Who were the priests of ancient Israel and why were they so important? What did they do in the Holy Temple, and how do their descendants carry on the tradition today? Read on to learn more!
Biblical origins and roles
Jewish priests, also known in Hebrew as kohanim, are direct patrilineal descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. This special priestly role was given to Aaron and his sons in an eternal covenant directly by God in the Torah.
During Biblical times, according to the Book of Numbers the priests had ritual duties in the Tabernacle, the portable dwelling of the Divine presence that preceded the Temple.
The priests had a key role in the Israelites’ worship and relationship with God, and their main duties included offering the daily and holiday sacrifices, and conducting the Priestly Blessing to bless the nation.
The Priestly Blessing is still conducted by kohanim today, using the same exact words from the Book of Numbers – making it one of the oldest and most meaningful Jewish traditions!
The Priestly Blessing is not just recited by kohanim, but also adorns special Jewish jewelry pieces as a protective amulet that can be worn by anyone. Learn more and check out the most meaningful pieces from Israeli artists!
Once the Holy Temple was built in Jerusalem, it became the center of Jewish ritual life as well that of the priests and their functions. (Check out our other blog posts for the history of the First Temple and the magnificent Second Temple.)
The kohanim continued their role in conducting the most important aspects of Jewish ritual life and connecting the entire nation of Israel to God, and became important leaders in Jerusalem and in Israel, often holding a political role in addition to their religious functions.
With the help of Levites (members of the Tribe of Levi who weren’t priests themselves), rabbis, and learned elders, the priests led religious services, sacrifices, and all aspects of Temple life.
Descendants of Priests today
The priestly lineage still continues in Judaism today, passed on from father to son.
With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, sacrifices and many other traditional Jewish rituals have been abolished or changed, and hence the roles of kohanim have become much more limited. However, there are a few priestly functions and communal honors that remain today, including:
>>Conducting the Priestly Blessing at services (every day in Israel, and during holidays in the diaspora)
>>Leading the pidyon haben (redemption of the firstborn) ceremony for firstborn sons in the community
>>An opportunity to receive the first aliyah honors to the Torah during services, and to lead communal grace after meals prayers
Kohanim are an important part of not just Jewish history and heritage, but also the Jewish people and our customs today! Their status reminds us that God ordained Israel to be a “nation of priests,” with deeply meaningful opportunities for connecting with the Divine.
If you’re inspired by the priestly tradition, or know a kohen who’d love a special gift honoring their status, check out our beautiful Priestly Blessing jewelry from Israel – and we have a top 10 list too!