When the third Holy Temple is built—may it be soon—how, and by what criteria, will the new high priest be chosen?
Before we discuss the appointment of the high priest with the coming of Moshiach, let’s first discuss the nature of this exalted position, as well as review the general rules that relate to the installment of a new high priest.
The high priest’s most significant task was entering the Holy of Holies chamber on Yom Kippur to attain atonement for all of Israel. At this time, our sages tell us, the holiest elements of creation converge: Yom Kippur, the holiest day; the Holy of Holies, the holiest location; and the high priest, the holiest individual.
From this it is clear that the high priesthood wasn’t merely a technical position, but one of great holiness.
The first criterion any high priest must meet is that he must be of priestly descent—i.e., a direct descendant (following the male line) of Aaron, the brother of Moses.
As long as the sitting high priest meets this key requirement, he is officially valid, and the service he renders is 100% kosher, regardless of whether he possesses any other qualities. Nevertheless, when appointing a high priest, the most qualified individual for this holiest of positions was sought.
The Torah describes the high priest as the one who is “the greatest from amongst his brethren.” What defines his greatness? This has been interpreted as greatness in piety (“awe of G‑d”), wisdom, handsomeness, wealth (which, if necessary, is supplied to him), and strength.
Though the ideal candidate for high priest has all these qualities—in fact, he should be greater than all his priestly brethren in all these areas—the two most important qualities are wisdom and piety.
When a high priest dies or retires, the natural heir to the position is his son (or, if he has no son, the next closest suitable heir), provided that the son is a truly pious individual. If he lacks Torah knowledge, he is provided a teacher to instruct him.
If there is no son (or heir), or if there is one but he is not deemed worthy to assume his father’s position, then we seek the person most qualified based on the above criteria.
Now, who decides who’s the most qualified individual? And who determines whether the son is pious enough to assume the position of high priest?
Some say that this responsibility lies in the hands of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical supreme court that consisted of 71 of the greatest sages of the day. Others maintain that it was the king’s responsibility to install the new high priest. Both the king and the Sanhedrin serve as representatives of the entire nation, and as such are entitled to appoint the individual whose service in the Temple is discharged on behalf of the entire nation.
(Whether or not the right to appoint the high priest belongs to the king, all are in agreement that, after the fact, if the king installs a high priest, the installation is valid. As such, even during much of the Second Temple period, when the high priesthood was up for sale to the one who offered the king the largest bribe, these high priests—though often unscrupulous and impious—were technically kosher.)
How will a high priest be appointed with the coming of Moshiach, when the Temple will be rebuilt and the Temple service reinstated?
There is no sitting high priest today, so hereditary succession is a non-issue. It follows that the appointment of the high priest for the Third Temple—may it be speedily in our days—will be done by the newly installed Sanhedrin and/or the king, Moshiach himself—based on the above-detailed criteria.
Rabbi Naftali Silberberg,
Chabad.org Editorial Team