In parashat Yitro, before the giving of the Torah, God summons Moshe up the mountain to tell him to go down again and warn the people to stay away from the mountain. He mentions that even the "Kohanim" will fall (Shemot 19:22).

This absolutely had to be before the designation of Aaron & sons as Kohanim.

Are we to understand that this word is to refer to the first-borns?

This is a lead up question to: When did korbanot become a Jewish thing?


1 Answer 1


A number of mefarshim explain it as a reference to firstborns - refer to Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Bechor Shor, Rashbam, Shadal

The Chizkuni makes an interesting observation:

וגם הכהנים וגו׳, “and also the priests, etc.” who were these “priests?” They were the seventy elders who are all firstborns at the same time. (compare Mechilta on בחדש הזה Exodus chapter 12).

The alternative understanding aside from them being firstborns, is that it is a reference to Aharon's sons as based on the Gemara in Zevachim 115b:

תנאי היא דתניא (שמות יט, כב) וגם הכהנים הנגשים אל ה' יתקדשו ר' יהושע בן קרחה אומר זו פרישות בכורות רבי אומר זו פרישות נדב ואביהוא

Rav Ḥisda replied that with regard to the firstborn, it is a dispute between tanna’im, as it is taught in a baraita: God said to Moses on Mount Sinai: “And let the priests also that come near to the Lord sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break forth upon them” (Exodus 19:22). In other words, they should separate themselves and not approach the mountain. This command was given one day after the burnt offerings and peace offerings were sacrificed in anticipation of the revelation at Sinai. With regard to this command, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korḥa says: This command is a reference to the separation of the firstborn, as they functioned as priests. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: This command is a reference to the separation of Nadav and Avihu, who were priests. (Sefaria translation and notation)

Refer to the Birkas Asher, Torah Temimah and Rabbeinu Bachya It writes in the latter:

'וגם הכהנים הנגשים אל ה’, “and also the priests who approach G’d.” The “priests” mentioned here are either the firstborn who would perform the priestly functions in those days, i.e. offer the sacrifices, or it may refer to the sons of Aaron who would be consecrated as priests some time later.

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