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Shabbat Parashat Chukat| 5764
Status of a Man with the Name of a Kohen - Based on sections of Piskei Din Rabbani’im XVIII, pp. 187-194
Case: A man with the family name, Kagan, is married to a woman who needs a conversion because of questions about her Judaism. The regional court ruled that he must separate himself from his wife even after her conversion because of the prohibition on a kohen to marry a convert. [Ed. note- in the Russian language there is no letter for “h,” which is replaced by the “hard g” sound. Thus, “Kagan” is the Russian pronunciation of “Cohen.”] The man claimed to have been unaware of the concept of kehuna or his having a special status until his appearance in beit din.
Ruling: In general, there is a major dispute whether kohanim, whose status is based upon assumption and not a clarified lineage, can be determined to be definite kohanim or only possible kohanim. The Mabit (Kiryat Sefer, Isurei Biah 20) says that from the perspective of Torah-level law, one who is muchzak (under the assumption of) kehuna is assumed to be so regarding all of the rights and responsibilities involved. This is based on the concept that we carry out corporal punishment based on things which are assumed by the public as common knowledge, for example, that two people are parent and child (Kiddushin 80a). Similarly, the Rama (Yoreh Deah 331:19) rules that one can give terumah to anyone about whom there is a presumption of kehuna. On the other hand, the Rama in Orach Chayim (547:2) says that the status is not definite, and the Magen Avraham (201:4) says that it is for that reason that we are not careful in our times to give preference to kohanim in a variety of situations. It is difficult to determine any clear consensus on the matter, which could have an effect on our case, as well.
Does a family name mean anything? The gemara (Bava Batra 126b) relates that Rabba Bar Chanan assumed that a certain person was a bechor (first-born) because that is how his father referred to him in casual conversation. The Ketzotz Hachoshen (284:1) learns from there (although Rabba bar Chanan’s opinion was not accepted in his context) that whenever one is known by others by a certain title with halachic significance, we assume that the title has basis. It is sufficient that for thirty days, the person was known publicly with that assumption (see Rambam, Malveh 24:4). The issue is that it is hard to know, based on a family name of a kohen, that he is actually a kohen, as sometimes one receives the family name based on the mother’s family. [Ed. note- Throughout Jewish history, people have adopted family names other than their natural ones for a variety of reasons].
In conclusion, while a family name such as Kagan creates reason to suggest that a person is a kohen, each case must be investigated in and of its own right. The family name does not reach the level of certainty required to make a man divorce a woman who is not fit to marry a kohen.
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