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Wedding Bells for God

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

In the beginning of Parshat Emor, we are given a list of laws concerning the restrictions a Kohain must adhere to. For example, we are told that there are only a limited numbers of close relatives upon whose death a Kohain may become spiritually impure for; additionally, a Kohain may not shave or cause bodily harm to himself. Included at the end of this list is the rule concerning the types of women a Kohain is prohibited from marrying.

 שּׁ֨ ֤ ֙ ֣ קּ֔וּ שּׁ֛ גּוּשׁ֥ שׁ֖הּ ֣ קּ֑וּ כּ֥שׁ ֖וּ :

“A prostitute or profaned woman[1] [the Kohanim] cannot marry; and a divorced woman [the Kohanim] cannot marry – for He [the Kohain] is sanctified to God”

The fact that the Torah begins with a prostitute is somewhat puzzling: 1) would a prostitute necessarily be the ‘first thought’ a Kohain would have when entertaining marriage, which would then motivate God to begin the list of ‘prohibited women’ specifically with forbidding that type of woman? [2] 2) When the Torah enumerates a similar list of prohibited women for the Kohain Gadol, it does place the prostitute (logically) last:

 ֤ וּוּשׁ֙ ֣ ֔ ֖לּ ֣ קּ֑ כּ֛ בּוּ֥ מּ֖ קּ֥ שּׁ:

Another textual incongruity in our pasuk (especially appreciated when compared to the Kohain Gadol’s list above) is how the list is separated into two distinct parts[3]: creating a distinction between the prostitute and profaned woman as the first group, and the divorcee as the second one.

So, how do we resolve all of these issues?

The first question that has to be answered is why there is even a restriction on whom a Kohain can marry to begin with. One can easily understand the laws against a Kohain willingly becoming spiritually impure – for he must remain pure for his service to God; similarly, the prohibition against physically damaging his body reflects the necessity of respecting/retaining the ‘sanctified vessel’ status as serving as a Divine attendant would demand. However, marriage is not directly affecting his person/body (like the previous two); the woman he marries is inherently ‘outside’ of him. How does marriage affect his role as an attendant to God which would necessitate this additional restriction?

We must first differentiate between the motivations of the first set of Kohain-restrictions (becoming impure and marring the body) and the second, that of prohibited marriages. The former focuses on the physical aspect of the Kohain – his body must be purely devoted to God and the worship He demands from His chosen attendants. The latter focuses on the relationship aspect of the Kohain. Therefore, the marriage limitations demand and facilitate an equated respecting of the two expressions of ‘total devotion/connection to another’ which a Kohain will have in his life: to God and to his wife. For, unlike some religions where the clergy are strictly forbidden to ‘distract’ from their pure Divine connection by marrying, Judaism allows for marriage as a perfect ‘parallel’ symbolic relationship - a tangible avenue of expressing a total devotion to another. A similar dynamic is also found in the requirement of respecting one’s ‘natural’ parents as a perfect parallel respect of our ‘supernatural’ relationship with our ‘other’ Creator. Therefore, if a Kohain is going to truly appreciate his devotion to God, he must devote himself to a woman who reflects that similar nature of that Divine devotion. With this approach, we can now understand more clearly the Divine restrictions regarding the women a Kohain can and cannot marry and the textual way they are presented.

The question of why the Torah would list the prostitute first, enigmatically implying it would be the ‘first’ woman a Kohain would think to marry (and therefore the first woman the Torah needed to prohibit) is now easily reconciled. For the prohibited women are in fact not reflective of what type of woman a Kohain would have desired. Rather, they represent the relationships of devotion which would be counter to the required expression of an elevated relationship of devotion an attendant of God is required to maintain. A prostitute and profaned woman (the first group) both share aspects of either a total apathy towards a significant relationship (prostitute) or a total absence of one to begin with (profaned). In the second group, the divorcee, although a significant relation was intended and achieved, it was then voluntarily severed and forsaken. Because a Kohain’s devotion and deep relationship with God must be purposefully desired and actively expressed, and cannot ever be willingly forsaken, he therefore cannot marry any woman who defies these aspects[4]. By restricting the Kohain from ‘devoting himself’ fully in marriage to one of these three types of women, the Kohain is expressing his appreciation and acknowledgement of how he must devote himself fully to the ‘Partner’ of his other significant relationship - to the Master he is commanded to attend.

With this understanding, we can now more fully appreciate the more stringent laws concerning the Kohain Gadol’s marriage opportunities. The Torah writes:

 ֕וּ שּׁ֥ וּ֖ קּ:

 ֤ וּוּשׁ֙ ֣ ֔ ֖לּ ֣ קּ֑ כּ֛ בּוּ֥ מּ֖ קּ֥ שּׁ:

It first states (in its own, self-contained pasuk) ‘[a Kohain Gadol] can only marry a virgin’. It then proceeds to list the women he cannot marry; concluding with yet again stating that he must marry a virgin. Based on this composition, we can understand that truly, for the Kohain Gadol, it’s not about who he can’t marry, but rather who he must marry. For, unlike the regular Kohain who can’t marry anyone who detracts from an ‘elevated devoted relationship’, a Kohain Gadol must only marry someone a woman who is the only one who would properly parallel the type of relationship he has with God. A Kohain Gadol is expressly anointed for his lofty position; he’s not merely born into his Kohain-attendant role (like ‘regular’ Kohanim), for he is then additionally actively anointed and inducted into an even more distinctly elevated one. Therefore, his ‘other’ relationship of devotion must actively be one of untouched purity (even a widow is prohibited to him) for his relationship with God must reflect an eternal (not a widow), unbroken (not a divorcee), active (not a profaned woman) desired connection (not a prostitute).



[1] A common understanding of this category of woman is someone who is the offspring of a forbidden marriage between a Kohain and one of these prohibited women.

[2] The following idea was inspired by a question posed to me by Sharon Friedman

[3] The distinction is illustrated by the repetition of the formula “... ” (which isn’t employed in the Kohain Gadol’s list).

[4] This explains why a Kohain is allowed to marry a widow: the relationship was present, desired and only broken involuntarily because of death.


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