Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

When the Torah commanded us to refrain from work on Shabbat, the intention was to refrain from the important crafts with which the Israelites built the Mikdash (the Tabernacle erected by the Israelites in the desert), for the Mikdash is the heart of all Creation, and accordingly, it should serve as a prototype of how to participate in yishuvo shel ha’olam and tikuno (improving and repairing the world).

In other words, the objective of our work throughout the six days of the week is to continue the idea of ​​the Mishkan to the entire world, until the time arrives when the whole world becomes a mishkan for the Shechina (Divine Presence) – for divine values, and for the values ​​of emet and chesed (truth and kindness), tzedaka and rachamim (charity and mercy).

The Work of the Kohanim (Priests)

As such, the work of the kohanim and their special laws should serve as a prototype for all individuals in their own, personal work.

Just as the kohanim must sanctify themselves for the service of the Mikdash, and beware of things that might distract them from their work, similarly, every person should find moral value in his job, and similar to a kohen, purify and sanctify himself in preparation for it. If one is a teacher or a doctor – he should make sure to get a good night sleep, so he can fulfill his calling properly. If one is an engineer – he should not rest on his laurels, rather, broaden his knowledge, and contemplate ways to add virtue and blessing to his work. This holds true for all types of work.

Ha-Kohanim Ha-Gedolim (The High Priests)

There are outstanding individuals whose work is like the service of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). For example, a doctor with rare life-saving capabilities, who must sanctify himself as a Kohen Gadol entering the Kodesh ha-Kodashim (Holy of Holies), and not to budge from the “temple” of his work – even for the sake of his relatives. Although in the middle of his son’s wedding he is suddenly summoned to the hospital, hastily, he must say goodbye to his son, his wife, and his guests – all realizing where he is going – and they accompany him in prayer, that he should fulfill his mission, and save the patient fluttering between life and death.

The same holds true for an officer of an elite combat unit – he must always be true to every call. Even if while taking his wife to give birth he is suddenly called to save Israel from its enemies – he takes leave of her, and just as all of Israel prayed for the Kohen Gadol to exit the Kodesh ha-Kodashim in peace, while giving birth, his wife as well, prays he returns in peace from battle to see their child.

The Kohanim and Teachers

Today, the role of the kohanim is fulfilled by the rabbis and teachers of Jewish religious studies, for in addition to the service the kohanim in the Beit Ha’Mikdash a few days out of the year, their role was to educate, teach Torah, and instruct halakha to the Jewish nation, as the Torah says:

“They shall therefore teach your law to Jacob, and your Torah to Israel” (Deuteronomy 33:10).

It is also written:

If you are unable to reach a decision in a case involving capital punishment, litigation, leprous marks, or any other case where there is a dispute in your territorial courts, then you must set out and go up to the place that God your Lord shall choose. You must approach the Levitical priests and other members of the supreme court that exists at the time. When you make inquiry, they will declare to you a legal decision” (Ibid. 17: 8-9).

It can also be said that social workers and other people engaged in education and guidance also serve in the roles of the kohanim, because the teaching of Torah is not only the study of the principles, but also their practical instruction. This is on the condition that their guidance stems from the values ​​of the Torah, and their intention is to elevate the people and society to a life of responsibility, truth and kindness.

Even during the times of the Mikdash, anyone from the nation could dedicate his life to Torah learning and teaching (Rambam, Hilkhot Shemita and Yovel 13:13), and a lot of people did so. Moreover, the original intention was for the firstborn of all of Israel to serve as kohanim, and our Sages said this will also be the case in the future (Ohr Ha’Chaim, Bamidbar 3:45, according to Sifre ‘Behaalotecha’) – let alone today, when the Beit Ha’Mikdash is destroyed, and the rabbis and educators are the ones performing the duties of the kehuna (priesthood).

Inspiration from the Laws of Kohanim for Teachers

A principle may be learned from the laws of the kohanim, namely, that individuals engaged in the teaching of Torah and halakhic ruling, should be connected to kodesh (holiness), and express in their daily lives the sacred values. Accordingly, kohanim must refrain from defiling themselves for the dead, and not mourn excessively for their relatives, so they can fulfill their role – to teach Torah, out of emunah and simcha (faith and joy).

Likewise, teachers and educators of Torah values ​​should serve as a personal example, both in the classroom, and in all of their daily life. For besides the fact that teachers impart knowledge to their students, their role is to educate towards sacred values, ​​and express their devotion to Torah and joy in fulfilling the mitzvot in their daily lives.

The Jewish nation was commanded to sanctify the kohanim (Leviticus 21: 8), and also commanded to honor and fear talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars), as written:

“You shall be in awe of [et] the Lord your God” – the word et comes to include Torah scholars” (Pesachim 22b).

Included in the mitzvah is to stand up in honor of a talmid chacham, even if he is young, as written:

And you shall revere the face of an elder” – an “elder [zaken]” means nothing other than one who has acquired wisdom” (Kiddushin 32b).

Teachers and educators of Torah values ​​should serve as a personal example, both in the classroom, and in all of their daily life. For besides the fact that teachers impart knowledge to their students, their role is to educate towards sacred values, ​​and express their devotion to Torah and joy in fulfilling the mitzvot in their daily lives.
In this way, even those who are not meticulous in all the hidurei mitzvot (enhancements of the mitzvot), and perhaps, also fail to observe all the halakhot, become connected to all the sacred values. For indeed, the Torah belongs to all of Israel equally, and the kohanim and talmidei chachamim are its representatives and emissaries in the sacred work of Torah study of all of Israel, and its teaching.

It appears that a solution to a question bothering many religious communities can be learned from these foundations.

Tensions Concerning the Character of Schools

Ideally, it is preferable for a school to include as many students as possible, and take in all who wish to enter its gates, both because of the value of achdut (unity), and also because of the good scholastic and educational solutions large schools can provide in the numerous and varied groupings and classes. However, because religious and traditional society is very diverse, and religious schools serve families from different levels of adherence to halakha and minhag (custom), tensions are sometimes created that cause the community to split into different schools.

Not all problems can be solved, but it appears that three principles can be proposed that can help different communities maintain one school that provides a better educational solution for all its students.

Opening of School Gates

One debate concerns accepting students from families who do not keep Shabbat according to all the laws. The solution is to accept everyone who is willing to accept the Torani (Torah-oriented) character of the school. In other words, on the one hand, to accept every student, but on the other hand, to clarify that it is the duty of the teachers to educate towards the observance of Shabbat and all the mitzvot, while at the same time being careful not to insult those who are not observant.

Incidentally, this carefulness should exist in any case, even when there are no children in the class from non-observant families. This idea can be learned from the kohanim, who on the one hand served all of Israel in all matters of kedusha (holiness) and teaching, but on the other hand, maintained their sacred level, and thus, elevated all those with whom they associated – each one, according to his level.

Teachers’ Attire

Another debate leading to divisions in schools revolves around teachers’ attire. The Chardal (lit. “Nationalist Haredi”) side argues that it is impossible to educate towards the observance of Torah and mitzvot properly, when teachers are not meticulous in their dress and head-covering in accordance with the rules of halakha. Particularly in halakha’s that are so outwardly visible, and in their non-observance, there is a certain blatant statement that there is no obligation to keep details of halakha agreed upon by the vast majority of recent poskim.

The other side argues that teachers should represent the variety of parents, and just as some parents are more meticulous in their attire and others less, the same should hold true for the teachers. Moreover, when the level of teachers is determined by their dress – matters are turned upside-down, and rabbinically enacted halakhot are elevated above Torah mitzvot, for instance, mitzvot between adam le-chaveiro (man and his fellow man).

Out of the special mitzvot for the kohanim – the caution from impurity, and caution from display of mourning – it can be learned that indeed, it is proper to demand from teachers who teach Torah, to sanctify themselves over and above the rest of society, and it is fitting this spiritual elevation be expressed outwardly, just as the mitzvot of the kohanim were outwardly visible. There are two reasons for this: 1) to give kavod (honor) to their special task of teaching the holy Torah. 2) To serve as an example to their students in all their ways of life, including their attire, which should be according to the rules of halakha accepted by the majority of poskim.

When I presented this proposal in a shiur, some people argued that this proposal constitutes patronage over the public not defined as Torani, since that public believes it is behaving properly and there is no need to be so meticulous in the details of the halakhot of dress code, and consequently, in essence, this proposal negates its position.

Indeed, chances are this proposal will not convince everyone. However, it seems that in truth, along the lines of the idea of ​​kehuna, it can be accepted. For even those who believe that the laws of tzniyut (modesty) are determined according to the norms of society, at any rate, just as the kohanim who were engaged in the holy Torah and its teaching were commanded to sanctify themselves in a number of very outwardly visible mitzvot, for example, caution from impurity, it is fitting for teachers engaged in education and Torah to also sanctify themselves and act in accordance with the opinion of the majority of poskim.

Respectful Distancing

It appears to me that another idea can be learned from the mitzvot of the kohanim. The kohanim’s caution not to defile themselves, created a distinction between them and the majority of other Jews, not unlike a psychologist who has to learn to maintain an emotional distance from the problems of his patients. They obviously need to dedicate themselves as much as they can to solving the problems, but if they take them to heart their lives will be bitter, and also, they will be unable to fulfill their role properly. In a similar way, teachers should maintain a certain respectful distance, so as not to be overly offended by students or parents. They must love everyone and treat their distress and complaints with understanding, but not take things too much to heart.


A third debate liable to divide schools is about the ratio between hours devoted to Torah and to science. Since both sides have a justifiable claim – occasionally, dependent on the difference between people according to their nature and purpose in life (see, Orot HaTorah 9: 6) – somewhat like the difference between the kohanim and Torah scholars, and those oriented towards sciences and the practical side of life – the solution is to add, and not to detract.

In other words, the basic hours should be as is the rule in Mamlachti-Dati (state-religious) schools, but beyond that, the school should take care to add enrichment classes affordable to all, both in the fields of Torah and science, making maximum effort to allow students who are interested to participate in both Torah and scientific enrichment classes. This will offer a solution to all types of students.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.