5756 - #16

Understanding the Bat Kohain

Vayikra 21:9 introduces us to a most unique law within the Torah legislation: in the case of adultery, the bat kohain, the daughter of a kohain is to receive a different punishment than any other individual committing the same crime. In this singular case, the status of the offender is deemed to affect the punishment that the law demands. The question is not only why the Torah decrees such a distinction but also why specifically -- and only -- in the case of adultery. The specific nature of the change in punishment must also be investigated. In the general case of adultery, both the unfaithful wife and her lover are punishable by chenek, death by the strangulation. In the case of the bat kohain, while her lover is still liable for the penalty of chenek, she is to receive sraifa, death by fire.[1]

It would seem that status has two affects within the Torah legislation. First, there is a distinction in the application of specific mitzvot based upon this factor. Certain commandments apply only to one group while other commands may apply to another group. For example, the kohain may eat terumah while the regular Jew may not. The regular Jew may marry a divorcee while a kohain may not. There are different laws for different individuals based upon halachic status. A second effect of status, though, is found in its application within mitzvot that generically apply to all individuals. For example, the command to recite the blessing after the meal is equally applicable to all; we, though, because of his status, turn first to the kohain to lead us.[2] The status of the kohain demands that we honour him even in our performance of certain generic commandments. It would seem that the case of the adulterous bat kohain must fall within this second category. The prohibition of adultery equally applies to all,[3] yet the status of the bat kohain demands a specific punishment. As Rashi on the verse points out, the issue would seem to be one of honour to the priesthood.[4] There are certain generic mitzvot whose performance is also tied to the honour of the priesthood. In the case of the adulterous bat kohain, we have the unique case of a generic prohibition whose violation somehow creates, as the verse states, a specific dishonour to the priesthood which is marked by the punishment of sraifa. The challenge, though, is to understand the nature of this dishonour and what this law informs us about the nature of the priesthood.

A kohain who commits adultery does not receive sraifa. Applying the above analysis, in that there is no special punishment for the kohain in this case, a kohain who violates the prohibition of adultery, it would seem, does not cause a specific dishonour to his kohain status. It is only the bat kohain who receives this unique punishment for adultery and thus, we must conclude, it is only through the adulterous actions of the bat kohain that the honour of the priesthood is challenged. Specifically, from the verse, it would seem that the actions of the bat kohain bring dishonour to the kohain status of her father. Various commentators explain that the status of the father is challenged for he should have taughther better. The implication of this would be that it is the teaching aspect of the priesthood that is challenged and that this teaching aspect is specifically challenged by a daughter's adulterous mis-conduct, not a son's and not any other mis-conduct.[5] The Meshech Chochma, though, writes that it is the essence of the priesthood within the woman herself that is dishonoured. It is the adultery of a bat kohain, not even the adultery of a kohain and not any other act, that challenges the honour of the priesthood. The question is why.

In ancient times, other cultures not only allowed women to serve as priests but indeed paganism demanded women as priests. And this priesthood was always tied to sexuality - be it that the women priests were expected to be virgins or, as was more often the case, that these women priests were expected to include sexual behaviour in their service of the idol. The Torah's bar on women priests separated sexuality from the kohain's avodat Hashem and thus, it could be argued, nothing challenged this Jewish nature of the priesthood more than a promiscuous daughter of a kohain. Why, though, did paganism demanded promiscuity as part of its ritual? The worship of sexuality within our society may provide some answers. It is not really the physical sexual drive that is ultimately glorified. The human being is inherently lonely and the ultimate praise of sexuality, even within our society, arises from its ability to negate loneliness.[6] The perceived bonding of the participants in the attempt to defy loneliness is ultimately the basis of the power of promiscuity. Sexuality, as with all human drives, though, needs direction and structure; only then is it sanctified and truly fulfilled. This was the unique message of the Torah's priesthood - that would be inherently challenged by an adulterous bat kohain.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


[1] This description of the change in punishment is the most basic and portrays the generally accepted position. The exact case of adultery that demands a change in the punishment for the bat kohain, though, is actually a matter of extensive halachic discussion beginning with T.B. Sanhedrin 49b-52a. See further Encyclopedia Talmudit, Book 4, "Bat Kohain". The controversy generally focuses on the relationship between the special case of the bat kohain and the case of the adulterous na'arah me'urasa. (A na'arah me'urasa is a young girl between the ages of twelve and twelve-and-a-half who has completed the first stage of the marriage ceremony, kiddushin, but has not yet completed the second stage, nesu'in. In the ancient world it was quite common for the two-part Jewish marriage ceremony to be split with a time period of even up to a year separating the two parts.) The punishment for an adulterous na'arah me'urasa and her lover is skila, death by stoning. The question arises as to whether a bat kohain in this situation would receive skila or sraifa. The view also exists that the change in the bat kohain's punishment only arises when she is also a na'arah me'urasa. See also Chinuch, mitzvah 35 and Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Bi'ah 1:6 and Hilchot Sanhedrin 15:11.

[2] As to the command to thus honour the kohain, see Chinuch, mitzvah 269. See also T.B. Huriyot 13a.

[3] See Chinuch, mitzvah 35.

[4] See also Torah Temima, Vayikra 21:9, note 60.

[5] See further, Mordechai, Sanhedrin chap. 6, and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 128:41.

[6] The promotion of gay rights, for example, is built upon the need for love that, it is argued, is only fulfilled in this manner, not the need for physical sexual gratification.

Return to top