-6) he appears to have transferred the priesthood in a manner quite different from the original ordination of Aaron and his sons as described in Leviticus 8:6-13. That is to say, he was ordained by Semikah rather than washing, anointing and clothing in the robes of the Aaronic priesthood. On the other had, those elements would be present in later Mormon temple rituals, but those would become primarily elements associated with the LDS understanding of the Melchezidek priesthood (Oddly, at least to me, the Mormon temple seems to take more from the ordination of the original Aaronic priests than from any other obvious source except perhaps Masonry. It includes virtually nothing from the actual ancient temple ritual except the “cosmic” geography of the holy place and the most holy place.
In any case, the “restoration” of the Aaronic priesthood as it is described by most Mormons would strike most curious Jews as odd (yet, perhaps, somewhat interesting). It is not, by itself, very convincing but it is a place for Jews and Mormons to being a discussion of divine authority. In my opinion, this would be good for Judaism. We have neglected that important subject for far too long.
*This reminds me of an old Joke… A Jewish man comes to his rabbi and says, “Rabbi, you have to ordain me a kohain!” The Rabbi says, “That’s not how it works. I don’t really “Ordain” anyone.” The guy is insistent. He says, “Rabbi, I’m SERIOUS! You’ve GOT to make me a kohain! If you do I’m prepared to write a check to the congregation right now for one million dollars!” Well the Rabbi experienced a moment of moral turpitude at that moment. He knew it was wrong. But he looked around at the crumbling building and thought of the bad food at the last bar mitzvah and slipped. He said, “Ok, I’ll look in my books.” He “found something” and said some mumbo-jumbo and pronounced the guy a kohain, upon which time, he promptly wrote out the check. As the Rabbi put the check in his pocket he asked, ”So you;ve got to tell me. Why was it so important that you be a Kohain?” The guy responded, “You don’t understand the pressure! My father was a kohain, his father was a kohain….”
**The original ordination of the Aaronic priests was not by the laying on of hands either. This is recorded in the Bible as follows:
Leviticus 8:6-13 6 Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them with water. 7 He put the tunic on him, girded him with the sash, clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod on him, girding him with the decorated band with which he tied it to him. 8 He put the breastpiece on him, and put into the breast piece, the Urim and Thummim. 9 And he set the headdress on his head; and on the headdress, in front, he put the gold frontlet, the holy diadem — as the LORD had commanded Moses. 10 Moses took the anointing oil and anointed the Tabernacle and all that was in it, thus consecrating them. 11 He sprinkled some of it on the altar seven times, anointing the altar, all its utensils, and the laver with its stand, to consecrate them. 12 He poured some of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head and anointed him, to consecrate him. 13 Moses then brought Aaron’s sons forward, clothed them in tunics, girded them with sashes, and wound turbans upon them, as the LORD had commanded Moses. Leviticus 8:30-33 And Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it upon Aaron and upon his vestments, and also upon his sons and upon their vestments. Thus he consecrated Aaron and his vestments, and also his sons and their vestments. 31 Moses said to Aaron and his sons: Boil the flesh at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and eat it there with the bread that is in the basket of ordination — as I commanded: Aaron and his sons shall eat it; 32 and what is left over of the flesh and the bread you shall consume in fire. 33 You shall not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day that your period of ordination is completed. For your ordination will require seven days.
The Hebrew word here is not “Smicha” (“laying”) it is “Meluaichem” (to “Install”).
***All further references similar to this one are to the Talmud or to later respected commentaries on the Talmud. A modern edition of the Talmud really is a combination of three sources: 1) The Mishneh, a compilation of the orally transmitted procedures and details for observing the laws outlined in the Bible; 2) The Gemara, a loose “commentary” on the Mishneh of sorts – really it’s a running transcript of ancient rabbis discussing a variety of issues loosely related to the preceding Mishneh portion; 3) a variety of later commentaries on 1 and 2, some as late as the middle ages.
****I’m fully aware of modern academic arguments arguing for a late compilation of what we now regard as the Torah. I am personally a believer in the documentary hypothesis (as a scholar rather than as a Jew). I am aware of the possibility that J and P disagree about the pedigree of the priesthood and the later possible confinement to the line of Zadok. If these are issues that interest you, comment and I’ll respond. I’ve kept it relatively simple for a Mormon audience that generally will not be aware of these issues.