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A Cohen (Hebrew for "priest", plural Cohanim) is assumed to be a direct male descendant of the Biblical Aaron, brother of Moses. Another term for the descendants of Aaron are the Aaronites.

During the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, Cohanim performed specific duties vis-à-vis the daily and festival sacrificial offerings. The Cohen Gadol (High Priest) played a special role during the service of Yom Kippur. Today, Cohanim retain a distinct personal status within Judaism and are still bound by special laws in Orthodox and, to a lesser extent, in Conservative Jewish communities.

The status of Cohen was first conferred on Aaron, the brother of Moses, and his direct male descendants, by God (Exodus 28:1-4) as an "everlasting office". During the 40 years in which the Jews wandered in the wilderness and until the Temple was built in Jerusalem, Cohanim performed their service in the portable Tabernacle (Numbers 1:47-54, Numbers 3:5-13, Numbers 3:44-51, Numbers 8:5-26). Their duties involved offering the daily and Jewish Holidays sacrifices, collectively known as the corbanot in Hebrew, and blessing the people in a ceremony known as Nesiat Kapayim ("raising of the hands"), the ceremony of the Priestly Blessing.

When the First and Second Temples were built, the Cohanim assumed these same roles in these permanent structures, located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. They were divided into 24 work groups of seven to nine priests each. Those who served changed every Shabbat, but on the Biblical festivals all twenty-four were present in the Temple.

Because Aaron was a member of the Tribe of Levi, all Cohanim are levites, as tribal membership passes via patrilineal descent. However, not all levites are Cohanim. Most of the Temple service (i.e. the corbanot) could be conducted only by Cohanim. Non-Cohen levites (i.e. all those who descend from Levi, the son of Jacob, but not from Aaron) provide a variety of other Temple roles, most notably providing music and songs (Psalms) to accompany the Temple ceremonies but also a variety of other duties including standing guard over the Temple and Temple Mount, construction, maintenance, and assisting the Cohanim by washing their hands and feet before services. During the era of the Tabernacle, the levites were employed in caring for and transporting the Tabernacle between travel destinations.

In Biblical times, Cohanim assumed their duties at the age of 20 and retired from active service at the age of 60. Certain imperfections could disqualify a Cohen from serving in the Temple. Since the Temple was a place of beauty and the services that were held in it were designed to inspire visitors to thoughts of repentance and closeness to God, a less than physically perfect Cohen would mar the atmosphere.