Aaron the High Priest (Aharon Hakohen) was the first high priest of the Israelites, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible. He was born in Egypt and served in the Tabernacle throughout most of the 40 years that the Jews traveled through the desert. Aaron was the brother of Moses and Miriam, and the progenitor of all future priests (kohanim). He was remembered as a peace-maker, beloved by all.

Birth and Early Life

Aaron was the second child born to Amram and Yocheved more than 83 years before the Exodus. As members of the tribe of Levi, his family was exempt from the slavery that the rest of the Israelites were subject to (read: Why Didn’t Pharaoh Enslave the Tribe of Levi?).

After Aaron was born, his parents separated, as Pharaoh had decreed that all boys born (even the Levites) were to be thrown in the Nile, and they did not want to risk having more children. Since they were leaders of the Israelites, their example was widely followed. Miriam, Aaron’s older sister, convinced her parents that they would effectively destroy the nation of Israel if no children would be born. She also prophesied that they would give birth to a child who would redeem the Israelites from Egypt. Her efforts were fruitful, and they remarried in a very public celebration. Aaron and Miriam sang and danced at the wedding.1

Soon after, Moses was born. He lived with them during his childhood, after which he was taken to the royal palace, where he was raised by Bithiah, daughter of Pharaoh.

During Moses’s time in the palace and his subsequent flight to Midian, Aaron remained in Egypt, guiding his people and reminding them of G‑d’s promise that He would eventually redeem them.2

See: Where Was Moses?

Accompanying Moses to Pharaoh

Many years later, when Aaron was 83 years old,3 G‑d revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush that the time had arrived for him to redeem the Israelites.4 Aaron, who was still in Egypt, prophetically received the message in tandem with his brother. Upon hearing the news, Aaron immediately set out to greet Moses, meeting him at the border of Egypt.5

Then, Moses and Aaron met the elders of the Israelites and conveyed G‑d’s message of hope. Together, they all traveled to the palace of Pharaoh to tell him that the time had come to free the Israelites. Aaron’s role was to act as Moses’ voice, making up for his brother’s speech impediment (see: Why Did Moses Stutter?).6

As they entered the palace, one by one, the elders lost heart and snuck away, leaving only Moses and Aaron, who strode into the throne room to tell Pharaoh to liberate the Israelites.7

Pharaoh did not immediately accede to their demands. Furious that the Israelites would even consider asking to be freed, he attributed their temerity to a lack of strenuous labor. He ordered his taskmasters to cease providing straw for the making of the bricks, forcing the Israelite slaves to collect it themselves, while their brick quotas remained unchanged.8

Moses complained to G‑d, and they were told to return to Pharaoh and reiterate their demands. This time, G‑d instructed them to perform miracles before Pharaoh.

After relaying the message once again, Aaron began performing the miracles to prove that G‑d had sent them: He cast his staff to the ground and it transformed into a snake. The royal magicians immediately did the same, transforming their staffs into snakes as well. Aaron then grabbed his snake by the tail and it reverted to a staff. The magicians did the same. Aaron’s staff then9 consumed the staffs of all the magicians, swallowing them whole, but it remained the same thickness even after swallowing them.10 To that, the magicians had no response.

Yet, Pharaoh remained unmoved.

See: Of Snakes and Sticks

Aaron, Moses and the 10 Plagues

Aaron, not Moses, was the one who initiated the first three plagues. He struck the waters of the Nile twice, once to begin the plague of blood, and the second time to instigate the plague of frogs. He struck the sand to start the plague of lice.11

See: The Ten Plagues?

Aaron at the Giving of the Torah

Eventually, Pharaoh was subdued and the Israelites left Egypt. Fifty days later, they stood at Mount Sinai, ready to receive the Torah.

Everybody had a designated position: The Israelites stood at the foot of the mountain, unable to approach it. The Levites stood slightly up the mountain, Aaron above them, and Moses at the summit.12

Read: What Happened at Sinai?

The Golden Calf

Immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, Moses told the people that he would ascend the mountain for 40 days to receive the rest of the Torah from G‑d. Aaron was to lead the people in his stead.

So, the people waited. Unfortunately, they did not wait long enough. They counted the day that Moses ascended as day one. So, 39 days later, when they saw that he had yet to return, they assumed that he never would. A contingent approached Aaron demanding that he provide them with a replacement for Moses.

Aaron tried to stall for time. He told them to gather golden jewelry from their wives and children,13 certain that this would not be an easy task. By the time they managed to get the gold together, he hoped Moses would have returned.14

And he was right. The women and children categorically refused to give up their jewelry. But, instead of delaying, the men took their own jewelry and brought it to Aaron. Left with no choice, Aaron took their gold and cast it into a fire. Miraculously, it turned into the shape of a calf. A golden calf.

The people began celebrating the idol that they had made. It was at that moment that Moses returned, and he was not happy. At all. He then proceeded to famously smash the first set of Tablets and ordered a purge of those who had worshiped the Golden Calf.

See: Was Aaron Responsible for the Golden Calf?

Teaching the Torah

After being taught by G‑d Himself, Moses began with teaching the Torah to Aaron; then to Aaron along with his sons; then to Aaron, his sons, and the Sanhedrin (high court); after which he taught it to the entire nation. Aaron learned the Torah from Moses four times, his sons three times, the court twice, and everybody else once. Then Moses left and Aharon taught his sons, the court, and the rest of the people. After that, Aaron left and his sons took over. Finally, his sons left and the court taught the people the Torah.15

War With Amalek

As the Israelites approached Refidim, they were attacked by the nation of Amalek. Moses told Joshua to choose men to go to battle while he, Aaron, and Hur ascended a nearby hill. Whenever Moses lifted his arms, the Israelites prevailed. However, when his arms fell, the Amalekites regained control of the battle. So, Aaron and Hur each took an arm to support, keeping Moses’s arms overhead. With Moses’ arms up for the duration of the fight, the Israelites defeated the Amalekites.16

Read: Who Was Amalek?

The Tabernacle

The Tabernacle was constructed almost a year after the Israelites left Egypt, and Aaron was designated to be the High Priest. The inauguration ceremony began on the first of the month of Nissan. For the first seven days, Moses served as the High Priest, modeling the service for Aaron to see. Each day, Moses anointed Aaron, thus consecrating his position as High Priest.17

On the eighth day, Aaron took over. And, on that day—for the first time—the Divine Presence rested on the Tabernacle.18

Aaron’s primary responsibilities included bringing incense and offering up sacrifices on Yom Kippur, and offering a tenth of an eiphah of flour daily.19

See: Spiritual Space

The Death of Nadab and Abihu, Sons of Aaron

On the eighth day of the Tabernacle’s inauguration, in the midst of the ceremonies, disaster struck. Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron’s sons, brought an unrequested incense offering into the Holy of Holies. Consequently, a fire entered through their nostrils and consumed them.

Moses relayed a message from G‑d that Aaron should continue to rejoice and not disrupt the celebration with mourning practices. He was not to tear his clothes or let his hair grow long. Aaron carefully followed these instructions. Despite the tragedy he had experienced, Scripture tells us that Aaron was silent, accepting G‑d’s will with equanimity.20

See: The Mysterious Deaths of Nadab and Abihu

Speaking Ill of Moses

Due to the enormous spiritual energy that accompanies receiving prophecy from G‑d, it has several prerequisites, one of which is separation from one’s spouse. For most prophets, this does not pose much of an issue, since their prophetic revelations come quite infrequently. Moses, however, had a connection with G‑d that was a constant occurrence. In order to be continuously available to receive prophecy, Moses permanently separated from his wife, Tzipporah. Once, Aaron and his sister Miriam discussed their mutual disapproving opinion on Moses’s choice which resulted in them both becoming leprous as a punishment.21

See: Why Was Miriam Punished So Harshly?

Korach’s Rebellion

Korach, a leader of the tribe of Levi, staged a rebellion against Moses. Part of his complaint was the appointment of Aaron as High Priest, which he perceived as nepotism. G‑d did not take kindly to his insurgence, and Korach and his followers were swallowed alive by the ground. A plague then broke out amongst the nation, only to be halted by Aaron passing through the camp, offering incense to G‑d to atone for the people.

Read: Korach: The Rebel of the Bible

To provide further evidence of Aaron’s Divine ordination, Moses gathered the leaders of each tribe and had each give in a staff. On each staff, he inscribed the name of the tribe it represented, including Aaron’s staff which was inscribed with the name of his tribe, Levi. He then left the staffs in the Tent of Meeting overnight.

The next day, when he entered the Tabernacle, Moses saw that Aaron’s staff had blossomed with flowers and grew fully formed almonds. This provided conclusive proof that Aaron was intended to be the High Priest.22

See: The Aaron Levite Connection

Death of Aaron

Aaron died towards the end of the 40 years of the Israelites journey in the desert. He and his son Elazar were escorted up Mount Hor by Moses, to the cave that would be Aaron’s final resting place. There, Moses undressed and gave the priestly garments to Elazar, showing how the High Priesthood had been officially transferred.23 Inside the cave, there was a bed on which Aaron lay down peacefully, comfortably stretched out, closed his eyes, and passed away. When Moses saw how his brother had died, he too longed for the same death.24

When Moses returned from the mountain without Aaron, the nation did not believe that he had died. They were certain that a man as holy as Aaron could not be taken by the Angel of Death. Moses prayed to G‑d, and an image appeared of Aaron lying on a bier, being carried to heaven. It was only then that the people accepted that their beloved High Priest had indeed passed.25 The entire nation—men and women—mourned Aaron for a full 30 days.26

See: The Passing of Aaron

Aaron’s Legacy

The entire nation of Israel wept for Aaron. They bemoaned the fact that the great peacemaker Aaron, who had advocated for love between spouses and kept many families together,27 had left them.

Aaron had a specific system for restoring peace and ending conflict. He would approach each belligerent individually and tell him that he had a message from the other person. He would explain how the other person longed to resolve their issue and had sent Aaron to request conciliation. He would do this to both sides. Then, when the two would meet, each would assume the other wanted peace, and the confrontation would end peacefully.28

He would also use embarrassment as a tool to instigate repentance. He would approach a man who had sinned and begin praising him, extolling his virtues and character. The feeling of shame for the undeserved praise would often cause a change of heart in the person. They would work to earn the respect that Aaron was giving them.29

Aaron personified kindness. His life’s work was the endless and vigorous promotion of peace. The Mishnah30 encourages us to strive to be students of Aaron, through loving and pursuing peace. He was also a man who was willing to ungrudgingly allow his younger brother to take center stage as leader of the Israelites in the desert. His legacy and example live on to this day.

Read: I Miss You, Aaron