The True Saga of Charles, the “Kohen” – or Am I a Kohen?

In honor of Parshas Korach, in which kohanim feature so significantly, I bring you the following:

Imagine the splendor of the Beis HaMikdash, with the kohanim wearing their pure white robes and turbans and their techeiles belts, racing to fulfill the wondrous avodah that brings the Jewish people close to Hashem! Not to mention the ornate garments of the kohen gadol, so beautiful that a gentile who heard about them was inspired to become Jewish, simply for the opportunity to wear them (Shabbos 31a)!

Indeed, the magnificent role of the kohen, not only for klal Yisrael, but also for the entire world, was not lost on Charles, the hero of the following story.

All his life, even before he was at all observant, Charles had known that he was a kohen. He knew that as a kohen he was entitled to the first aliyah when the Torah is read. When Charles became observant, he began duchening. He then learned about receiving pidyon haben money and began to envision himself wearing kohen’s garb and serving in the Beis HaMikdash. And so, Charles made it his hobby to study the laws that affect kohanim and particularly to know the gifts that they receive.

Charles knew about many of the honoraria a kohen receives today, and also began studying about what kohanim will receive when the Beis HaMikdash will be rebuilt. Here are some of the laws he learned:


Instead of the small challah portion that we separate from our doughs and burn nowadays, when the Beis HaMikdash is rebuilt, we will separate a larger piece that we will then give to the kohen, for him and his family to eat in a state of taharah.


Similarly, the terumah portion separated on all produce grown in Eretz Yisrael will be larger and given to the kohen, in addition to terumas maaser which constitutes 1% of the crop. Both the kohanim and their family members may eat terumah and terumas maaser when they are tahorim.

Before eating terumah or challah, a kohen will recite a special bracha, “Asher kideshanu bikedushaso shel aharon vetzivanu al achilas terumah,” Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, who sanctified us with the holiness of Aharon and commanded us concerning the eating of terumah (see Rambam, Hil. Terumos 15:22). The daughter of a Levi or Yisrael who married a kohen may also eat terumah and challah; however, the poskim debate whether she recites this bracha before eating terumah. Some contend that she does not, since she is not “sanctified with the holiness of Aharon,” but married into it. Her ability to eat terumah is technically a gift to her husband, since he may now provide for her with his terumah (Yeshu’os Malko, Hil. Bikkurim 1:2). Others maintain that she does recite a bracha, although they are uncertain whether she recites the text of the bracha with the words kideshanu bikedushaso shel aharon, that you have sanctified us with the holiness of Aharon, since she herself does not have this kedusha; perhaps she recites a bracha with a different text (Mishnah Rishonah, Terumos 8:1).


When the Beis HaMikdash is rebuilt, each farmer will bring there the first fruits of the seven species for which Eretz Yisrael is famous (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates) and make a lengthy declaration of thanks to Hashem for all the help He has given us. These fruits (grains are also fruits) will become the property of the kohanim with the same sanctity as challah and terumah. The kohen will recite a bracha before eating them (Rambam, Hil. Bikkurim 1:2).


Male firstborn of kosher animals owned by Jews are sanctified as korbanos. Because, unfortunately, we still have no Beis HaMikdash, the sanctity of these korbanos creates a serious quandary, since using the animal violates a major Torah prohibition. To avoid this problem, we sell part of the pregnant heifer, ewe or nanny goat to a gentile before she births, which guarantees that the calf, lamb, or kid has no kedusha.

When the Beis HaMikdash is rebuilt, we will no longer be permitted to sell part of the mother animal to a gentile since this would be evading the mitzvah. Instead, the firstborn will be given to the kohen, who will bring it as a korban. He and his family receive the meat from the animal, which they eat while tahorim in Yerushalayim.

By the way, the halachic borders of Yerushalayim affecting these and several other mitzvos are not determined by its current municipal borders, nor are they determined by the current “Old City” walls. The Ottomans built the current Old City walls which exclude parts of the original city that has kedushas Yerushalayim and include areas that were not part of the city. The Mishnah (Shavuos 14a) instructs what one must do in order to expand the city of Yerushalayim from a halachic perspective, and, until the Sanhedrin performs this procedure, one may perform the mitzvos that require being in Yerushalayim only in places that had kedusha in the time of the Second Beis HaMikdash (see Keilim 1:8).


A firstborn male donkey owned by a Jew is exchanged for a sheep or goat that is given to a kohen (Shemos 13:13; Mishnah Bechoros 9a). Instead of giving the kohen a sheep or goat, the owner may elect instead to give the firstborn donkey itself to a kohen or give the kohen something of equal value to the firstborn donkey. Exchanging for a sheep or goat is to save the owner money should he want to – he may exchange a more expensive donkey for a newborn lamb or kid which are worth far less.

Why is there no mitzvah to redeem the firstborn of other non-kosher species as well? The Gemara (Bechoros 5b) explains that this mitzvah is a reward for the donkey for helping transport Bnei Yisrael and their property out of Egypt. Thus, this mitzvah teaches hakaras hatov, the importance of gratitude. If the Torah requires honoring an animal as a reward for appreciating and reciprocating the assistance we received from its ancestors thousands of years ago, how much more must we appreciate and reciprocate the good we receive and have received from our parents, teachers, and spouses!


Every time a Jew slaughters a kosher domestic animal, a kohen receives three sections of the animal: the upper right foreleg (this includes half the shoulder roasts); the mandible (cheek and jaw) area including the tongue; and the animal’s abomasum, its fourth stomach, which is highly useful in food production. Why does the Torah give the kohen these three specific parts? Rav Hirsch (in his commentary to Devarim 18:1) explains that they represent the Jew’s desire that the kohen provide Torah guidance to the Jew’s actions (represented by the right forearm), his speech, and his pleasure (represented by the stomach that digests).


The kohanim also receive the hides and meat from most korbanos. The location where the kohen eats this meat and whether his family shares it with him depend on the sanctity of the korban; kodoshei kodoshim are eaten only by male kohanim and only in the chatzeir (courtyard) of the Beis HaMikdash, whereas kodoshim kalim may be eaten by the kohen’s family anywhere in the Biblical city of Yerushalayim.


The kohanim also receive a portion from the first shearing of a Yisrael’s wool.

In total, the kohanim receive 24 special gifts (Rambam, Hilchos Bikkurim, Chapter 1) that are meant to remind us of the kohen’s special kedusha and to enable him to spend his time bringing the Jewish people close to Hashem by teaching them His Torah.

This all leads to the following question. If the Torah wanted to provide the kohen with a proper stipend so that he could devote himself to teaching Torah and other aspects of kedusha, why didn’t it simply provide him with a proper salary? Why provide him with all these small gifts, which add up to a respectful livelihood?

The answer is that the Torah’s method requires the Yisrael to interact with the kohen constantly. Since the kohen is a person whose role is to exude holiness, this constant interaction with kohanim influences the rest of Klal Yisrael, increasing its kedusha.


By now, Charles had learned all of these wonderful aspects about being a kohen and this excited him greatly. He also knew about a kohen’s special obligations. Divinely bestowed gifts are accompanied by Torah responsibilities. For example, a kohen may not marry a divorcee or a convert, and may not come into contact with a human corpse. Charles also did not make the common error of thinking that adopting a non-Jewish baby automatically makes the child Jewish. He knew that the baby must be halachically converted, and that a converted girl may not later marry a kohen. Thus, an adopted girl would usually be ineligible to marry a kohen.

Charles also learned that a kohen may not marry a woman whose father is not Jewish (Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 4:5, 19; cf. Beis Shmuel and Beis Meir, who disagree) and that if a kohen marries a woman forbidden to him, he damages the pedigree of his offspring from this union forever. His wife and children from this union became tarnished and are called chalalim, defiled descendants of a kohen. Not only are the daughters of chalalim forbidden to marry kohanim, but also their sons’ daughters and the sons’ sons’ daughters etc..


Charles’ rebbe, who was a kohen, told him how he once performed pidyon haben for a baby whose paternal grandfather was a kohen. “How could this be?” Charles asked him.

“The baby’s grandfather had unfortunately married a divorcee,” the rebbe explained, “and the father performing the pidyon haben was the son of this marriage.”

“Prior to performing the pidyon haben for this first-born son,” his rebbe had continued, “I met with the parents privately — very sincere people. I explained to them that any daughters they have in the future may not marry kohanim, although they may marry anyone else. I also told them that when their newborn son has daughters, they also will not be able to marry kohanim. It pained me tremendously to share this information with this sincere young baal teshuvah couple, but I had a halachic responsibility to make sure that they knew this.”


Charles had studied the unfortunate story recorded in the Books of Ezra and Nechemiah about certain kohen families who wanted to bring korbanos in the second Beis HaMikdash. He knew that Nechemiah rebuffed them because of concerns about their pedigree (Ezra 2:61-63; Nechemiah 7:63-65). The Gemara states that, although Nechemiah permitted them to eat terumah and to duchen, he prohibited them from eating korbanos or serving in the Beis HaMikdash (Kesubos 24b).

He remembered saying to his rebbe, “Either they are kohanim or they are not! If they are not valid kohanim, then they cannot eat terumah or duchen either. If they can eat terumah and duchen, then why can’t they offer korbanos and serve in the Beis HaMikdash?”

His rebbe replied: “The Gemara explains that there is a halachic difference between kohanim meyuchasim, who can prove their pedigree in Beis Din, and kohanei chazakah, kohanim who cannot prove their pedigree, but have a family tradition that they are kohanim. In the time of the Beis HaMikdash only a kohen who could prove the purity of his lineage could serve” (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Biyah 20:2; Kaftor VaFerach Vol. 1, page 101 in the 5757 edition. Note that some poskim contend that this requirement was not essential, see Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #236 and writings of Rav Tzvi Hersh Kalisher).

Charles was stunned, “If only a kohen who can prove his kehunah may offer korbanos, and there are no surviving kohanim who can prove their kehunah, how will we ever again be able to bring korbanos?”

“The Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 12:3) explains that Moshiach will use his Ruach HaKodesh to determine who is indeed a kosher kohen who may serve in the Beis HaMikdash,” his rebbe told him.


When Charles was in Yeshiva, one of his baal teshuvah friends, Mordechai, had the following shaylah: “My grandfather, who was not observant and often boastful, often claimed that we are kohanim, but I have no verification of this. I even had someone check the cemetery where my great-grandfather was buried, and there is no mention of his being a kohen on his tombstone. Should I be duchening, and may I marry a woman prohibited to a kohen?”

Mordechai was told that he was not a kohen, and should treat himself as a Yisrael concerning all halachos. Since most Jews are Yisraelim, someone who is uncertain of his pedigree should assume that he is a Yisrael. Furthermore, Mordechai was told that there was no point for him to check tombstones unless one knew that a halachically knowledgeable and reliable person had authorized the inscription. One cannot assume that the person who authorized the data on a tombstone had any halachic authority, and therefore its information carries no credibility.

Mordechai’s shaylah got Charles thinking. All his life, even before he was at all observant, he had known that he was a kohen. Why did he assume so when no one had been observant in his father’s family for several generations? When Charles became observant, he began duchening. He envisioned himself wearing kohen’s garb and serving in the Beis HaMikdash. Now he had to try to trace his kohanic origins. Were they authentic? He remembered his grandfather, a proud, although not a halachically observant or knowledgeable, Jew, saying that they were kohanim.

Many times Charles tried to trace the lineage, but each of his leads led nowhere.

Meanwhile, Charles discovered that being a kohen meant more than avoiding cemeteries and funerals; he discovered that there were streets, parks and highways to avoid, and that even going to museums was frequently problematic. Flying to and from Eretz Yisrael required advanced research to make sure that there were no meisim on the plane and that it did not fly over cemeteries. Touring Israel also required advanced planning and certain sites, such as the Arizal’s mikveh, Kever Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Kever Rachel were completely off-limits.


When the time came for Charles to begin shidduchin, he could postpone no longer. He knew he had to ask a shaylah, yet he procrastinated for a long time before he asked what to do. Finally, he went to a prominent gadol and asked him.

After hearing Charles’ story, the gadol asked him if he had continued to duchen even after he realized that there was no real evidence of his being a kohen. Charles answered that he had continued to duchen. The gadol then asked him why he continued duchening if he was convinced that there was no evidence that he was a kohen. Charles answered because he does not believe his grandfather would fabricate a story that they were kohanim. The gadol then ruled that since Charles truly believed he was a kohen, and had acted as such, he must treat himself as a kohen lechumrah, a term Charles had never heard before.

Afterwards, Charles’ rebbe explained to him the rationale of the gadol’s psak. By continuing to duchen despite the lack of evidence to that affect, Charles had declared that he believed himself to be a kohen. Halacha calls this shavyei anafshei chaticha de’isura, one who has made items prohibited for himself by his actions or declarations. Since only a kohen may duchen, when Charles duchened he was declaring that he considered himself a kohen, which obligated him to adhere to all the strictures of being a kohen. Thus, he may not marry any woman forbidden to a kohen or make himself tamei to a corpse.

However, since Charles has no evidence that he is a kohen, he is not entitled to the benefits of that noble status. He may not receive the money for pidyon haben, duchen, or receive the first aliyah to the Torah.

Charles stopped duchening and began informing people that they should call him to the Torah as a Yisrael. Upon the advice of his rebbe, he decided not to advertise his unusual halachic status, but would discreetly assume that his shidduchin should only be with women who could marry a kohen. He does not attend funerals and is careful not to travel on roads where trees overhang cemeteries.

The gadol had told Charles that his unique halachic status applies only to himself, but not to his children in the future. Since they never duchened, they never declared that they believe themselves to be kohanim, and are considered Yisraelim regarding all halachos. Charles truly believes he is a kohen, although he has no evidence to sustain this belief. His sons have no reasons to believe that they are kohanim since they never knew his grandfather.

Charles now uses his Hebrew name, has in the interim become a big talmid chacham, and now has adult children who do not know why their father never seems to have time to go to a funeral. They never noticed that “Charles” rarely goes to museums and is always tremendously curious about kohen-related issues. Aside from his rebbe and his wife, few people know any more about Charles’ unique status. He might even be the fellow who was just called up for shlishi!


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