By Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David (Greg Killian)
The Hebrew word for priest is Kohen. Strong's defines this word as:
3548 Kohen, ko-hane'; act. part. of 3547; lit. one officiating, a priest; also (by courtesy) an acting priest (although a layman):-chief ruler, X own, priest, prince, principal officer.
From this definition we can see that a priest is the one officiates before HaShem to carry out the will of HaShem and His people. He represents the people before HaShem and he represents HaShem before the people.
The first use of the word Kohen, priest, is found in:
Bereshit (Genesis) 14:14-20 When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people. After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley). Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, And he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand." Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
This first use of the word gives us a clue as to what HaShem intended a priest to be, and to do. Note that this Godly priest was not a Levite (Levi, Avraham's great grandson, was not yet born). The Talmud has this to say about Melchizedek:
Nedarim 32bR. Zechariah said on R. Ishmael's authority: The Holy One, blessed be He, intended to bring forth the priesthood from Shem, as it is written, And he [sc. Melchizedek] was the priest of the most high God. But because he gave precedence in his blessing to Abraham over God, He brought it forth from Abraham; as it is written, And he blessed him and said. Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth, and blessed be the most high God. Said Abraham to him, ‘Is the blessing of a servant to be given precedence over that of his master?’ Straightway it [the priesthood] was given to Abraham, as it is written, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool; which is followed by, The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek,’ meaning, ‘because of the words of Melchizedek.’ Hence it is written, And he was a priest of the most High God, [implying that] he was a priest, but not his seed.
From the Talmud we learn that the title, "Melchizedek", was held by Shem the third born son of Noah. Shem received the birthright which was normally given to the firstborn.
4442 Malkiy-Tsedeq, mal-kee-tseh'-dek; from 4428 and 6664; king of right; Malki-Tsedek, an early king in Pal.:-Melchizedek.
We know that Shem was Noah's third born from:
Sanhedrin 69b ...And Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah begat Shem, Ham and Japheth; hence [if the order is according to age], Shem was at least a year older than Ham, and Ham a year older than Japheth, so that Shem was two years older than Japheth. Now, it is written, And Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of water was upon the earth; and it is written, These are the generations of Shem. Shem was a hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood. But was he a hundred years old? He must have been a hundred and two years old? Hence thou must say that they are enumerated in order of wisdom [not age]; then here too [in the case of Terah's sons], they are stated in order of wisdom.
R. Kahana said: I repeated this discussion before R. Zebid of Nahardea. Thereupon he said to me: You deduce [that the order is according to wisdom] from these verses, but we deduce it from the following: Unto Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the brother of Japheth the elder, even unto him were children born; this means that he was the eldest of the brothers.
My guess is that Shem received the birthright when Canaan was cursed. There is a second opinion, though, that Shem was the first born:
According to Ibn Ezra, Radak, and Ramban, Shem was the eldest and the designation 'the elder', from Genesis 10:21, reverts to Shem as in Isaiah son of Amoz, the prophet [II Kings 20:1] Isaiah, not Amoz being the prophet referred to.
Targum Yonatan is also of the opinion that Shem is the firstborn. At any rate, the fact that the priesthood was given to Shem is demonstrated by the Torah when it calls Melchizedek a priest.
The priesthood of Melchizedek is also important because it is also the priesthood of Yeshua:
Bereans (Hebrews) 5:5-10 So Mashiach also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, "You are my Son; today I have become your Father." And he says in another place, "You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek." During the days of Yeshua' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered And, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him And was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
From this passage we learn that Melchizedek was also a high priest. So, what distinguishes Melchizedek's priesthood from the Levitical priesthood? To answer this question, we must examine the origins of the Levitical priesthood.
The first time that the Levites have an action type role is in:
Shemot (Exodus) 32:22-29 "Do not be angry, my lord," Aaron answered. "You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, 'Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him.' So I told them, 'Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.' Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!" Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, "Whoever is for HaShem, come to me." And all the Levites rallied to him. Then he said to them, "This is what HaShem, the God of Israel, says: 'Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.'" The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, "You have been set apart to HaShem today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day."
The Levites were set apart to HaShem because they did not participate in the sin of the golden calf and they rallied to Moses to destroy the sinners, at that time. Later HaShem traded the firstborn sons for the Levites:
Bamidbar (Numbers) 3:40-45 HaShem said to Moses, "Count all the firstborn Israelite males who are a month old or more and make a list of their names. Take the Levites for me in place of all the firstborn of the Israelites, and the livestock of the Levites in place of all the firstborn of the livestock of the Israelites. I am HaShem." So Moses counted all the firstborn of the Israelites, as HaShem commanded him. The total number of firstborn males a month old or more, listed by name, was 22,273. HaShem also said to Moses, "Take the Levites in place of all the firstborn of Israel, and the livestock of the Levites in place of their livestock. The Levites are to be mine. I am HaShem.
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 10:1-9 At that time HaShem said to me, "Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain. Also make a wooden chest. I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Then you are to put them in the chest." So I made the ark out of acacia wood and chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I went up on the mountain with the two tablets in my hands. HaShem wrote on these tablets what he had written before, the Ten Commandments he had proclaimed to you on the mountain, out of the fire, on the day of the assembly. And HaShem gave them to me. Then I came back down the mountain and put the tablets in the ark I had made, as HaShem commanded me, and they are there now. (The Israelites traveled from the wells of the Jaakanites to Moserah. There Aaron died and was buried, and Eleazar his son succeeded him as priest. From there they traveled to Gudgodah and on to Jotbathah, a land with streams of water. At that time HaShem set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of HaShem, to stand before HaShem to minister and to pronounce blessings in his name, as they still do today. That is why the Levites have no share or inheritance among their brothers; HaShem is their inheritance, as HaShem your God told them.)
A footnote in the Soncino Talmud helps to make this clear:
Sanhedrin 17a Footnote number 13: Num. III, 47. After the completion of the Tabernacle, the Levites were called to replace the firstborns of all Israelites in the service of the Sanctuary, (cf. Ex. XXIV, 5; XIX, 24.) In order to effect this transfer of office, both the firstborn and the Levites were numbered. And when it was found that of the former there were twenty-two thousand two hundred and seventy-three; and of the latter, twenty-two thousand, the two hundred and seventy-three firstborns who were in excess of the Levites were redeemed at the rate of five shekels per head. (Five shekels is the legal sum for the redemption of a firstborn. v. Num. XVIII, 16).
The Midrash reiterates this exchange of the first born for the Levites:
Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 4:8 Originally the Temple service devolved upon the firstborn, but when they committed the sin of the Golden Calf, the Levites, inasmuch as they had not erred in the matter of the calf, were privileged to enter in their stead.
So, the Levitical priesthood was established because of the sin of the golden calf. The priesthood had been held by the firstborn males, until that time. The Levitical priesthood, therefore, was a replacement for the priesthood of the firstborn, which was HaShem's ideal. This ideal was established with Adam, and was the norm until the sin of the golden calf.
Rashi confirms this change of priesthood:
Rashi on B’Midbar 3:12 from among the children of Israel: That the Israelites should have to hire them for My service? I gained My right to them through the [Israelite] firstborns, taking them [the Levites] in their place. For [originally] the service was performed by the firstborns, but when they sinned by [worshipping] the [golden] calf, they became disqualified. The Levites, who had not committed idolatry, were chosen in their stead. [Midrash Aggadah]
So, why did Abraham pay a tithe to Melchizedek, alias Shem? The Talmud talks about the "court" or "yeshiva" of Shem in the Talmud, in Avodah Zarah 36b and Makkoth 23b. Tradition indicates that Avraham studied in the yeshiva (Torah school) of Shem and Eber. Because Avraham was a descendent of Shem, when Shem Died, Avraham became the priest of his family, as Rashi relates:
Rashi’s Commentary for: Psalm 110:4 you are a priest forever because of the speech of Malchizedek From you will emerge the priesthood and the kingship that your children will inherit from Shem your progenitor, the priesthood and the kingship, which were given to him. דִבְרָתִי מלכי־צדק . The “yud” is superfluous, like (Lam. 1:1): “the city that was once so populous (רבתי).” Because of the speech of Malchizedek, because of the command of Malchizedek. You are a priest, Heb. כהן. The word כהן bears the connotation of priesthood and rulership, as (II Sam. 8:18): “and David’s sons were chief officers.”
Biblical personalities Shem and Ever formed a Yeshiva called Yeshiva Shem V'Ever. Our forefather Yaaqov learned there for fourteen years. This was all prior to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Talmud mention the yeshiva of Shem in two places: Avodah Zara 36b and Makot 23b.
At this point we can put together some of the pieces: Avraham paid a tithe to Melchizedek because Melchizedek was a priest, and the task of a priest was to teach Torah. Since Avraham learned Torah from the priest Melchizedek, therefore he gave Melchizedek a tithe. We will see that the giving of a tithe to the priests, the Torah teachers, will later be codified in Torah:
Bamidbar (Numbers) 18:26 Thus speak unto the Levites, and say unto them, When ye take of the children of Israel the tithes which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then ye shall offer up an heave offering of it for HaShem, even a tenth part of the tithe.
So, the reason that Avraham paid a tithe to Melchizedek, the priest of God Most High, is because he was Avraham’s Torah teacher.
Melchizedek, who's name was Shem, was very close to Adam. Shem lived during the days of Methuselah, and Methuselah lived during the days of Adam. The Talmud records this closeness:
Baba Bathra 121b Our Rabbis taught: Seven [men] spanned [the life of] the whole world. [For] Methuselah saw Adam; Shem saw Methuselah, Jacob saw Shem; Amram saw Jacob; Ahijah the Shilonite saw Amram; Elijah saw Ahijah the Shilonite, and he is still alive.
In order to begin to understand the true role of Jewish leadership, we must remember that Avraham was not the first person after Noah to devote himself to HaShem. Noah's son, Shem who, according to the Midrash, was not only born nine generations before Avraham but lived forty years after the first patriarch died, really qualified for this preeminent position. He, together with his son Ever, established the first yeshiva in history. And when Rebecca, Avraham's daughter-in-law, felt unwell in her pregnancy (the fetuses in her womb struggled), she "inquired of the Lord" [Bereshit 25:22], and Rashi explains that she sought the spiritual advice not of Avraham but rather of Shem. Several verses later, after she gives birth to twins, Jacob the younger son is described as "dwelling in tents." [Bereshit 25:27] And again Rashi tells us that these are the tents of Torah, the tent of Shem and the tent of Ever for which Jacob, midrashic sources reveal, left his father's and grandfather's home and studied Torah for fourteen years.
Indeed, the centrality of Shem and Ever in the unfolding spiritual development of the Jewish people is given full fanfare when Rashi, in the very context of Abraham's own life back in Parashat Vayera, explains that the guests of honor "at the great feast Abraham made on the day that Isaac was weaned," [Gen. 21:8] were "...the greatest of the generation: Shem and Ever and Elimelech."
At this point we understand that Shem was a priest because he was a firstborn. Further, we also understand that as the patriarch of the family he represented the entire family before HaShem. This helps us to understand that Mashiach was a priest according to the order of Melchizedek because He, too, was not only the first born of His mother, but He was the firstborn of creation, as we read in the Nazarean Codicil:
Colossians 1:14-17 In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins: 15 Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: 16 For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: 17 And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.
The Midrash also states that Mashiach will be a firstborn:
Midrash Rabbah - Exodus 19:7 Rabbi Natan said: "The Holy One, blessed be He, told Moses: 'Just as I have made Jacob a firstborn, for it says: Israel is My son, My firstborn, so will I make the King Messiah a firstborn, as it says: I also will appoint him firstborn (Psalms 89:28).
Ultimately, the Levites will divest themselves of the priesthood in favor of the priesthood of the firstborn. This will happen at the restoration of all things:
Matityahu (Matthew) 17:11 And Yeshua answered and said unto them, Elijah truly shall first come, and restore all things.
The Nazarean Codicil also foresees a day when the Nazareans will also be priests:
Revelation 1:4-6 John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne; 5 And from Yeshua Mashiach, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, 6 And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
Revelation 5:8-10 And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of saints. 9 And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; 10 And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
Revelation 20:6 Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Mashiach, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
The word Toldot, in Numbers 3:1, points to the counting of the Levites, the servants of HaShem, who stand instead of the first-born of Yisrael, and it starts by saying that "These are the Toldot of Aharon and Moshe," which in a way is the Toldot (Generations) of two priesthoods one after the order of Melech Tsadiq (Melchizedek) exemplified by Moshe Rabeinu, and the other of the order of Aharon, which are still to this day with us by those who are surnamed Kohen. How interesting it is that these two priesthoods have their tents side by side at the entrance of the Tabernacle. But not only are their generations important but also their counting which is unique amongst the Bne Yisrael. Whilst the counting of the various tribes to establish the mean of war was done by individuals over the age of twenty, of the Levites we read that their accounting, from one month and older, is by family units which have specific tasks to discharge as family units.
What I find quite fascinating is that the early Nazareans did not established their headquarters in any of the many available Synagogues around Yerushalayim, but they established their headquarters in the Temple (2 Luqas/Acts 2:46). It appears that they saw themselves very much as Levites but of a different Priesthood, that of Moshe Rabeinu and His Majesty King Yeshua the Messiah!
We also see that all Israel is to be a kingdom of priests at the restoration of all things:
Shemot (Exodus) 19:6 And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
Israel can all be priests because they are all firstborn sons. This is what the Torah teaches:
Shemot (Exodus) 4:21 And HaShem said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go. 22 And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith HaShem, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: 23 And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn.
Thus we see that the priesthood of the firstborn is an enduring priesthood. What makes this especially interesting is that we have previously learned, in the study titled Mashiach, that:
Mashiach = Israel
Thus we understand that since Yeshua, the Mashiach, is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek, and Israel is a “Kingdom of Priests”, then we can understand that Yeshua is the head of the body called Israel, and the body of Mashiach is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
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Matityahu (Matthew) 19:16-22 16 An behold, one approached and said, “Good Rabbi, what good will I do in order that I may have life eternal? 17. And he (Yeshua) said to him, Why do you ask me about good? Only One is good. But if you wish to come into life, you must continually keep the commandments. 18. He said to Him, What sort of commandments? [Or, which ones?] And Yeshua answered, You will not murder, You will not commit adultery, You will not steal, You will not bear false witness, 19. Honor your father and your mother, and, You will love your companion as [you do] yourself 20. The youth said, I have observed all these; what still do I lack? 21. Yeshua answered him, If you wish to be whole, go innocuously and sell your property and give [the proceeds] to the humble, and you will have treasure in the heavens; and come, then come over here and follow me! 22. And having heard that saying, the youth went away distressed, for he had much property.
This pasuk from the Nazarean Codicil is the triennial cycle connection to the Torah reading of the Sota in Bamidbar (Numbers) 5:11 – 6:21. In this Torah portion we have the detailed procedure for the woman suspected of adultery and this is followed by the procedure for the Nazir.
Ta'anith 17a Our Rabbis have taught: A king cuts his hair every day, a high priest on the eve of every Sabbath, all ordinary priest once in thirty days. Why has a king to cut his hair every day? — R. Abba b. Zabda said: Scripture says, Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty. Why has a high priest [to cut his hair] on the eve of every Sabbath? — R. Samuel b. Isaac said: Because the Mishmar changes every week. Whence can it be adduced that an ordinary priest [must cut his hair] once in thirty days? — It is to be adduced from the analogous use of the word pera’ in connection with the Nazirite [and the priests]. Of the priests [it is written], Neither shall they shave their heads, ‘nor suffer their locks [pera’] to grow long; and of the Nazirite it is written, He shall be holy. he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long [pera’]; as in the case of the Nazirite the period of growing his hair is thirty days so too must it be in the case of the ordinary priest. But whence do we know this to be the requirement of the Nazirite himself? R. Mattena said: A Nazirite's unspecified [term of] vow is thirty days. Whence is this to be adduced? — Scripture uses the word yihyeh the numerical value of which is thirty. R. Papa said to Abaye: Perhaps Scripture means [that the priests] should not let their hair grow at all? — The latter replied: Had Scripture written, ‘nor suffer to grow long their locks’, it might be as you suggest, but since Scripture has written, ‘Nor suffer their locks to grow long,’ this implies, they may grow their hair but they may not suffer their locks to grow long. If that is so, this restriction should be valid even at the present time! — [This restriction is] on the same lines as that of the drinking of wine; just as the restriction of drinking wine applied only to the time when they might enter [the Temple] to do service, so too with regard to the restriction of letting the locks grow long. But has it not been taught: Rabbi says, I declare that [a priest] should not at any time drink wine, but what can I do, seeing that his misfortune turned out to be an advantage to him.
Ta'anith 26b It is, however, generally agreed that an intoxicated [priest] may not lift up his hands [in benediction]. Whence is this view adduced? — R. Joshua b. Levi said in the name of Bar Kappara: Why does the section dealing with [the blessing by] the priest follow immediately after the portion of the Nazirite? In order to teach you that, just as the Nazirite is forbidden to drink wine, so too is the priest about to recite the priestly benediction.
Nazir 47a It is clear that as between a High Priest and a Nazirite, the one [authority] is of the opinion that the High Priest is of superior sanctity, and the other that the Nazirite is of superior sanctity.
Midrash Rabbah - Numbers X:11 DEAD BODY (VI, 6). Observe now that whenever a man hallows himself here below he is hallowed from on high. Of this man, inasmuch as he separates himself from wine and imposes suffering on himself by refraining from shaving his head, with the object of keeping himself free from sin, the Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘Behold, he ranks in My estimation as a High Priest.’ As a priest is forbidden to defile himself by any dead bodies, so is the Nazirite forbidden to defile himself by any dead bodies. As in reference to the High Priest it is written, For the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is upon him, (Lev. XXI, 12), so in reference to the Nazirite it says, Because his consecration unto God is upon his head (Num. VI, 7). As in regard to the priest it is written, And Aaron was separated, that he should be sanctified as most holy (I Chron. XXIII, 13), so also is the Nazirite described as holy; for it says, All the days of his Naziriteship he is holy unto the Lord (Num. VI, 8). Come and observe how the commandments circle Israel like crowns! The growing of long hair, surely, makes man uncouth, for he cannot cleanse his head, yet because he grows it with a lofty motive Scripture calls it a ‘crown’ to his head; hence it is written, Because the crown of his God is upon his head.
Thus we see the connection between a nazir and a priest. The Nazarean codicil then tells us about a man who desires to have eternal life. Yeshua tells him to sell his property and give it to the poor, and follow Him. Now just as the priest does not own any property, here the Nazarean is enjoined not to have any property. Thus we have a connection between the priests => the Nazir = > and the Nazarean. From this we can deduce that a Nazarean is also a priest.
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This study was written by
Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David
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 Ibid. 19f
 Here taken as referring to Abraham; cf. Ber. 7b, where my lord is explicitly so explained.
 Ps. CX, 1.
 Ibid. CX, 4.
 I.e., because of his giving precedence to Abraham.
 Though Abraham was a descendant of Melchizedek, and thus the priesthood was inherited by the latter's seed, yet this was through the merit of Abraham, not of Melchizedek. - Ran.
 Ibid. VII, 6.
 Ibid. XI, 10.
 Since Noah was five hundred years old when Shem was born, and six hundred when the flood commenced, Shem must have been a hundred then. Consequently, two years later he was a hundred and two years old.
 So that Shem as the youngest, not the eldest.
 Ibid. X, 21.
 Lit., ‘folded’.
 The total length of their respective lives covered the entire period of the life of the human species.
 This section contains what I have learned from my teacher, His Eminence Hakham Dr. Yoseph ben Haggi. Most represent His Eminence’s words.
 Sefer Yetzirah 1:7, Yeshayahu (Isaiah) 46:10.
 I heard this from Paqid Adon Poriel ben Avraham.
 Woman suspected of adultery.