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Chayei Sarah: The Other Kohen Gadol

By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel

Agudath Israel of the Five Towns

And Sarah died in Kiryas Arba, which is Chevron, in the land of Canaan . . .

—Bereishis 23:2

Why did Sarah Imeinu die when she did? Is there any significance to the timing? The truth is that it was extraordinarily significant. All of Jewish history depended on it. To begin with, it was only when Sarah died that Yitzchak was able to marry. It is clear from the order of the Torah’s passages that Yitzchak’s marriage was contingent on Sarah’s death, but the real question is why this is so.

First, let us realize that this was the case with all the Imahos, not just with Sarah. Even though the Avos overlapped, the Imahos never did. Avraham was alive when Yitzchak was developing and growing into his spiritual stature as one of the Avos. Yitzchak was alive when Yaakov was developing to be one of the Avos. Yet Sarah had to pass away before Yitzchak could marry Rivkah. Furthermore, Rivkah had to pass away in advance of Yaakov’s return to Eretz Yisrael because Leah could not have assumed her position when Yaakov returned to Eretz Yisrael if Rivkah had still been alive.

Why is it impossible for the Imahos to overlap? I owe the following insight, which provides the answer, to my wife.

There is a striking correlation between the traditional role of women and that of the kohanim, especially of the Kohen Gadol. The comparisons are many. On any day other than Yom Kippur, an ordinary kohen could light the Menorah of the Beis HaMikdash. Nevertheless, the very personification of the lighting of the Menorah, the paradigm of the process, was Aharon haKohen, the Kohen Gadol. Aharon lit the Menorah. While the lighting of the Menorah in the Beis HaMikdash was the job of the kohen, the lighting of the Shabbos candles, the menorah of the home, is the job of the woman.

The Kohen Gadol presided over the Beis HaMikdash, while the traditional role of the woman is to preside over the mishkan of the home. This is reflected poignantly in the stories of the Avos and the Imahos, as Ramban explains:

“When they came to Mount Sinai and made the Mishkan, and the Holy One Blessed Be He returned His Shechinah to rest among them, then they returned to the high level of their forefathers. This was in the aspect of G‑d being upon their tents, and they (the forefathers) are the very vehicle of G‑d’s revelation.” (Ramban, introduction to Sefer Sh’mos.)

The original Mishkan was actually the home of each of the Imahos. That is why we find here in Parashas Chayei Sarah that there were three signs of the return of the Shechinah to the home of Rivkah. As long as Sarah was alive, (1) the lamp burnt from erev Shabbos to erev Shabbos, (2) there was a blessing in the dough, and (3) there was a cloud positioned over the tent. (Rashi, Bereishis 24:67)

The fact that the lamp continued to burn and was not extinguished represents the Ner Tamid, the westernmost lamp of the Menorah, which never went out. The constant and miraculously fresh bread (the blessing in the dough) represents the Lechem HaPanim because it would not spoil over the course of the week. The cloud positioned over the tent represents the presence of the Shechinah. These miracles were the signature of Sarah and, ultimately, the sign that Rivkah had taken over from Sarah. This is the sign of the kohen.

What was the everyday job of the kohen? What did he do all day? So to speak, he took care of the cooking and the cleaning in the Beis HaMikdash. There were no strangers doing this important task. It was the kohen who cut up and prepared the meat. It was the kohen who placed it on the Altar, which is called Hashem’s “table.” (See Menachos 6a.)

Only the kohanim were permitted to enter most of the area of the Temple Courtyard, the floor of which needed cleaning from dirt and refuse. The process of washing and cleaning the floor is described in Yoma 58b.

Lest we consider the comparison between the Temple’s Altar and the table in a person’s home to be overly fanciful, Chazal speak clearly on this topic:

“The wooden Altar was three amos high . . . and He spoke to me: ‘This is the table that is before Hashem.’” (Yechezkel 41:36)

“The verse began with ‘Altar’ and concluded with ‘table.’ Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish both said: When the Temple is standing, the Altar atones for a person. Now, a person’s table atones for him.” (Chagigah 27a)

Here again, the domain of the kohen paralleled the traditional role of the woman: serving food on the table.

If we consider the garments of the Kohen Gadol, we will find that one of them resembled an apron! The traditional sign of the time-honored role of the woman, until quite recently, was her apron. There are many “modernized” women who will not wear an apron today for that reason. Yet, once upon a time, it was her distinctive honored mark. The Kohen Gadol wore an apron! Rashi calls it the Eifod that the royal women wore when they rode on horses. Thus, we see that its design may be understood only by comparison to women’s clothing.

It is striking to consider that the Kohen Gadol wore a four-cornered garment, the Me’il, but he did not wear tzitzis on it. The only ones besides him who are not obligated to wear tzitzis are women!1

We see that the traditional roles of the kohen and of the woman parallel each other amazingly well.

Let us now return to our question: Why is it impossible for the lives of the Imahos to overlap?

The answer is that the Jewish people cannot have two Kohanim Gedolim serving simultaneously. Although there existed a deputy Kohen Gadol, who stood ready to replace the Kohen Gadol for the short term should the need arise, ultimately there can be only one Kohen Gadol at any given time. Thus, the Imahos, whose activities represent those of the Kohen Gadol in the Beis HaMikdash, could not have shared their roles simultaneously. There could only be one Kohen Gadol at a time.

Therefore, Sarah died when it was time for Rivkah to take her rightful place serving in the mishkan of the Avos, which was the tent of their home. When Yaakov returned to Eretz Yisrael, as he was approaching Chevron and it was time for his wife Leah to assume the place of Rivkah, that was the time that Rivkah died. There could not be any overlap.

This was not the case concerning the Avos. They served a different role and it was not problematic for them to serve simultaneously. On the contrary, it was important for them to overlap. Perhaps that is why we find a reference made to Avraham Avinu at the beginning of Parashas Toldos: “And these are the offspring of Yitzchak the son of Avraham: Avraham fathered Yitzchak.” (Bereishis 25:19)

As Rashi points out on the above verse, the Torah will soon tell us about Yaakov and Eisav, who are the offspring of Yitzchak, yet the Torah first saw it important to mention Avraham. This is the only place where we find all of the Avos living in the same place at the same time. This was during the last 15 years of Avraham Avinu’s life. It is, therefore, important for the Torah to note their overlap.

Possibly, the necessity for this overlap is the fact that the Avos constitute the world’s pillars. They are the tripod upon which the entire universe stands. “The world stands on three things: On Torah, on avodas Hashem, and on deeds of kindness.” (Pirkei Avos 1:2)

Avraham represents deeds of kindness, Yitzchak represents avodas Hashem, and Yaakov represents Torah. These components must exist together and, therefore, it was critical that there be a period where, unlike with the Imahos, the lives of the Avos intersected. v


1. The only significant difference between the role of the kohen in his House and the role of the woman in hers is in the lighting of the lamps. Although they both kindle lamps, the reasons are very different.

Let us consider two well-known verses about lamps from Mishlei:

“For a lamp is a mitzvah, and Torah is light.” (Mishlei 6:23)

“The lamp of Hashem is the soul of a man.” (ibid., 2:27)

We see that Torah and mitzvos are called lamps and light, and that a person’s neshamah is also called a lamp. There is a difference between the two. The woman’s role of lighting the lamp is connected to shalom bayis. Her lamp’s purpose is to give forth light, as the kindling of the Shabbos candles is to produce light, not hide it. Correspondingly, the role of the woman is connected to the light of the neshamah and that is why she prays for her family, husband, and children, at the time of kindling the Shabbos lights. This prayer is one of igniting and of inspiring. It is the heartfelt yearning behind her role as the facilitator of kedushah. This is expressed through her role of kindling the Shabbos lights.

In contrast, the role of the kohen is described as “For the lips of the kohen guard knowledge, and Torah will they seek from his mouth.”

(Malachi 2:7)

The role of the kohen is to teach the light of Torah. This light shines toward the center, as did the light of the Menorah in the Beis HaMikdash, whose light was not meant to spread out in its most Divine form. This is because Hashem does not need a lamp to illuminate His House; He is the very essence of light! Rather, this light was primarily to remain in the place of sanctity as a testament to the Oneness of Hashem and His Torah (see Shabbos 22b). That is the purity of Torah, and that is why the Menorah is lit with pure olive oil. It has to be the purest because the Menorah represents the purity of Torah.

Rabbi Frankel can be reached at At local stores: Machat shel Yad Bereishis, Sh’mos, and Vayikra.

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Posted by on October 24, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.