A “Cohen” is a man of the tribe of Jews assigned to serve as the priests, carrying out the worship in the Temple in Jerusalem, and as teachers of Torah, ethics and morals to the Jewish people. They are a tribe commanded to live a life of elevated holiness, serving as role models to the Jewish people and the world.
The prohibition for a Cohen to marry a divorced woman is found in the book of Vayikra, “…neither shall he (the Cohen) marry a woman divorced from her husband, for he is holy unto God”. One needs to look at this verse in context of the entire chapter, rather than at this prohibition specifically, to understand its true meaning.
This chapter outlines a series of prohibitions which are specific to the tribe of Cohen. Many laws, both “do’s” and “don’ts”, apply to this tribe and to no other. This is due to the lofty state of the Cohen. They are the “chosen tribe” within the chosen people. They were charged with a mission to be the emissaries of the Jewish nation to bring their offerings upon the altar of God. As such, they perform for the entire nation many of the myriad responsibilities included in their chosen-ness to remain connected to God through the Temple worship.
This tribe which is the progeny of Aharon, first Cohen, was also chosen to be the principle teachers of the Jewish nation. The Torah mandated that they live upon the community chest, through the Jew’s tithing of their produce and animals. They were not to receive their livelihood as farmers or other means, in order that they should be free to study and teach. They taught not only in classes and the like, but, more importantly, by example. Their lives were to be a paradigm for holiness in their relationships to God and their interactions with their fellow Jews. This is implicit in the words of the verse, “…for he is holy unto God”.
The simple meaning of “he” is that the individual Cohen is holy. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch translates the word “he” as referring to the entire tribe; since the tribe is holy, they collectively have these laws and responsibilities.
Now we can approach your question, why is a Cohen prohibited to marry a divorcee. One who has gone through a divorce is, of course, not looked down upon as being unworthy of being remarried. But, sadly, a divorced couple have inevitably gone through a certain amount of strife, hurtful statements and feelings. It is challenging for the those who have been through the vicissitudes of divorced to serve as the paradigm for the entire nation to represent the quintessential Jewish life of peace and harmony.
The tribe of Cohen, as we mentioned, descends from Ahron, who was the paragon of peace. He was renowned for bringing peace between quarreling individuals and families. That is one reason he merited to be the patriarch of the priestly tribe, whose purpose was to bring peace between God and the Jewish people.
One who has unfortunately been through a peace-challenging event such as a divorce doesn’t always fit that paradigm. The Talmud says that when a divorce is consummated, the altar sheds tears. This is because the altar represents the ultimate peace between the Jewish people and God. The break in peace through divorce is a rip in that peaceful relationship. God Himself is said to cry.
This does not in any way mean to denigrate a couple who, after there being no recourse, resorted to the institution of divorce. The Talmud raises the question why, in the order of the Mishna, the laws of divorce precede the laws of marriage. It explains that “God preceded the cure before the sickness”. This reflects profound wisdom and insight, recognizing that there are times when an amputation is necessary to save the body. On one hand, the law of the Cohen illustrates the holiness of the institution of marriage. On the other hand, the Mishna reveals to us that, as sad as it may be, God fully recognizes that there are times divorce is necessary, and He confers His blessings on that effort.
Those who perform the service on that altar, however, need to be completely above that entire scenario, and are therefore limited to marry women who have never gone through that experience.
Although today in the Diaspora we do not have the Temple or its worship, the laws of the Torah are timeless. The specific laws, which apply to the tribe of Cohen, continue to apply today. We believe with complete faith that the Temple will be rebuilt and the Cohanim will be reinstated to their elevated positions.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried