|Rabbi Shmuel Safrai|
A Priest of the Division of Abijah
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah; and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth…. Once when he [Zechariah] was serving before God while his division was on duty... (Lk. 1:5, 8)
During the Second Temple period, the twenty-four priestly divisions served in the temple at Jerusalem in a rotation system. A list of priestly divisions can be found in 1 Chronicles 24:7-18, which is usually dated by scholars to the fifth century B.C.E. (Before Common Era, B.C. in Christian terminology). There is no mention there, however, of any fixed order of service. Only in post-biblical traditions is it mentioned that the priestly divisions served according to a weekly rotation system.
The priests themselves lived not only in Jerusalem but also in other settlements in the land of Israel. When it was "time for the division to go up [to Jerusalem]" (Mishnah, Ta'anit 4:2), the priests left their homes, went up to Jerusalem for a week, and afterwards returned to their homes in Judea or Galilee.
The organization of Second Temple priests within a framework of divisions was of great importance for the priests. Even when the focus of Jewish life shifted from Judea to Galilee in the aftermath of the Bar Kochva Revolt (132–135 C.E., Common Era, A.D. in Christian terminology), priests of the same division continued to live together. The divisions that previously had been located in Judea settled together in villages and towns of Galilee.
The names of the priestly settlements in Galilee after 135 C.E. have been preserved. Tannaitic literature (rabbinic works up to 230 C.E.) mentions some of the residences of the priestly divisions in Galilee, while the later piyyutim or liturgical poems, although written several hundred years later, preserve the full list of the locations of the twenty-four divisions. In addition, portions of this list have been uncovered in the excavation of ancient synagogues in Israel and the Diaspora (for instance, in Yemen).
Nazareth was the home of the eighteenth priestly division, ha·pi·TSETS (Happizzez). In 1962 excavators discovered in the ruins of a synagogue at Caesarea a small piece of a list of the twenty-four priestly divisions. This third to fourth-century marble fragment is inscribed with the names of the places where four of the divisions resided, including Nazareth, the residence of Happizzez. Until that discovery there was no record of Nazareth's existence before the sixth century C.E., other than in the New Testament and later Christian literary sources.
Times of Service
Abijah was the eighth priestly division. The priestly rotation began in the Hebrew month of Nissan (mid-March to mid-April), and therefore the division of Abijah would have served at the end of Iyyar (mid-April to mid-May) and again at the end of Marheshvan (mid-October to mid-November).
Although Zechariah's division finished its service at the end of Iyyar or Marheshvan, we have no way of knowing exactly when this was. The divisions rotated on the Sabbath, but the Sabbath rarely fell exactly at the end of the month. We can never be sure of the exact date when a priestly division began or ended its duty period. Priests of Abijah, for instance, may have ended their spring week of service from the twenty-eighth of Iyyar to the fourth of Sivan.
Like the other divisions, the priests of Abijah served in the temple for one week twice a year. We cannot be sure whether the events connected with Zechariah mentioned by Luke took place during the week of his division's spring or autumn service. We also do not know how the divisions compensated for the additional month of Adar that was placed into the calendar twice every seven years. Therefore, we have no way of knowing exactly when Zechariah served. For the same reasons, it is impossible to calculate the date of Jesus' birth based on the time of Zechariah's service.
Names and Lineage
Apparently, the priestly division of Abijah was named after one of the priests who returned to the land of Israel with Zerubbabel and Jeshua (Nehemiah 12:4). Another Abijah, mentioned in Nehemiah 10:7, was one of the signatories of the covenant during the time of Nehemiah, a number of generations after Zerubbabel and the first wave of returnees to Israel. This Abijah probably was a descendant of the Abijah after whom the division was named. Other priests of the Second Temple period were named Zechariah. Rabbinic works mention two such priests from the last generation before the temple was destroyed: Rabbi Zechariah ben Auvkulos (Lamentations Rabbah 4:3) and Rabbi Zechariah ha-Katsav (Mishnah, Ketubot 2:9).
According to the gospel of Luke, Zechariah's wife Elizabeth was of the "daughters of Aaron," that is the daughter of a priest. It was common in that period to refer to people of priestly stock as descendants of Aaron. For example, a first-century inscription found in Jerusalem in 1971 mentions the heroic exploits of a person who introduces himself as: "I Abba son of the priest Eleaz[ar] the son of the great Aaron."
During the Second Temple period it was quite common for a priest to marry a woman from a priestly family, and there are many rabbinic traditions attesting to this. For instance, Rabbi Tarfon states that when he was a boy he stood on the steps outside the sanctuary to participate in the priestly benediction with "Shimshon, his mother's brother" (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:11). This indicates that his uncle Shimshon was also a priest, and that Tarfon's mother, therefore, was of priestly stock. In spite of the common maxim that "one should cling to his tribe and family" (Jerusalem Talmud, Ketubot 25c), meaning that one should marry within the same tribe, or at least within the extended family, it was permissible for a priest to marry a woman outside the priestly tribe, as well as for a woman of priestly stock to marry a non-priest. The high priest Aaron himself did not marry the daughter of a priest, but rather the daughter of Amminadab of the tribe of Judah (Exod. 6:23; Num. 1:7).
Luke notes that Elizabeth was related to Mary, the mother of Jesus (Lk. 1:36). It is quite possible that Mary also was of priestly descent even though her husband Joseph, who belonged to the tribe of Judah (Lk. 2:4), was not a priest. Of course it also is possible that Mary was related to Elizabeth without being the daughter of a priest.
Related reading: The Priests of Nazareth; The Daughters of Priests; Testimony of Blessed John the Forerunner; Matthew's Testimony Concerning the Empty Tomb