Does Judaism Require Priests to Be Celibate?

When I was young, I always associated the title “priest” with Catholic priests who were forbidden to marry. This surprised me because the Torah teaches that a Kohen, Jewish priest, may marry, and the Kohen Gadol, high priest, must be married to serve on Yom Kippur.

Depending on their status, there are some restrictions to whom a Kohen may marry. For example, a regular kohen may not marry a woman who was a prostitute, and the Kohen Gadol must marry a virgin.

The marriage requirements for Kohanim are outlined in this week’s portion of Emor and play an essential role in maintaining the Kohen’s holiness.

How do these requirements make a Kohen holy?

Our Sages teach that the Hebrew word for holy, Kodesh ( קדש ), means separate, as we see in the verse, “You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have SEPARATED you from the nations to be my own” (Leviticus 20:26).

Being holy and separate indicates that God wants us to have an intimate relationship with Him alone and not share our allegiance with anything else. Therefore, the Torah teaches, "You shall have no other gods before Me (Exodus 20:3), and, “I will not SHARE My glory to another or My praise to idols” Isaiah 42:8.

Kohanim hold an elevated position and their intimate (not shared) relationship with God is alluded to in the act of marriage and the restrictions which require that they avoid marrying a woman who was previously “shared” with someone else.

The fact that the Torah refers to the Jewish people as a “nation of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) teaches that we can each strive and achieve our own personal and intimate relationship with God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz