A Kohen May Not Marry a Divorcee

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Emor

When I lived on the West Side of Manhattan, one of the rabbis remarked on the attraction divorcees had for kohanim, how often he was confronted with a couple where the woman had been divorced and the man was a kohen. A pairing the Torah prohibits in this week’s parsha.

This is one of those mitzvot we certainly don’t understand at first blush, because a kohen may marry a widow, so prior marriage isn’t the problem. Let’s see where Rambam and Sefer HaChinukh take us, if they give us insight on the issue.

What Kinds of Marriages Make Her a Gerusha

Prohibition 160 of Rambam’s list gives the bare fact, stated in VaYikra 21;7, a kohen must not marry a woman gerusha me-ishah, sent away from her husband. Each time a kohen engages in marital relations with this previously divorced wife, he would be liable for lashes.

Sefer HaChinukh 268 lays out some rules. A woman divorced after only erusin, the ring ceremony first step of marriage, nonetheless counts as a gerusha.

For a further stretch of what’s considered divorce, Chazal decided to prohibit a chalutza, a woman’s whose husband passed away without children who had the unshoeing ceremony that frees her to marry someone else rather than enter yibum, a marriage with one of his brothers. Whatever disqualifies a gerushaChazal think a chalutza is similar enough to have it make sense to extend the prohibition.

[Although not necessarily; maybe the similarity is that she was sort of married to him and he took action to end that connection. Maybe those externals were enough for Chazal to want to be sure people didn’t assume that if a chalutza was allowed, so would a gerusha be.]

Sefer HaChinukh stresses that only a certainly valid chalitza is a problem. If we have doubts about whether the chalitza occurred, there were only rumors she had had a chalitza, or she underwent an unnecessary chalitza for some reason, it will not make her a chalutza and she may marry a kohen.

The sin is not fully transgressed (lashes-liable) unless the kohen consummates the marriage (a couple can be legally married without yet having had marital relations, but the kohen will not have completed his violation of this prohibition).

She Is Deficient Somehow

For a reason for the mitzvah, Sefer HaChinukh sends us back to Mitzvah 266, the Torah prohibiting a kohen from marrying a zona. While modern Hebrew and some places in Tanakh use the word for a prostitute, it here means a woman who has been part of severely prohibited sexual relations [even if she is coerced into it; this kind of zona is not a function of her guilt, only the fact of her sexual past].

Before we see the reason he suggests for a zona, he has told us that whatever it is, he thinks it applies to gerusha as well, she is in some sense a type of zona.

He says the kohanim were selected to serve God always, requiring they be kedoshim u-nekiyyim yoter, more sanctified and clean (both terms can be read in more than one way) than the rest of the nation. Including in their marriages, he says, an essential element of a human life, and a man’s thoughts always turn somewhat to his wife (a more connected view of marriage than I’d have thought a thirteenth century rabbi would assume).

The kohen’s sanctity precludes such a deep relationship with a zona, a woman of bad temperament, who will turn him away from his good path and proper intentions to her more evil ones.  It’s also embarrassing to him (and the priestly clan, I think he means), because everyone talks about her and the ways she has sullied herself.

Maybe For a Zona, But a Gerusha?

In an experience I have been having more often, I find that his reason does not seem to fit the facts, although I hope my deep respect for Sefer HaChinukh is clear even as I write that. It is a book I continue to find a tremendous contribution to my Torah education (and to that of anyone else who studies it). I have more than once publicly recommended Sefer HaChinukh as a good choice to anchor one’s Torah study.

The laws we have seen give first suspicions about his reason—a gerusha doesn’t obviously share the character deficiencies of a zona, chalutza doesn’t clearly have any deficiencies, and the problem of his connection to her in the public’s eyes is true from the bare fact of their legal status, not their having consummated it.

Even for a zona, his reasoning is not so clear [zona isn’t our topic, I know, but any weaknesses in his justification of that prohibition carry over to ours, because he said it was the same for both]. A zona attains her status through one act, an act the world may not know about and has no need to be publicized. Unless we assume one act casts a permanent and irrevocable pall over her character (and remember, she can become a zona after being raped), we need an explanation that better fits the facts.

A few more facts of our prohibition should help.

The Kohen Gadol, Challala, and Divorcees on the Edge

Arukh HaShulchan Even HaEzer 6;1 points us in a productive direction, the High Priest. In addition to the usual kehuna prohibitions, he may not marry a woman who has had sexual relations before, or even—as Rambam rules in Issurei Bi’ah 17;13—a bogeret, a woman over the age of twelve and a half [usually, a Kohen Gadol will be married when he attains the office; this is about if he marries while Kohen Gadol]. Those halakhot have no clear connection to her character or having done anything wrong.

In paragraph two of the chapter, Arukh HaShulchan lays out the idea of a challal or challala, the child of a relationship the kohen should not have had (excluding the child from kehuna status), or a woman who has engaged in such relations with a kohen. It again focuses attention on the kohen’s sexuality, shows us acts prohibited only to him, consequences/ramifications only for the issue of priesthood, especially because Arukh HaShulchan points out that most rishonim think a sexual act creates chillul with or without a marriage.

For divorce, even a problematic (and invalid) get can make her a gerusha. In paragraph nine, Arukh HaShulchan discusses reiach ha-get, where the husband might give her a document and say, we’re divorced but you can’t marry anyone else. There’s been no halakhic divorce (a valid halakhic divorce must sever their connection completely), yet she is already a gerusha. Why? (Technically, because the verse refers to a woman divorced me-ishah, from her husband, understood by tradition to mean even if the divorce was only from her husband, she cannot marry a kohen. I’m wondering about the underlying logic.)

Adlai Stevenson Is the Answer

The concerns for the kohen are about technical facts and sexual issues. A given bill of divorce makes the woman a gerusha, but the violation requires a full consummation of the marital act. Zona and challala are clearly matters of inappropriate sexuality, and suggest the Torah intended to hold kohanim to a standard of sexuality not necessary for the rest of us (and, I argue, sometimes not one to be lauded, either; which is better, to marry a woman—save her from a lonely life– who was raped by her wife’s husband, or stay away because she is a zona? Obviously the former, unless you’re a kohen, where the factor of representing God intervenes).

I remember learning how Adlai Stevenson lost two presidential elections because he had been divorced, and people in the 1950s in the US knew that if you couldn’t handle your own household, you couldn’t run a country.

Apply that thinking to kohanim. Public representatives of God, their sexuality is one central place they need to hold to an unimpeachable standard (think of the Kohen Gadol: what’s the problem with a widow? For him, sexual relationships are to be completely unclouded by the presence of anyone else).

Divorce casts a pall; I used to say a pall of suspicion over her, but I no longer think we need to. It casts a pall of “who knows what happened,” and the Torah wants kohanim to be free of such ordinary human concerns. It explains the chalutza idea, because the woman comes out of a failed attempt to continue her marriage with her deceased husband, in the person of his brother.

Not her failure, just failure. Representatives of God should not have these kinds of failures clouding how the public looks at them, and are therefore told to stay away, to find other women to marry, to leave the importantly ordinary human to other people, because their role requires them to live differently than the rest of us.

About Gidon Rothstein


  1. Joseph Kaplan

    You made a valiant effort to explain something that has bothered many for a long time. But you didn’t, as far has this kohen is concerned, succeed. Adlai Stevenson? He didn’t marry a divorcee. He was the one who was divorced. Twice. Maybe America did think then (and we certainly don’t think now) that being divorced means you can’t manage your own house so how can you manage the country (sounds silly even as I type it). But a kohen who marries a divorcee isn’t in a marriage that fell apart. Maybe there is an answer to the question of why this prohibition. But I fear you haven’t provided it.

  2. gidonrothstein

    Thanks for commenting! I am sorry for the Adlai Stevenson example, you’re not the first to point out how it doesn’t fit, and just distracted from the point. My suggestion was that kohanim are to stay away from anything marital related that has failure involved. That could be failure of inappropriateness, like with zenut (even if the woman was in no way at fault) or of going wrong, like divorce, even if the woman was not at fault in the divorce at all.

    It’s not about avoiding “bad” women, if there are such things, I was suggesting it’s about a figure who has to stand as God’s representative not being connected to failure in that realm. Maybe it doesn’t work, but it was the best I had in the moment.

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