268. This One I Get: The prohibition against a kohein marrying a divorcee

A woman divorced from her husband they may not marry… (Leviticus 21:7)

If there was any doubt that the previous two mitzvos – the prohibition against a kohein marrying a zonah or a chalalah – were a reflection of the kohein’s status and not on the woman, this mitzvah should settle it. Here we see that a kohein may not marry a woman divorced from her husband. This woman certainly did nothing wrong. There’s no suggestion of promiscuity or illegitimacy as people might infer from the previous mitzvos. It’s much clearer from this mitzvah that it’s all about the kohein, not about the woman who is a full-fledged Jew in good standing. (Of course, the closing words of the verse also make that point: “because he (the kohein) is holy to his God.”)

There are two stages to marriage. The first is called eirusin and the second is called nisuin. Nowadays we perform both under the chuppah but this has not always been the case. If a woman divorces her husband after eirusin, she’s still considered divorced even though they never completed the marriage (and never consummated it). A woman who has undergone chalitzah (the shoe-removal ceremony performed in lieu of yibum – levirate marriage) is considered a divorcee under rabbinic law.

The reason for this mitzvah again is that since the kohein serves in the Temple, he must maintain a higher degree of personal sanctity. Doing so requires that he refrain from certain otherwise-permitted things.

The prohibition against a kohein marrying a divorcee applies to male kohanim in all times and places. It is discussed in the Talmud in the tractates of Yevamos (59a-60b), Kiddushin (77a-78b) and elsewhere. It is codified in the Shulchan Aruch in Even Ha’ezer 6. It is #160 of the 365 negative mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos and #140 of the 194 negative mitzvos that can be observed today in the Chofetz Chaim’s Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar.