A Hebrew Kingdom of Priestly Words
Going from a to z, what do the surnames Akalai, Barkan, Gindi, Hadad, Kaplan, Malamud, Rapoport and Zalka have in common? They are all כֺּהֲנִים (kohanim), part of the big Cohen family worldwide, descended from the biblical Aaron, הַכֺּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל (ha-kohen ha-gadol), the High Priest. The root כ-ה-נ (kaf, heh, nun), to serve, officiate or hold high office, is the source of the Hebrew noun כְּהוּנָָה (kehuna), priesthood.
Because Aaron was descended from the tribe of Levi, Israelite priests were called in Deuteronomy כֺּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם (kohanim ha-leviim), “levitical priests.” This was done perhaps to distinguish them from “illegitimate” Israelite kohanim or from idol-worshiping non-Israelite priests. When 2 Samuel 8:18 describes King David’s sons, it says כֺּהֲנִים הָיוּ (kohanim hayu). The verse does not mean that they were priests; rather, they were senior counselors to the king.
Exodus enjoins not only priests but all Israelites to be a מַמְלֶכֶת כֺּהֲנִים (mamlekhet kohanim), kingdom of priests. On holidays, the synagogue service includes בִּרְכַּת כֺּהֲנִים (birkat kohanim), the priestly benediction. A familiar verse in Psalms 132:9, also found in the liturgy, כֺּהֲנֶיךָ יִלְבְּשוּ צֶדֶּק (kohanekha yilbeshu tzedek), “Let your priests be dressed in righteousness,” alludes to the finery of priestly garments. In a verse from Isaiah, an elegantly decked-out bridegroom יְכַהֵן פְּאֵר (yekhahen pe’er), is described figuratively as “priesting it” sartorially.
Because many of the duties and prohibitions assigned to the priestly class are listed there, Leviticus is also called תּוֹרַת כֺּהֲנִים (torat kohanim), the Bible of the Priests. While today, kohanim no longer offer up animal sacrifices, burn incense or inspect human body parts for impurities, they are still forbidden from marrying a divorcée or from entering a cemetery. This latter prohibition has led to a picturesque idiom, ?מַה לַכֺּהֵן בְּבֵית הַקְּבָרוֹת (mah la-kohen be-veit ha-kevarot), literally, “What is a priest doing in the cemetery [where he is forbidden to be]?” In modern Hebrew, this translates into the jocular, “What is a fine man like you doing in a place like this?”
And what of the כֺּהֶנֶּת (kohenet), in the feminine, who, in days of yore, was either the wife or daughter of a priest or a priestess of an alien religion? Modern Israeli wisdom offers the expression הַכֺּהֶנֶּת הַגְדוֹלָה (ha-kohennet ha-gedolah), not a high priestess, but rather, the female head of a large ideological movement, thus reminding us that עִם הַכְּהוּנָה בָּאָה הַתְּבוּנָה (im ha-kehunah ba’ah ha-tevunah), practicing leadership leads to perfecting it.
Joseph Lowin’s columns for Hadassah Magazine are collected in the books HebrewSpeak and HebrewTalk.