Kohen Gadol or Kohen ha-Gadol (Heb. כהן גדול "Great Priest") is the title of High Priest of early Israelite religion and of classical Judaism from the rise of the Israelite nation until the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. The high priests, like all priests, belonged to the Aaronic line.
The succession was to be through one of his sons, and was to remain in his own family (). If he had no son, the office devolved upon the brother next of age: such appears to have been the practise in the Hasmonean period. In the time of Eli, however the office passed to the collateral branch of Ithamar (see Eleazar). But King Solomon is reported to have deposed the High Priest Abiathar, and to have appointed Zadok, a descendant of Eleazar, in his stead (). After the Exile, the succession seems to have been, at first, in a direct line from father to son; but later the civil authorities arrogated to themselves the right of appointment. Antiochus IV Epiphanes for instance, deposed Onias III in favor of Jason, who was followed by Menelaus.
Herod the Great nominated no less than six high priests; Archelaus, two. The Roman legate Quirinius and his successors exercised the right of appointment, as did Agrippa I, Herod of Chalcis, and Agrippa II. Even the people occasionally elected candidates to the office. The high priests before the Exile were, it seems, appointed for life; in fact, from Aaron to the Captivity the number of the high priests was not greater than during the sixty years preceding the fall of the Second Temple.
Legitimacy of birth was essential; hence the care in the keeping of the genealogical records and the distrust of one whose mother had been captured in war. The high priest had to abstain from ritual defilement. He may marry only an Israelite maiden (). In this restriction is extended to all kohenim (priests), an exception being made in favor of the widow of a priest (see Levirate marriage). He was not permitted to come in contact with the bodies of the dead, even of his closest relatives; and he was not permitted, as a sign of mourning, to leave his hair disheveled, to expose it, or to rend his garments (et seq.). According to Josephus, birth on foreign soil was not a disqualification; but the disqualifications of et seq. applied to the high priest as well as to other priests.
The Torah provides for specific vestments to be worn by the priests when they are ministering in the Tabernacle: "And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for dignity and for beauty" (). These garments are described in detail in , and . The high priest wore eight holy garments (bigdei kodesh). Of these, four were of the same type worn by all priests, and four were unique to the Kohen Gadol.
Those vestments which were common to all priests, were:
The vestments that were unique to the High Priest were:
The High Priest, like all priests, would minister barefoot when he was serving in the Temple. Like all of the priests, he had to immerse himself in the mikvah before vesting and wash his hands and his feet before performing any sacred act. The Talmud teaches that neither the kohenim nor the Kohen Gadol were fit to minister unless they wore their priestly vestments: "While they are clothed in the priestly garments, they are clothed in the priesthood; but when they are not wearing the garments, the priesthood is not upon them". It is further taught that just as the korbanot (sacrifices) facilitate an atonement for sin, so do the priestly garments.
The High Priest had two sets of holy garments: the "Golden Garments" detailed above, and a set of white "Linen Garments" (bigdei ha-bad) which he wore only on Yom Kippur (). On that day, he would change his holy garments four times, beginning in the Golden Garments but changing into the Linen Garments for the two moments when he would enter the Holy of Holies (the first time to offer the blood of atonement and the incense, and the second time to retrieve the censer), and then change back again into the Golden Garments after each time. He would immerse in the mikvah before each change of garments, washing his hands and his feet after removing the garments and again before putting the other set on. The Linen Garments were only four in number, those corresponding to the garments worn by all priests (breeches, tunic, sash and turban), but made only of white linen, with no embroidery. They could be worn only once, new sets being made each year.
The first consecration was performed by Moses; the Bible does not state who consecrated subsequent high priests. states emphatically that every new high priest shall be anointed; and et seq. commands that the official garments worn by his predecessor shall be worn by the new incumbent while he is anointed and during the seven days of his consecration (comp. ; ).
The high priest is the chief of all the priests; he should be anointed and invested with the pontifical garments; but if the sacred oil is not obtainable, investiture with the additional garments (see Biblical Data, above) is regarded as sufficient. A high priest so invested is known as merubbeh begadim. This investiture consists of arraying him in the eight pieces of dress and in removing them again on eight successive days, though (the anointing and) the investiture on the first day suffices to qualify him for the functions of the office. The only distinction between the "anointed" and the "invested" high priest is that the former offers the bull for an unintentional transgression.
For offenses which entailed flagellation the high priest could be sentenced by a court of three; after submitting to the penalty he could resume his office ("Yad," l.c. 22). The high priest was expected to be superior to all other priests in physique, in wisdom, in dignity, and in material wealth; if he was poor his brother priests contributed to make him rich (Yoma 18a; "Yad," l.c. v. 1); but none of these conditions was indispensable.
The high priest was required to be mindful of his honor. He might not mingle with the common people, nor permit himself to be seen disrobed, or in a public bath, etc.; but he might invite others to bathe with him (Tosef., Sanh. iv.; "Yad," l.c. v. 3). He might not participate in a public banquet, but he might pay a visit of consolation to mourners, though even then his dignity was guarded by prescribed etiquette (Sanh. 18-19; "Yad," l.c. v. 4).
The high priest must be married; to guard against contingencies it was proposed to hold a second wife in readiness immediately before the Day of Atonement (Yoma i. 1); but polygamy on his part was not encouraged (= "one wife"; Yoma 13a; "Yad," l.c. v. 10). He could give the "halizah," and it could be given to his widow, as she also was subject to the Levirate; his divorced wife could marry again (l.c.; Sanh. 18). When entering the Temple ("Hekal") he was supported to the curtain by three men (Tamid 67a; this may perhaps have reference to his entering the Holy of Holies; but see "Yad," l.c. v. 11, and the Mishneh Kesef ad loc.). He could take part in the service whenever he desired ("Yad," l.c. v. 12; Yoma i. 2; Tamid 67b; see Rashi ad loc.). On the Day of Atonement only he wore white garments, while on other occasions he wore his golden vestments (Yoma 60a; comp. 68b, ). The seven days preceding the Day of Atonement were devoted to preparing for his high function, precautions being taken to prevent any accident that might render him Levitically impure (Yoma i. 1 et seq.). The ceremonial for that day is described in detail in Mishnah Yoma (see also Haneberg, "Die Religiösen Alterthümer der Bibel," pp. 659-671, Munich, 1869). For other regulations concerning the high priest see "Yad," Biat ha-Miḳdash, ii. 1, 8; for details in regard to the vestments see "Yad," Kele ha-Miḳdash, viii. 2-4, 5 (in reference to soiled vestments: the white could be worn only once); l.c. vii. 1 ("ẓiẓ"), vii. 3 ("me'il"), vii. 6 ("ḥoshen"), vii. 9 (ephod), ix.
After the Babylonian Exile, Joshua appears vested with such prominence as P ascribes to the high priest (Zech. iii.; Hag. vi. 13). In Ezra and Nehemiah, again, but little consideration is shown for the high priest. The post-exilic high priests traced their pedigree back to Zadok, appointed as chief priest at Jerusalem by Solomon (I Kings ii. 35), and Zadok was held to be a descendant of Eleazar, the son of Aaron (II Chron. v. 34). Immediately after the return from the Captivity, as is clearly to be inferred from Zechariah and Haggai, political authority was not vested in the high priest. Political (Messianic) sovereignty was represented by, or attributed to, a member of the royal house, while religious affairs were reserved to the high-priesthood, represented in the Book of Zechariah by Joshua. But in the course of time, as the Messianic hope, or even the hope of autonomy under foreign (Persian, Greek, Egyptian,or Syrian) suzerainty became weaker, the high priest also became a political chief of the congregation, as much, perhaps, through the consideration shown him by the suzerain powers and their viceroys as through the effect of the increasingly thorough acceptance of the Levitical code by pious Judeans. In this connection the report (I Macc. vii. 14) that the rigorists received Alcimus, the high priest, with confidence because he was "a priest of the seed of Aaron" is significant.