The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, held the holiest position in Judaism. His role extended through history, from Aaron in ancient times until the destruction of the Second Temple. His job was to oversee the Temple service and act as spiritual leader to the Jewish people. His most prominent responsibility was entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur—when the most sacred time, person, and place converged.

The Earliest High Priests: Worthy Servants

When the Tabernacle was built in the desert, it became necessary to appoint a High Priest to oversee its service. Moses was originally supposed to assume the role, but according to some traditions,1 he lost that right when he initially refused to be G‑d’s messenger to free the Jews from Egypt. Although his intentions were pure—he wanted to avoid offending his older brother by accepting the more prestigious role—his hesitance demonstrated that Aaron’s honor was more important to him than G‑d’s command. This made him unfit for the High Priesthood, a position which necessitated complete subservience to the Almighty,2 and Aaron became the first High Priest in his stead.

High Priesthood was to be passed from father to son unless the child was unfit to serve.3 Upon Aaron’s passing, the job was assumed by his son Eleazar.4 Then, Phinehas, Eleazar's son, took up the mantle and served during Israel's conquest of the Promised Land.5

Phinehas’s family was destined to retain the High Priesthood as a reward for his righteous zealotry.6 That privilege was revoked, however, and given to the descendants of Ithamar, Aaron’s youngest son, as a result of two egregious errors Phinehas committed during Jephthah’s reign (988–982 BCE).7 The earliest known Kohen Gadol of Ithamar’s family was Eli, who served in the Tabernacle at the end of its time in Shiloh.8

After its destruction in Shiloh, the Tabernacle was rebuilt in Nob (for 13 years9 ) and Gibeon (for 44 years10 ), and ultimately replaced by King Solomon’s temple in 832 BCE.11 The first Kohen Gadol to serve in the Temple was Zadok,12 a descendant of Phinehas.13 The High Priesthood remained in his family until the construction of the Second Temple.

Read: How Is a High Priest Selected?

High Priests During the Second Temple: A Rose Among the Thorns

Although the First Temple saw only 18 High Priests throughout its 400 years,14 over 300 served during the Second Temple’s 420 years!15 Several were righteous, and their combined service accounts for over 141 years. Prominent among them:

  • Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the Second Temple’s first Kohen Gadol.
  • Simeon the Just, touted as the last of the Men of Great Assembly.16 When Simeon met Alexander the Great on his way to attack the Temple, Alexander prostrated himself and promised to treat the Jews benignly, explaining that before every battle he would see a vision of Simeon leading his troops to victory.17
  • Yishmael ben Pabi, whose death was said to have ended the splendor of the High Priesthood.18
  • Johanan who led the Jewish people faithfully for 80 years and subsequently became a Sadducee. Johanan’s story inspired the adage,19 “Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die.”20

The ascension of Antiochus IV Epiphanes to the Seleucid throne in 175 BCE marked the beginning of the end of true High Priesthood. Onias III, a descendant of Zadok, served as Kohen Gadol at the time. A victim of slanderous accusations, Onias was deposed and replaced by his Hellenized brother, Jason, who promised Antiochus higher tax revenues from the Jews and a secularization of the holiest Jewish office. A few years later, Menaulus, a non-Kohen from the tribe of Benjamin, promised Antiochus a larger sum for the position of Kohen Gadol. His wish was granted with the assistance of the Seleucid army.21

Thus began the practice of buying the High Priesthood from the government which continued (with some exceptions) throughout Hasmonean and Roman sovereignty. This explains the extremely high number of Kohen Gadols during this era (around 285 in 279 years), since most died when they entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.22 Many of those High Priests were ignorant of the requirements of their position, and some were outright Sadducees who scorned accepted religious practice. The Mishnah23 required the sages to ask the Kohen Gadol if he had ever learned how to perform the Yom Kippur service; another Mishnah has the Kohen Gadol vow that he will carry out the incense ceremony properly. The Sadducees were of the opinion that the ritual had been misinterpreted by the rabbis and there was some risk that the Kohen Gadol would follow the Sadducee method.24

The Second Temple’s final Kohen Gadol was Phinehas ben Samuel of Havta (68-70 CE) who was put into place by the zealots during the Roman siege of Jerusalem. Instead of looking to the prestigious priestly families for a worthy successor, the zealots chose Phinehas by casting lots. This disregard for the sacred office was deliberate; the zealots intended to weaken the Kohen Gadol’s authority so they could maintain power.25 Some say Phinehas was a poor stonecutter who needed financial help from his fellow priests, while others posit he was independently wealthy.26

The destruction of the Second Temple brought an abrupt end to the High Priest’s role.

See our expansive Timeline in Jewish History.

The Role of the High Priest: A Most Holy Occupation

In Tanach, the Kohen Gadol is called “the chief priest”27 and “supervisor of the House of G‑d.”28 He stood at the top of a wide chain of command, tasked with running the Temple’s operations. For example, when holy artifacts needed to be sealed for protection from defilement, the Kohen Gadol’s seal was the final mark of approval.29

His day began with the daily flour offering: an isaron30 of flour, boiled and baked into 12 loaves. Six were burnt on the altar in the morning and the other six were burnt in the afternoon.31

The rest of the day varied from one Kohen Gadol to the next. The Jerusalem Talmud records that many High Priests actively participated in the entirety of the Temple’s daily service, while others elected to accept a smaller workload.32

Watch: The High Priest’s Private Quarters

The Urim and Thummim

When a decision of national significance was needed, the High Priest was consulted. Within the fold of the High Priest’s breastplate were the Urim and Thummim (lights and perfections).33 According to most traditions, the Urim and Thummim were a piece of parchment with G‑d’s four-letter name written on it.34 Its function was to serve as an oracle, divining whether or not the Jewish people should take a certain course of action,35 and was to be used only by the king, the Jewish high court, or a person needed by the whole community36 such as a general.37

When its services were needed, the Kohen Gadol would stand facing the Holy Ark with the questioner behind him. The individual desiring an answer would ask a simple yes-or-no question such as, “Shall we go to war?” The Kohen Gadol would meditate until he reached Divine inspiration. Then, certain letters on the breastplate (upon which the names of the twelve tribes were written) would appear to protrude38 or light up,39 producing an answer.40

The Urim and Thummim were lost after the destruction of the First Temple.41 According to another tradition, it was extant but ceased to work.42

In Prayer

The Kohen Gadol also served as the spiritual leader of the Jewish people and was their chief advocate in prayer. During Temple times, people who committed inadvertent murder were exiled to cities of refuge until the High Priest died. The Talmud relates that the Kohen Gadol’s mother would provide food and clothes to those sheltering there, lest they pray for her son’s death in order to hasten their return home.43 Her fears were not unfounded. The High Priest’s prayers on behalf of the Jewish people should have prevented inadvertent murders, and their existence is considered his fault.44 Because of his leadership position and possible hubris, the sages obligated the High Priest to bow at the beginning and end of every blessing in the Amidah.45

Read: The Prayers of the High Priest

The Yom Kippur Service

The most prominent role of the Kohen Gadol was his entrance into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.

The Yom Kippur service mirrored the typical holiday service with the two daily sacrifices, twice daily incense, special holiday offerings, and the lighting of the menorah. In addition, atonement offerings were brought for the High Priest, his family, the priests, and the nation as a whole. On Yom Kippur, however, the High Priest was required to carry out all of the services himself.46 An additional incense offering was also brought; this was the unique service performed in the Holy of Holies.

At first, when the High Priest confessed in front of the people, he said G‑d’s name in its original form. Eventually, in later generations they were forced to conceal its pronunciation in the accompanying singing so that people would not misuse it.47 There existed a privileged group of sages who knew the name; they informed only the priests who they deemed worthy.48

When Simeon the Just died, the priests no longer used G‑d’s full name to bless the people.49

Only a married Kohen Gadol was allowed to work in the Temple on Yom Kippur. The Zohar50 explains that an unmarried man is considered blemished on a soul level (since he contains only half of his soul, the other half residing in his soulmate) and as such, cannot serve on this holy day.

Read: How To Enter the Holy of Holies

The High Priest’s Garments: Outfitted for Glory

The High Priest wore eight garments: four worn by the other priests, and four unique to him.51 Jewish tradition teaches that each garment served to atone for a different sin52 and they were meant to honor and glorify those who wore them.53

All the priests wore:

  • Turban (mitznefet or migba’at). A white, 16-cubit, linen strap wrapped around the head.
  • Belt (avnet). Thirty-two cubits long, made from a combination of white linen and blue, red, and purple wool.
  • Tunic (ketonet). Made from white linen, it was measured to the individual height and arm length of each priest, to ensure its sleeves reached the wrist and the hem hit the ankle.
  • Trousers (michnatayim). Made from white linen; measured from above the navel until the knee of each priest.

Only the High Priest wore:

  • Apron (ephod). Made from blue, red, and purple wool, white linen, and gold strands, the apron wrapped around the back of the High Priest’s body, tied in front, and reached his ankles. Two straps protruded from the back, angled over the High Priest’s shoulders, where a gold chain connected them to the Breastplate. At the end of the straps were two stones (avnei shoham) on which the names of the twelve tribes’ inscribed.
  • Breastplate (choshen). A ½-cubit square, made from blue, red and purple wool, gold strands, and white linen. Gold settings were sewn into the material which held four rows of precious stones; there were twelve in all, and each was inscribed with the name of one tribe.54 The Urim and Thummim were placed within its fold. Because it was necessary that all letters of the Hebrew alphabet be available to answer a query posed to the Urim and Thummim, the words “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,” and “shivtei y-h (G‑d’s tribes)” were also engraved on the stones.55
  • Robe (me’il). Sleeveless, made from blue wool, and worn on top of the tunic and belt. Small bells and fabric pomegranates hung from the hem.
  • Forehead plate (tzitz). Made of pure gold, the plate was two finger-breadths wide and extended from ear to ear. It was perforated at each end,56 allowing a strap of blue wool to loop through and tie behind the head, anchoring it in place. It was inscribed with the words “Holy unto G‑d.”57

On Yom Kippur, the High Priest alternated between wearing the full eight garments and the basic four. Aside from the belt, which was made of white linen, the four garments paralleled the ordinary priests’.58 The white clothes were worn during the services that were unique to the Day of Atonement (signifying the clean slate Yom Kippur is supposed to bring59 ). The eight garments (called the “golden clothes” in Jewish literature) were donned when performing the services common to all holidays.60

The Appointment of the High Priest: Clothes, Oil, and Boiled Bread

The Torah gives a long and detailed account of the inauguration of the first-ever High Priest. The Israelites were to gather at the Tabernacle, and Moses—acting as interim Kohen Gadol—brought a series of sacrifices, dressed Aaron and his sons in the priestly garments, anointed them with oil, and smeared blood on their ears, fingers, and toes.61 Aaron and his sons also brought an inaugural flour offering that was to be boiled, baked, and fried before being burnt on the altar.62

The only parts of the ceremony that were included in subsequent High Priest inaugurations were the anointment with special oil (shemen hamishchah), being dressed with the eight garments unique to the High Priest, and the inaugural flour offering (minchat chinuch).

When a Kohen Gadol retired, became injured, or died, the Sanhedrin (the high Jewish court) would determine whether he had a son who was his equal in wisdom and fear of Heaven. If the son’s fear of Heaven measured up, he would be appointed even if he fell short in wisdom.63

If his son was not up to par or had other ambitions, the Sanhedrin would search for a candidate from among the rest of the priests. The term Kohen Gadol translates literally as “the great priest.” The Talmud says that he was to be the greatest priest in piety, strength, beauty, wisdom, and wealth. If the court found someone who fit the bill but did not have money, the other priests would make him affluent themselves.64

For seven days, the one nominated for High Priesthood would wear the eight garments, be anointed with oil, and serve in the Holy Temple.65 According to another tradition, he would not work in the temple until the seventh day.66

On the seventh day, the nominee burnt the inaugural flour offering—which paralleled the High Priest’s daily flour offering (minchat chavitin)—and became a full-fledged Kohen Gadol.

During the First Temple period, after reading the prophecy, “The L‑rd will lead you and your king whom you will have established over you, to a nation unknown to you,”67 King Josiah saw it as an ominous sign and buried the anointing oil, afraid it would be lost.68 From then, all High Priests were inaugurated using only the eight clothes and the flour offering.69

The High Priest’s Personal Conduct: Sanctity and Purity

Being the holiest individual in Judaism came with certain restrictions. Because it was necessary for the people to maintain utmost reverence for him, the Kohen Gadol was not allowed to be seen taking a bath or haircut.70 He was also forbidden from becoming impure by coming into contact with the dead, even when it came to the relatives that regular priests were allowed to touch.71 The Kohen Gadol was permitted to bury a meit mitzvah, a dead body that he found on the roadside while walking alone. If someone else was with the High Priest at the time, the other individual should do the burying.72

Since the High Priest’s sacredness surpassed that of the common priest, his marital restrictions extended beyond theirs as well. While an ordinary priest is allowed to marry a widow, the High Priest could not marry a woman who had ever been married or had marital relations.73

Aside from the king, the Kohen Gadol was honored beyond any individual in Judaism.74 For example, if one has the ability to save only one person from captivity, the Kohen Gadol is to be rescued before anyone else. Interestingly, this applies only if the High Priest is a Torah scholar. The mishnah explains, “A Torah scholar of illegitimate birth precedes an ignorant High Priest.”75

And, like the honor accorded a king, one was obligated to stand from when he saw the High Priest until he left his field of vision.76

Aaron in Kabbalah: The Bride’s Attendant

In the cosmic wedding between G‑d (the Groom) and the Jewish people (the bride), Moses and Aaron held opposing roles.

Moses, who represented ultimate truth, was to assist the people in seeing the G‑dly reality.

G‑d is not affected by time and space. Even though He created the world, its production did not change Him in any way. “You were [the same] before the world was created; You are [the same] since the world has been created.”77 From this transcendent perspective, the world is not as it seems. When we look out the window, we’re not seeing trees and birds; we’re seeing G‑d in the form of trees and birds. This worldview is all-encompassing. If everything is merely an extension of G‑d’s oneness, there is no room for self-centeredness or even self-awareness. Our individual struggles and stories become subsumed in a higher reality that unifies all experiences into a single homogeneous existence. This perspective is called yichuda ila’ah, “higher unity,” and its primary proponent was Moses, shushvina demalka, “the attendant of the Groom (G‑d).”

Aaron, the first High Priest, had a different approach. The Zohar78 refers to him as shushvina dematrunita, “the bride’s (The Jewish people's)attendant.” The particular circumstances of each person were important to him. He wanted Jews to seek G‑d from within their experiences. He promoted yichuda tata’ah, “lower unity,” wherein G‑d’s concealment causes us to see creation as is. Nonetheless, we endeavor to elevate ourselves slowly, through years of work, to dedicate our mundane lives to G‑d’s service.79