In previous articles we delved into the lives of three of Aaron’s sons: Nadab and Abihu and Elazar. But what about the youngest and least known son of Aaron, Itamar (also spelled Isamar or Ithamar). What do we know about him?

It’s interesting that every kohen (priest) alive today is a descendant of either Elazar or Itamar, since Nadab and Abihu died without siring children. But who was Itamar?

Itamar the Auditor

We first read of Itamar’s role in the portion of Pekudei, where we are told of sums of gold, silver and other supplies that were used to build and furnish the Mishkan (Tabernacle): “These are the numbers of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of the Testimony, which were counted at Moses' command; [this was] the work of the Levites under the direction of Itamar, the son of Aaron the Kohen.”1

Thus, Itamar was the one appointed to manage and distribute roles to the Levites in the Temple.2

With further analysis of the text, the sages of the Midrash taught that the verse can be read to mean that Itamar was the auditor.3 Moses invited him to look over all the numbers that he prepared, which were then presented to the public. This is consistent with the rabbinic teaching that “no financial authority may be appointed over the public consisting of less than two individuals.”4

Other Positions of Authority

As we read in the abovementioned verse, Itamar was also appointed to manage the logistics of transporting most of the Tabernacle, which was carried by the families of Gershon and Merari.5

During most of the 40 years in the desert, there were just three kohanim serving in the Holy Temple: Aaron, Elazar and Itamar.6

After the passing of his brother Elazar in the Holy Land,7 Itamar was anointed as the third High Priest of the Jewish people.8

The Transmission of Torah

The Talmud gives us a detailed description of how Moses transmitted the Torah to the people:9

The rabbis taught: What was the order of teaching [the Jewish people in the desert]? Moses would learn from the mouth of Almighty. Aaron would enter, and Moses would teach him his chapter. Aaron would move away and sit at Moses’ left.

His [Aaron’s] sons would enter, and Moses would teach them their chapter. They would move away, and Elazar would sit at Moses’ right and Itamar would sit at Aaron’s left.

[Then] the elders would enter, and Moses would teach them their chapter. The elders would move away and sit down on the sides. [Then] the entire nation would enter, and Moses would teach them their chapter. Thus, the entire nation possessed one [lesson from Moses], the elders possessed two, Aaron’s sons possessed three, Aaron possessed four . . .

As Aaron’s son, Itamar was privileged to hear the Torah lessons from Moses three times over.

Descendants of Itamar

Historically, the High Priest position was almost always occupied by a descendant of Elazar, except for a 70-year window10 when it was taken away from the family due to the inaction of Phinehas in the tragic story of Jephthah’s daughter. For three consecutive generations, descendants of Itamar occupied this post, most notably Eli the High Priest.11 Then, as prophesied by Elkanah,12 father of the prophet Samuel, the high priesthood was removed from the family of Itamar due to the unbecoming behavior of Eli’s sons.13 14

When it came time to divide the kohanim into “watches”—a roster of those who served in the Temple—the verse tells us: “And the sons of Elazar were found to be more—according to [the count of] the heads of the people—than the sons of Itamar, and thus they were divided; of the sons of Elazar there were sixteen heads of the fathers' houses; and of the sons of Itamar, according to their fathers' houses, eight.”15

This means that, for whatever reason, the number of descendants from the Elazar branch were about twice the amount of that of Itamar.

Meaning of the Name Itamar

Maor Veshemesh16 points out that the name “Itamar” is spelled exactly the same as the Talmudic word for “we have learned,” frequently used to refer the reader to a previous teaching. “Itamar, son of Aaron” thus symbolizes that Torah study leads to true peace, as Aaron was famous for being “a lover of peace and pursuer of peace.”17