By Rabbi Avi Billet
Issue of May 8, 2009 / 14 Iyar 5769
In the laws of Rosh Hashana (Shulchan Arukh 581:1), the Rema says the leader of the services, the chazzan (cantor) must be 30 years old and married. The Mishneh Brurah comments that just as there was always a second wife in the waiting for the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) in case his current wife should suddenly die, the representative of the community must be married so as to guard him from sin.
The Mishneh Brurah concludes this sentence with a caveat, however, that if a younger, unmarried, man is more representative of the community through his piety and devotion, he is to be preferred over a 30-year-old, married counterpart.
Let us examine the law of the Kohen Gadol. The first mishnah in Yoma says that in preparation for Yom Kippur, a “relief” Kohen Gadol is prepared in case the residing one becomes tameh, spiritually unfit to serve. Rabbi Yehudah suggests that a wife-in-waiting is also prepared in the event the Kohen Gadol’s wife dies suddenly, lest he remain unmarried on Yom Kippur. The rabbis argue and say that preparing for such an unforeseen occurrence is unnecessary, for there would be no end (maybe the new wife would die, or another prepared wife would die, etc.)
In his comments on the mishnah, Maimonides says the law is not in accordance with Rabbi Yehudah, because we do not prepare for situations that are unforeseeable (i.e. a healthy wife of the Kohen Gadol dying without any indication of illness).
It would seem, in Maimonides’ view, which merely supports the Rabbis who argue with Rabbi Yehuda, were the Kohen Gadol’s wife to suddenly pass away, the Kohen Gadol might remain wifeless for a period of time, including Yom Kippur.
This is all very interesting.
Did the Kohen Gadol need to be married in the first place?
The Torah tells us that when the Kohen Gadol marries, he must marry a virgin (Vayikra 21:13-14). She may not be a widow, a divorcee, or someone otherwise disqualified from marrying a kohen, only a virgin. Maimonides lists this as Positive Commandment #38, and goes into greater detail in the laws of Issurei Biah chapter 17.
The Talmud (Yebamot 59) discusses the age of the woman the kohen may marry — some argue she must be younger, while others say she may be a more mature woman. The Sefer HaChinukh (#272) discusses the mindset of the bride in question. The Netziv focuses on both of these points in his commentary on 21:13, recommending that his wife of choice be a bright, God-fearing woman.
But did she need to be present in his life? Did he need to be married?
In 21:14, Netziv says he could not be a Kohen Gadol without a wife. And yet the Torah suggests that when he marries, as a Kohen Gadol, he must marry a virgin.
There are those who question whether if, as a regular kohen, he married a widow (which is permissible, though a divorcee is prohibited from being married to a kohen), he would need to divorce her and find a new wife upon the occasion of his new appointment. Many say he need not, and he may retain his previously widowed wife, despite her not having been a “betulah” at the time she married him.
But there is a point when a Kohen Gadol might be single and unattached.
This is not to suggest that a Kohen Gadol could have been appointed if he had never been married. If, like the Shulchan Arukh, we take our cue from the Kohen Gadol in appointing a cantor, perhaps, as per the Mishneh Brurah, we can reverse the rule and suggest that a kohen who is more pious and devout is more fit to serve than one who fits the criteria of age and marriage.
Even if it is not a valid halakhic argument, it is a valid parallel to draw. And the lesson is this.
There is no question that the ideal status of man in the Jewish community, and certainly for the perpetual continuity of our people, is to be married. The first commandment in the Torah (procreation) and the first chapter of Shulchan Arukh Even HaEzer (first words, in fact) make this point quite clearly.
But there are times when even the Kohen Gadol might be seeking a wife, and yet he is still the Kohen Gadol.
The singles and unmarried members of our community, and in particular the ones who have “demonstrated piety and devoutness” have much to share and should be embraced and encouraged to be leaders in our community. And for those who seek hard enough to play this communal role, perhaps their being in the spotlight will help those who are looking to find the spouses they seek — especially when they do not have (or create for themselves) the limiting criteria the Kohen Gadol has in his pool of potential spouses.