People commonly think of the priesthood as a privileged rank or status symbol, a relic of an antiquated caste or class system in which some were seen as being of higher spiritual standing than others simply by virtue of their birth, and a remnant of an elitist social structure in which those on the bottom served those on the top.

While Judaism’s Levitical priesthood may seem to follow this hierarchical template, closer examination reveals that it works in quite the opposite manner. Unlike the English word priest, which is a derivative of the Latin word prevost, meaning “one put over others,” the Hebrew word kohen means servant,1 or to serve, as in: …[bring] Aaron your brother and his sons… (l’chahano) to serve Me2

Therefore, instead of those on the bottom, the masses, serving those on the top, the nobility, in the Jewish model, those on the “top,” the priests, are meant to serve on behalf of those on the “bottom,” the community.

In other words: The kohanim were not meant to lord over the people, but to connect them to the L‑rd. Whereas a feudal lord held lands and collected tribute from the commoners who lived in them, the Jewish priestly class were not given any tribal land of their own and had to live on land owned by the people.

The kohanim were essentially propertyless, and thus were the sacred property of all Israel.

The reason for this stipulation is explained in Scripture3 : “The Levites [the larger tribe of which the kohanim were a part] have no share among you because the service of G‑d is their portion.

Maimonides explains further4 :

“Why were the Levites not allotted land in Israel or a share in its spoils along with their brethren? Because they were singled out to serve G‑d and minister to Him, to teach His upright ways and just laws to the multitudes, as it is written5 : They shall teach Your laws to Jacob, and Your instruction to Israel. For this reason, they were separated from worldly affairs. They fought no battles like the rest of Israel; they inherited no land…”6

Having no land of their own meant that the Levites were not financially self-sufficient or independent; rather, they had to rely entirely on the gifts of the people.

Interestingly, kohanim who served in the Holy Temple were required to have a haircut at least once every thirty days,7 and the high priest once a week. Moreover, when the Levites were first consecrated in the wilderness, they were instructed to shave off all their hair.8 What is the significance of this requirement? According to Kabbalah,9 hair represents self-expression. This is reflected in the Hebrew word for hair itself, saar, which shares the same letters as the word shaar, meaning gate, expressing the idea that one’s hair is a gateway into their individual soul and personality. Such self-expression was off-limits for kohanim, who were essentially public servants completely committed to devoting their lives to the service of G‑d and others. In fact, the more elevated the kohen, the more limited was their self-expression, which is why the high priest had to cut his hair weekly rather than monthly!

Similar to the word kohen, the name of the priestly tribe Levi also reflects the essence of their role. The word Levi means to join and connect with others, as we find when Leah gave her son Levi his name,10 for now my husband will connect (yilaveh) to me.

Likewise, in the book of Numbers,11 Aaron was instructed, Your brothers, the tribe of Levi, will come near alongside you, and they will join (yilavu) with you and serve with you. Being a Levite of any variety is therefore not an empty symbol of status and prestige; rather, it is a clarion call to selflessly serve G‑d and the people.

It is within this context of communal service that we can more deeply understand the strict code of conduct by which the Levites and especially the kohanim were expected to live. Above and beyond all the commandments that applied to the Jewish people as a whole, the kohanim led even more circumscribed lives. For instance, they could not go to a cemetery or come in contact with the dead.12 They also could not eat any food that may have come into contact with sources of ritual impurity as defined by the Torah. The purpose of such strictures was so that the kohanim would always be pure and available to aid and support the spiritual needs of the Jewish people at a moment’s notice.13

The uniqueness of the Levites and kohanim is therefore not a privilege that sets them above others; instead, it is a responsibility to dedicate their lives to a higher cause beyond themselves.

In a broader sense, this principle can be applied to the oft-misunderstood notion of “Jewish chosenness” in which Jews were chosen by G‑d, not to be held above others, but to assume the sacred duty of serving as a light unto the nations.14 In fact, at the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai,15 the Jewish people were referred to collectively as a nation of kohanim. Like the kohanim in relation to the Jewish people, the Jewish people are meant to live a life of added scrutiny and purity16 in order to serve the spiritual needs of humanity. Indeed, the Jews were charged by G‑d not to pronounce their ontological “aristocracy” to the world, but to lovingly preach and devotedly practice G‑d’s word, humbly serving as a living example of a morally upright lifestyle based on a sacred value system.

True, kohanim and Levites were, and still are, accorded precedence when it comes to religious honors—such as being called to the Torah before others and leading the after-meal blessings.17 The intention of such practices, however, is not to elevate them as individuals above others; rather, it is meant to honor the value and virtue of selfless public service that they represent. Such an honor therefore should instill within a kohen or Levi a sense of humility at the thought of the gravity of their charge and the trust placed in them by G‑d and the people.

This is reflected beautifully in a concise teaching from Ethics of Our Fathers18 : “Who is honored? He who honors others.” Expressed within this short saying is a complete value system.

As a society, Jews value and publicly celebrate altruism and public service, as exhibited by the deference given to kohanim and Levites. In so doing, we seek to inspire and evoke similar aspirations from the wider community to emulate and even outdo such noted acts of caring and righteousness to whatever degree each of us is able to in our own lives.

The Big Idea

In the Jewish tradition, one rises to the top by serving those at the bottom.

It Happened Once

While visiting Paris after World War II, the Lubavitcher Rebbe attended services at a particular synagogue and was given the honor of addressing the congregation.

The Rebbe accepted the invitation and began his remarks by noting that the Hebrew word for honor, kavod, is etymologically linked to the Hebrew word kaved, which means heavy.

“This teaches that with honor comes the weight of responsibility and service. And the same is true of every promotion and elevation we experience in life, which is G‑d’s way of saying, ‘You have more to give others than you imagined.’ Accordingly, when one is honored, it should elicit in them greater humility and dedication to serving the needs of others.”