Finding sources in the written torah about the kohen’s role in torah instruction is not too challenging, as many are available. Too, in nevi’im the kohen is often criticized for not doing his duty of torah instruction which is expected of him.
Chazal too expounded on the role of the kohen in torah instruction. Tannaim greats such as Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yannai spoke defining words about the kohen who neglects to pursue torah study and heaped praise and blessing on the kohen who does. Here are a few of those sources;
–חביבין כהנים כשהוא מכנן אין מכנן אלא במלאכי השרת שנאמר כִּי שִׂפְתֵי כהֵן יִשְׁמְרוּ דַעַת וְתוֹרָה יְבַקְשׁו מִפִּיהוּ כִּי מַלְאַךְ ה’ צְבָאוֹת הוּא -בזמן שהתורה יוצאה מפיו, הרי הוא כמלאכי השרת ואם לאו הרי הוא כחיה וכבהמה שאינה מכרת את קונה
Beloved are kohanim, as when he compares them, he doesn’t compare them to anything less the ministering angels as it is said “Since the lips of the kohen will guard knowledge and torah they will seek from his mouth as he is an angel of ה’ צבאות”..
-Sifri, Shmoth rabbah 38:3
One may ask; why not just say the unlearned kohen is like your average man, why take it further than that? reason is given since the Navi said ישמרו דעת, “his lips will guard knowledge”, this has a future tense, commanding implication that the kohen is to fulfil. If he does than he is promoted to the title “as if a ministering angel” but if he does not guard דעת than he is left in comparison to the animal kingdom where דעת isn’t found. (Brith Avrohom)
It seems from this medrash that the kohen is expected to have and guard דעת. The talmud indeed titles kohanim בני דעה נינהו “they are students of knowledge”.
A similar-themed medrash is found in tanchuma;
אמר רבי ינאי כל כהן שאינו בן תורה מותר לאכול על קברו תרומה
Rabbi Yannai said, any kohen who isnt a ben-torah, it is permitted to eat trumah over his grave
-Tanchuma, parshat trumah ch. 1
The logic here seems clear, since the kohen who doesn’t study torah is compared to the animal kingdom, the laws of טומאה רצוצה don’t apply. Thus, even trumah food -which is usually safeguarded from tumah, may be consumed over his grave.
Kohen without the mikdash
Yirmiyahu HaNavi, while in the חצר המטרה was told the following prophecy; וְלַכהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם לא יִכָּרֵת אִישׁ מִלְּפָנָי מַעֲלֶה עוֹלָה וּמַקְטִיר מִנְחָה וְעשֶׂה זֶּבַח כָּל הַיָּמִים “and to the kohanim the levi’im no man will be cut-off from before me, offering olah, bringing mincha and doing slaughter all of the days”.
One minute here, the bet hamikdash has been destroyed (two times) and all animal sacrifice ceased? -so asks Medrash HaGadol.
The medrash goes on to explain the truth in the nevuah of Yirmiyahu; the promise here is that never will cease from among the kohanim talmidei chachomim torah-instructors. as similarly it is written; וְאֶת עַמִּי יוֹרוּ בֵּין קדֶשׁ לְחל
In the merit of the kohanim doing this duty, continues the medrash, in the future their lineage will be verified first as it is written וְיָשַׁב מְצָרֵף וּמְטַהֵר כֶּסֶף וְטִהַר אֶת בְּנֵי לֵוִי וְזִקַּק אתָם כַּזָּהָב וְכַכָּסֶף וְהָיוּ לַה’ מַגִּישֵׁי מִנְחָה בִּצְדָקָה what is the meaning of בצדקה? as payment for their justifying Israel in this world by means of their torah-instruction to them, they will merit to serve בצדקה before hashem in the future, as it is said “והכהנים הלוים בני צדוק(יח’ מדטו)”-מדהג פתיחה לפר’ נשא
Taking a peek at targum to the posuk שְׁמר רגליך [רַגְלְךָ] כַּאֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵךְ אֶל בֵּית הָאֱלהִים וְקָרוֹב לִשְׁמעַ וקרוב לשמוע, the targum there has a strong implication that the kohen’s torah should be paid attention to, but in our case we are focusing on the kohen’s end; that he be sure his torah is accurate and said correctly.
The talmud also joins by saying that shevet levi and yissachar are both known for accurate torah instruction, whereas some interpret shevet levi as having an extra edge over yissachar in this arena1)1
On those psukim where tanach speaks of the kohen in terms of their involvement in torah instruction, respectable Parshanei HaTorah expound on the theme of the kohen’s role in torah instruction.
Rashi explains that the kohanim are responsible for torah study and instruction and implies they be in the position of שופטים. Too, Metzudot Dovid reckons the kohen should guard דעת and speak in torah, with the yisroel seeking from him torah instruction. The chizkuni titles the kohanim as “Shoftei Yisroel”. The Even Ezra also places title on the kohanim “they instruct the torah and are the judges of Yisroel.
Of the Achronim, some have noticed that kohanim, along with the greater shevet levi, have made higher than average contributions to torah and halacha2)2. Certainly the above chazal praises and criticism have given a boost for the kohen to live up to par with his role in torah study and instruction to בני ישראל.
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