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How Is a High Priest Selected?

How Is a High Priest Selected?



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:1 Yom Kippur, the holiest day; the Holy of Holies, the holiest location; and the high priest, the holiest individual.2

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.3 Nevertheless, when appointing a high priest, the most qualified individual for this holiest of positions was sought.

The Torah4 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.5

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 son6 (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.7

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.8 Others maintain that it was the king’s responsibility to install the new high priest.9 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, Editorial Team


See Maamar BaSukkot Teishvu 5738.


According to tradition, if the high priest was not perfectly righteous, he would pass away upon entering the Holy of Holies—a place that tolerated no imperfection. In fact, during the Second Temple period the high priest would enter with a rope tied around his foot, in the event that his corpse would need to be pulled out.


Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Temple’s Vessels 5:2.


Torat Kohanim loc. cit.; Maimonides, Commentary to the Mishnah, Yoma 1:3.


Talmud, Yoma 72b.


Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 1:7.


Tosefta, Sanhedrin 3:2; Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Temple’s Vessels 4:15.


Tosafot on Yoma 12b.

All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
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Robert February 17, 2016

High Priest Did the high priest retire or die to be replaced? Reply

Sarah Masha WB, MI, USA November 25, 2014

Anon in Toronto In order to do the sacrifices properly, the KG would have to learn how to make them, and why they were needed. That information is in the Torah, so study is not another, separate obligation, it is part and parcel of the job.

The KG was a wealthy man, (if not he was made wealthy via gifts from the other kohanim.) Thus, he did not have to do other work for a living, so what else could he do with his time?

The KG was treated similarly to a king, never going without an aide, etc. But an honest KG being treated in such a way would want to earn the honor, and honor his position (and the one who put him in it) so of course he would study Torah. Reply

FAGEL DEVORA ELISCU Tucson, AZ November 19, 2014

A Woman I think Janice had it right.....of course no Man will agree! Reply

Anonymous toronto May 30, 2014

offerings The High Priest offers his honest offerings on behalf of his family and nation, he should not be burdened with the study of Torah. Reply

Sarah MI USA April 28, 2014

Good reasoning. I feel like I deserve a "du-oh"

As far as I know, Dovid you are correct, the Kohain Gadol had to be married. Therefore, there was always a "wife in waiting" in case the current wife died. In fairness to the "wife in waiting" the position would only last a year or so, and then (if she was not by then the full wife) another would be selected to be the one in waiting, and the first would continue with her life. For the inconvenience the lady who had spent the term as "wife in waiting" was not sent off empty handed. It isn't just the chance of an unneeded/invalid sacrifice that clarified that a KG had to be married. It is also that the position is to be filled by a real human, involved with this world, and his community, with many of the same demands as an "average Joe" Reply

Dovid Zulauf New York April 11, 2014

High Priest I also thought the High Priest had to be married? His offering of atonement for him and his family meaning his wife. Reply

Anonymous toronto February 27, 2014

Son The Son of the High Priest is the next in line to the position, not a daughter. Only a kin of the High Priest can determine such qualities. A King is needed to appoint such a position but then also one has been brought up in the same house can make the decision. If anyone in my family was called to be a High Priest then I would not allow any other family to get the position . Reply

menachem shanghai March 15, 2012

aharon since when moshiach comes there will be a revival of the dead i think it will probably be aharon the first high priest Reply

Sarah MI, USA March 14, 2012

A.H. Bklyn, and Janice A.H. nice analogy, I don't think it is crude at all.

Some people who are judges are people who others trust and agree to arbitrate disagreements. They don't necessarily take criminal cases. Other judges are members of the full criminal law system. Devorah was probably one of the former of these two groups. Kohanim are an entirely different group of people. They conducted full public services within the temple, including participating in all the offerings taken to the alter. (and in certain times, in the satelite temples) These positions were open only to the male direct line decendents of Aaron. Reply

Kitty Kindness Norman, OK March 12, 2012

Pick the One What a great ideal to strive for. May we all portray the attributes of the great high priest. Yes, even if we can't be descended of Aaron. May we have the wisdom and awe you, keep ourselves strong, wealthy and beautiful. Reply

Janice Dnvr, CO March 12, 2012

High Priest if the next in line heir to High Priest is a female, can a first born daughter be High Priestess?

Remembering that Devorah was a judge.

Thank you. Reply

gustavo vargas angel santiago, chile April 13, 2010

How is a high priest selected? Honestly, I think that G-d does not look the beauty of the human body, but the beauty of heart, where He dwells, where He can writes His law, and the fear of sinning against HIS WILL. All because He lives in shrine not made by human hands. Reply

Jan November 21, 2009

Moshiach Since our world and people are so far from the true meaning of "Holy", it only makes sense (even though we can't always understand G_d's ways) that our Moshiach will take care of all this. What if G_d chooses to set up a different order for the Temple? Reply

A.H. Brooklyn, NY September 25, 2009

re: mistake "Technically kosher" means just that - their actions in performing the Yom Kippur service were valid and didn't have to be redone (as they might have been, say, if some random kohen had performed these same actions).

But that still didn't mean that these high priests were on the spiritual level needed to be able to enter and exit the Holy of Holies safely.

(To use a - perhaps crude - modern analogy: I'm not a licensed electrician, but I could probably manage to splice a couple of wires together in a way that will make current flow. I could still end up electrocuting myself, though.) Reply

Shmuel Baruch Rabinowitz Yerushalaim September 24, 2009

mistake you write "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, the – often unscrupulous and impious – high priests were technically kosher" - but if so, why did they die? Reply

B Cohen September 24, 2009

I would like to be the high priest... does it pay? just kidding. thanks for the info. I liked the article - I will print it out and give it to my entire family - all cohens Reply

Josh September 24, 2009

very nice article! thanks I like it. it's not practical but it's a cool topic! Reply

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