Question: Sefer Chareidim (ch. 67) cites a Midrash that Eliyahu once testified that a certain kohen who begged G-d for righteous sons merited to see all of them serve as high priests, and none of them died during his lifetime. Where exactly is this Midrash?
We noted that the source of this Midrash is unclear; we also wondered how all his sons could serve as high priests in his lifetime unless they all, at one point or another, became ritually defiled (via contact with an insect or spittle of an am ha’aretz – see Rashi, Avot 5:5) whereupon a brother assumed his role (as per Yoma 12b and Rambam Hilchot Avodat Yom HaKippurim 1:3) – quite an improbability.
During the Second Temple, many high priests served for short periods of time since few were righteous. Among these few were the seven sons of Kimchi, and they seem the most likely to be the sons referred to in the Midrash cited by Sefer Chareidim.
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Tanna D’vei Eliyahu (Eliyahu Rabbah 18) states, “The following is related regarding a certain kohen who was G-d-fearing [even] in private, and all of the good things he did, he did in private. He had 10 children, six sons and four daughters. Each day, he prayed, prostrated himself, beseeched [G-d’s] mercy, and would sprinkle his tongue with earth so that none of his children would come to sin or unseemly behavior.
“…Ezra came and through him G-d brought up the Jewish exiles from Babylonia – and this kohen was among them. This kohen did not enter his heavenly abode before he lived to see high priests as well young priests (pirchei kehuna) from among his sons and grandsons for a period of 50 years, after which he entered his heavenly abode. Concerning him, Psalms 37:3 states, ‘Betach ba’Shem ve’aseh tov she’chon eretz ure’eh emuna – Trust in Hashem and do good, dwell in the land and nourish [yourself] with faithfulness.’” The Metzudat David explains that one who trusts in Hashem and separates oneself from the evildoers will be assured a long sojourn in the Land.
Now, if one compares the above text with that of Sefer Chareidim, one will see that they do not match. In Sefer Chareidim, we find no mention of Ezra and returnees from the Babylonian exile to the Land of Israel. Sefer Chareidim mentions that all of the kohen’s sons served as high priests; but Tanna D’vei Eliyahu does not. Sefer Chareidim also states that none of the kohen’s sons died in their father’s lifetime; Tanna D’vei Eliyahu makes no mention of this fact.
The last discrepancy can be resolved by positing that Tanna D’vei Eliyahu does in fact imply that none of the children died in the kohen’s lifetime since it gives a time frame of 50 years.
As far as Ezra and the Babylonian exile are concerned: Perhaps Sefer Chareidim does not mention them because the author of this sefer believed the text of Tanna D’vei Eliyahu was faulty or he had a different version of Tanna D’vei Eliyahu.
A third discrepancy we mentioned is that the Tanna D’vei Eliyahu does not mention that all the kohen’s sons served as high priests. It states instead: “he lived to see kohanim gedoloim u’pirchei kehuna.” These words might mean that his sons and grandsons served as high priests and young priests. Alternatively, they might mean that they served as adult priests (not necessarily high priests) and minor – very young – priests.
The Talmud (Yoma 19b) notes that minor adolescent priests would keep the high priest awake on the night of Yom Kippur. It also tells us (Sukkah 51a-b) that four youths from the pirchei kehuna were chosen to fill the candelabrum with oil for Simchat Beit Ha’shoeva.
Thus, Tanna D’vei Eliyahu may be telling us that the youthful offspring of that kohen who beseeched G-d were pirchei kehuna of note who served in the Temple; in addition, he merited to have adult offspring serving in the Temple.
Thus, we can reconcile Sefer Chareidim’s text with that of the Tanna D’vei Eliyahu if we translate the latter’s text to mean that the kohen had offspring – adults and children – who distinguished themselves in that they served high priests, not necessarily that they served as high priests. And then we have no need to search for a historical time frame for these events as surely they occurred in the early years of the Second Temple era.
I admit that this interpretation of the Tanna D’vei Eliyahu is a novel one, which perhaps will be clarified along with all other difficulties with the imminent arrival of Elijah the prophet, speedily in our days. As always, I welcome readers’ comments.