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Insights Into the Word ‘Cohein’

1. We were not alone in using the word “cohein” for a priest or leader. This word had this meaning in other religions and societies as well. This is evident from many places in Tanach: e.g., Malkitzedek (Gen. 14:18, “chohein le-keil elyon,”), Poti Fera (Gen. 41:45; “cohein on”), Gen. 47:26 referring to Egyptian priests (“admat ha-cohanim”), Yitro (Ex. 3:1, “cohein Midian”), “Matan, cohein ha-Baal” (2 Kings 11:18), and “chohanei Dagon” (serving the Philistine god, 1 Sam. 5:5). There are many more such verses.

Outside of Tanach, we find the term used for priests in some of the other ancient Semitic languages. Examples are Ugaritic and Phoenician. (Some of these inscriptions refer to c-h-n-t: “priestesses”!)

2. Typically in Biblical Hebrew, a verb has three letters and the noun is formed by adding a “mem” (or “tav”) as the first letter. For example, the noun M-K-D-Sh (=temple) is derived from the verb K-D-Sh.

In the case of the noun C-H-N, if the verb preceded the noun, then we would expect the noun to have taken the form M-C-H-N. Since it did not, this suggests that the noun preceded the verb. The Tanach does use the verb “le-chahen,” but since it came after the noun, it means merely: “function as a priest.”

When the noun precedes the verb, the task of determining the root is harder as it is not just a matter of chopping off the initial letter. I will mention a few speculative suggestions before I mention the most widely accepted explanation:

-C-H-N comes from the root C-H-H (“dim”). The latter was a word used in the leprosy context (see, e.g., Lev. 13:6), and initially priests were involved in medical matters.

-Another attempt to connect to C-H-H: Even though the Torah commands our priests to often wear clothing made of white linen (“bad”), perhaps the priests of other ancient religions wore dimmer or darker clothes.

-There is an Akkadian word “canu” that means “bow down, worship.”

-There is a Syriac word “cahhen” that, in addition to meaning “priest,” means “bring abundance, make happy.” (Syriac is a type of Aramaic.)

But the most likely explanation is that the root of “cohein” was caf-vav-nun. See E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 271. This root has meanings like: “set up, prepare, establish, stand.” This fits because the “cohein” was the one who was responsible for setting up and preparing the religious procedures, and standing before God.

Rav S. R. Hirsch looks to an even broader meaning of the root cav-vav-nun, preparing the people. Here are his inspiring words at Gen. 14:18:

“כהן from root כון…כון from which we get הכין, to get a thing ready for a special purpose. נכון, that which is suitable… כהן, that one who (by teaching, example and symbolic procedure) influences people that they become כן, that they correspond to the Will of God, are ready and fixed for godliness. The Jewish priest has not to make God and godliness satisfy human requirements…but to shape men and human matters to satisfy God’s requirements…”

3. A few times in Tanach, people who are merely important advisors (but not actual priests) are referred to with the term “cohein.” See, e.g., 2 Sam. 8:18, which describes the sons of David as “cohanim.” The parallel passage at I Chr. 18:17 rephrases it: “ha-rishonim le-yad ha-melech.”

Of course, at Ex. 19:6, the entire Israelite people are referred to as “mamlechet cohanim.” There are surely many interpretations here. I will just offer the one in Daat Mikra: In the Jewish religion, the priests have a closer relationship with God than the Israelites do, have additional obligations, atone for the sins of the nation and teach the nation. So too, compared to the other nations, the Israelites have the Shechinah on them alone, have additional obligations, atone for the sins of the other nations, and are obligated to teach them about God. A well-known view of the Sages is that the 70 bulls offered on the holiday of Sukkot are to atone for the sins of the 70 nations.

It was mentioned above that sometimes “cohein” in Tanach can refer to non-Israelite priests. But there is another word in Tanach that is used only for such priests. It appears only three times: “cemarim.” What is the etymology of this word?

The root C-M-R has a few meanings in Tanach: 1) to heat/warm (see, e.g., Gen. 43:30); 2) black, darkness (Job 3:5 and Eichah 5:10; since burnt items are black and dark, this meaning may be related to meaning #1); and 3) to cast a net, snare.

Perhaps “cemarim” is simply a loanword from another language. Akkadian has such a word for a priest, “cumru.” See H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, p. 166.

But can we give it an etymology based on the Hebrew of the Tanach? One possibility is that “cemarim” were called this because of the black clothes they wore. See, e.g., Radak, Sefer Ha-Shorashim. (I am not sure what the source is that “cemarim” wore black clothes.)

The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon suggests that the “net/snare” meaning is related to a meaning “lay prostrate” and that this is the origin of “cemarim.”

But there is another approach. At Gen. 43:30, we are told about Joseph that “nichmeru rachamav” (=his feelings were warmed) toward his brother. R. Hirsch writes that the “warm” meaning of C-M-R here refers to “a deep emotion being excited.” He continues:

“Probably from the same idea, pagan priests are called ‘cemarim’ in contrast to ‘cohanim.’ The Jewish כהן does not depend so much on devoutness, feelings. Jewish divine service is not designed to excite dark mysterious feelings. The Jewish sanctuary makes its appeal primarily to the mind, the intelligence rather than to feelings…One can weep copiously before God in prayer, and get up and be no hair breadth better than one was before. The כמר, the pagan priest, reckons on exciting feelings. But the כהן is to be כן to himself, and מכין to others, give them a firm clear basis on which to stand, a direction where to go…”

Modern scholars partially agree with R. Hirsch. They accept the “warm, excite” meaning of C-M-R as the explanation for the word, but focus the quality on the priest himself. For example, the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon suggests the original meaning of the singular of “cemarim” as “the excited one, the hot one.” Similarly, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (vol. 7, p. 65) writes that “cemarim” comes from the meaning “be excited,” and cites some evidence from Mari texts that a cumrum was an “ecstatic.” (The Mari texts are from centuries before Tanach, from the area of the modern Iraq-Syria border.)


I wish to acknowledge the post of Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein of Dec. 2019, “Holy Priests vs. Unholy Priests,” at his site “What’s in a Word?” that provided me with some of the references.

Mitchell First is an attorney, a Jewish history scholar and a cohein. He enjoys continually preparing and exciting his readers. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more of his articles, please visit his website rootsandrituals.org.

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