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Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests


Scientists have claimed that the Jewish priests, the Cohanim, are distinguished from other Jews by a particular gene transmitted through the male line. This distinction applies both to Ashkenazim (western Jews) and Sefardim (eastern Jews).

According to the Torah, all Cohanim are descended from one man: Aaron, the brother of Moses. Further, while any human being can convert to Judaism, no one can convert to become a Cohen. These points help to substantiate the claim that Cohanim are actually genetically distinguished from other Jews.

The special role of the Cohen is to serve in the Temple, as representative of the entire Jewish people. The effect of the Cohanim is to bond the Jewish people and the world as a whole to G‑d through their special service. The Cohanim, both in Temple times and today, also have a special power of blessing. In order to be able to carry out their spiritual task, the Cohen is bound by special laws which do not apply to anyone else.

This helps us understand an interesting passage in our Parshah, which is a kind of introduction to the centre-point of the Torah, the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. G‑d instructs Moses to make the following declaration to the Jewish people:

You saw what I did in Egypt, carrying you on eagles' wings and bringing you to Me. Now if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you will be My special treasure among all nations, because all the world is Mine.

You will be for Me a Kingdom of Priests and a holy people.1

These words are often quoted to explain the "chosen" quality of the Jewish people. We have a special relationship with G‑d, with a special covenant which includes laws which relate specifically to the Jewish people and to no-one else. G‑d tells us that the effect of this relationship is that we will become a "Kingdom of Priests."

What does this phrase mean?

One way of understanding it is as describing the innate closeness to G‑d of each individual Jew. A further aspect, however, is that it emphasizes the responsibility of the Jewish people and of each Jewish man or woman.

Closeness to G‑d, being like a "priest" or even like a High Priest, imparts also the power and responsibility to make the world into a dwelling for the Divine, a realm where holiness can be expressed. This means teaching, guiding, having an effect not only on Jews but also non-Jews. Just as the Cohanim bond the Jewish people to G‑d, so the Jews, as a Kingdom of Priests, bond the whole world to G‑d.

This sense of responsibility is also the true meaning of the chosenness of the Jew. Each one of us was chosen at the Giving of the Torah described in the Parshah. The Sages tell us all Jewish souls which would ever be born were present, including all future proselytes to Judaism.

Each man and woman is chosen to keep and to transmit G‑d's teachings — the 613 mitzvot for the Jewish people, and the Seven Noachide Laws for the nations of the world. The responsibility of each Jew is the goal to change the world for good, in one's own life and surroundings, yet ultimately with a chain effect which will affect all existence, bringing the Redemption for the Jewish people and all humanity.2

See the commentary of Baal HaTurim and Seforno to Exodus 19:6, the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Likkutei Sichot, vo1.25, p.330, and Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:4.
Dr. Tali Loewenthal is Lecturer in Jewish Spirituality at University College London, director of the Chabad Research Unit, author of Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School and a frequent contributor to the weekly Torah reading section.
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Douglas Carter Trion February 11, 2015

Noahide Law Could you explain to me, from the TNK, where the Noahide laws fit in the life equation? I am either not getting it or not seeing it. I thought there were only two types of people. Goyim, those not part of Israel or the people of G-d. And Israel, those who are either born or accept the Torah and make brit with Hashem (such as Ruth the ex-Moabite). Thank you again for your patient explanation.
With love and respect,

Eliezer Zalmanov for February 10, 2015

To Douglas The "one law" you refer to is for specifically for Jews and converts, not for non-Jews. The Torah does not say that the its laws apply to anyone other than Jews. Reply

Douglas February 10, 2015

Noahide laws With all due respect and admiration, the question I posted was still not dealt with. How can two different lews/instructions be reconciled with the scripture which states there is but one law. Just as gravity works for ger, goyim and Israelite so also does Torah. Correct? Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for February 9, 2015

To Douglas A "ger" means someone that converted to Judaism, not a non-Jew. The Torah laws apply to all Jews, while Noachide Laws apply to everyone else. Reply

Douglas Trion February 6, 2015

Noachide Laws Can someone explain how this man made idea of one law for "Jews", which I take to mean Judah's descendants, and one for goyim or everyone "not Jewish", doesn't conflict with Torah in Leviticus 24:22. If G-d said through Moshe there is one law for everybody, why the different "law" for the ger? Reply

jocheved Italy February 6, 2015

Toda raba Rav Lowenthal for this beautiful teaching. But it makes me wonder: are the descendants of a cohen that converted to another religion in the past still considered Jewish in force of their genetic lineage? Shabbat Shalom Reply

Anonymous Escondido, CA February 4, 2010

Kingdom of Priests Dear Dr. Loewenthal,
Does this article uncover and lay bare the heart, mind and soul of the 'People of Israel'? Today, if Moses were here would he agree with you? Did God establish a physical or a spiritual lineage through Aaron?

To ponder a worldview is to seek the Truth. Reply

Esther Tauby Richmond, Canada February 9, 2007

Kingdom of Priests Thank you for a beautifully written dvar Torah that I will use at my Shabbos table with all my literal Kohaniim. (husband and sons) and all others present who are from the "kingdom of priests", Yaasher Koach and Good Shabbos. Reply

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