May 28, 2024
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Gatekeepers for Their Tribe: Ketubot 25b

Pinchas approaches Moshe. He says, “Moshe, I want to be a kohen.” “I’m sorry, you can’t be a kohen.” “But I really want to be a kohen. I’ll give you a thousand shekel if I can be a kohen.” “I’m sorry, Pinchas, you can’t be a kohen.” “But I really really want to be a kohen. I’ll give you a million shekel if I can be a kohen.” “I’m sorry, you can’t become a kohen. Being a kohen requires a certain level of dedication and zealousness for your God.”

“I’ll show you dedication,” says Pinchas. He grabs a spear and pierces Kosbi and Zimri in a single thrust. Moshe, slowly backing away: “OK, OK, you can be a kohen. But tell me, why do you want to be a kohen so much?” Pinchas: “My father was a kohen; my grandfather was a kohen. Why shouldn’t I want to be a kohen?!”

At the risk of spoiling the joke by explaining it, this is a mashup of an old Jewish joke about a man who approaches his rabbi, and Rashi on parshat Pinchas (Bamidbar 25:13) explaining that although Aharon and Eleazar were kohanim (as Aharon and his sons were anointed), Pinchas slipped through the cracks (being unanointed and not subsequently born to an anointed kohen), and was only was awarded kehunah after his zealous act.

Regardless, this prompts the question of how one becomes a kohen. There is obviously patrilineal descent. But, we see in Ketubot 25b, that we see חֲזָקָה לִכְהוּנָּה, presumptive kehunah status, based on acting as a kohen as the community reacts normally to it (thus duchening, receiving terumah at the threshing floor and testimony).

Generally speaking, how do people enter existing (racial, gender, ethnic, professional, religious) groups? Is it via simple self-identification? Do existing members of the group need to lend their imprimatur? Is it society at large? Is there an objective reality, such that for kohanim and leviim, they are or aren’t? Can a prominent rabbi or court pronounce them such by fiat?

In our sugya, Ketubot 25b, someone (let’s call him Reuven) comes before Rabbi Ami I (bar Natan), a third-generation Amora of Israel, student of Rabbi Yochanan in Teveria. Reuven testifies that another man (Shimon) established himself as presumptive kohen via his actions, namely that he read he first aliyah in shul. Rabbi Ami counters that perhaps Shimon received this honor as a great man, a prominent Torah scholar, rather than a kohen. Reuven replies that a levite was called to the Torah for the second aliyah. Thereupon, Rabbi Ami elevated Shimon to kehunah.

Interestingly, Rabbi Ami, acting as the gatekeeper for kehunah, was himself a kohen. Thus, Rabbi Ami and his colleague Rabbi Assi, both kohanim, would begin walking to the platform to perform birkat kohanim during the chazan’s blessing of the avodah, arriving after he had completed his blessing (Sotah 38b). Further, Gittin 59b (and cited in Megillah 22a) describes how Rav Huna (second-generation Amora, Sura) would read the first aliyah, even on Shabbat and Yom Tov, despite not being a kohen. The answer given is that Rav Huna is different, for even Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi, esteemed kohanim of Israel, were subordinate to him. We thus see that Rabbi Ami, a kohen, would give way to a more prominent Sage, in line with his objection about establishing Shimon’s status. Is his court perhaps a בֵּית דִּין שֶׁל כֹּהֲנִים (Ketubot 12a)?

(Rav Aharon Hyman’s friend Rav Gromberg pointed to Yerushalmi Shabbat 2:1, paralleled in Yerushalmi Terumot 11:5, where Rabbi Ami ruled a wick dipped in shemen sereifa was allowed, since it was nullified vis-à-vis the wick. Rabbi Yehuda ben Pazi instructed those of Bar Nechemia so. Rabbi Ammi took it himself, not concerned with theft, whereas Rabbi Ila refrained. The implication is that Rabbi Ami was a non-kohen. Hyman suggests that this is a different person, רבי אימי the Babylonian, a different person, who lived at the times of Rav Yosef and Rava. I’ll chime in (as Hyman notes elsewhere) that Rabbi Imi the Babylonian was a student of Rabbi Yehuda ben Pazi—he quotes him in Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 3:1. Further, Rabbi Yehuda ben Pazi (himself a kohen, Yerushalmi Berakhot 5:4) issued this ruling, and Rav Imi followed it.)

The next case discussed in Ketubot 25b is similar. Reuven comes before Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, a first-generation Amora of Israel, who led an academy first in Lud and later in Teveria. Reuven testifies that Shimon is a levi, since he read the second aliyah. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi objected that perhaps Shimon was a great man! Reuven responded that a kohen (rather than a more prominent man) read the prior aliyah, whereupon Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi elevated Shimon to levite status.

We might observe that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was himself a levi. See Chullin 106b, where Bar Hedya (third-generation) relates that he stood before Rabbi Ami, who said regarding washing hands, “until here (the third joint) for both chullin and terumah, stringently”. And (continues either Bar Hedya, or the Talmudic Narrator), don’t say that Rabbi Ami ruled stringently (for himself) only because he’s a kohen. After all, Rabbi Meyasha, the paternal grandson of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is a levi, and he said the same! Rav Hyman brings this and other evidence, such as Yerushalmi Berakhot 5:4, that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “in all my days, I’ve never blessed (birkat hamazon) in a kohen’s presence or allowed a yisrael to bless before me,” implying that he was a levi. Similarly, in Yerushalmi Maaser Sheni, people suggested approaching Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi about restoring the maaser to leviim, instead of kohanim, since they mistakenly believed he would be biased towards leviim. Again, there’s the same implication. Despite this, Rav Hyman points out that Levi was indeed his father’s name, since Mashiach told him “peace to you bar Levai”, which Eliyahu HaNavi interpreted as a good omen for both Rabbi Yehoshua and his father (Sanhedrin 98a).

Having received reward for constructing this edifice, let’s receive reward for demolishing it (Pesachim 22b). While interesting that the Gemara leads off with a kohen and levi as gatekeepers for their respective tribes, this seems a coincidence. They were also great rabbis. And the subsequent listed cases for entering kehuna/leviya came before Rabbi Yochanan, Resh Lakish, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and Rabbi Chiyya—none of whom were kohanim. Sometimes caution is called for when we connect the dots.


Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.

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