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Encyclopedia Judaica 2nd Edition An essential source of information on Jewish life, culture, history, and religion. In 1972, the Encyclopaedia Judaica fulfilled the longstanding dream of capturing the full richness of Jewish culture in a single authoritative publication, heralded in the scholarly community as one of the best reference works ever compiled.
AARON By : J. Frederic McCurdy Kaufmann Kohler


Biblical Data:
His Function
Becomes Priest of Israel
Rebellion of Korah
Typical Signification

In Apocryphal and Rabbinical Literature:
Moses and Aaron Compared
Death of Aaron
Critical View:

Biblical Data:

One of two brothers who play a unique part in the history of the Hebrew people. He was the elder son of Amram and Jochebed of the tribe of Levi; Moses, the other son, being three years younger, and Miriam, their sister, several years older (Ex. ii. 4). Aaron was the great-grandson of Levi (Ex. vi. 16-20) and represented the priestly functions of his tribe. While Moses was receiving his education at the Egyptian court and during his exile among the Midianites, Aaron and his sister remained with their kinsmen in the eastern border-land of Egypt. Here he gained a name for eloquent and persuasive speech; so that when the time came for the demand upon Pharaoh to release Israel from captivity, Aaron became his brother's nabi, or spokesman, to his own people (Ex. iv. 16) and, after their unwillingness to hear, to Pharaoh himself (Ex. vii. 9).

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His Function.

Aaron's function included the duties of speaker and implied personal dealings with the court on behalf of Moses, who was always the central moving figure. The part played by Aaron in the events that preceded the Exodus was, therefore, ministerial, and not directive. He shared the miraculous powers of Moses, and performed "signs" before his people which impressed them with a belief in the reality of the divine mission of the brothers (Ex. iv. 15, 16). At the command of Moses he stretched out his rod in order to bring on the first three plagues (Ex. vii. 19, viii. 1, 12). In the infliction of the remaining plagues he appears to have acted merely as the attendant of Moses, whose outstretched rod drew the divine wrath upon Pharaoh and his subjects (Ex. ix. 23, x. 13, 22). The potency of Aaron's rod had already been demonstrated by its victory over the rods of the Egyptian magicians, which it swallowed after all the rods alike had been turned into serpents (Ex. vii. 9 et seq.). During the journey in the wilderness Aaron is not always prominent or active; and he sometimes appears guilty of rebellious or treasonable conduct. At the battle with Amalek he is chosen with Hur to support the hand of Moses that held the "rod of God" (Ex. xvii. 9 et seq.). When the revelation was given to Moses at Sinai, he headed the elders of Israel who accompanied Moses on the way to the summit. Joshua, however, was admitted with his leader to the very presence of the Lord, while Aaron and Hur remained below to look after the people (Ex. xxiv. 9-14). It was during the prolonged absence of Moses that Aaron yielded to the clamors of the people, and made a golden calf as a visible image of the divinity who had delivered them from Egypt (Ex. xxxii. 1-6). At the intercession of Moses, Aaron was saved from the plague which smote the people (Deut. ix. 20; Ex. xxxii. 35), although it was to Aaron's tribe of Levi that the work of punitive vengeance was committed (Ex. xxxii. 26 et seq.).

Becomes Priest of Israel

At the time when the tribe of Levi was set apart for the priestly service, Aaron was anointed and consecrated to the priesthood, arrayed in the robes of his office, and instructed in its manifold duties (Ex. xxviii. and xxix.). On the very day of his consecration his sons, Nadab and Abihu, were consumed by fire from the Lord for having offered incense in an unlawful manner (Lev. x.). This stroke Aaron bore in silence.

Rebellion of Korah

From the time of the sojourn at Sinai, where he became the anointed priest of Israel, Aaron ceased to be the minister of Moses, his place being taken by Joshua. He is mentioned in association with Miriam in a jealous complaint against the exclusive claims of Moses as the Lord's prophet. The presumption of the murmurers was rebuked, and Miriam was smitten with leprosy. Aaron entreated Moses to intercede for her, at the same time confessing the sin and folly that prompted the uprising. Aaron himself was not struck with the plague on account of sacerdotal immunity; and Miriam, after seven days' quarantine, was healed and restored to favor (Num. xii.). It is noteworthy that the prophet Micah (vi. 4) mentions Moses, Aaron, and Miriam as the leaders of Israel after the Exodus (a judgment wholly in accord with the tenor of the narratives). In the present instance it is made clear by the express words of the oracle (Num. xii. 6-8) that Moses was unique among men as the one with whom the Lord spoke face to face. The failure to recognize or concede this prerogative of their brother was the sin of Miriam and Aaron. The validity of the exclusive priesthood of the family of Aaron was attested after the ill-fated rebellion of Korah, who was a first cousin of Aaron. When the earth had opened and swallowed up the leaders of the insurgents (Num. xvi. 25-35), Eleazar, the son of Aaron, was commissioned to take charge of the censers of the dead priests. And when the plague had broken out among the people who had sympathized with the rebels, Aaron, at the command of Moses, took his censer and stood between the living and the dead till the plague was stayed (Num. xvii. 1-15, xvi. 36-50, A. V.). Another memorable transaction followed. Each of the tribal princes of Israel took a rod and wrote his name upon it, and the twelve rods were laid up over night in the tent of meeting. On the morrow Aaron's rod was found to have budded and blossomed and borne ripe almonds (Num. xvii. 8; see Aaron's Rod). The miracle proved merely the prerogative of the tribe of Levi; but now a formal distinction was made in perpetuity between the family of Aaron and the other Levites. While all the Levites (and only Levites) were to be devoted to sacred services, the special charge of the sanctuary and the altar was committed to the Aaronites alone (Num. xviii. 1-7). The scene of this enactment is unknown, nor is the time mentioned.


Aaron, like Moses, was not permitted to enter Canaan with the successful invaders. The reason alleged is that the two brothers showed impatience at Meribah (Kadesh) in the last year of the desert pilgrimage (Num. xx. 12, 13), when they, or rather Moses, brought water out of a rock to quench the thirst of the people. The action was construed as displaying a want of deference to the Lord, since they had been commanded to speak to the rock, whereas Moses struck it with the wonder-working rod (Num. xx. 7-11). Of the death of Aaron we have two accounts. The principal one gives a detailed statement to the effect that, soon after the above incident, Aaron, with his son Eleazar and Moses, ascended Mount Hor. There Moses stripped him (Aaron) of his priestly garments, and transferred them to Eleazar. Aaron died on the summit of the mountain, and the people mourned for him thirty days (Num. xx. 22-29; compare xxxiii. 38, 39). The other account is found in Deut. x. 6, where Moses is reported as saying that Aaron died at Mosera and was buried there. Mosera is not on Mount Hor, since the itinerary in Num. xxxiii. 31-37 records seven stages between Moseroth (Mosera) and Mount Hor.J. F. McC.

Typical Signification

In Apocryphal and Rabbinical Literature:

The older prophets and prophetical writers beheld in their priests the representatives of a religious form inferior to the prophetic truth; men without the spirit of God and lacking the will-power requisite to resist the multitude in its idolatrous proclivities. Thus Aaron, the typical priest, ranks far below Moses: he is but his mouthpiece, and the executor of the will of God revealed through Moses, although it is pointed out (Sifra, Wa-yik.ra, i.) that it is said fifteen times in the Pentateuch that "the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron." Under the influence of the priesthood which shaped the destinies of the nation under Persian rule, a different ideal of the priest was formed, as is learned from Mal. ii. 4-7; and the prevailing tendency was to place Aaron on a footing equal with Moses. "At times Aaron, and at other times Moses, is mentioned first in Scripture—this is to show that they were of equal rank," says Mekilta , 1; and Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), xlv. 6-24, expressly infers this when introducing in his record of renowned men the glowing description of Aaron's ministration.

Moses and Aaron Compared

According to Tan. (ed. Buber, ii. 12), Aaron's activity as a prophet began earlier than that of Moses. The writer of the Testaments of the Patriarchs, however, hesitates to rank Moses the faithful, "him that speaks with God as with a father," as equal with Aaron (Testament of Levi, viii. 17). The rabbis are still more emphatic in their praise of Aaron's virtues. Thus Hillel, who in Herod's time saw before him mainly a degenerate class of priests, selfish and quarrelsome, held Aaron of old up as a mirror, saying: "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace; love your fellow creatures and draw them nigh unto the Law!" (Abot, i. 12). This is further illustrated by the tradition preserved in Abot deR. N. xii. Sanh. 6b, and elsewhere, according to which Aaron was an ideal priest of the people, far more beloved for his kindly ways than was Moses. While Moses was stern and uncompromising, brookingno wrong, Aaron went about as peacemaker, reconciling man and wife when he saw them estranged, or a man with his neighbor when they quarreled, and winning evil-doers back into the right way by his friendly intercourse. The mourning of the people at Aaron's death was greater, therefore, than at that of Moses; for whereas, when Aaron died the whole house of Israel wept, including the women (Num. xx. 29), Moses was bewailed by "the sons of Israel" only (Deut. xxxiv. 8). Even in the making of the Golden Calf the rabbis find extenuating circumstances for Aaron (Sanh. 7a). His fortitude and silent submission to the will of God on the loss of his two sons are referred to as an excellent example to men how to glorify God in the midst of great affliction (Zeb. 115;b Josephus, "Ant." iii. 8, § 7). Especially significant are the words represented as being spoken by God after the princes of the Twelve Tribes had brought their dedication offerings into the newly reared Tabernacle: "Say to thy brother Aaron: Greater than the gifts of the princes is thy gift; for thou art called upon to kindle the light, and, while the sacrifices shall last only as long as the Temple lasts, thy light of the Law shall last forever" (Tan., ed. Buber, , 6).

Death of Aaron

In fulfillment of the promise of peaceful life, symbolized by the pouring of oil upon his head (Lev. R. x., Midr. Teh. cxxxiii. 1), Aaron's death, as described in the Haggadah, was of a wonderful tranquility. Accompanied by Moses, his brother, and by Eleazar, his son, Aaron went to the summit of Mount Hor, where the rock suddenly opened before him and a beautiful cave lit by a lamp presented itself to his view. "Take off thy priestly raiment and place it upon thy son Eleazar!" said Moses; "and then follow me." Aaron did as commanded; and they entered the cave, where was prepared a bed around which angels stood. "Go lie down upon thy bed, my brother," Moses continued; and Aaron obeyed without a murmur. Then his soul departed as if by a kiss from God. The cave closed behind Moses as he left; and he went down the hill with Eleazar, with garments rent, and crying: "Alas, Aaron, my brother! thou, the pillar of supplication of Israel!" When the Israelites cried in bewilderment, "Where is Aaron?" angels were seen carrying Aaron's bier through the air. A voice was then heard saying: "The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found on his lips: he walked with me in righteousness, and brought many back from sin" (Mal. ii. 6, 7). He died, according to Seder 'Olam R. ix., R. H. 2, 3a, and Josephus, "Ant." iv. 4, § 7, on the first of Ab. Josephus says also that "he died while the multitude looked upon him." The pillar of cloud which proceeded in front of Israel's camp disappeared at Aaron's death (see Seder 'Olam, ix. and R. H. 2b-3a). The seeming contradiction between Num. xx. 22 et seq. and Deut. x. 6 is solved by the rabbis in the following manner: Aaron's death on Mount Hor was marked by the defeat of the people in a war with the king of Arad, in consequence of which the Israelites fled, marching seven stations backward to Mosera, where they performed the rites of mourning for Aaron; wherefore it is said: "There [at Mosera] died Aaron." See Mek., Beshallah., Wayassa', i.; Tan.,, 18; Yer. Sot.ah, i. 17c, and Targ. Yer. Num. and Deut. on the abovementioned passages.

The rabbis also dwell with special laudation on the brotherly sentiment which united Aaron and Moses. When the latter was appointed ruler and Aaron high priest, neither betrayed any jealousy; instead they rejoiced in one another's greatness. When Moses at first declined to go to Pharaoh, saying: "O my Lord, send, I pray thee, by the hand of him whom thou wilt send" (Ex. iv. 13), he was unwilling to deprive Aaron, his brother, of the high position the latter had held for so many years; but the Lord reassured him, saying: "Behold, when he seeth thee, he will be glad in his heart" (Ex. iv. 14). Indeed, Aaron was to find his reward, says Simon ben; for that heart which had leaped with joy over his younger brother's rise to glory greater than his was decorated with the Urim and Thummim, which were to "be upon Aaron's heart when he goeth in before the Lord" (Cant. R. i. 10). Moses and Aaron met in gladness of heart, kissing each other as true brothers (Ex. iv. 27; compare Song of Songs, viii. 1), and of them it is written: "Behold how good and how pleasant [it is] for brethren to dwell together in unity!" (Ps. cxxxiii. 1). Of them it is said (Ps. lxxxv. 10): "Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed [each other]"; for Moses stood for righteousness, according to Deut. xxxiii. 21, and Aaron for peace, according to Mal. ii. 6. Again, mercy was personified in Aaron, according to Deut. xxxiii. 8, and truth in Moses, according to Num. xii. 7 (Tan., Shemot, ed. Buber, 24-26).

When Moses poured the oil of anointment upon the head of Aaron, Aaron modestly shrank back and said: "Who knows whether I have not cast some blemish upon this sacred oil so as to forfeit this high office." Then the Holy Spirit spake the words: "Behold the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard of Aaron, that even went down to the skirts of his garment, is as pure as the dew of Hermon" (Ps. cxxxiii. 2, 3, Heb.; Sifra, Shemini, Milluim; Tan., Korah, ed. Buber, 14).

Bibliography: Num. R. xix.;
Lev. R. x.;
Midr. Pet.irat Aharon in Jellinek's Bet ha-Midrash, i. 91-95;
Yalk.. Num. 764;
Baring-Gould, Legends of Old Testament Characters;
Chronicles of Jerahmeel, ed. M. Gaster, pp. cxi. 130-133;
B. Beer, in Wertheimer's Jahrb., 1855;
Hamburger, Der Geist der Haggada, pp. 1-8;
the same, Realencyklopädie für Bibel und Talmud, s. v.K.

Critical View:

It has always been found difficult to construct a complete and consistent biographical story from the Biblical details as outlined above. According to most modern critics, the difficulties arise from the fact that these details come from different sources, and that the sources themselves are of different dates and represent separate stages in the development of the Hebrew religion and ritual. The Jahvistic document (usually cited as J) and the Elohistic (E) are held to have proceeded from the ninth or eighth century B.C.; while the Deuteronomic (D) reflects the time of Josiah, and the priestly document (P) the periods of the Exile and the Return. The genealogy (Ex. vi.) belongs to the priestly source (distinguished as P), while the details are about evenly divided between P and J (Jahvist) and E (Elohist) narratives, and one account of Aaron's death appears in the Deuteronomic source. It is found that what concerns Aaron's consecration to the priesthood and the acts of himself and his family in that office, as well as his relations to the tribe of Levi, proceed from the priestly source (P). This embraces most of what is said on these topics in Exodus (xxv.-xl.), Leviticus, and Numbers. Now it is claimed that for historical purposes a sharp dividing-line must be drawn between P (which has for its aim to describe the rise and progress of the Aaronic priesthood) and the earlier documents. The explanation of the distinction takes account of the fact that Moses and Aaron represent the genius and the mission of Israel as no other men do; the one being the great lawgiver and prophet, the otherthe first and typical high priest. Together they thus represent the moral and religious functions which Israel had to fulfil. With this idea in mind, the later Biblical writers treated the character and work of the two men representatively, so that they present not only a historical, but an idealized, Moses and Aaron. It is, moreover, significant that, leaving P aside, a fairly consistent biography may be made out, and this must be adhered to in the main; for P throughout is constructive and idealistic, using its narrative to indicate how the postexilian priestly system must have grown up to its ideal completeness in the course of Israel's history. Much has been theorized by some critics, tending to show that Aaron the priest was a figment devised to give validity to the sacerdotal order. Even, however, if some interpolations in the documents earlier than P, due to priestly hands, be assumed, there remains a substantial historical basis of fact for the career of Aaron as the assistant and spokesman of Moses, as the deputy of his brother during the desert wanderings, and as the chief priest of his people. Among other considerations, a guaranty for the soundness of the tradition in the record of personal actions is afforded by the fact that what is disadvantageous to Aaron is told as well as what is favorable, and that he is shown, especially in the affair of the calf-worship, to have been influenced by the moral and spiritual limitations of his age and environment. See also Priests, Priesthood, etc.J. F. McC.