CORR 145-150


If a husband marries a widow with two children and adopts both children and the husband is a Cohen, are both children considered a Cohanim? (Asked by Dr. Jacob R. Marcus, Cincinnati, Ohio)


IF THE WOMAN’S first husband was a Cohen, then the children remain Cohanim, no matter how many times or whom she mar ries. If her first husband was not a Cohen and her second husband is a Cohen, this marriage does not affect the status of the children of a previous marriage. They are Israelites.

Of course, if she has children from this second husband and it is he who is the Cohen, then these children are Cohanim. But if the second husband is a Cohen and he adopts the children, does that change their status from Israelites to Cohanim?

This question, in this form, was never asked before, as far as I know, because Jewish law has almost nothing to say about adoption. To what extent are the adopted children the actual children of the adopting parent? The matter is discussed in my Reform Responsa (i.e., Vol. I, p. 200 ff.). The essence of the matter is this: Judging by the few Aggadic statements and one or two legal discussions, we can say that the children adopted are to be considered as much his children as the natural children; except, of course, that whether one is a Cohen, Levite or Israelite depends entirely on the bloodlines, and in this case upon the father’s status. The rule is that in every marriage where no sin is involved, the status of the child follows that of the father (m. Kiddushin, III, 12). Therefore by blood these children are Israelites. Adoption cannot change it.

The question as to whether a child adopted by a Cohen becomes a Cohen because of this adoption can be discussed in another way. A fair analogy can be made between the status of such a child and the status of a proselyte (ger).

With regard to a proselyte, we are taught that it is our duty to love him and to give him every consideration. In fact, Maimonides in his famous answer to Obadiah the proselyte said that (even though he, Obadiah, is not of Jewish descent) nevertheless when he prays he may always use the phrase, “our God and God of our fathers” (even though his fathers were not children of Israel). The reason is, as Maimonides says, that all the proselytes are children of Abraham our father. In fact, this is the law in the Shulchan Aruch, Orah Hayyim 199:4.

Nevertheless, although Maimonides would insist that a proselyte may use in his prayers the phrase, “God of our fathers,” Maimonides would never dream of saying that because of that right the various special laws governing the proselyte should not apply to him. For example, Maimonides would never say that a proselyte, like any other Israelite, may not marry a mamzer (which actually he may) or that the proselyte may act as a judge in a case involving born Israelites (which, in fact, he may not). In other words, Maimonides would give the proselyte every spiritual equality with born Israelites, but he would not dream of giving him ritual or ceremonial equality which would be against specific law.

The same analogy applies to the priesthood. Since priests today have no longer kept up a careful record of their genealogy, they therefore are actually in Jewish law “priests by doubt” (Cohen Sofek). (Cf. Mogen Avraham, Orah Hayyim 457, paragraph 9.) This being the case, one might perhaps say that the child adopted by the priest should have all the rights of the priest, since the priest is only a “priest in doubt” and these priestly privileges are given him merely out of courtesy and custom (cf. Responsa Isaac bar Sheshes, #94). In that case, why should not an adopted child take up all these privileges which, after all, are only courtesy, not a strictly legal priestly right?

Nevertheless, while this would seem reasonable, no scholar of the law would say that this child adopted by a Cohen is henceforth forbidden to go to the cemetery, as a Cohen is forbidden; or that this child when he grows up may demand the privilege of being called to the Torah first, as a Cohen may demand. In other words, a child adopted by a Cohen has all the spiritual advantages (for example, the right to affection, sustenance, education) that a natural born child has; but he cannot claim the ceremonial privileges or restrictions which apply only to the Cohanim. If, for example, this adoption occurred in ancient times, no single authority would dream of saying that this child may eat the heave offering (Terumah) which is the test of priestly descent. The ritual uniqueness of a Cohen is purely a matter of bloodlines, and the modern doubts as to Cohen status are a matter of genealogy.

So the analogy with the convert is a close one. Just as a convert has all the rights of a Jew except certain special ones which depend upon actual bloodlines (such as a Jew being forbidden to marry a mamzer), so this child adopted by a Cohen has all the spiritual rights of a born child, but none of the ceremonial uniqueness of a born priest.

A further difficulty in this situation arises as follows: This adopted child grows up and is called up to the Torah. Since, as mentioned above, he cannot claim to be called to the Torah first as a right which belongs to Cohanim, one would imagine that it would be wiser not to call him up to the Torah with the title “HaCohen” because often, when people would forget that he was adopted, they would ask him to come up first as a Cohen, or to go on the holidays to the duchan. Or he might be asked to preside at a Pidyen ha-Ben, all of which would be a considerable embarrassment, calling time and time again for uncomfortable explanations. He would constantly need to explain that he is adopted and not a Cohen by birth. Furthermore, it would be a life-long embarrassment to his parents, who may not want to be reminded all through their lives that this is not their son by birth.

Of course, not much harm would be done if he were called up first to the Torah, since there are some occasions when this is permissible. For example, if a Cohen (the only Cohen in the synagogue) came late to services and he is in the middle of his prayers when the Torah is being read, he may not be interrupted in his prayers in order to be called up first, which is the Cohen’s prerogative. An Israelite is called in his place (Orah Hayyim 135:5). Isserles adds (based on Maharik # 9) that if on fast days when they come to read the Torah the only priest present had not fasted, he cannot be called up to the Torah and, again, an Israelite is called up in his place. So if by chance this adopted person is called up to the Torah first, no harm has been done. Besides, Rabbi Jose in the Talmud says, “I know I am not a Cohen, but if I am called up to the duchan, I go” (Shabbas 118b). So while no great harm would be done, the situation might lead to uncomfortable explanations.

So even as far as the blessing of the community by the priest, there is this Talmudic precedent that it would not be so terrible a thing if a non-priest blessed the people. After all, in the daily service at the close of the Shemone Esra, before Sim Shalom, the reader reads the priestly blessing; and then, of course, it is an established custom that if for some reason a Cohen does not participate in the duchan (although it is a commandment) he can step out of the synagogue.

Perhaps the best solution would be in the community in which he lives and in which he is known, to be called up to the Torah, not as “Moses the priest, the son of Amram the priest,” but as “Moses, the son of Amram the priest.” This would be correct and as for cities in which he is not known, he need not claim to be a Cohen and so will have no embarrassment.