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Can anybody share any sources that discuss the question of why the Priesthood was hereditary? There are plenty of sources that discuss why, specifically, the family of Aaron was chosen for that honor -- but all of them seem to take for granted that it is going to be a hereditary institution, and focus on the question of which family would be chosen. There are other possibilities -- for example, a system in which anybody could take vows and pledge themselves to the priesthood. I have even found a document that says that in ancient Egypt, during the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BCE), "people began to purchase priest positions". Do any sources discuss the reason for a hereditary priesthood?

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  • Buying your way into a position doesn't usually yield good results. As seen in the 2nd bet hamikdash period.
    – Shababnik
    Sep 10, 2023 at 3:17
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    The priesthood continues to be hereditary to this day, unfortunately our worksite is still under construction. Sep 10, 2023 at 7:49
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    Taking cues from ancient Egypt hardly seems inline with "You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt" (Leviticus 18:3).
    – Tamir Evan
    Sep 10, 2023 at 16:05
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    Kingship is hereditary. Tribal affiliation was hereditary. Even Jewish citizenship is basically [matrilineally] hereditary. Why shouldn't the priesthood be?
    – Tamir Evan
    Sep 10, 2023 at 16:15
  • @TamirEvan Let's flip that rhetoric around: The Nazir is not hereditary. Prophecy is not hereditary. Why should the priesthood be? In other words, the question is, why is Priesthood like kingship and tribal affiliation, and not like Naziriteship and Prophecy?
    – mweiss
    Sep 18, 2023 at 19:39

1 Answer 1

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Shemot 1:2:

וַיְהִ֕י כִּֽי־יָרְא֥וּ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיַּ֥עַשׂ לָהֶ֖ם בָּתִּֽים׃ And [God] established households for the midwives, because they feared God.

The רבינו בחיי on the pasuk:

ואולי הטעם הזה כי המילדות האלה נתן להן הכתוב מעלת הזכרים בשכר המצוה שהן מתעסקות בה להחיות הזכרים,... And perhaps the reason for this is because the scripture [G.od] gave these midwives the virtue of males [the priesthood] in return for the mitzvah that they engaged in to save the males [from pharaohs decree to kill all males]... (My translation)

So, someone correct me if I'm wrong, the hereditary nature of the kehuna seems to be a gift to the midwives in return for them saving the Jewish babies.

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    On the other hand, were the descendants of Aharon not the kohanim, the first born would have been. So your answer doesn't explain why there wasn't an earlier intent for a system that allows buying positions or volunteering.
    – Harel13
    Sep 10, 2023 at 6:01
  • @Harel13 וַאֲנִ֞י הִנֵּ֧ה לָקַ֣חְתִּי אֶת־הַלְוִיִּ֗ם מִתּוֹךְ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל תַּ֧חַת כׇּל־בְּכ֛וֹר פֶּ֥טֶר רֶ֖חֶם מִבְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְהָ֥יוּ לִ֖י הַלְוִיִּֽם׃ I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all the male first-born, the first issue of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine. You're thinking of the leviim... The kohanim was always supposed to be hereditary
    – Shababnik
    Sep 10, 2023 at 6:14
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    See Rashi on Shemot 19:22 among other sources. He states that the kehunah was originally supposed to be by the first born.
    – Harel13
    Sep 10, 2023 at 6:36
  • @Harel13 רש"י זבחים קט"ו ע"ב: From the geumara that rashi in shemot bases himself off: א"ל רב הונא הכי אמר רב אסי ופסקו - אותו היום פסקה עבודה מן הבכורות שמסיני נצטוו על הכהונה כדיליף לקמן ושמשו נדב ואביהוא כל אותה שנה ראשונה עד שהוקם המשכן ומתו: sefaria.org/Rashi_on_Zevachim.115b.6.2. The first-born service was only temporary.
    – Shababnik
    Sep 10, 2023 at 6:48

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