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Literally, priest. Aaron, the elder brother of Moses, was the first high priest and ancestor of all the priests and high priests who performed the sacrificial rites and conducted services in the Sanctuary. According to the Bible, the meeting tent, or Tabernacle, was built by the Israelites in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt. It was the first sanctuary in which a kohen, or priest, served the Lord (Exod. 25:8). There, Aaron brought the offerings of the people in the desert. When he performed the services in the Tabernacle, Aaron wore priestly robes called the hoshen and ephod. On the shoulder-pieces of the ephod were two stones on which the names of the twelve tribes of Israel were engraved. On his chest, Aaron wore a breastplate made of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet yarn set with precious stones (Exod. 28).

When the Children of Israel settled in the Land of Canaan, the priests, like the rest of the tribe of Levi, received no portion of land, because they were completely dedicated to the service of the Lord. Instead, biblical laws assigned to them a part of levitical taxes paid by the people and some of the voluntary offerings from the crops and produce. Certain portions from the sacrifices and first fruit offerings were also set aside for the priests.

The Tabernacle rested in Shiloh, almost in the center of the land. Eli, the priest, officiated there for 40 years and served as Judge of Israel. In the time of King David, the role of the priest assumed new importance in the life of the people. Worship became centralized in Jerusalem, the new capital of the nation. When King Solomon built the Temple, gleaming with gold and bronze, high on Mt. Moriah, Zadok served as high priest and his son Azariah after him. For a thousand years, this position passed from father to son in the family of Zadok. As the centuries passed, triumph and disaster followed in turn, changing the life of the nation. The First Temple was destroyed, then rebuilt by the people returned from exile. The priests were the teachers and leaders of the people at that time, and their power was great. As foreign empires came and went, they interfered with people’s lives and worship in the Temple. Corrupt Greek and Roman governors ignored the required religious qualifications for priests and allowed men to buy their way into the position with gold. Then the Second Temple was destroyed, and the people were scattered in the lands of the dispersion, where prayer took the place of sacrifices. The kohanim went into exile with their people, retaining their identity by the surname Kohen. The spelling of the name has varied at different times and in different countries: Cohen, Coen, Cahn, Cahen, Cohan, Cahan, Kagan, Kahn; or Cowen, Kohn, Kann, and Katz (from the initials of kohen tzedek, priest of justice). All these variations identify members of a family whose ancestors acted as priests in the Sanctuary. Descendants of the original kohanim still rise up in Orthodox synagogues during the holiday services, cover their faces with prayer shawls, and bless the people with the triple benediction of the ancient priests of Israel.

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