Feb. 2003


Shemot 28:31 to 29:18

Etz Hayim pp. 508 – 513

By David Brooks


Others may feel differently, but, for me, this is just one of those parashiyot that we have to get through.  The whole Parashah, of which we are reading the middle part, focuses on the installation of Aaron as High Priest in the desert, with his sons as immediate back-ups.  If you like to read about all kinds of sacrifices, and details of how the priests of various status were dressed, you will love this Parashah.  Apropos, the Stone Chumash has lots of pictures to illustrate the details of what the priests look like in all their vestments as well as of the altar where they conducted the service.


The more or less accepted position, at least as expressed by modern commentators, is that all of this expensive and finely worked material is to emphasize the separation of Kadosh, with the point driven home by the words “Holy to God” engraved on the Cohen Ha-Gadol’s breastplate.  Rabbi Plaut says that “Aaron's precise observance will win acceptance for Israel before God by creating a framework of holiness. The latter has substance not only in faith and deed but also in form, which would be marred by casual dress and behaviour.”  Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in Israel had expressed the same view a quarter century earlier but he went on to assert that the finery and the exalted status of the priests sets an example of holiness for all the people.  In effect, the service in the Mishkan was the model for being a holy people, a "nation of priests,” and living a holy life.


All of the foregoing runs counter to my egalitarian streak, but it is that last phrase where I really hang up.  The separation does not bring me to think of how to make my own life holy, but only of separation and distance from the real world.  Indeed, the kedushah of which they speak seems contradictory to me because it is conferred by birth and not by merit. Of course, all commentators emphasize that the High Priest, indeed all Kohanim, must set a role model in their personal behaviour as well as in their observance of ritual.  However, it is safe to say that such historical evidence as we have is, at best, not uniformly in their favour. 


With this as a bad start, I turned to the Haftarah, but it was no better.  It presents the same sorts of images but from the perspective of Ezekiel’s fertile imagination as he conceives in even greater detail what installation of the High Priest will be like when God re-establishes the Temple in Israel.  But, happily, my reading of the Haftarah did get me to the focus of my d’var, which is not at all a lesson in morality but just a bit of Israelite history.


In the Parashah (29:9), it says, “And so they [Aaron and his sons; the context is clear] shall have the priesthood as their right for all time.”  That seems definitive to me.  However, in the Haftarah (Ezk 43:19), “You shall give to the levitical priests who are of the stock of Zadok, and so eligible to minister to Me – declares the Lord God . . . “  Who is this Zadok, I began to wonder, and has he supplanted the house of Aaron?


Etz Hayim offers some information.  As stated in the P’shat, “Ezekiel regarded the Zadokite priests as the only legitimate priestly line,” and this is something he states and restates several times (40:46; 44:15).  Ezekiel clearly accepts that Zadok comes from the tribe of Levi and – though he is not explicit – he must accept that he is a scion of Aaron.  However, in focussing on Zadok and his descendants, Ezekiel ignores other, apparently equally qualified scions of Aaron.  What is going on here?  That is what my d’var will answer with a brief review of Davidic history, a history that has more to do with proximity to royalty and politics than proximity to God and religion.


At the time that David came to power as king of Israel, there were two priests (II Sam 20:25), or maybe two High Priests, or more likely one High Priest and one Deputy High Priest, or maybe one High Priest who came with David and another who had already established himself, perhaps under semi-pagan auspices, in the city of Jerusalem.  The other man officiating at the time was named Abiathar, and he seemed to have some greater status compared with Zadok.  One of Abiathar’s sons, Abimelech (also called Ahimelech), was also serving as a priest at the time of David.  The situation is murky at best.  Worse yet, most of the explicit information that we have about Zadok comes from the Chronicler, and this is a problem.


All history is interpretation, but it is fair to say that Chronicles is more imaginatively interpretive than most.  It really is a revisionist history that is designed to show that everything related in Samuel and Kings can be traced back to divine will and that the fortunes of the Israelites waxed and waned as they showed greater or lesser faith to the Mitzvoth as passed to them from God by the hand of Moses.  What we do know, on the basis of sound historical information, is that the High Priesthood remained in the hands of Zadokites from the time of Solomon until the Hashmoneans took over in the 2nd Century BCE, about 1000 years later, a good long reign.  Indeed, it is likely that the origin of the term Sadducee is the same as Zadokite, after it passed through Greek translation.  This makes sense, for the Sadducees were the establishment party and it included the upper strata of priests.


In contrast, we do not have any direct evidence of Zadok’s genealogy.  He first comes to prominence under David, but was he really a Levi, and from the family of Aaron?  To avoid argument, let us grant that he was.  Tradition as related in Chronicles (I Chr 5:30-38) has Zadok could trace his ancestry back to Eleazar, the 3rd son of Aaron, whereas Abiathar was a descendant of Ithamar, the 4th son (and thus had a little less yichus).  It also says (I Chr 12:26-28) that Zadok was with David in Hebron.  However, in his (or maybe her) enthusiasm for making everything work out right, the Chronicler may have gotten a bit mixed up.  The text also says that Jehoiada was leader of the House of Aaron, but he is not cited in the earlier genealogy.  Moreover, it refers to Zadok not as a priest but as “a young man mighty of valor.”  That might explain why David liked Zadok, but it does not indicate in the least why he was qualified to be High Priest.


Things are not very clear at this point, and they get even murkier thereafter.  It does seem that, once David was established in Jerusalem, both Zadok and Abiathar were serving as priests in one capacity or one place or another.  They both chose the right side when Absalom rebelled against his father David, but there is already a hint of things to come in that, in the description of that rebellion, Zadok’s name always appears ahead of Abiathar’s.  The real split came later, when David, near death, had declared that Solomon should rule after him.  Another son, Adonijah thought he should have become king and started acting as such.  In this case, Zadok backed Solomon, and Abiathar backed Adonijah.  Once things settled down, and Solomon was firmly in power, he gave the High Priesthood to Zadok.  However, he did not order Abiathar killed.  Perhaps out of respect for his office, Solomon first demoted him.   By playing a better game of royal politics, Zadok leap-frogged over Abiathar, so that Abiathar became Zadok’s deputy.


Eventually, Solomon banishes Abiathar from Jerusalem (I Kings 2:27), and Zadok serves as High Priest alone.  Nothing more is heard about Abiathar or his son. In contrast, becoming High Priest was just the start of an illustrious history for the House of Zadok.  One of his sons is called a prince (I Kings 4:2); another married one of Solomon’s daughters; and the name Zadok turns up repeatedly among the Tannaim who composed the Mishnah.  The gospel of Matthew (1:14) even asserts that Joseph, the father of Jesus, was from the House of Zadok.  Remarkably, however, we learn nothing about Zadok the priest – no rulings, no statements, no actions worthy of note.  All evidence suggests that he was superb at politics, and that is what mattered most.


Suffice it to say that my excursion into Israelite history did not change my opinion that wearing all those fine clothes and following an elaborate ritual gives any sense of Kedushah, and even less does it encourage the spread of Kedushah into daily life