THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Emor – פרשת אמר
May 9, 2020 – טו אייר תשפ
Selecting the High Priest
In addition to being at the top of the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Jerusalem Temple, the High Priest was also a leading figure on the national legislative-judicial council and, during much of the Second Temple era, was also the de facto leader of world Jewry. The position was much coveted, as is evidenced by the exorbitant prices occasionally paid for it to the temporal authorities by would-be office holders. Given the prestige and grandeur of the High Priesthood, and the likelihood that many people would actively campaign for the job, it was necessary for the halakhah to set forth rules governing succession.
Concerning the priest who officiates in the inner sanctum on the Day of Atonement, Scripture states, “The priest who has been anointed and ordained to serve as priest in place of his father shall make expiation (Leviticus 16:32).” The halakhic Midrash notes, based on the words ימלא את ידו, that the son of the previous High Priest is the preferred choice to succeed his father, but only if the son is capable of filling his father’s “place.” If the son is an underwhelming figure, however, he is rejected. That is, other criteria outweigh mere genealogy (Sifra Acharei 5).
The High Priest must adhere to several rules of sanctity that extend beyond those pertaining to ordinary priests. Notably, he may not attend the funeral even of an immediate relative, and he may not marry a widow. Scripture identifies this special individual as “the priest who is exalted above his fellows (Leviticus 21:10).” The sages interpreted the word הגדול to mean that the High Priest must have aesthetic beauty, physical strength, wisdom, and material wealth (Horayot 9a). The Midrash notes that Aaron lifted and waved 22,000 Levites in one day. Accordingly, his High Priestly successors must also possess brute strength (Tanhuma Emor 6). Another recension adds that the High Priest must be tall. This is consistent with other Talmudic passages saying that God rests His Presence only upon those who are wise, brave, rich, and tall (Shabbat 92a), and that only those who are tall, wise, handsome, and mature are appointed to the High Court (Sanhedrin 17a).
The sages derived from the expression בגדול מאחיו that if the High Priest-designate is not independently wealthy it is incumbent upon his fellow priests to shower him with riches (Yoma 18a). It would be an affront to national dignity for the leading cleric to be a pauper. The Midrash tells of Phinehas of Havata, who was selected to become High Priest despite his humble background. When it was learned that he was a rock-hewer by trade, his fellow priests cast gold dinars into the quarry for Phinehas to recover and thereby enrich himself. Hananiah ben Gamliel, Phinehas’ father-in-law, offered a revisionist history. In his view, Phinehas was plowing with twelve ox-pairs when the Temple authorities came to confer upon him his new status, reminiscent of what Elisha was doing when Elijah approached him to become a prophet (Sifra Emor 2).
A Tannaitic source teaches that the selection of a High Priest and a king were prerogatives of the High Court of seventy-one judges (Tosefta Sanhedrin 3:7). Tosafot (Yoma 12b) musters several Talmudic passages to prove that, on the contrary, it was the king, not the Sanhedrin, who appointed and dismissed High Priests. Martha the daughter of Boethus paid a small fortune to King Yannai so that her husband, Joshua ben Gamla, could assume the High Priesthood (Yebamoth 61a). The Talmud uses the term Yannai loosely. It does not always necessarily refer specifically to Alexander Jannaeus (rather than to one of the other corrupt rulers of the Hasmonean-Herodian dynasties). In this case, Herod Agrippa II sold the office of High Priest to Joshua ben Gamla in 64 CE. Another episode involved Joseph ben Elem of Sepphoris, who replaced a temporarily unfit incumbent. The next day he asked the king who would function as High Priest. From the hostile nature of the royal response, Joseph knew that he had been dismissed from office (Tosefta Yoma 1:4).
An examination of the Biblical and post-Biblical record shows that genealogy and royal preference (stemming from political loyalty or bribery) were the key factors in determining who would serve as High Priest.
Eli was the last High Priest to serve in the fixed Tabernacle at Shiloh. He was a descendant of Ithamar, Aaron’s youngest son. God’s displeasure with the corruption and malfeasance of the Elide line led Samuel to predict that a High Priest would emerge from a different family and would establish a long-lasting dynasty (I Samuel 2:35). Throughout much of David’s reign, there were two leading priests: Abiathar, a scion of the Elide dynasty, and Zadok, a descendant of Elazar. As an aged David barely clung to life, Abiathar joined the political faction that prematurely crowned David’s older son Adonijah. Zadok, by contrast, joined the faction favoring David’s younger son Solomon (I Kings 1:8). When Solomon won the battle for royal succession, he ousted Abiathar and gave Zadok control of the priesthood (I Kings 2:35).
The Zadokite line held the High Priesthood for the entire First Temple period. When the Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar ordered the execution at Riblah of the Zadokite High Priest, Seraiah (II Kings 25:21). Seraiah’s son, Jehozadak, survived the fall of Judah and went into captivity in Babylonia (I Chronicles 5:41). Ezekiel, prophesying during the Babylonian exile, correctly predicted that the Zadokites would return to the High Priesthood. He attributed their sustained hold over ecclesiastical office to be the Divine will rewarding them for their loyalty to the true faith, in the face of mass defections by fellow Israelites. “But the Levitical priests descended from Zadok, who maintained the service in My sanctuary when the people of Israel went astray from Me – they shall approach Me to minister to Me; they shall stand before Me to offer Me fat and blood – declares the Lord God (Ezekiel 44:15).” Jehozadak’s son, Joshua, would eventually serve as the first High Priest in the rebuilt Jerusalem Temple in 515 BCE (Haggai 1:1). Scripture records the names of five more generations of Zadokite High Priests who served during the Persian period until the Macedonian conquest: Joiakim, Eliashib, Joiada, Johanan, and Jaddua (Nehemiah 12:10-11).
The evidence suggests that Persian and later Hellenistic kings had to approve the appointment of a new High Priest. Heathen kings generally did not interfere in the process. They simply accepted the choice made by the Temple hierarchy, which inevitably meant a Zadokite and often the son of the previous officeholder. The Jews accepted this system not only as a matter of realpolitik but as the will of God. Having been stripped of their sovereignty by God’s decree, the Jews felt that it was God’s will that the foreign overlord select the High Priest until a redeemer restored Israel to its former glory.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ willingness to sell the High Priesthood to Jason in 175 BCE caused a great deal of confusion. The Oniads, descendants of Zadokites, regarded themselves as the only legitimate High Priestly family. Onias IV fled Jerusalem and established a competitor Temple at Leontopolis, Egypt. For other Jews, the ethically dubious decision of the king was binding, so long as the king’s pick was at least minimally qualified as an unblemished Aaronid priest. Some Jews rejected Menelaus (171-161 BCE) on the grounds that Epiphanes ceased to be a legitimate overlord once he outlawed the observance of Torah. Alcimus (161-158 BCE) was rejected by some nationalist Jews on the theory that the Maccabean victory and cleansing of the Temple heralded a new era of liberation. In their view, an appointment to the High Priesthood by Seleucid King Demetrius I Soter was of no consequence, as the Jews themselves would select a High Priest in the proto-messianic era. Jonathan Apphus, brother of Judah Maccabee and the first Hasmonean to hold the office of High Priest, ascended to his position in 152 BCE by decree of Alexander Balas. Some Jews did not recognize Jonathan’s appointment because Balas was not truly an overlord yet. He was a mere claimant to the throne and at war with Demetrius.
The Hasmonean family controlled the High Priesthood for the next 115 years. Simon, John Hyrcanus, Aristobulus I, Alexander Jannaeus, Hyrcanus II, and Aristobulus II all held ecclesiastical office in addition to being the temporal leader of the independent Judean state. It was a hereditary dynasty, with power flowing from father to (the most politically astute) son. They were non-Zadokites and, arguably, had illegitimately usurped religious authority. But given the long history of priestly subservience to Judea’s political masters, nobody was in a position to successfully challenge them. Furthermore, the people were grateful for the leadership role of the early Hasmoneans in the long war of liberation. The Talmud and Josephus record an attempt to decouple the kingship from the High Priesthood, leaving the Hasmoneans with the former and not the latter, but that movement was violently suppressed.
With the Roman conquest of Judea in 63 BCE, the power to choose the High Priest once again reverted to the pagans. Rome’s decision to confer the title of king upon Herod meant that the choice of High Priest would be in the hands of an Idumean quasi-Jew who hated the Hasmoneans. In 37 BCE, Herod appointed Hanam’el the Egyptian as High Priest. Herod periodically dismissed the serving High Priest in favor of someone politically more expedient. Herod’s son and successor, Archelaus, also appointed several High Priests. Upon Archelaus’ ouster from power, the authority to appoint High Priests was transferred to Quirinius, legate governor of Syria. Later, the authority shifted to the prefect of Judea. With the appointment of Agrippa I as King of Judea (41 CE), the power over the Temple hierarchy once again was in the hands of a Jew. Following his death in 44 CE, these powers were conferred upon his brother, Herod of Chalcis. When Herod died in 48 CE, Agrippa II became superintendent of the Temple with the right to appoint High Priests. Agrippa II held this authority until the outbreak of the Great Revolt in 66 CE.
In the final century of the Second Temple’s existence, many people ascended to the position of High Priest exclusively on the basis of political connections. They lacked all the qualifications mentioned in the Talmud and Midrash. The Mishnah notes, sadly, that some of them could not even read from the Bible (Mishnah Yoma 1:6). The implication of the Mishnah is that some spoke only Aramaic and could not understand Hebrew. It is therefore not surprising that upon the destruction of the Second Temple the Jewish people did not overly mourn the loss of the High Priesthood. Other offices of leadership came to assume much greater importance in Jewish life. These included the Patriarch, the Exilarch, the Head of Academy, etc.
Thus, and even though we today pray daily for the restoration of the sacrificial cult, the High Priesthood is but a distant memory the glorious moments of which we recall in the liturgies of Yom Kippur and Tisha b’Av but which are not otherwise vibrant for us