In the story of Chanukah, the undisputed heroes are the families of devoted kohanim led by Matityahu who stood up to the pagan Hellenes. What is the etymology of “kohen” and how does it differ from “komer” and “galach”?
The Bible also uses the word “kohen” in the context of idolatrous cultic activity. For example, the Torah describes Potiphera as the kohen of On and Yisro as the kohen of Midian. Additionally, the Torah refers to Egyptian priests as kohanim (Genesis 47:22) and the priest appointed to serve Micah’s idol as a kohen (Judges 18:4).
In the context of Potiphera and Yisro, Targum Onkelos translates “kohen” as “rabba” (master), but in the context of the Egyptian priests and the priest of Micah’s idol, Targum Onkelos translates “kohen” as “komer” (idolatrous priest).
Rashi writes that the Egyptian kohanim were “komrim” and explains that “kohen” designates any religious functionary except when it is attached to the name of a place (e.g. “kohen Midian”), in which case it refers to a leadership position in that place.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) traces the etymology of “kohen” to the biliteral root kaf-nun, which he explains means “base” or “basis.” Other words derived from this root include “ken” (so, yes) and “nachon” (correct), which legitimate something by acknowledging its basis, as well as “tochnit” (plan) and “hachanah” (preparation), which are the bases of any serious enterprise. Thus Rabbi Pappenheim argues that a kohen is the person in charge of preparing everything necessary for ritual worship in a temple.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) also connects “kohen” with “hachanah,” explaining that a kohen sets an example of how to worship G-d and thus prepares others to be initiated into His service.
Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) notes that the Arabic word “kahin” (soothsayer, diviner) is probably a cognate of the Hebrew “kohen,” leading him to suggest that the root of “kohen” is “koh” (thus/so) – a word commonly employed by the prophets of the Bible when relaying the word of G-d (“So says G-d…”). Indeed, kohanim were instrumental in teaching Torah in the Temple era, so it makes sense that they would be associated with prophecy, which also relays G-d’s word (see Malachi 2:7).
From what we have seen so far, “kohen” refers to any sort of priest while “komer” refers specifically to idolatrous priests. (Interestingly, a letter from the Elephantine Papyri distinguishes between Jewish priests who are called “kohanim,” and Egyptian priests who are called “komrim.”)
The Bible reports that when King Josiah cleaned up the idolatry of his predecessor, he fired all the komrim from their positions, helped them repent, and decreed that all the kohanim (i.e., descendants of Aharon) who had previously been komrim for idolatry be banned from serving in the Temple in Jerusalem (II Kings 23:5-9, with Radak).
Likewise, the prophet Zephaniah foretold that G-d would eliminate any remnant of Baal worship from Jerusalem, along with the komrim and the kohanim (Zephaniah 1:4). In explaining this prophecy, Targum and Rashi seem to understand that “komrim” refer to anyone who worships idolatry and “kohanim” refers to the idolatrous priests.
Rabbi Yosef Ibn Kaspi (1279-1345) explains that in Zephaniah’s prophecy, “komrim” are the idolatrous Baal-priests while “kohanim” refers to G-d’s priests.
In no less than three places, the Radak (to Zephaniah 1:4, II Kings 23:5, and in Sefer HaShorashim) explains that both “komrim” and “kohanim” in Zephaniah’s vision refer to idolatrous priests. He adds that “komer” means blackened (see Ecclesiastes 5:1), so a komer is a priest who wears black vestments, while a kohen does not (in fact, the kohanim in the Temple wore white vestments).
Dr. Chaim Tawil notes that “kumru” actually means priest in Akkadian and other Western Semitic languages, so Zephaniah’s use of the word komrim is likely an oblique reference to cultic functionaries from places where those languages were spoken.
In Sefer HaTishbi, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) argues that “komer” literally means closed/clustered/cloistered (see Targum to Psalms 77:10 and Bechoros 31a) and refers specifically to idolatrous priests who are secluded and clustered in monasteries.
Rabbi Hirsch ties “komer” to the emotional manipulation commonly employed by idolatrous priests. When Joseph’s brothers brought Benjamin in front of him, the Torah reports that Joseph quickly left the room to cry because “his mercy was aroused (nichmaru),” and he did not want his brothers to suspect that something was amiss (Genesis 43:30). Rabbi Hirsch explains that “nichmaru” (arousing mercy), “komer,” and “michmar” (net) are all related because the idolatrous priest traps his followers in the net of his cult’s influence by arousing their imagination and emotions.
In contrast, the Torah appeals to man’s intellect, not his feelings or imaginations. In Rabbi Hirsch’s view, the idolatrous priest – the komer – feeds on his congregant’s emotions, while the Jewish priest – the kohen – provides people with intellectual food in the form of Torah study.
A Hebrew/Yiddish word for priest that does not appear in the Bible or rabbinic literature is “galach.” As far as I know, the first person to use this word was Rashi (see his commentary to Shabbos 111b, 139a, 156a, Niddah 30b, and Sukkah 17a).
“Galach” is derived from the root gimmel-lammed-chet, which means shaving. Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur explains that the corners of many priests’ heads are shaven, and “galach” refers to these priests.
Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Munk (1923-1981) argues that “komer” and “galach” mean exactly the same thing, and the latter term became more common because of its negative connotation (as it’s a mitzvah to mock idolatry).
Rabbi Shlomo Tzvi Shick (1842-1916) argues that “galach” comes from Galchi, the name of a place with unfair taxation practices (Niddah 69a), and it became commonplace to call Christian priests galachim as a way of highlighting their cruelty and unfairness.