1. Kohanim Are the Priestly Clan

In Hebrew a Kohen (plural Kohanim) is a priest, leader, or ruler. In Judaism, Kohanim are the priestly clan, who are honored with certain tasks, responsibilities and privileges.

Read: Raise Your Hand if You Are a Kohen

2. They Are Descendants of Aaron

All Kohanim can (theoretically) trace their lineage, through a direct line of males, to Aaron, brother of Moses and the first High Priest. Since Aaron lived more than 3,000 years ago, we can estimate that most Kohanim have approximately 100 links in the chain between them and Aaron.

Read: 15 Facts About Aaron

3. They Are a Subset Within Levi

Like Moses, Aaron was a grandson of Levi, one of Jacob’s 12 sons. As such, when counting the 12 tribes, you will not find a tribe of Kohen, since they are included within Levi, all of whom have a somewhat-priestly role.

Read: Who Are the Levites?

4. They Served in the Holy Temple

For roughly 1,200 years of Jewish history, the Kohanim had a major role to play in the centralized worship that took place (first in the Tabernacle and then) in the Holy Temples in Jerusalem. In the Temple, the Kohanim offered the sacrifices and filled many other sacred roles.

Read: 9 Facts About the Holy Temples

5. They Were Teachers

In Biblical times, the Kohanim were often also Torah teachers and bearers of tradition. They were also the ones who would diagnose and monitor those stricken with the spiritually-caused skin disease known as tzaraat.

Watch: Dermatologist or Kohen?

6. They Administer the Priestly Blessing

Still today, the Kohanim perform a special ritual known as Birkat Kohanim (“Priestly Blessing”). Standing in front of the synagogue, with outstretched arms covered by their tallit, the priests chant the three-part blessing mandated by G‑d in Numbers 6:22.

Read: What Is the Priestly Blessing?

7. They Were Given 24 Gifts

Since the Kohanim devoted themselves to G‑d’s service and were not given a portion of the land to farm, the Torah mandates that they be given 24 “gifts,” ranging from challah—a portion of dough taken whenever someone bakes a significant amount of bread, the first shearings of a person’s flock, and many of the sacrifices brought to the Holy Temple.

Read: Tithing in Jewish Law

8. They Redeem Firstborn Israelites

One of the 24 gifts is the five silver coins (or their equivalent) they receive from the father of a firstborn Israelite male on the 31st day of the baby’s life. This ceremony, which is still practiced, is known as Pidyon Haben, and is accompanied by a festive meal.

Read: The History of Pidyon Haben

9. Males Avoid Contact With the Dead

Male Kohanim are enjoined to avoid cemeteries, or anywhere they may come into contact with a corpse.

Read: May a Kohen Enter a Museum or a Hospital?

10. There Are Common Kohen Last Names

Since Biblical times, it was not uncommon for hakohen (“the priest”) to be tacked onto the names of certain (but not all) Kohanim. Family names as we now know them are mostly a non-Jewish convention, often outwardly imposed on Jewish communities with no religious significance. That said, there are certain names that are most commonly found among Kohanim. They include:

  • Cohen, Kahan, Kahanowitz, Kogan, Kagan, Kaganoff and the various iterations thereof
  • Kaplan, from the Latin root that also gave us the English word “chaplain”
  • Katz, an acronym for Kohen Tzedek, “righteous priest”
  • Kohenzadeh and Kohanchi are both Persian names clearly derived from Kohen

Read: 10 Keys to Understanding Most Ashkenazi Last Names

11. They Are Honored by Going First

The Kohen is treated with respect and is honored in many areas of Jewish ritual life. When the Torah is read, a Kohen is honored with the first reading, and a Kohen is called upon to recite Grace After Meals. On the flip side, it is forbidden to ask a Kohen to perform a menial task such as fetching something.

12. Females Should Not Marry Ignorant Men

The Kohanim are at the top of the traditional social hierarchy. While they may intermarry with ordinary Israelites, it is appropriate that female members of the Kohen clan only marry men who are learned in Torah. As such, the Rebbe would often advise men marrying into a priestly family to learn at least one tractate of Talmud, even a minor one.

Read: 21 Talmud Facts

13. Males May Not Marry Certain Women

A male Kohen may not marry a certain woman, including a divorcee and a convert (read the full list here). If this happens, the Kohen and his subsequent children are stripped of their priestly status, and are known as chalalim.

Read: Why Can’t a Convert Marry a Kohen?

14. They’re Quick

Tradition asserts that Kohanim are zerizim, which translates as “efficient,” “motivated,” or “particular.” As such, we can be assured that they carry out their duties in the best possible manner.