Whom May a Kohen Gadol Marry?
The Restrictions on Priests
The beginning of Parashat Emor (Lev 21:1-15) outlines restrictions on kohanim (priests). The questions of whom they may marry and what kind of contact they may have with the dead are still relevant to the rules observed today.
These rules contain two sets of restrictions: one for standard priests and one for the High Priest, who is never allowed to “defile himself” for any dead relative and may only marry a very limited number of women.
The Four “עמיו”s
In the opening verses of the parashah, plural forms of the word עָם appear four times. In biblical Hebrew, the word can have a wide variety of meanings, ranging from “nation” or “people” to smaller groups. The meaning of the word is debatable in all four of our verses.
- . . . Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: “None shall defile himself for any [dead] person בעמיו. (Lev 21:1)
- בעל בעמיו shall not defile himself and so profane himself. (Lev 21:4)
The High Priest:
- Only a virgin מעמיו may he take to wife. (Lev 21:14)
- He may not profane his offspring בעמיו.(Lev 21:15)
The second verse, 21:4, with the unusual phrase בעל בעמיו, is one of the most difficult in the Torah and is a subject for another time. I will here focus on the third verse in our series, 21:14, the instruction that a High Priest may marry only a virgin מעמיו.
The Meaning of עם in the Law of the High Priest
People or Nation (=Israelite)?
The possibility that עם here has its standard meaning (or at least, its standard meaning in post-biblical Hebrew) of “people” or “nation,” is unlikely. Could the Torah really be telling High Priests that their wives have to be Israelite–implying that other Israelites and perhaps even other priests may marry non-Israelites?
Midrashic Approach – Descendant of Converts
Classical rabbinic literature has almost nothing to say about the word מעמיו in our verse. The one passage in the Babylonian Talmud that does, views it, surprisingly, as a reference to the national origins of the High Priest’s bride, but with an interesting twist.
Because the plural form עמיו (not the singular עמו) appears, the Talmud sees here a reference to a bride descended from two different nations (עמים). The Talmud concludes that the verse teaches that even though a High Priest, like any priest, may not marry a convert, he may marry a woman who comes from more than one nation, i.e. a woman who is descended from converts. (This midrash does not appear in the halakhic codes.)
Modern Scholarship: Marrying from the Priestly Family
Most modern academic scholars understand the words בעמיו and מעמיו in Leviticus 21 as references to the clan (עם) of the priests. As Baruch Levine writes in his commentary to vs. 14:
Again the term am, “kin,” refers specifically to the priestly clan, as was true in verses 1 and 4. This means that the High Priest must marry a virgin from a priestly family. Verse 15 reasons that if he were to marry outside the priestly kinship, ‘he would profane his offspring among his kin’ (zar‘o be‘amav).
Levine appears to be correct that according to the simple reading of the Torah, a High Priest must marry the daughter of another priest.
Rashbam’s Non-Halachic Interpretation
Many centuries ago Rashbam offered the same interpretation of the word as Levine in his (Rashbam’s) commentary to Lev 21, specifically in his commentary to verse 1:
NO ONE SHALL DEFILE HIMSELF בעמיו: [This means] no one from the clan (עם) of priests should defile himself for [i.e. through contact with] any [dead] human body. [The word בעמיו in this verse is not a reference to the person who died, but to the subject of the sentence, the priest, and his “עם—clan,”] as in the phrase (vs. 14), “he shall take a virgin מעמיו as a wife.”
While Rashbam’s reading of עמיו – the priest’s clan – seems strong, he “proves” his explanation of verse 1 through a non-halakhic reading of vs. 14. His comment is controversial because it is much narrower than the halakhah, which never claims that a High Priest must marry a woman descended from priests.
Practically speaking, the rabbis at least partially democratized this regulation by not obligating the High Priest to marry in his clan. But to accomplish this they had to offer a midrashic reading of the verse, something Rashbam did not do in his own commentary.
Rashbam’s unorthodox interpretation is not out of the ordinary for him. Though he was an accomplished Talmudist, he did not shy away from offering peshat interpretations of biblical verses that contradicted Jewish law. In this specific case, though, the “reception” of Rashbam’s comment is especially noteworthy.
The History of Rashbam’s commentary
For a number of centuries, Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah was lost for all practical purposes, until David Oppenheim (1664-1736) found and acquired one almost complete manuscript of it. The commentary was subsequently first published in 1705 and attracted only limited attention. For a few centuries, editions of the standard rabbinic Bible, the Miqraot Gedolot, were published without Rashbam’s commentary.
A little later, it attracted the sustained and generally positive attention of Moses Mendelssohn (1729 – 1789) and Samuel David Luzzatto (1800 – 1865). They both made frequent reference to it, and since their works were widely read, more people started noticing Rashbam’s commentary.
In his own commentary to our parashah, Luzzatto quotes Rashbam and says that Rashbam was right. The peshat of the biblical text really is that the High Priest has to marry a daughter of priests.
In 1882 in Breslau, David Rosin published an edition of Rashbam’s Torah commentary, the best edition available before the twenty-first century. In Rosin’s notes to Lev 21, he writes simply, and without any supporting arguments, that Luzzatto was wrong when he said that Rashbam’s comment meant that the peshat was that a High Priest had to marry the daughter of another priest.
Rashbam: Distinguishing between Halacha and Commentary
Why was Rosin so adamant that Rashbam couldn’t have said that? I believe that he was troubled by Rashbam’s off-hand style when going against the standard halakhic understanding. While commenting on the word בעמיו in vs. 1, Rashbam cited vs. 14 to prove that it meant “among the priests.” In other words, he essentially assumed the non-halakhic understanding of vs. 14, that a High Priest must marry the daughter of another priest, to prove his interpretation of vs. 1.
Luzzatto was presumably right that Rashbam’s peshat explanation for this verse was heterodox. Though Rashbam repeatedly stressed that the midrashic reading of the Torah should guide our actions, he seems to have made a distinction between halakhic behavior on one hand, about which he was never heterodox, and, on the other hand, his habit of creating new peshat interpretations of biblical texts, where he seemed to feel no hesitation about contradicting halakhah.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
May 4, 2015
January 9, 2020
Professor Rabbi Marty Lockshin is University Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series