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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?




Last week 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 ot 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.

This week, we examine the scant sources in recorded history relating to high priests.

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The Gemara (Yoma 9a) is a frequently cited source for the specific number of high priests who served in the First and Second Temples. It contrasts the two Temples using the verse (Proverbs 10:27) “Yirat Hashem tosif yomim u’shenot resha’im tiktzornah – Fear of Hashem increases [one’s] days, but the years of the wicked are shortened.” The words “fear of Hashem” represent the First Temple that stood for 410 years and in which only 18 high priests served. (The Gra amends the text to read “only 12 high priests served.”) The words “but the years of the wicked” represent the Second Temple, which stood for 420 years and in which more than 300 high priests served.

If you deduct from 420 years the 40 years Shimon HaTzadik served, the 80 years Yochanan the High Priest served, the 10 years Yishmael b. Pabi served, and, according to some views, the 11 years that R. Elazar b. Charsom served, we are left with 279 years. Of the other 300 or so high priests, none lasted more than a year.

The Gemara (supra 8b), in explaining the nature of the “Lishkat Parhedrin – the chamber of Parhedrin” (mentioned in the mishnah on 2a), notes that this chamber, reserved for the high priest, was originally called the chamber of Balvoti. Rashi (ad loc.) explains that balvoti means officers or ministers, i.e., high officials, while Parhedrin refers to attendants of a king, i.e., mere servants. When, at a certain point in history, the office of the high priest started to be sold to the highest bidder, the name of the chamber was changed to Lishkat Parhedrin, referring to the transitory attendants of a king who are replaced every 12 months. Rashi explains that these later high priests were wicked and none survived their year in office.

Obviously, from the verse cited above (Proverbs 10:27), “Fear of Hashem increases [one’s] days, but the years of the wicked are shortened,” it seems that those wicked high priests who did not survive their year in office died in office. However, there do seem to be numerous exceptions; many righteous high priests apparently may not have survived their year in office but not because they died.

Scripture (Chagai 1:1) relates that Yehoshua b. Yehotzadak was referred to as hakohen hagadol – the high priest. We also find in Nechemia (12:10-11) a list of six high priests (see Rashi ad loc.): Yehoshua (presumably the same Yehoshua b. Yehotzadak noted in Chagai), Yoyakim, Eliyashiv, Yoyada, Yonatan, and Yadua. The fact that they are mentioned in this verse points to their righteousness. They are listed in descending order as descendants of Yehoshua Kohen Gadol.

In the ArtScroll Talmud’s appendix to Tractate Yoma, the editors list numerous other righteous high priests. Among them, in accordance with some opinions, are Ezra, Matityahu (Song of Songs 6:7), his sons Yonatan and Shimon, R. Yishmael b. Elisha (Berachot 7a), Yochanan b. Narbai (Pesachim 57a), Ben Katin (Yalkut Hameiri referring to Yoma 37a [Rashi ad loc.]), Elyeho’einei b. Hakof, Chanamel the Egyptian (Parah 3:5), and the seven sons of Kimchis (Yoma 47a), a very righteous woman.

Also listed is Elisha, the father of the Tanna R. Yishmael b. Elisha (noted above as a high priest). According to Hadorot Merosh – Pinchas Ish Chavta, cited by the Tosefta (Yoma 1:6), R. Yishmael b. Elisha was possibly the last of the Second Temple-era high priests.

Thus, of all those listed, the only ones who fit the description of the Midrash cited in Sefer Chareidim are the seven sons of Kimchis. As a righteous woman, perhaps she was the wife of the righteous kohen who begged Hashem for righteous sons. If they, indeed, are the high priests referred to in Sefer Chareidim, we are still left with the question of where they fit in the historical time frame.

(To be continued)


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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.